This is probably one of my all time favourite Greek plays, namely because Euripides takes a well known Greek epic and completely turns it on its head. I actually studied this particular play in Greek and Roman Drama and the focus of the lectures was on the idea of appearance and reality. It seems that this is something that was explored back then as it is now in the post-modern movement, which makes me think that there is nothing modern about post-modernism.
Basically, according to Euripides, Helen was never taken to Troy but rather taken to Egypt and hidden away and a phantom sent with Paris namely because the gods did not actually want Helen to be defiled by the Trojans. The idea was that if the Greeks failed at Troy (which makes me think that, in Euripides' mind, the outcome of the Trojan War was never certain) then she would be safe in Egypt. However, one does question whether, if the Greeks did fail, would the Greek homeland be under threat.
Now, the idea of appearance and reality is that not everything was as it seemed to be. The Helen that was taken by Paris was not the true Helen, but rather a ghost. Also notice that there is a suggestion that nothing may be unique, as Menelaus says 'may there be two Sparta's'. Once again this is an idea that reverberates through to our time as we explore the idea of alternate dimensions: dimensions where everything is almost the same except for one thing which separates them. There was a particular television series, Sliders, that even explored this concept of alternate universes.
There is the question of futility: the entire Trojan War was fought over nothing but a ghost, despite the fact that Menelaus had no idea that Helen had been spirited away to Egypt. Not only had he spent ten years at Troy fighting, but another seven years attempting to return home. It adds another layer of futility to the idea of war (and remember that during the time that Euripides was writing, Athens was in the middle of a major war). I suspect that there is an anti-war sentiment coming out here.
However, the one thing that strikes me in this play is that Euripides is rewriting history to redeem Helen. Throughout history Helen has been seen as, well, a slut, because she deserted her husband and ran off with another man, and it was not as if she went unwillingly. It seemed in many cases that she agreed to leave with Paris (and if you watch the modern movie Troy – brilliant movie by the way – it is clear from there that Helen was a willing participant in the whole affair). However, not only is Helen entirely ignorant of what happened, she is also entirely innocent.
What Euripides is doing is in effect redeeming not only Helen, but all women. He is effectively saying to the Greeks 'your attitude towards women is bad, they are not sluts, and they are not untrustworthy, and here I will show you.' Mind you, he did not need to redeem Helen to do that because all the Greeks needed to do was to look at the Odyssey to see an example of a virtuous and faithful woman. However, I suspect that there is more to this play than redeeming women. Euripides wanted to redeem Helen, because, in his mind, she had been hard done by. The question that is raised is, what if she was not a willing participant? What if she was forcefully taken by Paris? What if she never went to Troy and was stranded in a foreign land and held prisoner?
Another side note is that we also see a vision of Egypt from the eyes of a Greek. Okay, we see a lot of that in Herodotus, but here we see the land being described as 'the Jewel of the Nile'. Sometimes we tend to disconnect Greece from Egypt (or at least I do) when in reality there was probably a lot of connections. Mind you by the time that Euripides was writing, Egypt was little more than a Persian possession, however Euripides is not writing about now, but about the past, around the time of the Trojan War. Looking at a time line (and mind you I do not necessarily agree with them, but we will work with them) the destruction of Troy occurs around the time of the Pharoah Rameses II, and we are told in this play that the previous Pharoah was Proteus, who is held in high regard, which, to me, is suggestive of Rameses (who, no doubt, would have been known to the Greeks).