Friday, May 13, 2022

Hecuba by Euripides - Good words should get their goodness from our lives

So what is Hecuba to him, exactly?  Shakespeare would have meant the Hecuba from Seneca’s gruesome Troades (1st century CE), not the Hecuba of Euripides (c. 424 BCE), and from Ovid.  Maybe I should revisit Seneca and Ovid soon.  The image below, borrowed from the Met, is a 1606 Italian illustration of Ovid showing Hecuba and her servants murdering Polymestor.  The Romans preferred the murders to be onstage, so to speak.

Hecuba, famous for having fifty children, or more, if she had fifty sons, lost all but three of them in the Trojan War.  In this play, she loses two more. Only Cassandra outlives her mother, and not for long.  Euripides tells a story of suffering, of grief piled on grief until the poor mother loses her humanity.

A lot of Hecuba should look familiar by now: the two-part structure, one part for the cruelly sacrificed daughter and another for the crassly murdered son; the pointless religious sacrifice of a young woman, like she is just a kind of sheep; the double-talking, self-interested heroes who are cowardly politicians, not heroic in any way.  The gods are replaced by ghosts this time.  “There is none but goddess Suffering herelf” Hecuba laments, plausibly (43, Arrowsmith).

At least one thing is close to new.  Euripides begins what will be an extended argument, over many plays, linking the corruption of the leaders, the heroes, to the decline of civilization.  I have no doubt the argument is political, a response that is still perhaps mere disquiet at this point to the suffering of the Peloponnesian War.  The Athenians know they are the good guys, fighting for the right reasons, yet they end up sounding like “that crowdpleasing, honeytalking, wordchopping” (106, Carson) Odysseus:

ODYSSEUS: You barbarians don’t know how to treat your friends as friends,

how to venerate men who die beautiful deaths.

The result is: Greece on top!

And your fate matches your policy.  (114, Carson)

This speech is the justification of a human sacrifice.  Athens on top!

Hecuba, in a couple of curious places, makes an argument about the source of good and evil, and connects the concepts to the playw0right’s, and politician’s, great instrument, words:

Good words should get their goodness from our lives

and nowhere else; the evil we do should show,

a rottenness that festers in our speech

and what we say, incapable of being glozed

with a film of pretty words.

                                                    There are men, I know,

sophists who make a science of persuasion,

glozing evil with a slick of loveliness;

but in the end a speciousness will show.

The impostors are punished; not one escapes

his death.  (62, Arrowsmith)

Some of this may be true, some false.  These ideas will return.  Agamemnon, with whom she is arguing here, certainly gets his punishment soon enough.  Like the Greek audience, we can enjoy the sinister irony when Agamemon just doubts that women are capable of revenge.

                                            But women?

Women overpower men?  (47, Arrowsmith)

I read, and am using, both the William Arrowsmith and the Anne Carson translations.  I liked them both.

Next week’s play is The Knights (425 BCE) by Aristophanes, which I remember as being much like The Acharnians but with new jokes.


  1. I liked this one a lot - some of the credit is definitely due to the Arrowsmith translation, which managed to do the heightened language without getting stilted like some of the translations have been. Some great poetry, like that Hecuba speech you quote (the word "gloze" was new to me). And some of the Chorus too: "O wind of ocean, wind that blows on the sea and drives the scudding ships, where are you blowing me? Where shall I be slave? Where is there home for me?"

    Hecuba has one of my favorite lines: "But all this is the rambling nothing of despair." She also has my favorite bit of imagery: "If by some magic, some gift of the gods, I could become all speech — tongues in my arms, hands that talked, voices speaking, crying from my hair and feet — then, all together, as one voice, I would fall and touch your knees, crying, begging, imploring with a thousand tongues..." She could be describing the role of the Chorus in all these plays. In keeping with the Hamlet connection, I'm reminded of a bit of the narrator in Iris Murdoch's The Black Prince talking about that play: "Shakespeare, by the sheer intensity of his own identity has produced a new language, a special rhetoric of consciousness...'Hamlet' is words, and so is Hamlet. He is as witty as Jesus Christ, but whereas Christ speaks Hamlet is speech. He is the tormented empty sinful consciousness of man seared by the bright light of art, the god's flayed victim dancing the dance of creation." (I don't know how sincere the narrator is being here but it's always stuck with me.)

    Plenty of interesting gender stuff. I like when Polymestor asks, "Is it safe? Are there men around?" and Hecuba replies, "No men; only women." Answering one of the questions but not the other, if only Polymestor could realize that.

    I was amused by Hecuba's suggesting that Helen be sacrificed in Polyxena's place, firstly because she was the ultimate cause of Achilles' death, and secondly because Achilles's ghost might want someone beautiful to be sacrificed to him. Though it's interesting later to have the Chorus cursing both Helen and Priam: "O adulterous marriage! Helen, fury of ruin! Let the wind blow and never bring her home! Let there be no landing for Helen of Troy!" I'm curious to eventually read Euripides' play about her - she's a figure rife for interpretation and reinterpretation.

  2. Well said.

    "I could become all speech" - Euripides is moving into complex literary territory here. Moving into theory.

    Helen is going to be a treat, or an outrage, depending.

  3. What struck me most when reading the play was Polyxena's death as related by the herald. It's another version of Iphigenia's sacrifice, with prayers to Achilles' shade for good winds to return to Greece, Polyxena's death heroic but, once again, we have the blood lust and pride of Greek warriors wreaking havoc in the lives of whatever women happen to be standing close by. "We Greeks take pride in doing things well," says Agamemnon. "I tell you, nothing would please me more than seeing justice served. But I’m in an awkward position with the army."

    I also note that Polyxena's death doesn't bring favorable winds, either. Another inversion of Iphigenia's story. But the waiting around gives time for Polymestor's bloody visit, and his prophecy of Agamemnon's death. "And gag him, too," Agamemnons says, as Polymestor is dragged away. Ha ha. A pretty good joke.

  4. Yes, the almost thrown away gag that the sacrifice does not even work - incredible. But Euripides does not really believe in those ghosts and gods.

    Agamemnon's speeches would not be out of place in an Aristophanes play. What kind of tragedy is this, exactly?

  5. Exactly. How's that square with Mr Aristotle? This goes back to the argument I made on my blog, that the Dionysian plays were intended to be disorienting and madhouse. Poets as lords of misrule.

  6. William Arrowsmith's favorite word for the plays, especially Euripides is "turbulence."

    You see why I think we should take another look at Poetics in the fall, with the plays fresh in mind. My memory is that the distortions are more those of Aristotelians than of Aristotle, but we'll see.

  7. I have never wondered before, but were there performances of these plays separate from the Great Dionysia? Was there a regular culture of theater outside of the annual festival? That would poke a hole in my theory. I should do some research into Greek performance arts.

    "Turbulance" is good and accurate.

  8. My understanding is that plays were occasionally restaged, in Athens or elsewhere until fairly late in the 5th century, when the spread of both texts and performances became more common.

    But really, what was happening out in Sicily or wherever, who knows.