Hecuba

Hecuba was a short quick gripping read .  Quick primarily because the timeline seems so dreadfully short .The time frame is after the fall of Troy and men have been murdered , most of the women raped and taken as concubines .The agony of Hecuba seems to be something so poignant that though  we have a hard time relating to her pain , our own desire for the macabre insists on continuing , that is the genius of Euripides ; he starts off with an ingenious device ; our fore-knowledge of her son Polydorus’s death. So while we ,the audience are aware of this dreadful knowledge ,Hecuba is not and that provides for some of the excitement that curiosity fuels to see how she would react.

The ghost of Polydorus  informs us that he has been murdered by his host , King Polymestor of Thrace who was a close friend of Priam, King of Troy and was responsible for safe guarding him and the treasure that Priam sends along. Polydorus informs us that as long as Troy was safe and Hector was alive ,he was safe but as soon as the slaughter commenced after the fall of Troy, his host . Polymestor murdered him and threw him into the sea and usurped the treasure.

So full of foreboding we meet Hecuba at  this point . The ghost of Achilles has come to the dreams of the Greeks and demanded the blood of Polyxena, one of her last surviving daughters . So Odysseus has marched in with a contingent of soldiers to take Polyxena away . This is quite a dramatic shift in the points of view for viewing Odysseus . At some point in the past, Hecuba has spared his life but he shows no intention of repaying her kindness . He is depicted as a cruel ingrate who is very conscious about his power and reputation in the Greek army . Polyxena is the innocent pure tragic heroine who prefers death to slavery and leaves willingly after telling her poor mother that she pities her mother because she will actually be going off to Hades , a far better place than the fate that the Greeks have in store for them . When the Neoptolemus , son of Achilles is about to murder her on the grave of Achilles , she willingly offers herself without a fight insisting that she will not die as a slave and will not be bound. After her heroic death , we come back to Hecuba who is recounted the brave last moments of her daughter’s life who will now be given an honorable burial by the Greeks who were touched by the girl’s bravery.

Hecuba is inconsolable and tells her slave girl to fetch water from the sea for the last rites of her daughter . her voyage as the bride of Hades . And it is here that the slave girl finds the body of Polydorus . There is some brief confusion when Hecuba thinks that the body of Polydorus is the body of Polyxena and she chides the slave girl for bringing it here. But once she finds out that it is her son and he was murdered by Polymestor, she conceives of a dreadful plan and it is at this point that we see Agamemnon , King of Mycenae and leader of the Trojan expedition . Again , the great hero is shown in a very different perspective , he knows that the murder of Polyxena was an unrequited tragedy forced upon a suffering old woman , he worries about his reputation and does not stop the murder because he is afraid of the gossip that will ensue . His soldiers will reason that due to his affair with Cassandra , another of Priam and Hecuba’s daughter  , Agamemnon is weak and unwilling to sacrifice Polyxena. But unlike Odysseus , his private moral sense of honor does compel him to go along with Hecuba’s plan for revenge after he is told of Polydorus’s untimely death at the hands of his host.

Hecuba invites Polymestor with his young sons with the pretext of telling him a precious secret which must be told to him alone . When Polymestor comes over , she tells him that she will reveal the cache of gold that Priam had hidden , this cache of gold belongs to Polydorus and Polymestor is the custodian until the Greeks leave . Greedy Polymestor agrees and asks his contingent of bodyguards to leave . We are spared the morbid details of the actual murders but instead given a beautiful couplet

Life is held on loan,

the price of life is death

Those who take a life 

repay it with their own

Justice and the gods 

exact the loan at last

Hands which never held a sword

shall wrench your twisted life away

Polymestor  is blinded and both his young children are murdered by the women of Troy.

Hearing the uproar , Agamemnon who pretends to be unaware of Hecuba’s plan for revenge listens to both sides . It is a trial of sorts where Polymestor claims that the murder of Polydorus was a political necessity else the Greeks would have invaded Thrace and if the boy grew up, there would be a resurgence of Troy and more trouble for Troy’s neighbors but Hecuba claims that Polymestor’s speech is pure sophistry because he is not related to the civilized Greeks nor had any prior relations with them and the murder was driven exclusively by his greed. If he was truly a friend then he would have not waited until the sack of Troy to offer his services to Agamemnon . She finishes with a flourish  forcing Agamemnon’s hand by claiming that if he passed the verdict on Polymestor’s behalf then he would go down in history as an unjust man .Agamemnon does come down on her side and prosecutes Polymestor for murder. The play ends with two dreadful prophecies by the blind Polymestor , one that Hecuba will die by drowning and that Agamemnon will be murdered by his own wife .

If ever there was a play that can show us what depths we can plunge to , driven by circumstances , Hecuba would certainly qualify .  Hecuba starts off as a grieving mother but ends up performing the most dastardly inhuman acts  ; the murder of innocent children. She is driven by her circumstances , driven by her captors to lose the last shreds of humanity, compassion and kindness .

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