My days of poking fun at ancient Greek plays are over. Hecuba is too awesome to make fun of. Euripides wrote Hecuba in 424 BCE. The play takes place not long after the fall of Troy. The Greeks are camped on the shores of the Thracian Chersonese. Hecuba, wife of Priam king of Troy, is among Agamemnon’s prizes. She has gone from Queen to slave, her husband is dead and all but one of her sons are dead. That son, Polydorus, was too young to fight in the war and was sent off to Thrace with a cartload of gold. Here he has been a guest of Polymestor, the king and a friend of Troy.
The play opens in an unconventional way for Greek tragedy. We have the ghost of Polydorus, the son Hecuba believes is still alive and safe, explain to us his fate. When Troy fell Polymester killed him and took all his gold. Polymester didn’t even give him a burial, but tossed his body into the ocean:
He killed me and flung me into the surging salt sea so that he could keep the gold in his own house. And I lie sometimes on the shore, sometimes in the rolling waters, carried on the constant ebb and flow of the waves. There is no one to weep over me, no one to bury me.
Until someone gives Polymester proper burial rites, he will remain a ghost.
But he is not the only ghost in the story. Achilles appeared above his tomb and demanded the sacrifice of Polyxena, Polydorus’ sister and Hecuba’s daughter. Until this is done, there will be no winds to sail the Greeks home. Nice bookend that, since Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia so the winds would blow the Greeks to Troy at the start of the war. Achilles demanding Polyxena be sacrificed was a shocking request and the Greek army argued over whether they should obey Achilles’ demand. They weren’t going to do it until Odysseus
logic chopping, sweet-tongued courtier of the people
convinces them otherwise.
I never much liked Odysseus, and in the play my dislike of him is justified. He goes to the tent where Hecuba and her daughter and some other Trojan women are being kept and is a perfect unfeeling bastard. Hecuba, however, has nothing to lose and she goes at him toe to toe, trying every angle of verbal attack to get him to back down. Valiant as her efforts are, she cannot win. The good hearted Polyxena steps up and says she will go willingly since she no longer has any reason to live anymore. She chooses sacrifice with honor over spending the rest of her life as a slave.
Just after Hecuba hears the details of her daughter’s death and we think she can’t slip any deeper into despair and grief, her serving woman arrives to tell her that the body of Polydorus has been found on the beach. She cries out
All is over for unhappy Hecuba — I no longer exist.
Agamemnon takes pity on her and summons the Thracian king and his small sons to the camp where he arranges a meeting for them with Hecuba. She takes her revenge after Polymester lies to her face. Hecuba kills Polymester’s sons and then blinds Polymester. In his grief and blindness he crawls on all fours on the ground, crying out his agony and asking to be avenged. But no one will come to his aid because he violated the sacred guest-friend laws by killing Polydorus.
The play ends with the winds beginning to blow. Agamemnon orders the army to dump Polymester on an island somewhere. And Polymester foretells Hecuba beng transformed into a dog and Agamemon’s death when he reaches home.
The play focuses on Hecuba but it also has moments in which it acknowledges the fate women face when men go to war:
From one man’s folly came evil for all,
bringing destruction on the land of Simois
with disaster for others too,
and the rivalry was settled
when the herdsman judged
the three daughters of the blessed ones on Ida,
settled with war, with blood and the ruin of my home.
And by the fair-flowing Eurotas
a Spartan girl laments at home, with many a tear,
and a mother beats her grey head with her hand
and tears her cheek, rending it with bloody nails,
for her children are dead.
One of the most groundbreaking things Euripides did was make his characters speak in everyday language. They do not talk in ritualized ways or formal speech, but as regular people talked. This, I think makes his plays so very powerful because it erases the distance between the characters on stage and the people in the audience so there is no escape from the pain of Hecuba’s grief and the force of her vengeance.