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The Trojan Women and Euripidean Tragedy

Royce F. Murray Pursuing his BEd at the University of Winnipeg

Live theatre originated in Greece in the 5th century BC, and given the popularity of modern events such as the Winnipeg Fringe Festival, it clearly continues as a staple of public entertainment today. Sung rather than spoken when performed, classical Greek theatrical productions were originally held as a part of festival competitions in honor of Dionysos, the god of wine, pleasure, and festivity. Tragedy was a particularly prominent genre at these events with writers like Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles serving as the Shakespeares of their day. All ancient tragedies include themes of loss, suffering, and the death or downfall of a hero/heroine who is forced into making impossible choices or sacrifices in order to deal with the intractable circumstances. The Olympus exhibition features a number of pieces showcasing the importance of theatre to the ancient Greeks such as the marble tragic mask from the 2nd century AD. 

Ancient tragedies—much like popular culture is today—were often written as a commentary on significant contemporary events. One example is The Trojan Women by the playwright Euripides. This is a story that has been performed and adapted in many forms over the centuries, including the movie The Trojan Women (1971) starring Katherine Hepburn and Vanessa Redgrave. The plot focuses on the fates of three female survivors of the Trojan royal family: Hecuba (the former Queen of Troy), Cassandra (daughter of Hecuba and a priestess of Apollo), and Andromache (widow of Hector, the Trojan prince killed by the Greek hero Achilles during the final weeks of the war). When we meet them, all three women are prisoners. Their husbands and countrymen have been slaughtered and they’re waiting to be taken back to Greece as the war prizes of several Greek generals. Also imprisoned is Helen, the Queen of Sparta, who has now been reclaimed by her husband Menelaus. It was Helen who started this tragic conflict after sneaking away from Greece with Paris, another prince of Troy and brother of Hector. In the myth “The Judgement of Paris” (a story featured in the artwork of several vases and pottery items in Olympus), Helen’s love was promised to Paris by Aphrodite after the prince judged her the “fairest of all” the goddesses in a beauty contest. Paris was selected as the judge by Zeus, the king of the gods, and his decision resulted in Hera and Athena (the losing contestants) siding with the Greeks against Troy during the war.

The Trojan Women was first performed around 415 BC near the end of the Peloponnesian War, a decades-long conflict between the city-states of Sparta and Athens as each fought for independent control of mainland Greece. Using the fabled Trojan War as an analogue, Euripides likely wrote this particular tragedy as a criticism of the horrors and futility of war. It has been suggested that he took inspiration from an actual attack by Athens upon Melos (a neutral city during Athens’ war with Sparta) where the Athenian army killed all of the city’s men and enslaved its many women and children. Given the brutality and horrors in his own time, the myth of the Trojan War probably seemed an ideal comparison to Euripides because (similar to events at Melos) the Greeks killed all of Troy’s men and took all of its women into slavery. Considering the conflicts across the Middle East in recent decades—and the horrors and abuses against women in particular, such as the kidnapping and rape of CBC journalist Melissa Fung in 2008, and shooting of Pakistan student Malala Yousafzai in 2012—The Trojan Women is a cautionary tale that continues to be as relevant today as it was 2400 years ago.

Royce F. Murray is pursuing his Bachelor of Education at the University of Winnipeg.

Tragic mask, 2nd century AD. Marble. Inv. Sk 1038; The Antimenes Painter (detail), c. 530–520 BC. Terracotta. Inv. no. F 1895. © Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Photographer Johannes Laurentius.