Menelaus enters the stage from the city, flanked by Greek soldiers. He is in a sunny mood, and stands in stark contrast to the miserable women of Troy. He is excited to be reunited with “Helen, my wife.”
Even after her humiliating public betrayal and ten years apart, Menelaus still views Helen as his property to be reclaimed.
Menelaus wants to set the record straight—he didn’t come to Troy just for a woman, but to punish the man who, “like a robber,” stole her from him. This man, Paris, has been killed, and Troy has been destroyed—all according to, in Menelaus’ mind, the will of the gods.
Menelaus believes that it is better to fight a war under the pretense of punishing a man who stole property (in this case, a human woman) than to fight a war on behalf of said woman. In his mind, women are so insignificant that there is no honorable way to fight a war over one, although to many viewers, that is exactly what he has been doing.
Now, it is finally time for Menelaus to reclaim Helen. He refers to her as a woman “once my own,” who has now been reduced to a slave like the other women of Troy. He plans to transport her back to Greece where he will execute her in retribution for the Greek men who died on her behalf. First he instructs his soldiers to take her from the tent, but then he amends his language and tells them to “drag her” before him. A few of his soldiers break off and enter the tent.
Given the opportunity to forgive and forget, or at least treat Helen with some respect, Menelaus instead decides to insult and degrade her. By repeatedly referring to her as his property, and by asking his soldiers to physically drag her out of the tent, he is purposefully showing off his power and control.
Hecuba, who has remained onstage watching Menelaus’s speech, takes a moment to invoke the gods. She asks them to “bring all human action back to right at last.” Menelaus comments that this is a strange prayer. Hecuba responds that he should kill Helen. She fears that he will fall back in love, or lust, with his former wife, and will only cause more chaos.
Hecuba feels no solidarity with Helen, although they are now both enslaved women. Instead Hecuba sees Helen as someone who disrupted the natural order of things, and did not do her duty as a loyal wife to Menelaus or even to her second husband, Paris. Although she does not believe the gods will help her, Hecuba prays to them anyway. Her strange prayer asks for the status quo to be restored, and for Helen to be punished for the crimes Hecuba perceives her to have committed, all of which are related to a lack of honor or sense of duty.
Helen exits the tent and faces Menelaus. She can tell that Menelaus hates her by the way his soldiers treated her. She wonders what he plans to do to her. He says that although she has not been “strictly condemned,” she now belongs to him, and he plans to kill her. Helen asks if she’ll be allowed to make an argument for her life. Hecuba presses Menelaus to at least listen to Helen, although she also wants Helen dead. Menelaus lets Helen speak, but only because of Hecuba’s intervention.
As much as she hates Helen, Hecuba recognizes that it is only fair to let her speak. More than anything, Hecuba respects law, order, and ceremony. At this point, Helen has lost everything, and is no longer even in control of whether she lives or dies. This is technically true of all the remaining women, but becomes explicit in this scene.
Helen begins to barter for her life. She argues based on points she anticipates Menelaus will use against her. First, she accuses Hecuba, the mother of Paris, as being to blame for the conflict. Then she blames Paris himself, for stealing her from Greece. Then she blames Aphrodite, who found Helen so beautiful that she promised her as a prize to Paris if he would declare Aphrodite the winner of a beauty contest. She argues that she was “sold once for my body’s beauty,” and is blameless.
Helen refuses to take any blame for her actions or for the war itself. She argues that Aphrodite, who even among her fellow gods and goddesses was enchanting, entranced her. The way she frames the story, Helen was stolen by Paris because of her body, reduced only to her beauty and stripped of any agency.
Helen then anticipates Menelaus’s next argument—that she ran away of her own volition. Although she admits she did run away, it was because Paris came with Aphrodite at his side. She also points out that Menelaus had left her at home alone.
Helen argues that she was overwhelmed by Aphrodite’s power. She also points out that, just as she abandoned her wifely duties, first Menelaus had abandoned his duties as her husband, leaving her lonely and more likely to elope.
Helen wonders to herself, “what made me run away from home / with the stranger, and betray my country and my hearth?” She argues that Aphrodite’s power was too great, and points out that Aphrodite sometimes overpowers even other gods. How was Helen, a mortal, supposed to resist her?
Helen admits that she did betray her country, a point Hecuba has been making and will continue to make. However, Helen doesn’t dwell on it, and doesn’t apologize. She sees this betrayal as a small crime, excusable because Aphrodite bewitched her.
Helen concedes that after Paris died she could have left the city of Troy and joined the Greeks stationed outside its walls. She claims she did try to scale the wall, but gatekeepers caught her and pulled her back inside. She also argues that after Paris died she was married to Deiphobus, who prevented her from escaping. She argues that she was “the bride of force.”
In every component of her story, Helen argues that she was a victim at the mercy of others. Still, she insists she continued to love Menelaus and stayed faithful to him in her heart, an assertion Hecuba will later challenge.
Helen challenges Menelaus, asking him if he “would be stronger than the gods.” She hopes that, after all she has said, he cannot feel “righteous” in killing her.
Helen hopes to prove that she was not at fault, or at least not at fault enough to justify Menelaus’ murder of her. She tries to invoke his sense of right and wrong, and make him question if killing her is truly honorable.
The Chorus Leader, having listened to Helen’s defense, implores Hecuba to “break down the beguilement” of this well-spoken but wicked woman.
Like Hecuba, the Chorus Leader believes Helen to be lying and duplicitous, a woman who failed to uphold her obligations to her husband and has no reservations about lying.
Hecuba begins her rebuttal by defending the gods. She is skeptical that Hera and Athena were contestants in the godly beauty contest in which Helen claims Paris won her hand. She continues to criticize Helen’s claim that she was unable to resist Aphrodite’s pull when she arrived with Paris. Paris was extraordinarily handsome, and Hecuba speculates that Helen’s lust for Paris, along with her lust for the gold and luxury reflected in his fine robes, motivated her to leave Sparta.
Hecuba disagrees with Helen’s account of her “abduction.” While Helen claimed to have been dazzled by Aphrodite’s power, Hecuba proposes that Helen was instead dazzled by Paris’s looks and wealth. Hecuba accuses Helen of being an actively unfaithful wife who left Menelaus of her own free will, as opposed to a faithful one stolen away due to divine intervention.
Hecuba also attacks Helen’s claim that she was taken by force. She wonders if any Spartans heard her resisting as Paris took her. Furthermore, she accuses Helen of praising Menelaus to Paris when the Greeks were winning, but fawning over Paris when the Trojans were ahead. Hecuba accuses Helen of making “sure always to be on the winning side.”
Hecuba attacks Helen both for being unfaithful to Menelaus and leaving for Troy with Paris, but also for being an unfaithful wife to Paris. This, in Hecuba’s eyes, seems to be Helen’s major crime—inconstant loyalties that reveal a self-serving nature.
Furthermore, Hecuba argues that if Helen really wanted to escape she would have tried to kill herself, or her husband, like a faithful, “noble wife” to Menelaus would do. Hecuba says she told Helen to leave over and over again, to return to Menelaus and end the war, but Helen refused, perhaps, according to Hecuba, because she was “spoiled in the luxury” of Paris’s home.
Shockingly, Hecuba would prefer to see Helen harm herself or Paris (Hecuba’s own son) than see her sit complacently in Troy. This complacency, in Hecuba’s mind, represents Helen’s betrayal of her first husband, who, although Hecuba’s enemy, still deserved the affection of his wife.
Hecuba feels that Helen should at least seem repentant, and believes she retains her “old impudence,” sinfulness, and immodesty. She repeats her plea, and asks Menelaus to kill Helen. The Chorus Leader agrees, and urges him to “keep the ancestral honor of your house.”
Hecuba, worried that Menelaus will let Helen live, encourages him to think of his duty, not just to himself and his pride, but to his entire family line, as well as larger systems of honor and obligation, disrespected by Helen once and continuously disrespected by letting her live.
Menelaus agrees with Hecuba’s assessment of Helen and her story. He thinks her talk of Aphrodite is “for pure show.” Helen falls to her knees before him and holds on to his legs. She argues that the gods infected her mind, and her actions are not her fault.
Helen does her best to appear as a subservient wife, but to Menelaus this show is unconvincing. Although her physical lowering of herself is persuasive, her story, unfortunately, was not.
Hecuba urges Menelaus to think of his fallen friends and soldiers. She also tells him, if he insists on taking Helen back to Greece, to transport her on a separate ship. She worries “a man in love once never is out of love again,” and Menelaus agrees. He promises Hecuba he will kill Helen in Argos, as an example to the “lust of women” everywhere. He and Helen then exit together, along with his Greek soldiers.
Once again, Hecuba invokes Menelaus’ greater obligations, not just to his own wounded pride, but to the thousands of fellow soldiers who died on his behalf. She also reveals a fairly reductive view of male-female relationships; one that suggests men and women of similar ages can only be lovers. Hecuba believes that a man and woman who were once attracted to each other will remain so forever, even if that love was interrupted by an affair, a ten-year war, and the enslavement of one of the parties.