56. Helen, by Euripides (412 BC)

“my curs’d beauty damned with deadly power Trojan and wandering Greek to sufferings untold”  Helen, page 147

Plot: Helen, wife of Menelaus, was not  taken to Troy as supposed by all the world, but has been living in the King’s palace in Egypt for 17 years. Menelaus, wandering the earth trying to return to Sparta but being repeatedly storm-driven onto the African coast, is washed ashore in Egypt and finally reunited with the real Helen. But now both must escape before the new Egyptian King Theoclymenus can kill Menelaus and force Helen into marriage.

My version is still the Penguin Classic edition translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140440445)

My thoughts: Suggested by Herodotus in his Histories, Euripides takes up the idea that Helen was whisked off to Egypt by the Gods, and an illusion was created from air by Hera to spite Paris for choosing Aphrodite over her, and it was this illusion that Paris carried away to Troy.

Similar to Euripides’ other, most recently performed play Iphigenia in Tauris, this play rewrites a well known aspect of the events surrounding the Trojan War, but in this case sets out to redeem the character of the universally reviled Helen to be revealed as an innocent victim of the willfulness of the Gods. Whether Menelaus can convince the Greeks of her innocence would make an interesting sequel.

It also mentions the fate of Aias (see Sophocles’ play Ajax)

Again the play ends with the sudden arrival  of the Gods (this time it is Helen’s brothers Castor and Polydeuces, who were made into demigods by Zeus) to prevent Theoclymenus from taking revenge on his own sister Theonoe for her part in the deception that allows Helen and Menelaus to escape.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Like the haunted scream of a woodland nymph

At bay in the echoing depths of a rocky cave

Caught and spoiled by the lust of Pan”                                                                     Chorus, page 141

Helen contemplates taking her life after hearing Menelaus may be dead

“Or the hand shall war on the wincing skin

and eager iron shall grope

and blood leap forth where the deadly blade passed in ;

my death a sacrifice to the three Goddesses and Priam’s son”                          Helen, page 146

Personal rating : More melodrama than tragedy, or as claimed by some critics, a comedy. 4 from me.

Next : The Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes


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