Exploring the Character of Helen in ‘The Women of Troy’ by Euripides

This Resource is for Year 12 Mainstream English Students studying ‘The Women of Troy’ by Euripides in the VCE Curriculum in Victoria

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What do we know about Helen?

The mythology of Helen places her as a siren, an adulteress; most legends have her leaving Menelaus of her own volition, though some say she was under the power of Aphrodite. Regardless, she is stigmatised in Ancient Greece as a loose woman, unfaithful to her husband, responsible for thousands of deaths during the 10 year Trojan War.

Modern western adaptations, however, treat Helen very differently: she was married young, treated as a prize, and finds true love with Prince Paris of Troy, with whom she escapes her loveless marriage and unhappy life. This latter characterisation certainly colours the lens through which the modern reader views Helen, and draws one of many clear distinctions between how elements of ‘The Women of Troy’ are experienced differently by the primary and secondary audiences.

In the play ‘The Women of Troy’ by Euripides, Helen is hated even by Poseidon; he does not see her as an innocent victim of Paris’s lust and Aphrodite’s interference, instead believing it is ‘quite right’ that she is ‘a prisoner, like the rest’.

Helen’s appearance also plays a role in how she is perceived by other characters

Helen’s appearance also plays a role in how she is perceived by other characters. She is the only female in the play not debased, she is dressed to kill and enters not pleading but complaining at the undignified treatment she received at the hands of Menelaus guards “your guards have dragged me out here in front of the building with such violence and contempt”. Hecuba disdainfully accuses Helen of ‘parad[ing] yourself’ before Menelaus, but if Helen pulls out her hair, scratches her face (as the other women in mourning have done), she has no leverage with Menelaus. Her beauty is her only weapon (and it connects her to Zeus); however, her beauty (and others value of it) also contributes to the stigma of ‘Helen the harlot’.

In mythology Helen is often referred to as belonging to a place or a man, for example, ‘Helen of Sparta’, ‘Helen of Troy’; she is an attraction, not a person. Euripides furthers this notion of Helen as property, e.g. ‘Menelaus’ Helen’, but interestingly, she is never referred to as ‘Paris’s Helen’ by Hecuba or any other Trojans, presumably in an effort to distance Paris from blame for the war. Helen is dehumanised, reduced to quarry by Cassandra: ‘These Greeks … sent a hunting party to track down Helen, to smoke her out’; yet Helen refers to herself as ‘Exported … a saleable asset’.

When women were generally written out of history, Helen of Troy was written in 

As her story passed down the generations it held up a mirror to the prejudices of society and to some of its truths.  Helen in Homer’s The Illiad declares ‘on us has been sent an evil destiny, that we should be a singer’s theme for generations to come’.  How prophetic, Helen might not be real, but she never loses her relevance. 

Is Helen a mere puppet of the men who wanted her?

Helen might be seen as a mere puppet, the victim of the gods and of the men who wanted her. But as Blondell insists, “her complicity is essential to her story.” Helen is abducted, but she is never simply passive. She agrees to go with Paris, although different versions of the story suggest different degrees of willingness. Both Paris and Helen are victims of lust, but are still committing an action and incurring moral responsibility for the deaths that result: “such acts are still acts.” The verbs most commonly used for Helen’s journey are all active: she left, she went, she sailed away.

Helen’s manipulation of Menelaus is helped by his weakness for her

When Menelaus arrives on the shores of Troy he does so unashamedly to claim back the woman that jilted him and seeks selfish revenge, not for the myriad of deaths she has caused by her actions, but to serve his own vain purpose. Menelaus values himself and everyone else is worthless, his revenge is clear “This most glorious of days when I shall finally get my hands on that wife of mine, Helen. Yes, I am the man Menelaus, who for ten years have endured this terrible war”. He has sacked Troy, killed Paris and “made him pay” and is happy that Helen is a prisoner who has been “counted into this temporary prison with the rest of the Trojan women”. He expects to see Helen in ruins, crawling and begging him for mercy when Menelaus commands the guards to “bring her out here, drag her out by the hair, sticky with dead men’s blood”. Instead Helen is composed and as Hecuba warned wearing make-up, well dressed and neatly brushed hair, nothing like a grieving widow or person who has any feelings of remorse. Menelaus is unprepared to see Helen in such a beautiful state and his vulnerability towards her explains his inability to decisively execute her in Troy.

Hecuba warns Menelaus that Helen is not just manipulative but dangerous

Hecuba knows how manipulative Helen is and the power of lust that self-centred Menelaus has such a weakness shows that he can easily succumb to Helen’s beauty. Hecuba warns him “If you mean to kill your wife, Menelaus, you’ll have my support. But don’t see her, don’t risk becoming a slave of your lust again”. As a result of this, the concept of his masculinity is put under scrutiny when Hecuba warns him against behaving “worthy of yourself [himself]…your race and of your family” and proving those that “called you [him] womanish” wrong by executing Helen swiftly and justly; associating mercy with a diluted sense of masculinity. Hecuba knows how Helen puts a spell on men and how dangerous she is “She makes men’s eyes her prisoners, she sacks whole cities, burns houses to the ground with that bewitching smile!” Menelaus says he wants Helen handed over to him “to kill her here on the spot” but shows his weakness when he adds “unless I decide to take her back to our Argive homeland”. His statement shows that he desires to postpone Helen’s death and does not intend to actually carry it out himself. His resolve to kill Helen is also shown to be weakened further when he states that “nothing definite was decided” about her fate.

Helen’s powerful speech to Menelaus blames everyone else but herself

In juxtaposition to the male character of Menelaus, Euripides presents a far more calculating character of his Greek wife Helen with ulterior motives that will continue their manipulation if given the chance. Helen’s refusal to admit defeat and her insistence that she is innocent is compounded as she makes attempts to alleviate the burden of guilt and place some on ‘Hecuba’s evil genius’ and the gods for their games. Helen’s powerful speech to Menelaus is brash and confident, shameless, blames everyone else not herself “To Paris … he destroyed Troy, Priam did, the old King, and he destroyed me too”. Helen claims she was just an asset, blameless “exported, I was, sold off abroad, my exceptional beauty was a saleable asset for Greece”. Helen stands firm saying she wasn’t happy in Troy in “abject slavery” and tried to escape and then shifts blame to the gods and false claims of being raped. The Chorus replies to Helen’s speech calling her arguments “for what they are, fluent, but wicked. She’s a dangerous woman!” Hecuba agrees and wants to expose “this woman’s slanders for the rubbish they are!”

It seems an important message that Euripides was keen to inject is that of the strength of a Greek woman like Helen. Even when she was disempowered after the sacking of Troy, her strength lies in her refusal to admit defeat. Euripides shows her ulterior motive of manipulation is more powerful than just a beautiful legend as told in other mythological retellings. 

All Resources created by englishtutorlessons.com.au Online Tutoring using Zoom for Years 11 and 12 VCE Mainstream English Students in the Victorian Curriculum

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