Pauline of the Smithereens blog and I agreed some time ago to have a dialog about the Euripides play The Trojan Women. I present her comments about my Helen of Troy post in blue below, followed by my responses.
I could not help but find that Helen got off lightly, had it a little too easy compared to the other women from Troy. After all, she’s supposed to be the cause, the origin of ten years of war, of so many suffering and tragic deaths, but in the end we know that she will survive, while the fate of others is much darker. Of course, Menelaus plans to repair his honor by killing her, but he’s strangely unable to act on this decision. Do you think he’s blinded by her charm and his former love for her? Or is it that if he kills her right now, just at the moment when Troy is destroyed, it takes away all justification of the war and it makes the death and destruction even more pointless?
Helen does get off lightly, and I think that is an important point about her. The Trojan Women is a play, not history. What Euripides did was to take the known facts about Helen and create a character in the play about whom these facts are believable. What we get is a cold, self-centered woman who is accustomed to getting away with things because she is so beautiful.
There seems to be a Greek tradition that Menelaus was rather dim, more blunder than real force. He did, in fact, go off and leave Helen with a very attractive house guest when he should have known by then what she was like. Further, he turned the expedition over to Agamemnon, then proceeded to second-guess him every step of the way. Whatever his personal deficiencies, he was a Greek male and knew that he had property rights and those rights were violated. When he confronts Helen in the play, he expresses no tenderness or memories of a presumably-happy past. He knows he has the right to kill her, but wants to turn the decision over to others back in Greece.
I don’t remember any instance in Homer where Menelaus expressed concern about the justification for the war and the cruel cost to others, although plenty of other Greeks did. To him the death and destruction were not pointless – they were the recompense he was entitled to.
I was rather surprised that Helen was so cold, so logic in her defense. She often reacts as if she didn’t care much. In particular, she seems oblivious of the war, of the death and destructions around her, while the other women often describe the fires that destroy their city. Especially, she’s supposed to have succumbed to an irresistible love for Paris, the only justification for all this mess, so it means that she isn’t unable to feel passion. But does that mean that she’s self-centered? Did you believe she’d ever been in love with Paris? Or did you feel she left her husband at the first given opportunity? She expresses no remorse- and yet if she had thrown herself at Menelaus’ feet to ask for his forgiveness I think that he would have felt more hatred and contempt towards her.
Since the Greeks like logical arguments, Helen can’t just say “let me go because I am beautiful.” No, she plays for time and makes a perfectly terrible case in which everyone else is to blame and she has not been responsible for anything that has happened. As to feelings, I doubt that Helen was ever in love with anyone except herself. Hecuba and Andromache and Cassandra showed compassion for the suffering of both the Trojans and the Greeks. Helen was oblivious. She and Menelaus were well matched.
Do you think it’s her survival instinct that makes her so insensitive? That contrary to Hecuba and Andromache who are grieving the previous, honorable lives, or Cassandra who thinks that suicide might be best, she never had anything but her beauty, she never belonged anywhere, so that she’s ready to play it any way as long as she can stay alive? Do you think Euripides wants her to appear cunning and wicked (as Hecuba describes her), or to acknowledge that somehow she was a victim too?
Helen does have a strong survival instinct, as do Hecuba and the others. Hecuba knows she may survive physically, but the woman she has always been – an honored queen, wife and mother – is dead. She and the other Greek women are grieving for the death of themselves. Helen will do or be whatever it takes to survive physically. As a true psychopath, she has no core of identity to defend. Hecuba, Andromache and Cassandra will be honored in memory, but not Helen.