The Chorus begins to sing a song. They sing to Zeus of his destroyed Trojan temples. They wonder if he has forgotten and forsaken their city. They sing to their dead husbands, now “wandering ghosts,” and imagine their own journeys across the ocean as they are scattered throughout Greece. They also sing of Menelaus’s ship. They hope a bolt of Zeus’s lightning and will hit and sink it, with Helen aboard.
Although they believe the gods have deserted them, the women of Troy continue to pray to them. Because their own fortunes fell so rapidly, they recognize that the fortunes of their captors could fall just as unpredictably.
Talthybius enters from the city, accompanied by Greek soldiers. They carry Astyanax’s lifeless body on Hector’s shield. Talthybius tells Hecuba that the ships have been leaving. Neoptolemus left with Andromache, who was unable to bury her own son. Instead, Andromache has asked that Hecuba and Talthybius perform burial rites for Astyanax, and use Hector’s shield as both a coffin and a tomb.
Kindly, Talthybius has allowed Hecuba to perform funeral rites for her grandson, which will allow Astyanax to pass peacefully into the afterlife. Hector’s shield, once a symbol of masculine power, has been tragically converted into a casket, underscoring the brutal human cost of the war.
Talthybius urges Hecuba to hurry, but promises to give her the time she needs. He has already cleaned Astyanax’s wounds, and leaves to go dig a grave for him as Hecuba prepares the body. She speaks generally as she tends to the child’s corpse—addressing the Greeks even though the soldiers have left with Talthybius.
The importance of rituals transcends the divide between Trojans and Greeks. It unites both Talthybius and Hecuba in an obligation not to their relative nations but to the duties and respects paid to the dead.
Hecuba wonders why the Greek army found it necessary to kill a child. Were they afraid that Astyanax might grow up to reconstruct Troy? She finds this fear baseless, cowardly, and unreasonable. She imagines Astyanax’s potential future—he could have died fighting for Troy; he could have grown up to be king. She graphically describes his bloody face, but cuts herself off because it is too awful to linger over.
Astyanax’s destroyed body is the clearest symbol of the horrible cost of war presented in the play. A child, he was incapable of posing any real threat to the Greek army for decades to come. Still, their fear that he would grow into a man and a warrior trumped any rational perception of him as a harmless, defenseless baby.
Hecuba remembers when Astyanax was alive, and how he would jump on her bed and promise to cut his hair in mourning at her funeral. She wonders what a poet would write on his grave, if he were given one. She considers “here lies a little child the Argives killed, because they were afraid of him,” which she describes as “the epitaph of Greek shame.” Astyanax will inherit nothing from his father Hector but his shield, which is now his coffin. The Chorus comes from the tent to help Hecuba with the burial. They bring with them a few salvaged ornaments with which to decorate Astyanax’s body. Hecuba speaks to Astyanax again. She imagines that she could be giving him gifts for success in archery or riding, but instead it is to honor him in death. She blames Helen, who has “brought ruin to all our house.”
Hector’s shield once represented the masculine power of a soldier and hero, and now it represents the cowardice and ignorance of the Greek army. Astyanax is not a man—he is a child. Because he is not an adult man he cannot be a Trojan soldier, and he cannot rationally be a threat. Still, to the Greeks, all male children represent a potential warrior who could threaten their power. Just as the majority of Greek soldiers seem unable to see women as more than objects to be claimed, they are unable to see men as anything other than threats to be neutralized.
The Chorus begins to sing in conversation with Hecuba, who continues to speak. Hecuba drapes Astyanax in a robe, which she notes that he should have worn at his wedding. She lays him upon Hector’s shield, which symbolizes the many battles he could have fought and won. Together the Chorus and Hecuba singe “the dirge of the dead,” a song of anger, mourning, and remembrance. Hecuba binds the rest of Astyanax’s wounds as she sings.
The whole scene of Astyanax’s burial is incredibly sad. Again and again the tragedy and pointlessness of his death is emphasized. Hector’s shield, which formerly defended Astyanax in life, now cradles him in death. Hector’s valorous death is shown to be at least partially meaningless, as the loss of his life couldn’t even protect his infant child.
Hecuba feels that the gods have joined together to ruin her life. She believes Troy’s destruction was the result of their random whims. She announces that she has fully prepared Astyanax for burial, and Greek soldiers collect him and carry him offstage. She wonders if it matters to him that he was buried with “tokens of luxury.” She decides it is simply a consolation for the living.
Hecuba has spent much of the play emphasizing how important it is to her to maintain tradition and familial and social duties even in the face of great upheaval. Now, however, her whole world has begun to break down. Although she has performed Astyanax’s funeral rites, she barely seems to believe in them. It is in this moment that she loses her last bit of hope.
Talthybius reenters the stage, flanked by soldiers. He announces that is time for the Greeks to burn down the city, and then to return home. Talthybius then addresses the women of Troy. When the trumpet calls, it is their signal to board the Greek ships. Hecuba unhappily prepares to leave. She reflects on how Troy, once so powerful, will have its “very name of glory…stripped away.”
Like the women themselves, Troy is also stripped of its glory, power, and agency over its own physical body, which will soon be consumed by flames.
Hecuba wonders if she should call out to the gods. She reflects that she had asked for help with no response, and expects nothing from them now. She tries to rally her fellow women to jump into the fires now consuming Troy, but Talthybius orders his soldiers to hold her back—“She is Odysseus’ property,” and must be kept safe for him.
After spending much of the play arguing that living is better than dying, because at least the living have the opportunity to hope and pray for a better life, Hecuba has finally given up on the gods and on her future. However, she no longer even owns her own life—Odysseus does—and he will not let her die until he is ready.
Hecuba and the Chorus sing together as the city burns behind them. Hecuba wonders if Zeus is watching the destruction of Troy. The Chorus responds that he has seen it, but the city is gone, there is nothing left to destroy, and nothing for him to do. Hecuba calls out to her children, who grew up in the city, but the Chorus reminds her that they are dead or gone. Together, Hecuba and the Chorus kneel, beat the ground, and lament the deaths of their loved ones.
The gods have truly, finally, and completely forsaken the burning city of Troy. Similarly, they seem to have forsaken the city’s women, who are emotionally breaking down as the city is literally consumed by flames. Although throughout the play the women have been listing the indignities they’ve been forced to endure, this final burning of Troy takes away, once and for all, everything that ever mattered to them—their homes, their memories, their families, and their freedom.
Hecuba and the Chorus describe the flames and smoke of the burning city, pausing when they hear a crash—the citadel has fallen. This signals to Hecuba that all is lost. She stands and readies herself. She is ready to mourn, and then go “forward: into the slave’s life.”
As the citadel falls in the center of Troy, so does the last of Hecuba’s resistance crumble. Her city burns, mirroring the last of her willpower eroding. After struggling against her fate for the duration of the play, she is finally ready to succumb to it.