Hecuba lies on the stage in despair. She slowly gets up and begins to speak. She speaks in commands, but there is no one else on stage; she seems to be talking to herself. She implores herself to get up off the ground and face her unhappy, uncertain future. She wonders if there’s any point in continuing to cry over the death of her husband (Priam) and many sons. Lying on the ground and crying has only brought her more physical and emotional pain. However, she acknowledges that there can be music in the song of “wretchedness.”
Hecuba’s despair acts as a stand-in for the despair of all the remaining Trojan women. Contemporary audiences would recognize her as the former Trojan queen, and so would immediately understand how far her fortunes have fallen.
Hecuba begins to sing. The intended recipient is Helen, although she is not present. According to Hecuba, as Helen crossed the sea from Greece to Troy, she brought with her death and devastation. Hecuba calls Helen a “fatal bride” and accuses her of killing Priam, her late husband and the father of her children.
Hecuba feels no solidarity with Helen. She does not see them as two women brought low together by the military losses of their nations. Instead, Hecuba sees Helen as a self-serving traitor who, through her selfishness, began the Trojan War and destroyed Hecuba’s home and family.
Now, Hecuba is “an old, unhappy woman, like my city ruined and pitiful.” She blames Helen for this, too. She calls upon the other widowed Trojan women to mourn with her, remembering their daughters, now “brides of disaster,” and their broken city.
Hecuba sees the destruction of her city and the destruction of the bodies of the Trojan women as related. The destruction of each guarantees the end to Trojan lineages, and to Trojan society in general.
Hecuba sees herself as a mother hen, leading her chicks (the other women of Troy) in a song of mourning. She compares this to how she led celebratory songs back when Priam was alive, when she was the Queen of Troy overseeing celebrations in her court.
Hecuba’s low fortunes seem especially bleak when she contrasts her duties before and after the Fall of Troy. Now she remains a dutiful leader to the women of Troy, but she can only lead them in misery.
Half of the Chorus enters the stage from the tent. They begin to sing with Hecuba, and the song becomes a call and response. The chorus asks Hecuba why she is crying. They say they could hear her through the tent, and were filled with fear, concerned that she was announcing some new degradation. Hecuba announces that the Greeks will set sail today, and take the women of Troy with them.
Once royalty or nobility, the women of Troy have been reduced to mere property. Still, as low as their fortunes are, they fear their lives could get even worse—after the dramatic upheaval of their initial enslavement, any future indignity seems possible.
Hecuba hopes that Cassandra will not come to see her in this moment. Seeing her daughter, who has been “driven delirious”, would only cause Hecuba more pain. Hecuba then addresses Troy itself, and announces “your last sad people leave you now,” “living and broken.”
Hecuba does her best to remain dignified even in the face of misery and disaster. Still, she is a mother, and knows that seeing her daughter in pain would make it difficult for her to keep up her strong outward appearances.
The second half of the Chorus enters from the tent. They begin to sing with Hecuba as well. Hecuba, an old woman, wonders what will happen to her. She was once a princess, but she imagines she’ll be reduced to a nurse or even a guard in her new home.
The Trojan women are being claimed by Greek warriors as wives and as sex slaves. Hecuba wonders what her place in her new life will be, now that she is too old to bear children, and too old to be a kind of beautiful trophy.
The two Choruses, who had been singing separately, unite and sing together. They agree their situation is “pitiful.” This is the last time they’ll see their parents’ homes, the last time they’ll be free women. They wonder if they will be raped by the Greek men who claim them, or if they’ll be used as servants. They hope they’ll be taken to Athens, where Theseus is from, but not to Sparta, where Helen and Menelaus once lived. The women of the Chorus try to make light of their situation. They say they would be happy in the city of Peneus, which is near Mount Olympus, or Aetna, which is supposedly beautiful.
Even during what is likely the darkest time of their lives, the Trojan women do their best to comfort one another, and to imagine the ways their fortunes could improve if they are taken somewhere beautiful. Still, the silver linings they seek out—being a servant instead of a sex slave, being taken to a beautiful or historically significant site against their will—only further illustrate how dire their situation is.
A herald approaches and the Chorus stops singing and begins chanting, announcing his arrival. They wonder if he will come with a command that they, now officially slaves, will have to obey.
The Trojan women are slowly getting used to their new condition. Although they were recently noblewomen with personal agency, they are quickly learning to be subservient.
Talthybius, along with a group of soldiers, enters from offstage. Although he is a Greek herald, he and Hecuba know each other from earlier in the war and are friendly. Hecuba and the Chorus are nonetheless nervous, wondering what news Talthybius will bring. He announces they have all been officially assigned to masters. The women had expected to be taken as a single group to a single place, but Talthybius explains they have each been “allotted separately,” each woman assigned to a different man.
Talthybius remains respectful of Hecuba, even though she is no longer technically a queen. This demonstrates that Greek soldiers are not inherently selfish or domineering, as Talthybius remains considerate of the Trojan women’s feelings. Still, his orders bring them more pain, and remind them that they are no longer fully people, but property.
Hecuba wonders where her daughter Cassandra will go. Talthybius says Agamemnon has claimed her as a sex slave. Hecuba is distraught. Not only will Agamemnon take Cassandra’s agency, but his sexual demands will ruin her ability to get married later.
In Classical Greece, a woman’s virginity was an essential component of her identity, and was directly tied to her eligibility as a wife. Cassandra has already been raped by Ajax, and Agamemnon will likely rape her many more times, taking from her any potential to marry in the future and continue her family’s lineage.
Hecuba hopes Cassandra will tear the sacred garlands of the gods off of her body in protest of her upcoming forced marriage. Talthybius, confused, wonders why Hecuba does not think it “high favor to be brought to a king’s bed?”
Talthybius, perhaps because of his gender, which puts him at less of a risk of being taken as a sex slave, does not understand how violating forced marriage and forced intercourse can be. He rather callously assumes that the status of the man violating the woman has some impact on her willingness or level of trauma.
Hecuba asks who has claimed her youngest daughter, Polyxena. Talthybius tells her Polyxena no longer feels pain, and will guard Achilles’ tomb, which confuses Hecuba. In fact, Polyxena has died, and Talthybius is trying to protect Hecuba from her grief.
Talthybius, although technically Hecuba’s enemy, respects her enough to try and protect her feelings. However, hiding the death of her daughter from her does not erase the horrors of war.
Hecuba is devastated to learn that Odysseus has claimed her for himself. She despises Odysseus, who she believes to be a slippery, treacherous beast, and feels she has been given “the worst lot of all.”
Although no woman is happy to be enslaved to a man who is her enemy, Hecuba seems to believe she is being personally singled out and punished by fortune and the gods.