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Theatre / The Trojan Women

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ἄνα, δύσδαιμον, πεδόθεν κεφαλή: ἐπάειρε δέρην: οὐκέτι Τροία τάδε καὶ βασιλῆς ἐσμεν Τροίας English 
Hecuba, Lines 98-100

In a world where history is Written by the Winners (especially in 415 BC Athens) Euripides chooses instead to focus on the fates of the losers, giving A Day in the Limelight to the miserable Trojan women as their city has been sacked, their men killed and they're going to be enslaved by the winners.

The women who have a prominent role in this tragedy are exactly those who were mourning Hector at the end of The Iliad - Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra and Helen. Since they are Royal Blood and they are the losers' women, each of them has been destined to a different Achaean general - Hecuba will be taken away by Odysseus, Cassandra by Agamemnon, Andromache by Achilles' son Neoptolemus, while Helen has been sentenced to death by her estranged husband Menelaus. From Bad to Worse, horrible news are yet to come: Andromache and Hector's son Astyanax has been condemned to die, because the Achaean leaders are afraid that the boy will grow up to avenge his father and would not take that risk. The boy will be thrown off from the battlements of Troy.

Meanwhile, goddess Athena, once protectress of the Achaeans, is enraged by Ajax the Lesser's rape of Cassandra, which took place while she was seeking shelter in Athena's temple and was embracing her statue (an unforgivable act of blasphemy, according to the customs of that time). Because of this, and the generally bad behaviour of the Greek army, she has decided to team up with Poseidon (once her archenemy) to make sure that the Achaeans would have an awful return journey... but that's another story.

The Trojan Women was the third tragedy of a trilogy about the Trojan War, which included Alexandros - featuring the recognition of the abandoned Trojan prince Paris, and then Palamedes, which featured the Achaean mistreatment of their fellow Achaean Palamedes. The tragedy is one of the earliest examples of War Is Hell, as narrated through the eyes of the innocent civilians who end up losing everything they hold dear, and also the barbaric treatment of the spoils of war by the winners. Unfortunately, that's a theme still relevant in our days - that's why The Trojan Women has aged so well, and is still a source of endless debate and adaptations, each with their own outlook on war and of course their Reality Subtext about each authors' historical context.

If you like, read the English version of the Project Gutenberg here. There is also a fairly good adaptation of The '70s with an All-Star Cast: Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache, BRIAN BLESSED as Talthybius, Geneviève Bujold as Cassandra and Greek actress Irene Pappas as Helen.

The Trojan Women features the following tropes:

  • A Day in the Limelight: Women weren't given much space in The Iliad. Now they are the protagonists with their own huge Tear Jerker story.
  • As You Know: When Menelaus comes on stage, he promptly announces that he's Helen's husband Menelaus. This may have been tacked on later for exposition purposes.
  • Bearer of Bad News: Talthybius, Agamemnon's herald and friend, always appears to deliver some brand new misfortune like that all of the women are being divided up and given to different Achaean heroes, or that Cassandra will be given to Agamemnon and Hecuba to Odysseus. Or even worse he delivers to Andromache the Achaeans’ plan to kill her son.
  • Call-Back: The main female characters are the same women who were mourning Hector in the final book of The Iliad.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': The core of Athena's teaming up with Poseidon - the Achaeans need to be punished for their atrocities.
  • The Cassandra: The original one is with us, without the chance of being ever believed by someone.
  • Cute and Psycho: Beautiful, virginal Cassandra is shown enthusiastically lighting the torches to celebrate that she's going to be Agamemnon's consort, while morbidly blubbering how this very "marriage" is going to bring Agamemnon closer to the grave. Everyone near her is creeped.
  • Death of a Child: Andromache and Hector's little son is slain by Achaeans to avoid any purpose of revenge.
  • Deconstruction: Euripides tended to use and adjust old myths and lore to explore his contemporary context. So we have The Trojan Women playing up the tragedies which befall the people of Troy after their city fell rather than focusing on the heroics of the main characters. And of course, instead of focusing in the heroes, it features their women.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Astyanax's death is this for both Hecuba and Andromache. After this every possible hope is gone.
  • Despair Speech: Most of Hecuba and Andromache's monologues are well-argumented Despair Speeches.
  • Dissonant Serenity: Talthybius, Hecuba and the chorus of Trojan women are creeped by Cassandra being eerily delighted about having been destined for Agamemnon, as she has foreseen that their marriage will lead to his death.
  • Downer Ending: Troy is destroyed, Astyanax is killed, the women are all sold into slavery, and nothing hopeful ever happens to them.
  • Enemy Mine: Athena and Poseidon have always been harsh enemies, but in the prologue Athena seeks Poseidon's help to make the Achaeans pay for their impious behavior.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: Or maybe a Take That!. Helen cites the conventional story of the Judgement of Paris as one of her explanations for why the situation wasn't her fault. Hecuba rips it apart in her counterargument, saying that the goddesses involved couldn't possibly be as petty and insecure as Helen claims.
  • Fallen Princess: Cassandra and Andromache are Fallen Princess, Hecuba is a fallen queen.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: Astyanax is thrown off from the battlements, and there's nothing his mother and grandmother could do to save him.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Slavery of course is. And even if a highborn slave being taken away from your home, surviving your children and loved ones is.
  • Foreshadowing: When you have Cassandra in the main cast, it is mandatory:
  • From Bad to Worse: When Andromache is almost consoled by the thought that if she gets along with her new master, her son would be spared, here arrives Astyanax's death sentence.
  • Genocide Backfire: Defied by the Greeks, who kill Astyanax to make sure he won't grow up to avenge Troy and make what they did backfire.
  • The Ghost: Agamemnon, Neoptolemus and Odysseus influence the plot (as the new masters of the poor protagonists) but never appear on stage.
  • Gold Digger: Hecuba accuses Helen to have left Sparta and Menelaus because she was not content enough with her life there, as she had an eye not only for Paris but also for the lavish lifestyle she would have in Troy.
  • Hate Sink: Once more, Helen is a source of contempt for the Trojan women, as the living casus belli and also because they know she will be spared.
  • Hope Spot: Andromache dares to have hope that Astyanax will one day grow up and rebuild Troy, only for the Greeks to promptly kill him.
  • Karma Houdini: It seems that Helen is going to be an aversion, but after she successfully defends herself (and her beauty of course helped) Menelaus decides to postpone her death sentence to the day they'll reach Sparta, which the public know would eventually never happen.
  • Kick the Dog: Achaean generals are fond of this:
    • Ajax the Lesser assaulted Cassandra while she was seeking shelter in Athena's temple, an unforgivable act of hybris note ;
    • Neoptolemus doesn't even let Andromache properly bury and grieve her son, because he wants to leave as soon as possible. Also, he made sure if Andromache ever curses her son's killers, said son wouldn't even get proper burial.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Never shown on-screen, but Athena and Poseidon make clear in the prologue that the Achaeans are going to have a rough homecoming as a reward for their blasphemy and cruelty.
  • Light Feminine Dark Feminine: Andromache and Helen, respectively. The innocent but mad Cassandra is somewhere in between.
  • Made a Slave: The entire premise is that now that Troy has fallen and the men beaten, their women are now spoils of the winners to be enslaved.
  • Nay-Theist: Hecuba becomes increasingly skeptical that the gods care for humans at all.
  • Never My Fault: In Helen's speech to Menelaus about the reasons she left, she blames Hecuba's defiance of exposing Paris, Aphrodite's schemes and even Menelaus himself, obviously never remotely mentioning that she may have followed Paris on her own will. Perhaps it was true. Or perhaps not. However, Hecuba herself is having none of it.
  • The Ophelia: It's a requirement for Cassandra's every single appearance. This time is even more justified: she has just endured a Trauma Conga Line of rape and enslavement, so that's probably why she's depicted as a bit... nutty.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Hecuba has outlived most of her children, and we see Andromache being set to the same fate.
  • Posthumous Character: Hector is already dead by this point, but his legacy is mentioned a lot.
  • Proper Lady: Andromache was this, but it turns out conforming to your society's expectations of being a perfect wife doesn't mean much when your family gets killed and you get turned into a sex slave anyway.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: The one comfort the Trojans have is that the Greeks suffer, too, from the war. They have lost many people in the war, will lose more in storms the gods send to their returning ships, and Agamemnon is destined to be murdered when he returns. All this for getting back Helen, who they want to have killed anyway.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Troy has been sacked and their women being preyed on by the winners. Cassandra has been explicitly stated to have been raped.
  • Screw the Rules, I Make Them!: Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaean generals, claimed Cassandra as his concubine overlooking the key facts that a) the women have to be sorted between the generals, b) Cassandra is a priestess of Apollo and thus sworn to chastity. Apparently, he was that smitten.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: Hecuba utterly shames Helen after hearing her justifications to Menelaus for her elopement (which she blames on everyone but ''her'') by saying that the gods had no role in her infatuation for Paris, as he was rich and handsome, then she was not satisfied with Sparta and Menelaus and looked for a wealthier husband, and of course if she was really abducted, why she didn't seek help from her brothers? Menelaus acknowledges she's right but decides to suspend Helen's death sentence anyway. Which we know it eventually would never happen.
  • Silly Reason for War: The characters talk a lot about how frivolous it was that this all started after one woman running off.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: The play is emphatic about slavery—in this particular case women as war trophies—being abominable. Each of the protagonists dreads being forced into slavery and the play paints each of them as sympathetic figures facing a real horror even when compared to the other atrocities of war, driving home just how terrible slavery is.
  • Talking Your Way Out: Helen successfully talks her way out of Menelaus' attempt to kill her by claiming first that Hecuba should not have let Paris live since an oracle said he would bring the destruction of Troy. Next she says that Aphrodite gave her to Paris against her will, and then, that Menelaus himself shouldn't have left Sparta when Paris was there, and if he had stayed, perhaps Paris would not have dared what he did. She gets away with it.
  • The Hecate Sisters: Cassandra is the maiden, Andromache is the mother, Hecuba is the crone.
  • The Three Faces of Eve: Cassandra is the child, Andromache is the wife, Helen is the seductress.
  • Token Good Teammate: Talthybius, unlike the other Greeks, has sympathy for the Trojans and tries his best to talk with them even though the messages he is delivering to them are horrible.
  • Virgin Sacrifice: Hecuba's daughter Polyxena is sacrificed on Achilles' grave, to be his bride in death.
  • War Is Hell: Is it ever! The tragedy is surprisingly an aversion of the usual treatment of war by Achaeans, and that's why it's still interesting in the eyes of a modern reader or scholar.
  • What Does He See in Her?: Talthybius (and to a lesser extent Cassandra's own mother) wonders why on earth Agamemnon claimed Mad Oracle (and also a priestess) Cassandra for himself, as Talthybius makes clear that he would never choose her despite being a princess.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The Achaean generals and Odysseus in particular, as they resolve to have Astyanax killed.