I remember when I first started teaching ‘The Women of Troy’. It was 2020 and we were in lockdown. At the beginning of the year, I had just started working at my current school and felt like an apocalypse was upon us in the form of this virus called Covid 19. It was a challenging time for all of us, and like so many of you I struggled with being in lockdown. Luckily, I had a job where I was still able to work, but I felt that we were all being controlled by this unknown virus and the unknown of when it was all going to end.
I threw myself into studying ‘The Women of Troy’, I was going to get through this and I needed to keep busy, and the way I did that was by making sure that I was teaching my students everything they had to know about this play. When studying a text you need to consider so many elements and you are no longer reading for fun, you’re reading to develop an understanding of what the writer is saying about the world in which we are living and how it impacts people on different levels.
I’ve already gone through the plot and the characters with you, and now I’ll look at the main themes and ideas. For each of these, you need to remember that Euripides has a specific message about what he believes and how he conveys these ideas to his audience. The audience is not only his Athenian audience, but it is us as a contemporary audience as well. The play is still relevant for us today just as much as it was when Euripides wrote it all those centuries ago. Yes, there are no victors in war, there is always going to be a price to pay for the war, we believe in a higher force, but question their presence when we are going through difficult times. Sometimes we lose hope when times are difficult (and those 200-plus days in lockdown definitely made me do that), but there is always something else that keeps us going and we should continue to appreciate what we have, even if times are difficult. But overall, nothing in life is ever certain, things can change in an instant and that could be either good or bad.
This post has the potential to go on for days, so I’m just going to give you a summary of each theme and consider the message that the playwright is expressing. What you also need to remember is that the themes all connect with each other. They are not exclusive to themselves, but they link to other themes as well. This is important to remember when you write your essays, especially when you’re unpacking the prompt and exploring the implications of the argument. My next post will be about essay writing for the text response SAC but it will also be relevant for the exam at the end of the year.
The Good Life
One of the main messages that Euripides is conveying in his play is that any life is a good life. No matter the situation that we may find ourselves in, it is important to see that there is always something worth living for. This theme connects with that of hope, fate, and the idea that life is never certain. It is also a reflection of the cost of war.
When Andromache enters the stage on the wagon with her son Astyanax along with all the other ‘loot’ that has been taken from the Greeks, Euripides makes her an object and during her dialogue (the stichomythia) with Hecuba, she mourns for the life that she has lost and does not want to continue. She finds no purpose and even says that she’d rather be dead than alive. Hecuba informs her that “no one is happier dead. The living at least have hope. The be dead is to be nothing.”
Even though they have lost everything as a consequence of the war, they still try to find hope in the lives that they are living. Cassandra also makes it clear that even though the Greeks may be the ‘victors’ of the war, that they are the ones who suffered the most. They are the ones who fought for the ego of one man, and died on foreign soil without being given the opportunity for a proper burial. It is the Trojans however, who fought with dignity and for their home that were granted the ritual of a funeral with their loved ones farewelling them.
A key message that is being conveyed in the text is that there is no certainty in life. No matter your background, privilege or status, that can be gone in an instant. Never be complacent in where you stand in life, there is always a chance that it can change and that is not in your control. It is Hecuba who expresses this key message at the end of the play as she is burying her grandchild when she says, ‘Anyone born mortal and living in this world, who thinks himself prosperous and secure is a fool. Historical necessity, or whatever else you call the force that governs our lives, what else is it but a madman dancing, leaping one way then the next without pattern or meaning? What’s certain is that luck always runs out, and that no happy man ever stays happy or lucky for long.’ We have no control, someone else dictates our life and they are a great force than us.
Fate and the gods
This is a nice segue to the power that the gods have. Like I’ve said previously, the gods have the ultimate power over mortals (humans). One thing that we need to remember here is that the gods are not completely responsible for the fate of the mortals. They will offer choices for the humans, but the mortals are the ones that make the ultimate choice, which then leads to the final outcome. For example, it was Paris that had to choose which of the three goddesses was the most beautiful and the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world (Helen) was more enticing than having power. His choice would offend Athene who then sided with the Greeks in the 10-year battle. Ajax desecrated Athene’s temple by raping Cassandra and he was not reprimanded by the Greeks for it. Their actions lead to Athene’s revenge and new alliance with Poseidon.
It is important to remember that the gods love to be worshipped. They will not react if there are people to build their ego, but they will if they are insulted. The women question why the gods hate them and why they have abandoned them, but with nobody left in Troy, there is nobody left to praise them and they seek this acknowledgment elsewhere. Little do they know that there will be some retribution.
The cost of war
Euripides presents a strong anti-war message through his play. He reveals that the war itself is pointless and the price that people pay for the actions of others is immeasurable. The playwright is directing this view directly to his Athenian audience (who are men) and intends for them to see the futile and brutal nature of war and the pain and suffering that it inflicts on all.
He makes it clear that there are no victors in war. War can be cyclic, it may seem to be resolved and won, but it continues to happen. The Greeks may walk away from Troy victorious in this conflict, but the price that they pay for victory is high due to the journey home being one of death and destruction due to Athene’s revenge. Neoptomelus has to leave suddenly because there is a coup at his grandfather’s home, Agamemnom will suffer by choosing Cassandra who foresees his gruesome demise due to his actions of having her as his slave because she is ‘sacred’ which is asserting his power.
The brutality also continues with the violent imagery employed by Euripides. The descriptions of the horrors of war through the blood imagery but also the death of an innocent child through Astyanax’s graphic death. He implies that the actions are barbaric and that they are cowards who should be ashamed because of the lengths that they go to to assert their power.
As mentioned before, Cassandra also reveals that there are no winners as the Greeks did not fight a dignified war protecting their country, they were killed because one man was humiliated by his wife and he wanted revenge. It is through Cassandra that Euripides voices his message of war being that ‘Any sensible man must hate war, he does his best to avoid it. But if it should come, even it should end like this, it is no shame for a city, indeed, it is a crown of honour to die nobly, with dignity. The really shameful thing is to die dishonourably, ignobly, and without pride.’
There is so much loss associated with war. It is the loss of lives, identity, purpose, home, and hope. The men in Troy have all been killed, and the women have lost their autonomy and freedom by being allocated as slaves to the Greeks. They hope to travel together in order to keep their Trojan identity which unites them, only to be told by Talthybius that they will be allocated separately. This strips them of who they are and they feel that they have no purpose.
All the women value their roles as mothers and wives, but with their husbands dead and their children crying for their mothers by the black ships, they weep for all that they have lost. The ‘howl’ and by using this animal imagery Euripides illustrates the dehumanisation of the women and the loss of their identity. Andromache and Hecuba embody this the most. Hecuba is no longer a queen, she has been ‘throned’ to the dust and now is nothing but a slave to Odysseus. She can’t protect her children and feels helpless as mother who was not able to protect them being described as a ‘mother bird at her plundered nest’. This helplessness is also reflected through Andromache who could not stop her son being taken away from her and murdered. All she ever wanted to do was be a good wife and mother, and the result of the war meant it was ‘all for nothing’.
This great sense of grief and loss is another cost of the war and again highlights the anti-war stand that Euripides is projecting to his audience. This is the outcome of war. This is what is left at the end of the war.
What is Euripides’ message?
These are the main themes, but there are other ideas that are associated with them as you would have gathered as you were reading through the explanations. When you are trying to unpack a topic, you need to consider the connections to other themes and ideas and unpack the implications associated with it, but also what is Euripides revealing about those particular ideas in his play.
Euripides has a number of questions that he wants the audience to consider at the conclusion of his play. Is there any hope left when all that you have loved and valued is gone? What is the true cost of war? Why are there no victors in war? Why is life never certain? When all is lost, what is your purpose? Is justice ever achieved?
Of course, I could continue to discuss these themes and the implications associated with them forever, but by being able to break down the ones that I’ve explained, you will be able to see the connections with the ideas and issues expressed by the playwright.
There is a lot of literature out there, I’ve also created a PowerPoint going through all of the themes with quotes on my teachers pay teachers page that can help you.
If you have any questions about this post, please get in touch and ask.
Good luck and keep it zesty (the citrus zesty, not the TikTok urban dictionary zesty)