Set amidst the immediate aftermath of the infamous Trojan war, Euripides’ tragedy The Women of Troy serves as a critique of the atrocities committed by the Greeks during both the siege of Troy and Melos. The play serves as Euripides’ allegorical warning of the consequences that may be brought about by the Athenians’ crimes against the Melians. His play, as the title suggests, is centred around the commodification of the eponymous Trojan women and the misery they are forced through despite their lack of power and involvement in the matter. Instead of aggrandising the actions of the Homeric heroes, such as Odysseus, Euripides scrutinises their actions and renders their bellicosity irrational. He foregrounds the injustices that are not often discussed in other classical works within the Hellenic repertoire, namely the infliction of pain on women and children. Since the Hellenic society is largely phallocentric, where women are considered subordinate to their male counterparts, Euripides’ proto-feminist works were not highly regarded perhaps due to their subversive nature.
The entire tragedy itself is set during the aftermath of the conflict between the Trojans and the Greeks, therefore inherently introduces wars as a central theme of Euripides’ heavily anti-war play. The Women of Troy’s narrative starkly parallels the aforementioned Peloponnesian war, and its cataclysmic outcome, with casualties reaching the thousands and the horrendous mistreatment of female victims. Euripides imbues the play with visual imagery and lyrical poeticism, effectively delineating the horror of warfare and the misery afflicted by those in power upon society as a whole. The sheer futility of war is constantly encapsulated by the playwright’s portrayal of the consequences of irrational military conflicts. Constantly juxtaposing the reasons behind the annihilation of Troy, being “one woman”, “one moment of uncontrollable lust” with its cost – “tens of thousands dead”. Euripides’ pacifist message is conveyed as he renders warfare a product of impulse and bellicosity. The attainment of kleos proves to be an insufficient justification for the immense agony endured by the titular Trojan women. The lack of power and agency exhibited by those most affected further augments the tragic element of the play, which simultaneously serves as a polemic of the crimes committed by the Greeks.
While the Greeks’ moral degradation is a central idea, his main focus throughout the play is to highlight the sufferings that the conflict had brought onto the Trojan women – the forgotten victims of war. The playwright underscores that a life under “a loathsome Greek” is worse than being deceased, where people are “happier dead than I am living.” The women’s desire to no longer be alive is apparent during the Second Episode, where Cassandra’s torch – the symbol of the glimmering hope – could also be seen as the women’s suicidal intent when confronted by the “grotesque parody” of their fate. By comparing between the women’s future as slaves with death, Euripides augments the pain of the Trojan women which resulted from the conflict and appealed to the audiences’ sympathy.
- Juxtaposition: “One woman, one moment of uncontrollable lust” vs “ten thousands dead”
- Symbolism: Cassandra’s torch – a “grotesque paradoy”
- Comparison: “Happier dead than I am living”
Pain and suffering
Centred around the pain and suffering of the Trojan women, The Women of Troy’s plotline may appear to be overly simplistic or lack nuance. However, the lack of articulated structure of the play helps convey that there is no story to be told because Troy is now forsaken, and so are the Trojan women. The Trojan’s endless lament reflects their perpetual pain and despair, and puts forward the notion that a life of misery has only begun. By framing their dirge and “threnody of tears” in the form of stichomythia, Euripides highlights the universality of their plight, showcasing the indiscriminate nature of the tragedies catalysed by warfare. The use of epizeuxis – “Howl! Howl! Howl!” – or other forms of repetition (e.g anaphora, epiphora, etc) also helps the dramatist depict the Trojan women’s abject misery. It is significant that the women in the play are given the power of expression, especially since they are forced to pay a terrible price for the savagery of men. Their “song of the dead” is loud and piercing, which has the effects of almost terrifying the audience and those on stage. The limitless and incomprehensible nature of their suffering is also bolstered through the use of figurative language, where they compare themselves to objects and animals to express their pain. Throughout the play, animal imagery (or zoomorphism) and chremamorphism have been used to equate the women to non-human entities. For instance, Andromache bemoans her fate as “loots” and Hecuba expresses her pain through the zoomorphic “howl”. In both examples, the characters are conveying the depth of their despair and emphasising the unimaginable nature of the pain they are put through and the brutality of men. Euripides’ use of language here transcends the boundaries between the unimaginable and the imagined, furthering his condemnation of the frivolous and destructive nature of warfare.
- Epizeuxis (Repetition): “Howl!Howl!Howl”
- Zoomorphism & Auditory Imagery: “Howl” as a Motif
- Chremamorphism: “like loots they are stealing us”
Integrity and strength
Euripides does not disregard the importance of remaining stoic and dignified in the face of adversity. Despite anticipating the fate of future enslavement, the Women of Troy still value integrity and demonstrate strength amidst their oppression. The playwright likens Hecuba to “a mother bird at her plundered nest”, exemplifying the intimate bond that Hecuba shares with her city and portraying her as a sympathetic mother figure. He extols her strength and compassion, while chastising the Greeks who embody the exact definition of amorality. Hecuba refers to her city as “home” as she “howl[s]” and “weep[s]” for its destruction. With the intimate and warm connotation of the word “home,” the queen’s familial connection with her city is elucidated, characterising her as a passionate leader to Troy. The strength of women is also displayed in the “god-stricken daughter” of Hecuba. Despite being “Apollo’s consecrated priestess” and referred to as “poor mad girl”, Cassandra is still determined to get her revenge on the Greeks and “shall destroy them”. Her overwhelming drive and motivation under the constant scrutiny from others showcases the perseverance of the Trojan princess. By displaying the power of women in times of hardship in his tragedy, Euripides subverts the archetypal portrayal of women as those who lack agency, and instead renders them the embodiment of strength and bravado.
Helen and Talthybius are complex as characters. While the Greek audience readily vilifies Helen for her promiscuity, when assessing her course of actions through a modern lens, she is not deserving of the scrutiny and judgment that she received from others. Helen is the antithesis of unreflective obedience and female subservience, and is antagonised for her deviation from the accepted norms. On the other hand, it is difficult to sympathise with her, knowing that she also disregards the consequences of her actions and refuses to account for the deaths that occured on her behalf. The juxtaposition of her – “one woman” – with the “ten thousands dead” has the effects of establishing her as the catalyst of the Trojan war. The fact that she is chastised for her promiscuity, which “stained the pure waters of Simois”, also reflects the archaic ethos pervading the Hellenic society. Talthybius is also a multi-dimensional character, who, while is initially characterised as regimented, exhibits a modicum of sensitivity and shame as the play progresses. He is often shown to be conflicted by his sense of obligation and also his sympathy for those affected by war. This is epitomised through his reluctance to deliver the dreadful news to Hecuba, and his inability to “say an indecent thing.” By framing his announcement of Polyxena’s death using euphemism, he reveals to the audience that, unlike the barbaric Greeks, he is not “hard enough”. His inability to be “tough and without pity” characterises him as compassionate, precluding the audience from antagonising him.
- Connotation: Troy as a “home”
- Allusion & Metaphor: “stained the pure waters of Simois”
- Soft sounds: Talthybius “half hard enough”
Love and lust / Emotions vs Logic
The theme of love and lust may seem peripheral when compared to its counterparts, but still holds a great degree of importance in the play. Excessive lust is the key ingredient of the proliferation of tragedies, as it drives characters to act irrationally. The toxicity and perils of allowing emotions to overshadow sensibility are demonstrated through its contribution to the chain of tragedies in the play. The war itself is initiated by “one moment of uncontrollable lust” and Menelaus’ irrational anger and desire to retrieve Helen. Ajax’s raping of Cassandra also warrants destructive consequences as it enrages Athene and ignites her desire for retribution. The blood that “smears the sanctuaries of all the gods” represent the sacrilege that they committed and their failure to consider the consequences of their sexual exploitation of Cassandra. Driven by his “animal appetite,” Agamemnon committed the same offence, claiming Cassandra for himself despite the potential ramifications of his blasphemy. Through the reference to Agamemnon as a “slave of his [own] lust”, Euripides equates the oppressed and the oppressor – both enslaved in one way or another. In this way, the lust exhibited by the male characters contributes to their own downfall.
- Zoomorphism: “animal appetite”
- Graphic imagery: “smears the sanctuary of all the gods”
- Metaphor: “slave of his own lust”
Calvin Dang  – Past Student
The nobility of the slave women in The Women of Troy stands in contrast to the inhumanity of the victorious Greek warriors.
Written in a period when men are the focal points of most heroic tales, the tragedy the Women of Troy by Euripides presents a rather unorthodox portrayal of the two opposing gender subsequent to the Peloponesian war. The playwright characterises the enslaved women as having the higher moral standing, while dehumanising the barbaric actions of the triumphant Greek men to underscore the injustice which exists among the phallocentric society . However, he still recognises that some women can still be morally corrupt and doesn’t fully antagonise all males involved in the play. In doing so, Euripides established himself as unbiased and logical, elucidating the importance of rationality and sensibility during times of adversity.
Despite anticipating the fate of future enslavement, the women of Troy still value integrity and demonstrate strength amidst their horrendous oppression. The playwright made a comparison which likens Hecuba to “a mother bird at her plundered nest”. This exemplifies the intimate bond that Hecuba shares with her city, portraying her as a sympathetic mother figure and therefore highlighting her strength as she suffers an agonising loss. To further extend this notion, Hecuba refers to her city as “home” as she “howl[s]” and “weep[s]” for its destruction. With the intimate and warm connotation of the word “home, the queen’s familial connection with her city is elucidated, characterising her as a passionate leader to Troy. The strength of women is also displayed in the “god-stricken daughter” of Hecuba. Despite being “Apollo’s consecrated priestess” and referred to as “poor mad girl”, Cassandra is still determined to get her revenge on the Greeks and “shall destroy them”. Her overwhelming drive and motivation under the constant scrutiny from others showcases the perseverance of the Trojan princess. By displaying the power of women in times of hardship in his tragedy, Euripides presented a proto-feministic idea on the superiority of women to the audience during the times of gendered oppression of the Hellenic society.
To further enhance his argument against the phallocentric society of the Athenians, the playwright explores the brutality of Greek men and condemns their excessive lust after the Trojan war. Greek men in the tragedy are depicted as “slave[s] of [their] own lust”, and display unmoderated passion, one which leads to their own demise. Menelaus, “for the sake of one woman”, leads “a hunting party” to search for Helen, causing “tens and thousands” of Greek soldiers to die. The numerical dichotomy of “one woman” and “tens of thousands” explicates the senselessness of the war caused by one man’s “uncontrollable lust”, denouncing how Menelaus let his pathos overwhelm his logos. The brutality of the Greeks is also highlighted during the allocation of the slaves, as Hecuba described her future fate as being “forced into bed with some loathsome Greeks”. Her sufferings under the Athenians is then universalised to “a whole generation of women raped in their own bedrooms”, further amplifying the barbarism of the “Greek war machine”. Ultimately, the playwright denounces the unfettered emotions displayed by the Greeks and the atrocity of their actions.
However, Euripides doesn’t fully applaud the action of all women and neither does he vilify all Greek men. Similar to the Greek men, Helen also displays excessive passion as she is described to be “wet with lust the moment [she] saw [Paris]”. The playwright further explored how the consequences of her “love affair” caused unwarranted ramifications on the Trojans. Not only her lust is condemned, Euripides also critiques Helen’s loss of integrity as she pleads for her life. The “murderess[‘s]” utilised her eloquent rhetoric to shift the blame onto the innocent bystanders, convincing Menelaus that Hecuba is at fault for “[giving] birth to all the trouble”. By showcasing the bewitchedness of the “madwoman”, Euripides provides the audience with an example of a morally corrupt woman. The same can be said for the opposing gender, where men can be sympathetic and are not always barbarous. Talthybius is portrayed to showcase empathy towards Hecuba when he passes on the news of Polyxena’s death. Through the use of euphemistic language, referring to her death as “her fate is settled”, the Greek “lackey” attempts to mitigate the pain of the Trojan queen. By highlighting the opposing examples to his proto-feministic views, Euripides established himself as being governed by his own logic and sensible to his audiences, therefore validating his opinion of the phallocentric society of Athens.
The Athenian playwright showcases to the audience the strength and morality of trojan women during times of adversity, while critiquing the Greeks’ barbarity during the Trojan war. However, he also provided a more neutral standpoint towards the matter as he recognises how the opposite can also be said for the two genders. In doing so, Euripides successfully expresses his opinion against the patriarchal society, while also elucidating the importance of remaining unprejudiced.
Characterisation, Narrative Conventions and Devices
Euripides' The Women of Troy provides rich opportunities for analysing characterisation, narrative unconventionality and symbolism. This blog will explore these literary devices to demonstrate how one can link them, through detailed interpretation, to the broader themes of the play and to authorial intent. Briefly, Euripides’ characters are deeply embedded with meanings relating to the injustices of war, and help the playwright form a critique on the unethical treatment of children and women as means to an end. Euripides also works against narrative conventions such as that of the “objective messenger” to demonstrate the impossibility of remaining impartial in the context of war. Finally, one can also comment on Euripides’ use of symbolism, irony and dramatic irony to emphasise the tragic aspects of the play.
And wasted flesh; worn out, second hand
Dresses will do for me, rags even,
The sort that well-bred women never see
Let alone wear, they will have to make doFor my worn, second hand body
Euripides’ repetition of “second hand” cements the idea of the conquered woman’s body as a material spoil of war. This objectification is visualised further along the play, when “Andromache and Astymax are wheeled in on top of a baggage wagon loaded with spoils.” The stage positioning of mother and child atop a wagon of loot creates imagery that resonates throughout the play; it goes beyond a general critique of patriarchal violence and exhibits the intersection of womanhood and victimhood of war as completely dehumanising. Hecuba will not just wear “rags” but embody their second-handedness and “wasted[ness]” with her own “flesh”. Euripides thus asserts that the Greeks are not simply imposing the role of slavery upon women but metamorphosing them into objects that, at least in the case of Hecuba, have no value beyond their utility. The sense of antiquity evoked by the term “second-hand” also alludes to the way old age exacerbates Hecuba’s loss of status. She acknowledges herself as an “old woman, dragged as a slave,” as Euripides establishes, through his simile, the way a woman’s body influences her fate as a victim of war. Her old age sets her further apart from the other widowed women, who instead wait to be re-married. Casandra’s own body presents a strong contrast to Hecuba, and her presumed fate equally reflects this. As a young, “consecrated virgin” she is temporarily protected from “second-hand” status and has exceptional sexual value, reserved only for Agamemnon (the highest ranking Greek hero of the war). In Cassandra’s instance it is the Greeks who are objectified, reduced only to their sexual desire for the Trojan women. By referring to Agamemnon as a “slave of his [own] lust,” Euripides draws parallels between the socio-physical statuses of the women and the moral statuses of the Greeks as “slaves”. Each case demonstrates how the consequences of war on the body are both gendered and dehumanising for the victims and victors alike
- Repetition is the simple repeating of a word, within a short space of words, with no particular placement of the words to secure emphasis
- Stage positions are used to help keep track of how performers and set pieces move during rehearsal and performance.
- Imagery consists of descriptive language that can function as a way for the reader to better imagine the world of the piece of literature and also add symbolism to the work.
- Antiquity: The ancient past, especially the period of classical and other human civilizations before the Middle Ages.
- Simile: a figure of speech involving the comparison of one thing with another thing of a different kind, used to make a description more emphatic or vivid.
- Contrast is a rhetorical device through which writers identify differences between two subjects, places, persons, things, or ideas.
- Parallelism means balancing two or more ideas or arguments that are equally important
An old woman, with her city destroyed
And all her children dead, must bury you,
So much younger than I am, such a tender corpse
By instilling repeated references to Hecuba’s old age throughout Women of Troy, Euripides examines age as a manifestation of unjust irony in the aftermath of war. Hecuba’s adoption of third person narration, characterising herself as “an old woman, with her city destroyed,” briefly establishes her as an outsider commenting on the injustice imposed by the Greeks, of having to live beyond her childrens’ deaths. There is also an ironic implication in “her city destroyed… all her children dead” as the context of war disrupts the nature of age by letting the oldest woman become its seemingly sole survivor, at least within the exaggerated context of the phrase. The sense of tragedy in the proclamation “So much younger than I” also echoes throughout the fourth and sixth episodes, as Euripides depicts war as unnatural in its delivery of death. Hecuba and Astyanax are juxtaposed both in appearance and characterisation, as the repetition of Hecuba as an “old woman” is contrasted with descriptions of Astyanax as a “tender corpse”; whilst the latter description emphasises life and age, the former emphasises death and youth. Furthermore, the anecdotal reference to Astyanax’ promise, to “sing songs of farewell” at Hecuba’s grave, remind the audience of the way war has disrupted traditional rituals of death; rather than a “song of farewell,” the play must be structured as a lament, a song of grief. Euripides thus presents this irony as unjust and unnatural, appealing to the ethos of his audience. The only similarity drawn out by Euripides in their characterisation lies in the objectification of their bodies on behalf of the Greeks. Whilst Hecuba is alive, both characters are treated as “wasted flesh,” with brutal imagery depicting Astyanax’s body as being “shaved” by the walls of Troy; whilst one body is to be used “as a slave,” the other is “thrown” away. These dehumanising descriptions reflect Euripides’ condemnation of the Greeks’ unethical construction of human bodies, and specifically children, as means to an end.
- Repetition is the simple repeating of a word, within a short space of words, with no particular placement of the words to secure emphasis
- Any story told in the grammatical third person, i.e. without using “I” or “we”: “he did that, they did something else.” In other words, the voice of the telling appears to be akin to that of the author him- or herself.
- Irony: The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.
- Juxtaposition is a literary term which places different elements side by side in order to emphasize their differences, reveal surprising similarities, or explore a unique relationship between the two. It challenges us to reconsider and discover elements typically kept apart by placing them in contact with one another.
- Anecdote is a brief, revealing account of an individual person or an incident: “a story with a point,” such as to communicate an abstract idea about a person, place, or thing through the concrete details of a short narrative or to characterize by delineating a specific quirk or trait.
Serve Achilles at his tomb
By integrating euphemisms into Talthybius’ speech, Euripides characterises him as a troubled figure, whose failure to remain objective, omniscient and apathetic breaks all narrative conventions of the messenger in Greek tragedy. Using euphemisms for death, such as “serve Achilles at his tomb,” in the context of a violent post-war conquest, establishes Talthybius as an unorthodox Greek character lacking the vilifying characteristics of the other soldiers. In fact, his emotiveness inhibits him from fulfilling the fundamental role of the messenger, to deliver information; Expecting Talthybius to be a conventional messenger, or perhaps to embody the same coldness as the other Greeks, Hecuba misinterprets the euphemism and takes it literally with the question “a servant at a tomb?”. There is also irony in being unable to comprehend the play’s messenger, emphasised by Hecuba’s “What does that mean? She is alive? Is she?”. A similar lack of clarity is repeated in the fourth episode, when Talthybius’ ability to communicate fails in admitting “…I don’t know how to say it.” The ambiguity of “no Greek will ever be his master” replaces the certainty expected from his role, once again engendering confusion from Andromache. Euripides thus signifies through a breakdown of conventional narration that the horrors of the Trojan War are too great to be voiced by an impersonal character. Talthybius’ confessional tone, seen repeatedly within the lines “I’m not half hard enough…” or “to tell the truth,” is instrumental in subverting his role as messenger and in embodying Euripides’ contention that there can be no objective voice in the context of war.
- A euphemism is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant. Some euphemisms are intended to amuse, while others use bland, inoffensive terms for concepts that the user wishes to downplay
- Omniscient: An ‘all-knowing’ kind of narrator very commonly found in works of fiction written as third-person narratives. The omniscient narrator has a full knowledge of the story’s events and of the motives and unspoken thoughts of the various characters
- Narrative conventions are the techniques used by the writers to create meaning in a story. There are various things that come under narrative writing such as Characters, plot development, settings, a point of view, plot devices, etc
- Ambiguity: The quality of being open to more than one interpretation; inexactness.
Are they trying to commit suicide in there,
Setting light to themselves
I fired these torches, illuminating
My holy wedding feast, a blazing light
To celebrate the marriage of virginity
The symbolism of fire in Women of Troy provides opportunity for different interpretations. In asking the question “Are they trying to commit suicide in there, setting light to themselves?” Talthybius raises the first possibility, that the flames are to be understood literally, in their destructive form, as a purification ritual intended to preserve the “dignity” of the Trojan women. Although this notion is quickly dispelled by Hecuba, the flames still retain significance as purification symbols; Cassandra celebrates her prophesied death alongside Agamemnon with the flames intended to celebrate her marriage, regarding them as holy only in the sense that they metaphorise her death and consequently, the preservation of her virginity. Her “ritual dance” also allows Euripides to temporarily break away from the play’s song of lament, and thus to explore the morbid notion of death as a victory for the women of Troy. The vindictive tone delivered through Cassandra’s euphemism for death, “bedded by the hand of destiny!” further establishes her as the only character in the play capable of meeting a just end. Hecuba’s interpretation of the “torches [as] a grotesque parody/Of everything I hoped for my daughter,” also presents a dramatic irony as both the audience and Cassandra know that the marriage will not be consummated, whilst Hecuba grieves over her daughter’s lost virginity. As Euripides re-introduces the song of lament through Hecuba’s proclamation – “let her dreadful parody of a wedding song/Be drowned by the sound of your tears” – he thus also presents Hecuba’s misunderstanding as tragic, as the symbolic meaning of the flames is lost to her in the dramatic irony.
- Symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols, be they words, people, marks, locations, or abstract ideas to represent something beyond the literal meaning. The concept of symbolism is not confined to works of literature: symbols inhabit every corner of our daily life.
- Metaphorise: to express (something) metaphorically. intransitive
- Dramatic irony, a literary device by which the audience’s or reader’s understanding of events or individuals in a work surpasses that of its characters.
- A lament or lamentation is a passionate expression of grief, often in music, poetry, or song form. The grief is most often born of regret, or mourning.Laments constitute some of the oldest forms of writing and examples are present across human cultures.
Setting: The Liminality of The Women of Troy
Despite there being a plethora of rich analysis on Euripides’ The Women of Troy, one aspect of the play that is rarely discussed is its liminal setting. Or rather, the way Euripides sets his play in a liminal space, and how this aids the playwright in delivering an anti-war message.
Liminality: What does the term refer to?
Before diving into the discussion, we probably want to clarify what exactly liminality, or liminal spaces, are. First coined by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, the term liminality refers to the transitory stage within a rite of passage. It is often defined as a space or time that is ‘in-between’; a period of waiting and of relative uncertainty. Think of the period of moving into a new house, or between graduation and finding a job; at a larger scale, think of refugees or displaced victims of war (a pertinent example in regard to The Women of Troy). Liminality has since been adopted as a term in various fields, not only within the social sciences but also in art and literature.
Broadly speaking, Gennep’s description of ritual phases closely resemble the sequence of events that envelop the broader context of Euripides’ play. Paraphrasing, Gennep states that “the first phase [the preliminal stage] detaches the ritual subjects from their old place in society…the initiates are stripped of their status, removed from a social structure”. In the third and final phase, the postliminal stage, subjects “return to the community as initiated members”. Indeed, as audiences we know that the pre-text of the play involves the separation of the Trojan women from the safety of their homes, and from their old statuses as either royalty or citizens. They are, as we are made aware of from early on, to become slaves for the Greeks; separated both from their prior social status and physical space, to be re-integrated into Greek society as inferior persons. Hecuba bemoans this throughout, constantly juxtaposing her present self with her past self:
So let me tell you how fortunate I was
Born lucky, to heighten the tragedy
Of what has happened to me now.
Application to The Women of Troy
The Women of Troy is thus a liminal play, as the narrative revolves around the Trojan women awaiting their allocation and transitioning to their new place in society.
Furthermore, the narrative itself, much like liminal periods, lacks a clear structure. There is no unity, no conventional climax or resolution. The play opens (rather than closes) with a deus-ex machina so that we know the ending from the beginning, and because the time structure is realist (every hour that passes in the play also passes for the audience), audiences are forced to wait for the 'end' along with the women. The lack of an articulated structure has prompted some scholars to argue against the classification of The Women of Troy as a play at all. But when we consider the liminal setting, how can the play have a structure if the events it portrays are merely transitory periods, moments in-between larger, more 'significant' events (such as the Trojan War, Odysseus' journey back, the death of Agamemnon…) Without getting into the discourse of whether The Women of Troy is a play or not, what we can acknowledge is that the narrative lacks structure largely due to its liminal setting.
Now that we have identified the setting of Euripides’ play as liminal, we ask ourselves, why does this matter? What effect does Euripides’ decision as a playwright produce? Here I will highlight three possible arguments for the importance of liminal settings in an anti-war play such as The Women of Troy.
Analysis of The Women of Troy's liminality
Liminal settings offer opportunities for reflection and critique.
At its core, the play’s liminal setting promotes critique and reflection on the value systems that led to the initial fall of Troy. One characteristic associated with liminal phases that has not yet been mentioned is increased scepticism towards old values. In the words of Victor Turner:
If liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it can be seen as potentially a period of scrutinization of the central values and axioms of the culture in which it occurs (167)
For us audiences, this means that a text which engages with liminality also asks us to scrutinise the structures that preceded the transformation presented to us onstage. Engaging with these critiques is easier when presented with a liminal setting, because the pain of separation is still fresh, the future uncertain, and the transformation of characters explicitly portrayed. We see the Trojan women become slaves one by one as they are carried atop a “baggage wagon loaded with spoils,” or assigned masters through the messenger Talthybius. This helps characters and audiences alike question the misogynist and militarist conditions under which such cruel transformations take place.
Commenting also on the abandonment of ideas, in his essay Total Disaster: Euripides’ The Trojan Women Adrial Poole remarks that the images of Troy’s “demolition” reflect “at a wider level [the demolition] of a whole set of ideas, ideals and values.” (260). Of course, neither the characters nor audiences find reason to celebrate the literal fall of Troy. However, through its physical destruction, characters and audiences are pushed to question and abandon the cultural values of chauvinism and militarism that lead to it. From the outset of the play, audiences are invited to take in the imagery of the “ruins of Troy” via the set design. Poseidon refers to it as a “smoking ruin” which he will soon “desert,” emphasising the notion that Troy as a city, alongside its culture and value systems, must be left behind. If the gods only watch over what is civilised, then Troy and the atrocities committed upon it have become uncivilised. Indeed, the Greeks, who continue to embody these values, are characterised as inhuman through metaphors of their army as a “war machine.” Subsequently, Euripides’ liminal setting aids in creating an atmosphere of increased scepticism for the chauvinistic values he condemns and pleads audiences to abandon in the mist of the Peloponnesian War.
Liminal settings can create tension and a sense of uneasiness.
The Women of Troy has sometimes been referred to as a play which disorients its (at least Hellenic) audiences due to its unconventionality. For example, J.J Sullivan has remarked that “The banishing of divine agency would have been a profoundly disorienting experience for an ancient audience.” (476). Likewise, its liminality renders it almost jarring at the first read (or viewing), because Euripides has chosen an unusual event, time and place to portray. As aforementioned, the play opens at the end of a major event and ends right before the destruction of the Greek ships at sea. This awkward ‘in-between’ setting that would have otherwise been skimmed over in a conventional play thus becomes the play itself. In turn, audiences may feel uneasy or ‘disoriented’ throughout, just as the Trojan women are (this is subjective of course, but settings principally work in this manner, in attempts to invoke subconscious reactions from audiences and immerse them in the narrative).
Furthermore, by presenting his female protagonists in the liminal stages of their lives, Euripides portrays the women at the complete height of their suffering. In other words, the Trojan women also suffer because they are waiting, be it for news or for the journey that lies ahead. The Chorus expresses this clearly in the parados:
It won’t be long now till you hear the worst
Of the Greeks will carry me over the sea
Once again, this creates a shared experience of anxious anticipation between audience and characters, which in turns helps Euripides engage the audiences’ pathos and allows him to emphasise the women’s bravery (or arguably, heroism) in times of intense suffering.
Liminal settings remove the possibility for romanticised or heroic depictions of war.
Francis Trouffaut once famously said: “every film about war ends up being pro-war.” What he meant by this is that by depiction the thrill and adventure of conflict, films will often inherently (and inadvertently) stimulate excitement in their audiences. Specifically, many anti-war narratives fail to properly communicate an anti-war message due to overly gory and action-packed portrayals, meant to disgust audiences but which instead satisfy appetites for violent entertainment. A commonly referenced example now-days in ‘American Sniper,’ but the same can be said of classical depictions of ancient conflicts such as the Trojan War. Hellenic society, in its chauvinism, relished in Homer’s epic tales of war and conflict, of heroes such as Achilles and Patroclus, or Hector and Paris. However, characters like Odysseus’ are scrutinised in The Women of Troy, their heroism peeled back to reveal men
“without morality…whose animal appetite savages all decency, and whose double tongue twists truth into lies, friendship to enmity…”
Part of this larger critique prompted by Euripides is supported by the play’s liminal setting. It is after all difficult to fill a liminal space with the type of exciting conflict usually present in war narratives, because as soon as you introduce elements of a war narrative, such as a climax and a resolution, the setting ceases to be liminal. Entering the spaces in-between war and peace, on the other hand, eliminates all direct depictions of war whilst still allowing the playwright to engage with its participants, victims, and tragic consequences. Thus, one can say that the liminal setting of The Women of Troy helped Euripides form a powerful and timeless anti-war message.
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