A betrayal of Hospitality

Hecuba - Euripides

It looks like Goodreads has taken the Latin title for this play (Hecuba) to which Philip Vellacott, the translator of the version that I read, takes serious offence. Personally, being a Philhelline (a lover of Greek culture) I pretty much agree with him. This is not a Roman play, it is a Greek play, and as such I believe they should use the Greek title (and names).

 

This play is set during the Trojan War. While scholarship refers to only one epic cycle (that of the Trojan War) I believe that there is more than one (such as the Theban cycle), though I will go into more detail when I return to the Library of Greek Mythology. However, the Trojan War is considered to be the last of the Greek mythological cycle (a collection of stories – sort of like a modern day series) set in the Mycenean Period. The cycle itself is probably the longest and most complex of the mythological cycles, and is also the most popular. When I think of all of the surviving plays that we have the Trojan War is the setting for more than half of them. The only other myths that receive more than one play would be the Theban Cycle (the story of Oedipus and the aftermath) and Heracles (and even then there are only two plays). The Trojan War cycle begins with the judgement of Paris, where he is asked to decide who is the most beautiful god, and when he choses Aphrodite she gives him Helen as his wife. The problem is that Helen is married to King Menelaus of Sparta, so when he kidnaps Helen the Greeks all gather together, form a coalition, and set sail for Troy. The cycle then goes through the stories of how they get to Troy, the war itself, and then the voyage home. The cycle concludes with Odysseus' wanderings and his homecoming. The only surviving epic poems (the Iliad and the Odyssey) both occur during the Trojan War cycle.

 

The reason for the popularity of the Trojan War probably has a lot to do with many of the surviving plays being written after the Persian Wars. The Trojan War cycle deals with a conflict between the Greeks and the inhabitants of Asia Minor, or the people of the East. I suspect that the Trojans were somehow connected with the Hittites, though I have no real proof. Anyway, the Persian Wars also arose out of a conflict between East and West and in a way we begin to see a shift from the civilisations of the Middle East to Europe. In a sense civilisation is moving westward, and we see this as it shifts from the Middle East to Greece, then to Rome, then to Western Europe, then to England, then to the United States, and now we are seeing a further shift to the west, over the pacific, to China. Sooner or later it is going to go full circle and return to the Middle East.

 

Hecabe is set after the fall of Troy but before the voyage home. Once again the winds do not favour the Greeks. Achillies' ghost then appears and tells them that if they wish to return home they must offer him a sacrifice, and he chooses Priam's youngest daughter Polyxena. However, Priam's youngest son, Polydorus, has also been murdered. Before Troy fell Priam gave the king of Thrace (Polymestor) a pile of treasure to hold in trust for his son, and then sent his son to stay with him. However, Polymestor's greed overcame him, killing Polydorus and keeping the gold for himself. This happens prior to the play and is outlined at the beginning by the ghost of Polydorus.

 

The play appears to be set in three parts (though they are not acts as we understand them, a Greek play is continuous, broken only by the choral interludes). The first part involves the decision to sacrifice Polyxena and Hecabe's (the Queen of Troy) sorrow over the decision. The second part begins after Polyxena's death and involves the discovery of Polydorus' body and Hecabe's revenge against Polymestor, and the final part involves the judgement of Agamemnon when he is asked to mediate the dispute between Hecabe and Polymestor.

 

Now, Thrace covers the region to the north of the Aegean Sea and is a flat plain bordered by mountains to the North, Macedonia to the west, the Aegean to the South, and the Borsophorous to the East. The Thracians did speak Greek, though with a heavily accented dialect, and were considered barbarians (non-Greeks) by the inhabitants to the south. They are also described as nomads and horsemen. In this play it is indicated that they were allies of Troy, however Polymestor appears to have switched sides when it became apparent that Troy was defeated.

 

Initially I was going to consider that the theme of the story is similar to that of Medea: hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. iIn part it is true. However, as we arrive at the end it becomes clear that the real theme involves a breach of hospitality. In the Greek World it was expected that one shows kindness and hospitality to strangers. In fact, it appears that this was the ancient's idea of what truly defined a civilisation (and in many cases it is still practised today – one can travel to some of the most dangerous parts of the Middle East yet be secure in the knowledge that no harm will come to you because of the overriding principle of hospitality). I did notice this when I was in Western Europe. The more I learn about the Modern Greeks, the more I notice that they are actually quite unlike the Europeans further to the west. In Greece they welcome strangers and are very warm and kind to them. That was what I found when I was in Greece, however when I travelled over the Adriatic to Italy I discovered that such principles of hospitality were non-existent. In fact, on my journey across Europe it was evident that the principle of hospitality is really only played out in Greece.

 

 

There are two elements to Agamemnon's decision regarding Polymestor. The overriding principle is that he breached the principle of hospitality, and because of that it was decreed that his punishment was justified. However, it was the determination that Polymestor had intended to keep the gold for himself (and this is supported by him accepting Hecabe's lie about more treasure being buried in Troy and his decision to take it). However, it is the final lines of the play that demonstrate that Polymestor simply does not accept Agamemnon's decision as in his anger he speaks of the fate of both Hecabe (she suicides) and Agamemnon (he is murdered by his wife and her lover), though it is interesting that they do not believe him.

 

 

I want to finish off with a little word on Greek Drama. It appears that it evolved from the art of storytelling. Initially bards would travel the land and stay in villages in return for telling stories. It is likely that when one arrived the village would gather around and hear his stories and in return the village would clothe and feed him. Drama evolved from this through poetry recitals when Thespis decided to add a second actor where a dialogue could be created. Greek drama confirms to unity of time and place: the entire play occurs in one location and the action occurs within a single day. Most of the action takes place off stage and the background is explained by one of the actors. Anything that occurs outside the unity is conveyed to the audience by the actors or the chorus.

 

Finally, once again we see how Euripides moves away from what is expected of Greek drama. Most of the playwrights, when writing about the Trojan War, focus it around the Greeks and put the Trojans out of the picture. They are the enemy and remain the enemy. However Euripides has turned this concept around by making the Trojan not only the focus of the play, but also generating sympathy. Further, once again we see the woman take the leading role and being demonstrated as the person who has been wronged. This is not necessarily Euripidean as Sophocles also uses this in Antigone (and we see the same with the Electras). In a way, Aesychlus and Sophocles would be seen as the Steven Spielburg and Ron Howard of the ancient world (they follow the traditional lines) where as Euripides would be the, say, Martin Scorsesee (because he breaks with tradition, but is able to maintain his reputation despite this). In a way, I am glad that the volume of Euripidean plays managed to survive antiquity giving us a much broader collection of plays than the other playwrights (I believe we have nineteen of them as opposed to seven).

 

Source: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/287064092