Plot: Troy has fallen, and the captive Trojan women lament their loss. Queen Hecuba mourns for all Troy as well as her husband King Priam (killed mercilessly by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles). Andromache mourns for her husband Hector. Yet more agony is in store: Pyrrhus demands Polyxena, Hecuba’s daughter, for a death bride for Achilles, to be sacrificed in bridal dress on his tomb; while Andromache’s young son Astyanax is be thrown from the remaining tower of Troy and dashed on the rocks below, to appease the gods and provide safe passage for the Greek ships.
My version was in Seneca, The Complete Tragedies, published by University of Chicago Press and edited by Shadi Bartsch (Vol. 1, ISBN 9780226748238)
My thoughts :
With a larger cast than the previous two Senecan plays, and two storylines, the play feels rushed within its short space.
I don’t remember Pyrrhus featuring largely in The Iliad or Euripides’ play on the same subject, but here he is arrogant and bloodthirsty, with little nobility. He kills Priam (an old man) savagely, then demands Polyxena as a bridal sacrifice for his father Achilles. When Agamemnon declares that the Trojans have suffered enough, Pyrrhus has the audacity to threaten Agamemnon himself. When the seer Calchas is counselled, he definitely insists that both Polyxena and Astyanax must die to ensure a safe return to Greece (just as Iphigenia was sacrificed by the Greeks to provide passage to Troy ten years before)
Ulysses is sent to Andromache to find and bring Astyanax back for sacrifice, and Helen is sent to trick Polyxena into thinking she is marrying Pyrrhus. Both victims go to their deaths fearlessly.
Each act finishes with a speech by the Chorus. Normally I hurry through these asides to get back to the action, but this time I found something special in the speech that closes Act II, where the Chorus ponder death
Chorus : “Is it true, or a story to deceive the timid, that shadows live apart from the bodies we buried …
Or do we wholly die and afterward no part of us persists when, with a fugitive breath,
The spirit has mixed with the clouds and entered the atmosphere …
Whatever the sun knows when it rises, whatever it knows when it sets,
Whatever Ocean with its cerulean tides washes as twice it ebbs and twice it floods,
Will be swept away by time with its Pegasus-like stride ..
So we all pursue our fate, and he who has touched the river
By which the Gods on high swear oaths, exists no more.
After death there is nothing, and death itself is nothing –
The final turning post of a quick-run course …
… empty talk and pointless words, a story like an anxious dream.
You ask where you will lie when life is done?
With things that are unborn.” Act II, lines 371-408
The definition of “contumacious” : wilfully disobedient to authority
Personal rating: 6/10
Next : Hercules Furens by Seneca