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The Play: Date and Composition
We know from external evidence that Euripides' Helen was first produced in 412 BCE. Presumably Euripides wrote it for the annual competition at the Great Dionysian Festival in Athens. One of the other tragedies staged together with it was Andromeda, which is known only from fragments and later references; what the other two plays were in Euripides' tetralogy of that year, and how they fared in the dramatic competition, are unknown.
How was it possible that for the sake of one woman, Helen, a whole Greek army could wage war against Troy for ten long years and at the end completely destroy the city? And how could Helen's notorious marital infidelity (she abandoned her husband Menelaus and her daughter Hermione to elope with the Trojan prince Paris) be reconciled with the fact that she was worshipped as a goddess in Sparta? Already within the Iliad and Odyssey Homer, our earliest source, hints at some perplexity about these questions, and, while retaining the terms of the traditional story, he pointedly allows Helen's reputation and the degree to which she is to be blamed for the war to remain disputed and unresolved.
Some later authors felt freer to change the story itself. About a century before Euripides, the lyric poet Stesichorus claimed that Helen had blinded him for telling the traditional version and that his sight had been restored when he went on to compose a "Palinode" that asserted, "This story is not true, / You did not go in the well-benched ships / And you did not arrive at the towers of Troy." Stesichorus' famous lyric poem apparently said that it was a phantom likeness of Helen that went with Paris to Troy in her stead while she herself stayed in Egypt under the protection of King Proteus; but this poem has been almost completely lost, and we can only guess at its details. A couple of decades before Euripides' Helen, the historian Herodotus told his own version: Paris abducted Helen from Sparta, but on their way back to Troy they were blown off course to Egypt; when the Egyptian king Proteus found out what Paris was up to, he kept Helen safe with him and sent Paris back to Troy without her: for ten years the Greeks fought the Trojans under the mistaken belief that Helen was in Troy (when the Trojans told them the truth, the Greeks did not believe them); the Greeks found out when they won the war and sacked the city, and afterward Menelaus, sailing back to Greece, stopped in Egypt, picked Helen up, and took her home.
Euripides' Helen develops further Stesichorus' two crucial innovations, Helen's phantom likeness and her stay in Egypt. According to Euripides' version, Hera, furious that Aphrodite won the Judgment of Paris by promising him Helen, has substituted for her a phantom likeness over which the Greeks and Trojans have combated at Troy for ten years under the mistaken impression that it was the real thing. In the meantime the real Helen has been kept safe by the virtuous Proteus in Egypt. Now the Trojan War is over, and Menelaus, returning home with the phantom Helen, is shipwrecked off the coast of Egypt—where Proteus has died and his unvirtuous son Theoclymenus is trying to marry Helen and threatens to kill any Greek he finds. The play begins with Helen as a suppliant at Proteus' tomb desperately seeking protection against Theoclymenus' advances. Menelaus arrives at the palace, dressed in rags, and aft er considerable confusion husband and wife joyously recognize one another (meanwhile the phantom Helen has flown back to heaven). Helen devises a clever stratagem to allow the Greeks to escape from Theoclymenus' clutches, with the help of his prophetic sister Theonoë. At the end Helen's divine brothers Castor and Polydeuces manifest themselves to calm the angry Theoclymenus and to predict the future.
Helen of Troy is almost always an extremely negative character in Greek tragedy, which generally presupposes the Homeric version of events. The story Euripides dramatizes in this play seems not to have featured in any earlier tragedy, though it is possible that Aeschylus included a version of it in his Proteus, the satyr-play that was produced fourth in the Oresteia tetralogy. Euripides' Helen does bear obvious similarities to his Iphigenia among the Taurians, which he probably staged a couple of years earlier. In both plays, a virtuous Greek woman is held captive among barbarians, is surprisingly reunited with a beloved male family member, and by devising an ingenious plan manages to escape by sea and return home with him; she outwits her barbarian captor and at the end a deus ex machina appears so as to put matters in order. But whereas Iphigenia tended to focus more on an exciting plot, the mechanics of the recognition, and the psychology of its main characters, Helen raises intriguing questions concerning morality, religion, and cultural difference. In particular, it uses the bizarre situation of Helen's phantom likeness in order to explore general problems of human knowledge that had been posed by recent philosophers and sophists like Gorgias and Protagoras. Can we really believe what we see or be sure that we know what we think we know? Can we trust our senses? If not, what guarantees of truth or reality, divine or human, do exist in the world? These are problems with which contemporary intellectuals were wrestling; and Euripides' version of the story of Helen provides a witty and ingenious test case in order to scrutinize them. Helen also presents an example of happy and successful conjugal love, rare in Greek tragedy. Helen's fidelity, the restitution of her good name, and Menelaus' joyous reunion with her are central themes in the play.
Transmission and Reception
Helen seems to have had a considerable impact when it was first produced, at least to judge by the extensive (and hilarious) parody of the play in Aristophanes' Women at the Thesmophoria, produced the very next year, in 411 BCE. But thereafter the traces of its influence on ancient literature are very few indeed—perhaps some allusions by the New Comedy playwright Menander, and certainly the fourth-century BCE Alexandrian poet Lycophron's enigmatic Alexandra, a dramatic lyric about Cassandra and the Trojan War. And it does not seem to have influenced ancient art at all—by contrast, Andromeda, another of the tragedies that was produced by Euripides together with Helen at the same year's dramatic festival and that also dealt with exotic adventures and requited love, made a considerable impact on subsequent Greek and Roman visual culture. In general it was Homer's canonical version of Helen that dominated in antiquity over Stesichorus', Herodotus', and Euripides' eccentric ones. Helen survived antiquity as one of the so-called "alphabetic plays" (see "Introduction to Euripides," p. 3) in only a single manuscript (and its copies), and it is not accompanied by the ancient commentaries (scholia) that explain various kinds of interpretive difficulties. But evidence that it achieved at least a small degree of popularity in antiquity is provided by the fact that at least one papyrus bearing parts of its text has been discovered.
In the modern world too, Helen has not been as popular as it deserves to be: the dominance of Homer's canonical version, together with Euripides' disconcerting and sometimes comic representation of divine manipulation of human affairs, seems until recently to have discouraged both readers and stage producers. But all of the few authors who have engaged with Euripides' play have produced remarkably interesting versions of the story. In his Sonnets pour H
Excerpted from EURIPIDES IV by David Grene. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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