The world of The Trojan Women is unpredictable. Fortunes are in constant flux, and fates are turned upside down in the span of days or even hours. A woman can be queen one day, and a slave the next; children can have long lives ahead of them, and then be sentenced to death; a warrior can expect to take a few months to sail home, but instead spend ten years on his journey because the gods choose to lengthen his journey. From the smallest child to the most powerful king, Euripides again and again argues that fortunes are changeable and tragedy indiscriminate. Even the Greek gods, who are capable of influencing events on earth, and who could be expected to act as a moderating, steadying force, are emotional and unpredictable in their behavior. Although all-powerful, the gods of mythology, like mortals, have egos, emotions, insecurities and power struggles that guarantee their manipulation of mortal lives is biased, capricious, and entirely unforeseeable. As a result, the fate of the humans they watch over is necessarily unpredictable as well. Over and over again, Euripides demonstrates that fate is fickle, out of the hands of even the omnipotent gods and goddesses, who, in fact, use their influence to further upend earthly fortunes.
In the world of The Trojan Women, the gods are characters with personal stakes in the outcome of the Trojan War. As a result, their actions on earth reflect their own biases and ego trips, as they use the mortal conflict to prove their own superiority. War, which is already full of twists, turns, and reversals, becomes more full of surprises when immensely powerful figures like Poseidon, Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite are able to reach into the action and supernaturally manipulate events. These gods, who are ostensibly above petty feuds, are in fact more concerned with whether or not their side wins than with the massive loss of human life enabled by the war they’ve allowed to continue. Poseidon, who backed the Trojans, laments that “The will of Argive Hera and Athena won / its way against my will.” Although relative to a mortal he is all-powerful, he is still in conflict against other, more willful or more powerful gods, who successfully backed the Greek army. Later, Menelaus and Helen argue about how much influence the gods had in her elopement with Paris. Helen argues that she was controlled by Aphrodite, and cannot be held accountable for her actions, as the gods themselves are powerless against fate and, in this case, against Aphrodite as well. Like mortals, the gods are locked in constant struggles for power, which color their actions and decisions. Helen illustrates this when she tells Menelaus, “Challenge the goddess then; show your strength greater than Zeus, / who has the other gods in his power, and still is slave / to Aphrodite alone! Shall I not be forgiven?” The gods can influence life and fortunes on earth, but generally choose not to intervene. They let the women suffer although they could prevent it. They seem to only influence the life of mortals when they themselves have been offended. For example, Hera and Athena only sided with the Greeks because they were offended that Paris had chosen Aphrodite over them in a beauty contest. Similarly, Athena turns against the Greeks when she discovers that they have “outraged my temple, and shamed me.” As a result, Athena vows to “do some evil to them” so that the “Greeks may learn how to use with fear / my sacred places, and respect all gods beside.” She, like the other gods, has no real loyalty to anyone but herself.
The Trojan Women shows readers that fortune and status are unpredictable—indeed, it often seems the only predictable aspect of a person’s fortune is that it will surely be reversed. From the beginning, Hecuba laments her changing fate. Although all remaining Trojan women are now slaves, Hecuba was once a queen, and therefore her fall from grace is especially tragic. However, as sad as it is, she understands that nothing is permanent, and she could eventually have her former power restored. Hecuba asserts, “The mortal is a fool who, prospering, thinks his life / has any strong foundation; since our fortune’s course / of action is the reeling way a madman takes, / and no one person is ever happy all the time.” At another point in the play she reminds herself to essentially “go with the flow.” Because she understands that nothing is permanent, she believes it is easier to “Stoop to the changing fortune. / Steer for the crossing and your fortune, / hold not life’s prow on the course against / wave beat and accident” than to fight against powerful forces, whose motivations and directions she is unable to predict or overcome.
Aside from the gods, Cassandra is the only character who knows and can see her fate, and the fates of those around her. Her fate and fortune fluctuate just like anyone else’s, but she has the ability to know in advance. A useful talent in theory, in reality her prophesies are a curse; she is able to see the future but with one caveat — no one will ever believe her. Frequently, she acts as a stand-in for contemporary audiences, who would have known the basic contours of the plot before the play began. Contemporary audiences, like Cassandra, could essentially see the play’s future, but would similarly be powerless to affect it. This only serves to amplify the story’s tragedy; when fates prove predictable, they almost always prove to be tragic. A foreknowledge of events is not enough to help characters avoid disaster. For example, Cassandra predicts that Odysseus “will go down to the water of death, and return alive to reach his home and thousand sorrows waiting there.” The audience already knows this based on their knowledge of the Odyssey, and on the gods’ discussion of this curse earlier in the play, but nothing can be done to divert his journey. Similarly, Cassandra recounts the tragedy of Agamemnon, which audiences would know from Aeschylus’ play and from mythology. She predicts “great Agamemnon / has won a wife more fatal than ever Helen was. / Since I will kill him, and avenge my brothers’ blood / and my father’s in the desolation of his house.” However, even though Cassandra knows that her enslavement by Agamemnon will end in bloodshed, she knows she cannot escape her fate. There is nothing to do but march forward into disaster.
In the world of the Trojan Women, the future is often unknowable, and even those who know or can influence the future, like the prophet Cassandra or the gods themselves, are unable or unwilling to manipulate fortune in any logical way. The audience, too, is left powerless to help, as they watch the play’s characters careen towards tragedy. The play is concerned with the bleakness of war, and it also seems to be concerned with the bleakness of fate. In a story told a thousand times, the characters are incapable of escaping their futures, and as slaves they are similarly powerless. As a writer, Euripides has no real way to relieve their suffering. Instead, he emphasizes how full of chance and surprise life can be — although yesterday the women of Troy were princesses and today they are slaves, tomorrow they could be queens again. The Greek victors are heroes today, but tomorrow they could be lost at sea. Even in a play based on stories hundreds of years old, the future is not set in stone.
Fate, Fortune, and the Gods ThemeTracker
Fate, Fortune, and the Gods Quotes in The Trojan Women
The will of the Argive Hera and Athena won
its way against my will. Between them they broke Troy.
So I must leave my altars and great Ilium,
since once a city sinks into sad desolation
the gods’ state sickens also, and their worship fades.
Poseidon: You hated Troy once; did you throw your hate away
and change to pity, now its walls are black with fire?
Athena: Come back to the question. Will you take counsel with me
and help me gladly in all that I would bring to pass?
Poseidon: I will indeed; but tell me what you wish to do.
Are you here for the Achaeans’ or the Phrygians’ sake?
Athena: For the Trojans, whom I hated this short time since,
to make the Achaeans’ homecoming a thing of sorrow.
Poseidon: This is a springing change of character. Why must
you hate too hard, and love too hard, your loves and hates?
Athena: Did you not know they outraged my temple, and shamed me?
Poseidon: I know that Ajax dragged Cassandra thence by force.
Athena: And the Achaeans did nothing. They did not even speak.
Rise, stricken head, from the dust;
lift up the throat. This is Troy, but Troy
and we, Troy’s kings, are perished.
Stoop to the changing fortune.
Steer for the crossing and your fortune,
hold not life’s prow on the course against
wave beat and accident.
what need I further for tears’ occasion,
state perished, my sons, and my husband?
O massive pride that my fathers heaped
to magnificence, you meant nothing.
Must I be hushed? Were it better thus?
I am led captive
from my house, an old, unhappy woman,
like my city ruined and pitiful.
Come then, sad wives of the Trojans
whose spears were bronze,
their daughters, brides of disaster,
let us mourn the smoke of Ilium.
And I, as among winged birds
the mother, lead out
the clashing cry, the song; not that song
wherein once long ago,
where Priam leaned on his scepter,
my feet were queens of the choir and led
the proud dance to the gods of Phrygia.
Hecuba: Who was given my child? Tell me, who shall be lord
of my poor abused Cassandra?
Talthybius: King Agamemnon chose her. She was given to him.
Hecuba: Slave woman to that Lacedaemonian wife?
My unhappy child!
Talthybius: No. Rather to be joined with him in a dark bed of love.
Hecuba: She, Apollo’s virgin, blessed in the privilege
the gold-haired god gave her, a life forever unwed?
Talthybius: Love’s archery and the prophetic maiden struck him hard.
Hecuba: Dash down, my daughter,
the twigs of your consecration,
break the god’s garland to your throat gathered.
Talthybius: Is it not high favor to be brought to a king’s bed?
O Mother, star my hair with flowers of victory.
This is a king I marry; then be glad; escort
the bride—and if she falters, thrust her strongly on.
If Loxias lives, the Achaeans’ pride, great Agamemnon
has won a wife more fatal than ever Helen was.
Since I will kill him, and avenge my brothers’ blood
and my father’s in desolation of his house.
But I leave this in silence and sing not now the axe
to drop against my throat and other throats than mine,
the agony of the mother murdered, brought to pass
from our marriage rites, and Atreus’ house made desolate.
We are the hated of the gods, since once your youngest, escaping
death, brought down Troy’s towers in the arms of a worthless woman;
piled at the feet of Pallas the bleeding bodies of our young men
sprawled, kites’ food, while Troy takes up the yoke of captivity.
Andromache: She is dead, and this was death indeed; and yet to die
as she did was happier than to live as I live now.
Hecuba: Child, no. No life, no light is any kind of death,
since death is nothing, and in life the hopes live still.
Andromache: O Mother, our mother, hear me while I reason through
this matter fairly—might it even hush your grief!
Death, I am sure, is like never being born, but death
is better thus by far than to live a life of pain,
since the dead, with no perception of evil, feel no grief,
while he who was happy once and then unfortunate
finds his heart driven far from the old lost happiness.
She died; it is as if she never saw the light
of the day, for she knows nothing now of what she suffered.
Hecuba: O power, who mount the world, wheel where the world rides,
O mystery of man’s knowledge, whosoever you be,
named Zeus, nature’s necessity or mortal mind,
I call upon you; for you walk the path none hears
yet bring all human action back to right at last.
Menelaus: What can this mean? How strange a way to call on gods.
Hecuba: Kill your wife, Menelaus, and I will bless your name.
But keep your eyes away from her. Desire will win.
She looks enchantment, and where she looks homes are set fire;
she captures cities as she captures the eyes of men.
We have had experience, you and I. We know the truth.
She mothered the beginning of all this wickedness.
For Paris was her child. And next to her the old king,
who would not destroy the infant Alexander, that dream
of the firebrand’s agony, has ruined Troy and me.
This is not all; listen to the rest I have to say.
Alexander was the judge of the goddess trinity.
Pallas Athena would have given him power, to lead
the Phrygian arms on Hellas and make it desolate.
All Asia was Hera’s promise, and the uttermost zones
of Europe for his lordship, if her way prevailed.
But Aphrodite, marveling at my loveliness,
promised it to him, if he would say her beauty surpassed
all others. Think what this means, and all the consequence.
Cypris prevailed, and I was won in marriage: all
for Greek advantage. You are not ruled by barbarians,
you have not been defeated in war nor serve a tyrant.
Yet Hellas’ fortune was my own misfortune. I,
sold once for my body’s beauty, stand accused, who should
for what has been done wear garlands on my head.
What would the poet say,
what words might he inscribe upon your monument?
“Here lies a little child the Argives killed, because
they were afraid of him.” That? The epitaph of Greek shame.
You will not win your father’s heritage, except
for this, which is your coffin now: the brazen shield.
O shield, that guarded the strong shape of Hector’s arm:
the bravest man of all, who wore you once, is dead.
How sweet the impression of his body on your sling,
and at the true circle of your rim the stain of sweat
where in the grind of his many combats Hector leaned
his chin against you, and the drops fell from his brow!
Take up your work now; bring from what is left some fair
coverings to wrap this poor dead child. The gods will not
allow us much. But let him have what we can give.
That mortal is a fool who, prospering, thinks his life
has any strong foundation; since our fortune’s course
of action is the reeling way a madman takes,
and no one person is ever happy all the time.
The gods mean nothing except to make life hard for me,
and of all cities they chose Troy to hate. In vain
we sacrificed. And yet had not the very hand
of a god gripped and crushed this city deep in the ground,
we should have disappeared in darkness, and not given
a theme for music, and songs of men to come.
You may go now, and hide the dead in his poor tomb;
he has those flowers that are the right of the underworld.
I think it makes small difference to the dead, if they
are buried in the tokens of luxury. All that
is an empty glorification left for those who live.