Before the ruined walls of ancient Troy, a few days after the battle in which King Menelaus of Sparta, and Agamemnon, general of the Greeks, had taken the city, there appears dimly in the early dawn the mourning figure of the god, Poseidon. Bodies of dead warriors lie before the huts of the captive women who await disposition among the Greek leaders, and a tall, white-haired woman is sleeping on the ground--it is Hecuba, Queen of Troy, the wife of Priam and mother of Hector and Paris.
Poseidon laments the destruction of the Trojan wall which he and Apollo had built, and cries that Priam lies unburied by his own hearth while the captive women wail and the victors await the winds that will take them to their homes. He reflects that Helen, the wife of Menelaus whom Paris had brought to Troy, also awaits in a hut, a prize of war; that Hecuba's child, Polyxena, has been secretly slain and Priam and his sons are gone, while her daughter Cassandra, the virgin seeress beloved of Apollo, has been marked as the prize of Agamemnon.
The goddess, Pallas Athena, appears, and with Poseidon conspires to destroy the home-going Greek ships in revenge. Poseidon cries to the conquerors: "How are ye blind, ye treaders down of cities, ye that cast temples to desolation, and lay waste tombs, the untrodden sanctuaries where lie the ancient dead; yourselves so soon to die!" The dawn comes, and Hecuba awakens to mourn her tragic fate and curse Helen as the cause. The other captive women rise to echo her cries.
But even more crushing news is unwillingly brought by the Greek herald, Talthybius. He informs Hecuba that Cassandra is to be the bride of Agamemnon, hints that Polyxena is dead, and reveals that Andromache, the wife of Hector, is to be the prize of Pyrrhus, Achilles' son; Hecuba herself is fated to be the slave of the despised Odysseus, King of Ithaca.
Cassandra appears, bearing a torch and walking as in a dream in her bridal garlands. She chants dire prophecies of the Greeks' empty victory, with death for Agamemnon and "the dark wanderings" of mother-murder that shall destroy the house of Atreus. She becomes conscious of the awed Talthybius, and, tearing off her garlands, goes to "the house of Death to lie beside my bridegroom," with a final word of comfort for her city and for Hecuba, who collapses to the ground, broken in grief.
A chariot approaches from the town, laden with spoils and bearing a mourning woman who holds a child in her arms--Andromache, the widow of Hector, and her baby, Astyanax. Andromache, crying her grief to Hecuba, calls down God's wrath on Paris "who sold for his evil love Troy and the towers thereof." She confirms to the agonized Hecuba that Polyxena has been slain at Achilles' tomb.
Andromache asks how she can become the wife of Achilles' son without shame to herself and her beloved Hector, but Hecuba counsels that she honor her new lord and thus, perhaps, be permitted to rear Astyanax as a future saviour of Ilion. But the gentle Talthybius returns with news that Odysseus has prevailed in council, and ordered that the child is to be dashed to death from the wall; if Andromache casts a curse upon the Greek ships, the baby is to have no burial. The stricken mother, calling a curse upon Helen, addresses her baby:
- "Go, die, my best-beloved, my cherished one,
- In fierce men's hands, leaving me here alone.... Weepest thou?
- Nay, why, my little one? Thou canst not know.
- And father will not come; he will not come....
- How shall it be? One horrible spring ... deep, deep
- Down. And thy neck ... Ah, God, so cometh sleep!...
- And none to pity thee!... Thou little thing
- That curlest in my arms, what sweet scents cling
- All around thy neck; now, kiss me, lips to lips....
- Quick! Take him: drag him: cast him from the wall....
- To the bridal ... I have lost my child, my own!"
Andromache, half swooning, is driven to the ships, and a soldier bears the child to his death.
Then enters King Menelaus, a prey to violent and conflicting emotions, with his rich arms and his bodyguard. He declares that he came not for the accursed Helen but for "the thief" Paris "who stole away my bride." He discloses that Helen is his prize of war, to be killed, or led home, and shall be cast out to angry death at the hands of his slain soldiers' families. He orders: "Up into the chambers where she croucheth! Grip the long, blood-reeking hair, and drag her to mine eyes!"
Hecuba is pleading that he slay her forthwith, else she will ensnare him again, when Helen passes through the ranks of soldiers, gentle and unafraid, her raiment carefully ordered. She asks to prove her innocence, and at a plea of Hecuba, who is prepared to answer her, is allowed to speak. She says that she was bewitched by the goddess, Cypris, to flee with Paris and, once the spell was broken, had repeatedly striven to escape to Menelaus; she begs her husband's harbour and comfort.
Hecuba derides her story of enchantment and capture by force, declares she spurred Paris to his doom through her own vain ambitions, and challenges the claim that she has attempted to escape. She and the other captives appeal for Helen's death, and Menelaus turns fiercely upon his wife; but when she kneels and wreathes her arms about his knees, he merely orders her put aboard a ship other than his own, swearing that she shall die upon the return to Sparta. She goes, followed by the prayers of the captive women that she, "with mirror of gold, decking her face so fair, girl-like," shall die at sea.
Talthybius returns, bearing the body of Astyanax; he tells Hecuba that Andromache has asked that the babe be buried upon the great bronze shield of his father. He goes to prepare a grave, and Hecuba cries out her sorrow anew over the broken body of her grandson. She wraps him in burial raimant, and the wailing women bear the body off on Hector's shield as flames rise in the city's ruins. Hecuba tries to die in the fire, but is restrained by the soldiers.
Hecuba, with the other captive women, laments their plight to the dead:
- "O Earth, Earth of my children; hearken! and O mine own,
- Ye have hearts and forget not, ye in the darkness lying!
- Surely my knees are weary, but I kneel above your head;
- Hearken, O ye so silent! My hands beat your bed!
- Even as the beasts they drive, even as the loads they bear,
- We go to the house of bondage. Hear, ye dead, O hear!"
A great crash is heard, and the city wall is lost in smoke and darkness. A trumpet sounds, and the captive women go "forth to the long Greek ships and the sea's foaming."
Back to Euripides