The Trojan Women is set in the immediate aftermath of the Trojan War. The Trojan War and its fallout are the setting for many of the most famous classical works of literature, including the Iliad, the Aneid, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and many of Euripides’ surviving plays. Historical accounts of the Trojan War are limited, but in Greek mythology it is described as a ten-year war during which the Greek army laid siege to the city of Troy, after Helen, the wife of Spartan king Menelaus, eloped with the Trojan prince, Paris. There are enough accounts of the Trojan War that it has been examined from nearly every angle. While some works revel in the glory of war, some look at the price paid by the soldiers who fought and died, and others examine the price paid by the soldiers who survived. The Trojan Women, meanwhile, approaches the conflict by focusing on the experience of the women of Troy, making it clear that, whatever victory the Greeks will celebrate, they do so knowing there has been a huge sacrifice of human life. The play raises the question of whether the war was worth fighting at all in light of that high cost.
The play primarily focuses on the suffering of the Trojan civilians that survived the war: the city’s women and children, who are forced to remain in the city during the siege and are eventually either killed or enslaved after Troy’s capture. Because there are few stage directions, much of the suffering is either recollected by the cast of survivors, or else shown in their lamentations. The surviving women often verbalize their grief. Former Queen Hecuba relates, “There is no numbering my losses. Infinitely / misfortune comes to outrace misfortune known before.” Later, she recalls past abuses, remembering “None told me the tale / of his death. I saw it, with these eyes. I stood to watch / his throat cut…I saw my city taken. And the girls I nursed, / choice flowers to wear the pride of any husband’s eyes, / matured to be dragged by the hands of strangers from my arms.” Children are also shown to suffer and die, although the violence inflicted upon them occurs offstage, and others describe their suffering. Astyanax, son of Andromache, is needlessly murdered midway through the play, and is mourned extensively by Hecuba, who delivers his funeral rites. Similarly, the Chorus recalls the destruction wrought by the Trojan horse: “Beside their altars the Trojans / died in their blood. Desolate now, / men murdered, our sleeping rooms gave up / their brides’ beauty / to breed sons for Greek men, / sorrow for our own country.”
Notably, the play does not focus on the suffering of the now deceased Trojan soldiers who fought in the war. Instead, various characters use their deaths as a comparison to the suffering now endured by the living survivors. Although death is a tragedy, many of the war’s female survivors view it as preferable to their current situation, underscoring how horrible life is, and will be, for surviving women. Several living characters speak of the dead as lucky, and look to death as a release from pain. Cassandra, for instance, looks forward to arriving “triumphant to the dead below,” dead who include her father, Priam, and all of her brothers. Similarly, Andromache speculates, “Death, I am sure, is like never being born, but death / is better thus by far than to live a life of pain.” When Talthybius reveals to Hecuba that her daughter, Polyxena, has died, he speaks euphemistically, telling her, “She lives her destiny, and her cares are over now.” At one point Hecuba, seeing a torch inside a tent flicker, wonders whether its source might be other Trojan women who have “set themselves aflame in longing for death.” Although her speculation proves incorrect, her lack of surprise or concern demonstrates the direness of her situation. Only in truly dark times would self-immolation seem to be a reasonable course of action.
The Trojan Women also describes the suffering of the victorious Greek army. Although they won the war, they too paid high human and emotional tolls. The Trojan men, though now dead, had the relatively good fortune of being able to spend their nights with their own families. Cassandra remarks that at least the Trojans, at the end of a day of battle, “came home to happiness the Achaeans could not know; their wives, their children.” Additionally, those Trojans who died were at least “carried home in loving hands,” unlike the Greeks who were not “laid to rest / decently in winding sheets by their wives’ hands, but lie / buried in alien ground; while all went wrong at home”. Poseidon observes that “the men of Greece / who made this expedition and took the city” return “now to greet their wives / and children after ten years’ harvests wasted here.” Whereas the Trojan men managed their own affairs until their deaths at the hands of the Greeks, the Greek soldiers have spent ten years fighting in a foreign land (and some of them, like Odysseus, will spend ten more years returning home). These are ten years of life wasted to avenge the infidelity of a single woman, a “crime” hardly proportional to the cost of thousands of lives wasted on the battlefield.
The play takes careful stock of the aftermath of an epic war, one that has been frequently recounted and often glorified. Euripides suggests that war on any scale always has a human cost, and that this human cost is great enough to bring the very nature of war into question. Whereas most stories about conflicts revolve around the lives of men and the soldiers who fight in it, by focusing on the women of Troy instead, the unglamorous reality of the Trojan War is shown in stark relief. The characters in The Trojan Women are not defined by their heroic actions or their glory in battle, but instead by the loss and suffering they experience as a consequence of the war. They had no part in the fighting itself, but arguably must pay the highest cost for their country’s loss.
The Cost of War ThemeTracker
The Cost of War Quotes in The Trojan Women
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.
whose wretched slave
shall I be? Where, in my gray age,
a faint drone,
poor image of a corpse,
weak shining among dead men? Shall
I stand and keep guard at their doors,
Shall I nurse their children, I who in Troy
held state as a princess?
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?
But see! What is the burst of a torch flame inside?
What can it mean? Are the Trojan women setting fire
to their chambers, at point of being torn from their land
to sail for Argos? Have they set themselves aflame
in longing for death? I know it is the way of freedom
in times like these to stiffen the neck against disaster.
Open, there, open; let not the fate desired by these,
dreaded by the Achaeans, hurl their wrath on me.
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.
I am ridden by god’s curse still, yet I will step so far
out of my frenzy as to show our city’s fate
is blessed beyond the Achaeans’. For one woman’s sake,
one act of love, these hunted Helen down and threw
thousands of lives away. Their general—clever man—
in the name of a vile woman cut his darling down,
gave up for a brother the sweetness of children in his house,
all to bring back that brother’s wife, a woman who went
of her free will, not caught in constraint of violence.
The Achaeans came back Scamander’s banks, and died
day after day, though none of them sought to wrench their land from them
nor their own towering cities. Those the war god caught
never saw their sons again, nor were they laid to rest
decently in winding sheets by their wives’ hands, but lie
buried in alien ground; while all went wrong at home
as the widows perished, and couples who had raised in vain
their children were left childless, no one left to tend
their tombs and give to them the sacrificial blood.
For such success as this congratulate the Greeks.
No, but the shame is better left in silence, for fear
my singing voice become the voice of wretchedness.
The Trojans have that glory which is loveliest:
they died for their own country. So the bodies of all
who took the spears were carried home in loving hands,
brought, in the land of their fathers, to the embrace of earth
and buried becomingly as the rite fell due. The rest,
those Phrygians who escaped death in battle, day by day
came home to happiness the Achaeans could not know;
their wives, their children. Then was Hector’s fate so sad?
You think so. Listen to the truth. He is dead and gone
surely, but with reputation, as a valiant man.
How could this be, except for the Achaeans’ coming?
Had they held back, none might have known how great he was.
Hecuba: O my children….
Andromache: …once. No longer.
Hecuba: Lost, lost, Troy our dominion…
Hecuba: …and my lordly children.
Andromache: Gone, alas!
Hecuba: They were mine.
Andromache: Sorrows only.
Hecuba: Sad destiny…
Andromache: …of our city…
Hecuba: …a wreck, and burning.
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.
O my sons, this city and your mother are desolate of you.
Sound of lamentation and sorrow,
tears on tears shed. Home, farewell.
The dead have forgotten all sorrows.
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.
Andromache: No, Hecuba; can you not see my fate is worse
than hers you mourn, Polyxena’s? The one thing left
always while life lasts, hope, is not for me. I keep
no secret deception in my heart—sweet though it be
to dream—that I shall ever be happy any more.
Chorus Leader: You stand where I do in misfortune, and while you mourn
your life, you tell me what I, too, am suffering.
He must be hurled down from the battlements of Troy.
Let it happen this way. It will be wiser in the end.
Do not fight it. Take your grief nobly, as you were born;
give up the struggle where your strength is feebleness
with no force anywhere to help. Listen to me!
Your city is gone, your husband. You are in our power.
How can one woman hope to struggle against the arms
of Greece? Think, then. Give up the passionate contest.
Don’t…do any shameful thing, or any deed of hatred.
And please—I request you—hurl no curse at the Achaeans
for fear the army, save over some reckless word,
forbid the child his burial and the dirge of honor.
Be brave, be silent; out of such patience you’ll be sure
the child you leave behind will not lie unburied here,
and that to you the Achaeans will be less unkind.
O splendor of sunburst breaking forth this day, whereon
I lay my hands once more on Helen, my wife. And yet
it is not so much as men think, for a woman’s sake
I came to Troy, but against that guest proved treacherous,
who like a robber carried the woman from my house.
Since the gods have seen to it that he paid the penalty,
fallen before the Hellenic spear, his kingdom wrecked,
I come for her now, the Spartan once my own, whose name
I can no longer speak with any happiness,
to take her away. In this house of captivity
she is numbered among the other women of Troy, a slave.
And those men whose work with the spear has won her back
gave her to me, to kill, or not to kill, but lead
alive to the land of Argos, if such be my pleasure.
And such it is; the death of Helen in Troy I will let
pass, have the oars take her by seaways back to Greek
soil, and there give her over to execution;
blood penalty for friends who are dead in Ilium here.
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.
My son was handsome beyond all other men.
You looked at him, and sense went Cyprian at the sight,
since Aphrodite is nothing but the human lust,
named rightly, since the world of lust begins the god’s name.
You saw him in the barbaric splendor of his robes,
gorgeous with gold. It made your senses itch. You thought,
being queen only in Argos, in little luxury,
that once you got rid of Sparta for the Phrygian city
where gold streamed everywhere, you could let extravagance
run wild. No longer were Menelaus and his house
sufficient for your spoiled luxurious appetites.
So much for that. You say my son took you away
by force. What Spartan heard you cry for help? You did
cry out? Or did you? Castor, your brother, was there, a young
man, and his twin not yet caught up among the stars.
Then when you had reached Troy, and the Argives at your heels
came, and the agony of the murderous spears began,
when the reports came in that Menelaus’ side
was winning, you would praise him, simply to make my son
unhappy at the strength of his love’s challenger,
forgetting your husband when the luck went back to Troy.
You worked hard: not to make yourself a better woman,
but to make sure always to be on the winning side.
You claim you tried to slip away with ropes let down
form the ramparts, and this proves you stayed against your will?
Perhaps. But when were you ever caught in the strangling noose,
or sharpening a dagger? Which any noble wife
would do, desperate with longing for her lord’s return.
Yet over and over again I gave you good advice:
“Make your escape, my daughter; there are other girls
for my sons to marry…Let the Greeks, and us,
Achaeans! All your strength is in your spears, not in
the mind. What were you afraid of, that it made you kill
this child so savagely? That Troy, which fell, might be
raised from the ground once more? Your strength meant nothing, then.
When Hector’s spear was fortunate, and numberless
strong hands were there to help him, we were still destroyed.
Now when the city is fallen and the Phrygians slain,
this baby terrified you? I despise the fear
which is pure terror in a mind unreasoning.
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.