My students keep asking me ‘Who’s Andro-mach? Is that the one that takes Cassandra as their slave?’ and ‘Isn’t Hecuba dead?’ So it’s pretty clear they are confused about the characters in this play. But just like any text we study in-depth, once you understand who the characters are and their relationships with the other characters in the text, the easier it will be to understand.
No matter how often I try to explain it to them they forget. I have created PowerPoints, graphic organisers, and summaries. I’ve tried everything, and my last attempt at making it clear to them is through Ronnie’s Ramblings.
One of the confusing parts about this text is that there are references to gods and other characters that don’t have a speaking part in this play. If they are mentioned and their role is relevant in the lives of those within the play, then use the quotes in the text that reference them, but other than that, you don’t need to analyse them in depth. Remember this particular outcome focuses on understanding the text. The context makes it easier for you to understand what is happening and why, but we only want you to focus on what has happened in the play itself. Nothing else. Don’t complicate it. We don’t need a history lesson of the Greek gods and every aspect of the Trojan war, just an analysis of what occurs in the play.
The play begins with the god of the sea, Poseidon. He’s sitting up there in the clouds feeling sorry for himself because there is nobody left to worship him in Troy so his ego is a little bruised. The gods love being worshipped and when they have been insulted or in the case of Poseidon his city has been destroyed and everyone is either dead or being shipped off elsewhere it means that he is no longer getting the attention that he craves.
Athene eventually enters after Poseidon finishes wallowing in his self-pity and asks him to join her in seeking revenge against the Greeks for disrespecting her and not punishing Ajax for his treatment of Cassandra at her tomb. It is not the actions of Ajax that is particularly concerning to Athene, but it is the fact that the Greeks did nothing, not even a reprimand, for disrespecting her sacred temple. Again, another example of the Gods having their ego insulted and therefore making the mortals pay the price for it.
You need to remember that the gods do play a certain role in this play and that is to show that the gods are not necessarily the ones that control the fate of the humans. They offer options, and the choices that humans make are entirely on the human. If the choice is one that causes great consequence, then that is the fault of the human, not the gods. The gods are there as guidance only, not the instigators of the actions that are undertaken by mortals. If mortals choose to disobey the gods or disrespect them, then they will pay the price. The gods will only seek revenge for themselves when they have been insulted, not when another human has. They also do not have control of the actions of humans, but when they seek revenge, they use their power to control nature, an element that humans do not have the power to fight.
Another point to consider is that the theatrical element of the dues ex machina is absent in this play. The gods do appear at the beginning of the play, however, they do not reappear. In Greek tragedies, the gods will make a reappearance at the end, suggesting that there is hope, but Euripides has intentionally not included this in his play as he exposes the real cost of war and the nihilism experienced by Hecuba, that she no longer has faith in the gods and that life is meaningless. This is the impact that war has, and since Euripides is anti-war he wants his Athenian audience to see the futility of war and how it can be brutal and pointless.
Our Queen! She has lost everything that she has known – her husband Priam, her sons Hector and Paris, and her daughters Polyxena (who was killed by Achilles’ tomb) and Cassandra (who will be a slave to Agamemnon). She lives in hope that her grandson Astyanax will grow up to avenge the end of Troy in his father’s name, but the Greeks being Greeks decide they’re scared that he will do that, so kill him to avoid that from happening. Hecuba begins the play face down lying on the shores of Troy in front of its gates symbolising defeat and being ‘throned to the dust’ and losing her identity, home and everything she ever loved.
Hecuba is the only character who is on stage throughout the whole play. She is a pivotal character and Euripides utilises her as a symbol of the cost of war, the role of women, the values that people should uphold, but also hope and that being alive is better than death. As each character enters the relationship between them and Hecuba is clear, she is a mother to Cassandra, a grandmother and daughter-in-law for Andromache and enemy towards Helen. She also speaks to the male characters, Talthybius and Menelaus as an authoritative figure, whom they also show a degree of respect towards.
Hecuba remains true to her values which is important to discuss in your essays. She is loyal, faithful, honest and those who are not she has little respect for them. She questions Helen’s motives and blames her lack of loyalty and integrity on the reason why the war began. She also values life. Although by the end of the play she cannot see the meaning in life anymore and she wants to throw herself into the burning city, she continues to live and accepts her fate as Odysseus’ slave. This outcome is an insult to her as a former queen to be a slave to a King, her role has been completely reversed.
Cassandra is probably my favourite character in this play. According to everyone else in the play, including her mother, she’s the crazy one. I just think she’s the only one who tells it how it is and because she has the ability to see the future due to her god given powers, she knows that her purpose to enact revenge for her family’s loss will be fulfilled when she becomes the slave for Agamemnon.
Cassandra is known as the consecrated virgin and this is because she has been promised eternal virginity by the god Apollo who also gifted her the power of speaking true prophecies but he also ensured that she wasn’t believed. That’s why people thought that she was crazy, but everything that she said came true, such as the fall of Troy. She was raped by the Greek, Ajax at Athene’s temple, so not only did they show disrespect towards Athene (who seeks her revenge by making their journey home a very long and dangerous one), but they also have to bear the wrath of Apollo, especially Agamemnon who asks for Cassandra because she is sacred.
Cassandra’s entrance is different from everyone else. She enters holding the torch which represents justice that she will seek for her father and brothers killed. She is singing wedding songs and dancing, in comparison to the dirges and laments of the other women. She assures her mother that her allocation is a wonderful thing because of the prophecy that she has seen, even though it means that her life will also be a price to pay.
Euripides also expresses one of his key messages about the cost of war through her character. She states that all men must hate war, and that those that died fighting with dignity for their country and are buried in their home land died a noble and dignified death, however, those that fight for a cause that is not for their country, died ‘ignobly’ and without dignity on a foreign land without their families to honour their lives.
Euripides makes it very clear that this is a woman who is going to suffer in his description of the stage directions. She enters the stage in a wagon filled with the loot that the Greeks are taking from Troy. She is dehumanised and seen as an object from the outset.
She is a woman in mourning with no hope left and cannot find any meaning in her life anymore. Her husband Hector (the great Trojan warrior) has been killed by Achilles. She has been allocated to Achilles’ son Neoptomelus who has chosen her to be his slave. There could be no greater insult, but then she is informed that her son, Astyanax will be killed because he is seen as a threat to the Greeks. If anybody embodies loss and grief and hopelessness, it is Andromache. She tells Hecuba that everything she has worked for, to be the perfect wife and mother, was all for nothing. Why did she bother, when it has all been taken away from her? Hecuba tries to reassure her by stating that it is better to be alive than dead, as the dead feel nothing. To live on to hope and believe that you do have a purpose even if it is not the future that you had dreamed of.
As she accepts her fate, Euripides again uses the stage directions to show the tragedy of war, separating mother and child by having Andromache being dragged off stage one way and Astyanax the other. She even leaves behind Hector’s shield requesting it buried with her son, leaving her identity as a Trojan woman behind completely.
The woman everyone loves to hate. But should we really hate her? Is it all really her fault? She is only doing what anyone else would do to save themselves.
Helen enters the stage as Menelaus arrives to take his wife back to Greece to be punished for her adultery. Hecuba and the other women all blame Helen as being the cause of the conflict due to leaving Menelaus and marrying Paris. But, as Menelaus makes it clear that her actions will be severely punished, Hecuba convinces him to let Helen state her case and justify her actions.
With her hair done, make-up on, and wearing a golden dress, Helen lists all the reasons that make her innocent and the blame should be cast on everyone else. She blames Hecuba for giving birth the Paris, and Priam for not killing him. The gods for the deal that they made with Paris and then Menelaus for leaving her with Paris as he went to fight another war. She is only a victim of circumstance. It is everybody else’s actions that are the cause for the tragedy, not hers.
Hecuba claps back by rebutting all of her arguments and begs Menelaus to make an example of her and what awaits a woman if she does not fulfill her duties as a wife. This is where Hecuba’s values and Helen’s could be compared. Menelaus declares that she will face her fate and be subjected to a slow painful death inflicted by the women of Greece who lost their husbands because of her actions.
I think she makes a fair case as to why she is innocent and being the feminist that I am, why is nobody blaming Paris? It’s not like he didn’t have a choice. He knew what he was doing. He betrayed Menelaus by forming a trusting friendship with him. Not all blame should be placed on Helen, but she is partly responsible.
NB. Some of you may read up on what happens to Helen after the war, which is great, but also completely irrelevant as it is not in the text and that’s what you need to be analysing.
He is the King of Sparta who was betrayed by his new friend Paris who stole his wife Helen. It is not only the gods who seek revenge when their egos are bruised, but it is the men as well. In this case, Menelaus calls upon his army, and all of Sparta to set sail for Troy to get back his wife and teach Paris a lesson.
I love how Menelaus enters the stage and introduces himself. Depending on how you read the line, I always read it as a declaration of his masculinity when he announces ‘I am the man, Menelaus!’ just to assure the audience and the women that yes, indeed, he is ‘the man’.
He is still somewhat still besotted by his wife, but is determined to make it clear that she will be punished for betraying her husband and he has the power to inflict that punishment on her. He listens to her reasoning and decides that he will not kill her on the spot but take her back to Greece where she will be used as an example to other women of what not to do as a wife.
Hecuba warns him not to travel on the same boat as her (because she knows the power of seduction that Helen possesses), but here comes my other favourite line of the play, he asks her why and if she’ll sink the boat because she has put on weight. In a play that has so much violence and death, this quick response adds an element of humor and relief from the tragedy being experienced.
This is the messenger. His job is to let the women know who they are being allocated to and where they will be going. Even though he is part of the Greek army, he still shows some empathy towards the woman and recognises that they are ‘proud women’ and that this needs to be handled delicately. He does warn the women that if they do resist they shall be punished, and that they should just leave without hesitation.
Talthybius represents duty and the need to oblige by the orders that have been given. He knows that if he doesn’t fulfill his duty then he will pay the price. He just wants to get home, and the quicker the women do what they have been told the better. Cassandra and Hecuba do show little respect towards him with Cassandra calling him an ‘underling’ and Hecuba implying that he is a slave himself as he obeys orders from the Greek generals.
There is a side to Talthybius that distinguishes him from the other Greeks. He is empathetic towards the women. He warns Andromache that if she leaves quietly without fighting for her son, then he shall ensure that he is given the burial ritual that he deserves. He cleans the body of Astyanax before handing him back to Hecuba to bury. He also does not tell Hecuba directly that her daughter Polyxena has been killed, but tells her that her fate is sealed at Achilles’ tomb.
He does say some classic lines though. After Cassandra delivers her prophecy he suggests that Agamemnon is crazy for wanting her as there is no way he’d let her anywhere near his bed. He also questions why the women would be so offended by being allocated as slaves to some Greek generals as that is an honour instead of a punishment.
Along with Menelaus he is the other male character in the play, but does not exude the same power or masculinity as the King of Sparta.
The Chorus represent the women who are left behind in Troy. Like Hecuba, they await their fate to be told where they will be going. At first, they hope that they will be going together, however, Talthybius informs them that they are going to be separated and sent to different masters. This essentially takes away any sense of unity as Trojan women from them.
The Chorus play an important role in the text. For each stasimon that breaks up the episodes the Chorus provides the audience with some context that explains different aspects of Troy and its history. They discuss the invasion of the Trojan horse, they explain the history of Troy and that it is not the first time that the city has been sacked due to the actions of a Trojan who has disrespected the gods. They allow for a break from the tragedy and violence being shown in the episodes.
Apart from Astyanax who has no speaking role, but is the symbol of innocence, hope and vulnerability as well as the tragic cost of war, there are no other characters in the play. There are others who are mentioned, but none play a role in the text themselves. Paris is mentioned regularly and when you are referring to him in the essay, focus only on what is said about him by the other characters.
Other people who are mentioned are
There are also other gods, and people associated with the ones listed above, but you do not and should not go into detail about them because your focus is on those in the text. Remain true to the play, and going off on a tangent about the historical context that isn’t mentioned, will not add anything to your essay.
Hopefully, this has helped you understand the characters and who they are. I’ve included a graphic organiser to use as an aid.
As always, if you have any questions, get in touch.