Set amidst the immediate aftermath of the infamous Trojan war, Euripides’ tragedy The Women of Troy serves as a critique of the atrocities committed by the Greeks during both the siege of Troy and Melos. The play serves as Euripides’ allegorical warning of the consequences that may be brought about by the Athenians’ crimes against the Melians. His play, as the title suggests, is centred around the commodification of the eponymous Trojan women and the misery they are forced through despite their lack of power and involvement in the matter. Instead of aggrandising the actions of the Homeric heroes, such as Odysseus, Euripides scrutinises their actions and renders their bellicosity irrational. He foregrounds the injustices that are not often discussed in other classical works within the Hellenic repertoire, namely the infliction of pain on women and children. Since the Hellenic society is largely phallocentric, where women are considered subordinate to their male counterparts, Euripides’ proto-feminist works were not highly regarded perhaps due to their subversive nature.
The entire tragedy itself is set during the aftermath of the conflict between the Trojans and the Greeks, therefore inherently introduces wars as a central theme of Euripides’ heavily anti-war play. The Women of Troy’s narrative starkly parallels the aforementioned Peloponnesian war, and its cataclysmic outcome, with casualties reaching the thousands and the horrendous mistreatment of female victims. Euripides imbues the play with visual imagery and lyrical poeticism, effectively delineating the horror of warfare and the misery afflicted by those in power upon society as a whole. The sheer futility of war is constantly encapsulated by the playwright’s portrayal of the consequences of irrational military conflicts. Constantly juxtaposing the reasons behind the annihilation of Troy, being “one woman”, “one moment of uncontrollable lust” with its cost – “tens of thousands dead”. Euripides’ pacifist message is conveyed as he renders warfare a product of impulse and bellicosity. The attainment of kleos proves to be an insufficient justification for the immense agony endured by the titular Trojan women. The lack of power and agency exhibited by those most affected further augments the tragic element of the play, which simultaneously serves as a polemic of the crimes committed by the Greeks.
While the Greeks’ moral degradation is a central idea, his main focus throughout the play is to highlight the sufferings that the conflict had brought onto the Trojan women – the forgotten victims of war. The playwright underscores that a life under “a loathsome Greek” is worse than being deceased, where people are “happier dead than I am living.” The women’s desire to no longer be alive is apparent during the Second Episode, where Cassandra’s torch – the symbol of the glimmering hope – could also be seen as the women’s suicidal intent when confronted by the “grotesque parody” of their fate. By comparing between the women’s future as slaves with death, Euripides augments the pain of the Trojan women which resulted from the conflict and appealed to the audiences’ sympathy.
- Juxtaposition: “One woman, one moment of uncontrollable lust” vs “ten thousands dead”
- Symbolism: Cassandra’s torch – a “grotesque paradoy”
- Comparison: “Happier dead than I am living”
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Pain and suffering
Centred around the pain and suffering of the Trojan women, The Women of Troy’s plotline may appear to be overly simplistic or lack nuance. However, the lack of articulated structure of the play helps convey that there is no story to be told because Troy is now forsaken, and so are the Trojan women. The Trojan’s endless lament reflects their perpetual pain and despair, and puts forward the notion that a life of misery has only begun. By framing their dirge and “threnody of tears” in the form of stichomythia, Euripides highlights the universality of their plight, showcasing the indiscriminate nature of the tragedies catalysed by warfare. The use of epizeuxis – “Howl! Howl! Howl!” – or other forms of repetition (e.g anaphora, epiphora, etc) also helps the dramatist depict the Trojan women’s abject misery. It is significant that the women in the play are given the power of expression, especially since they are forced to pay a terrible price for the savagery of men. Their “song of the dead” is loud and piercing, which has the effects of almost terrifying the audience and those on stage. The limitless and incomprehensible nature of their suffering is also bolstered through the use of figurative language, where they compare themselves to objects and animals to express their pain. Throughout the play, animal imagery (or zoomorphism) and chremamorphism have been used to equate the women to non-human entities. For instance, Andromache bemoans her fate as “loots” and Hecuba expresses her pain through the zoomorphic “howl”. In both examples, the characters are conveying the depth of their despair and emphasising the unimaginable nature of the pain they are put through and the brutality of men. Euripides’ use of language here transcends the boundaries between the unimaginable and the imagined, furthering his condemnation of the frivolous and destructive nature of warfare.
- Epizeuxis (Repetition): “Howl!Howl!Howl”
- Zoomorphism & Auditory Imagery: “Howl” as a Motif
- Chremamorphism: “like loots they are stealing us”
Integrity and strength
Euripides does not disregard the importance of remaining stoic and dignified in the face of adversity. Despite anticipating the fate of future enslavement, the Women of Troy still value integrity and demonstrate strength amidst their oppression. The playwright likens Hecuba to “a mother bird at her plundered nest”, exemplifying the intimate bond that Hecuba shares with her city and portraying her as a sympathetic mother figure. He extols her strength and compassion, while chastising the Greeks who embody the exact definition of amorality. Hecuba refers to her city as “home” as she “howl[s]” and “weep[s]” for its destruction. With the intimate and warm connotation of the word “home,” the queen’s familial connection with her city is elucidated, characterising her as a passionate leader to Troy. The strength of women is also displayed in the “god-stricken daughter” of Hecuba. Despite being “Apollo’s consecrated priestess” and referred to as “poor mad girl”, Cassandra is still determined to get her revenge on the Greeks and “shall destroy them”. Her overwhelming drive and motivation under the constant scrutiny from others showcases the perseverance of the Trojan princess. By displaying the power of women in times of hardship in his tragedy, Euripides subverts the archetypal portrayal of women as those who lack agency, and instead renders them the embodiment of strength and bravado.
Helen and Talthybius are complex as characters. While the Greek audience readily vilifies Helen for her promiscuity, when assessing her course of actions through a modern lens, she is not deserving of the scrutiny and judgment that she received from others. Helen is the antithesis of unreflective obedience and female subservience, and is antagonised for her deviation from the accepted norms. On the other hand, it is difficult to sympathise with her, knowing that she also disregards the consequences of her actions and refuses to account for the deaths that occured on her behalf. The juxtaposition of her – “one woman” – with the “ten thousands dead” has the effects of establishing her as the catalyst of the Trojan war. The fact that she is chastised for her promiscuity, which “stained the pure waters of Simois”, also reflects the archaic ethos pervading the Hellenic society. Talthybius is also a multi-dimensional character, who, while is initially characterised as regimented, exhibits a modicum of sensitivity and shame as the play progresses. He is often shown to be conflicted by his sense of obligation and also his sympathy for those affected by war. This is epitomised through his reluctance to deliver the dreadful news to Hecuba, and his inability to “say an indecent thing.” By framing his announcement of Polyxena’s death using euphemism, he reveals to the audience that, unlike the barbaric Greeks, he is not “hard enough”. His inability to be “tough and without pity” characterises him as compassionate, precluding the audience from antagonising him.
- Connotation: Troy as a “home”
- Allusion & Metaphor: “stained the pure waters of Simois”
- Soft sounds: Talthybius “half hard enough”
Love and lust / Emotions vs Logic
The theme of love and lust may seem peripheral when compared to its counterparts, but still holds a great degree of importance in the play. Excessive lust is the key ingredient of the proliferation of tragedies, as it drives characters to act irrationally. The toxicity and perils of allowing emotions to overshadow sensibility are demonstrated through its contribution to the chain of tragedies in the play. The war itself is initiated by “one moment of uncontrollable lust” and Menelaus’ irrational anger and desire to retrieve Helen. Ajax’s raping of Cassandra also warrants destructive consequences as it enrages Athene and ignites her desire for retribution. The blood that “smears the sanctuaries of all the gods” represent the sacrilege that they committed and their failure to consider the consequences of their sexual exploitation of Cassandra. Driven by his “animal appetite,” Agamemnon committed the same offence, claiming Cassandra for himself despite the potential ramifications of his blasphemy. Through the reference to Agamemnon as a “slave of his [own] lust”, Euripides equates the oppressed and the oppressor – both enslaved in one way or another. In this way, the lust exhibited by the male characters contributes to their own downfall.
- Zoomorphism: “animal appetite”
- Graphic imagery: “smears the sanctuary of all the gods”
- Metaphor: “slave of his own lust”
Calvin Dang  – Past Student
The nobility of the slave women in The Women of Troy stands in contrast to the inhumanity of the victorious Greek warriors.
Written in a period when men are the focal points of most heroic tales, the tragedy the Women of Troy by Euripides presents a rather unorthodox portrayal of the two opposing gender subsequent to the Peloponesian war. The playwright characterises the enslaved women as having the higher moral standing, while dehumanising the barbaric actions of the triumphant Greek men to underscore the injustice which exists among the phallocentric society . However, he still recognises that some women can still be morally corrupt and doesn’t fully antagonise all males involved in the play. In doing so, Euripides established himself as unbiased and logical, elucidating the importance of rationality and sensibility during times of adversity.
Despite anticipating the fate of future enslavement, the women of Troy still value integrity and demonstrate strength amidst their horrendous oppression. The playwright made a comparison which likens Hecuba to “a mother bird at her plundered nest”. This exemplifies the intimate bond that Hecuba shares with her city, portraying her as a sympathetic mother figure and therefore highlighting her strength as she suffers an agonising loss. To further extend this notion, Hecuba refers to her city as “home” as she “howl[s]” and “weep[s]” for its destruction. With the intimate and warm connotation of the word “home, the queen’s familial connection with her city is elucidated, characterising her as a passionate leader to Troy. The strength of women is also displayed in the “god-stricken daughter” of Hecuba. Despite being “Apollo’s consecrated priestess” and referred to as “poor mad girl”, Cassandra is still determined to get her revenge on the Greeks and “shall destroy them”. Her overwhelming drive and motivation under the constant scrutiny from others showcases the perseverance of the Trojan princess. By displaying the power of women in times of hardship in his tragedy, Euripides presented a proto-feministic idea on the superiority of women to the audience during the times of gendered oppression of the Hellenic society.
To further enhance his argument against the phallocentric society of the Athenians, the playwright explores the brutality of Greek men and condemns their excessive lust after the Trojan war. Greek men in the tragedy are depicted as “slave[s] of [their] own lust”, and display unmoderated passion, one which leads to their own demise. Menelaus, “for the sake of one woman”, leads “a hunting party” to search for Helen, causing “tens and thousands” of Greek soldiers to die. The numerical dichotomy of “one woman” and “tens of thousands” explicates the senselessness of the war caused by one man’s “uncontrollable lust”, denouncing how Menelaus let his pathos overwhelm his logos. The brutality of the Greeks is also highlighted during the allocation of the slaves, as Hecuba described her future fate as being “forced into bed with some loathsome Greeks”. Her sufferings under the Athenians is then universalised to “a whole generation of women raped in their own bedrooms”, further amplifying the barbarism of the “Greek war machine”. Ultimately, the playwright denounces the unfettered emotions displayed by the Greeks and the atrocity of their actions.
However, Euripides doesn’t fully applaud the action of all women and neither does he vilify all Greek men. Similar to the Greek men, Helen also displays excessive passion as she is described to be “wet with lust the moment [she] saw [Paris]”. The playwright further explored how the consequences of her “love affair” caused unwarranted ramifications on the Trojans. Not only her lust is condemned, Euripides also critiques Helen’s loss of integrity as she pleads for her life. The “murderess[‘s]” utilised her eloquent rhetoric to shift the blame onto the innocent bystanders, convincing Menelaus that Hecuba is at fault for “[giving] birth to all the trouble”. By showcasing the bewitchedness of the “madwoman”, Euripides provides the audience with an example of a morally corrupt woman. The same can be said for the opposing gender, where men can be sympathetic and are not always barbarous. Talthybius is portrayed to showcase empathy towards Hecuba when he passes on the news of Polyxena’s death. Through the use of euphemistic language, referring to her death as “her fate is settled”, the Greek “lackey” attempts to mitigate the pain of the Trojan queen. By highlighting the opposing examples to his proto-feministic views, Euripides established himself as being governed by his own logic and sensible to his audiences, therefore validating his opinion of the phallocentric society of Athens.
The Athenian playwright showcases to the audience the strength and morality of trojan women during times of adversity, while critiquing the Greeks’ barbarity during the Trojan war. However, he also provided a more neutral standpoint towards the matter as he recognises how the opposite can also be said for the two genders. In doing so, Euripides successfully expresses his opinion against the patriarchal society, while also elucidating the importance of remaining unprejudiced.
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