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HELENA

an analysis of the play by Euripides

The following essay on Helena was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 303-4.

The Helena, which appeared for the first time in 412 [B.C.], is the most fanciful in character of all the ancient tragedies. The plot is a brilliant specimen of dramatic inventiveness. The notion of the phantom Helen, for which the Greeks fought at Troy, while the real Helen was detained in Egypt, has been taken primarily from Stesichorus and partly from Herodotus. But all the other details are added by Euripides, and combine to form an interesting and delightful story. The arrival of Menelaus in Egypt with the phantom, and the confusion caused by the simultaneous presence of phantom and reality in the same country, supply all the humorous incidents and perplexities of the drama; while a graver interest is imparted by the love of the Egyptian king for Helen, and his efforts to detain her, and the ingenious stratagem which procures her escape.

It would seem that about this time Euripides was peculiarly attracted by imaginative plots of this kind. The Andromeda, which was exhibited at the same festival as the Helena, was equally romantic in subject, with its thrilling story of the adventures of Perseus, and of his love for the maiden whom he had rescued. The two tragedies, as was natural, created a considerable sensation on account of their novelty and originality; and the Thesmophoriazusae, produced in the following year, contains a long burlesque upon them both. The same vein of fancy is also seen in another work of this period, the Iphigenia in Tauris, which has many points of resemblance to the Helena. In each of these plays the scene is laid in a remote and savage country, where a Greek lady is kept in captivity, and finally rescued by the arrival of her kinsman. In all probability this excursion into the realm of fancy was suggested by the exhaustion of the ordinary legends, which had been repeated to satiety by successive generations of tragic poets.

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