Friday, October 30, 2009

Euripides' "Hecuba"

As I was reading Hecuba for the reading group last Monday, Hamlet's question rang insistently in my head, "What's Hecuba to him?" Euripides had a penchant for depicting strong women in extreme distress. Medea, abandoned by her husband Jason for a royal marriage, kills their children to pay him back. Left with only two children after the destruction of Troy, Hecuba is deprived of both, Polyxena sacrificed to the ghost of Achilles, and Polydorus murdered by a traitorous friend, Polymestor. To take revenge, she lures Polymestor to her tent, and has her women blind him and kill his two young sons.

I prefer Hecuba to Medea. Medea was written earlier, at the start of the Peloponnesian War, whereas Hecuba was written five years later, when the devastation of war became clear. Medea is motivated by sex-jealousy for Jason, but the play does not show us a man worthy of such jealousy. Instead, Jason is calculative, self-deceiving, and out-witted. Without sufficient motive for her actions, Medea's murder of her children risks appearing sheer madness. Hecuba, on the other hand, depicts the terrible losses the queen suffers, in the form of an apparently never-ending stream of bad news, and so explains the terrible revenge she is motivated to perform, when Agamemnon refuses to give her justice. Hecuba is a kind of reverse Medea. As if in response to the critics of his children-slaughtering mother, Euripides imagined a mother who suffers the losses of her children at the hand of others.

Hecuba, written soon after Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, also seems to respond to that great play. The blinding of Polymestor with brooches reworks Oedipus' self-blinding with his wife-mother's brooch. The difference is striking. Oedipus' action acknowledges the inescapable power of fate and the gods. Polymestor's punishment, however, is wrought clearly by a human. HS pointed out at the reading group that no gods appear in this play, and hardly any mention of them. Hecuba then is set in a world of sheerly human suffering, justice and revenge.

And being so human, Hecuba is difficult to interpret, let alone judge. In the first half of the play, our sympathy is clearly with her. Messenger after messenger come with news of death and loss. In a beautiful and terribly ironic speech, Hecuba cries out:

how shall I deal with this thronging crowd of blows.
these terrors, each with its petition, clamoring
for attention? If I try to cope with one,
another shoulders in, and then a third
comes on, distracting, each fresh wave
breeding new successors as it breaks.

The image of petitioners, so familiar to the former queen of Troy, resonates throughout the play. Only when her petition to Agamemnon for justice is rejected, does she take matters in her hands. Though her blinding of Polymestor is understandably "just," what is one to make of her killing of his two young sons? It is not poetic justice: a son for a son is not only hideous logic here, but strict equivalence, if such a thing is ever possible, would demand she kills one son, and not two. The ambiguity extends to the mock trial Agamemnon holds after her act. Though Agamemnon's judgment of Polymestor is right, the judgment is a foregone conclusion since the Greek king has made a pact with Hecuba beforehand. Even justice is tainted by injustice.

This human messiness is related to human ignorance. Thinking she is at the bottom of fortune's wheel, Hecuba is ignorant of her plight at the start of the play. The messengers bring her knowledge, which devastates her but also enables her to act. The play ends, however, with Polymestor "prophesying" the fates of Hecuba and Agamemnon, an action that emphasizes their return to ignorance. No such return is possible in Oedipus Rex. Oedipus finds out, and suffers. If knowledge is suffering in Sophocles' play, knowledge is action in Euripides', a brief decisive action, before we sink back into the mud of ignorance.


Shropshirelad said...

Fortune rota volvitur;
descendo minoratus;
alter in altum tollitur;
nimis exaltatus
rex sedet in vertice
caveat ruinam!
nam sub axe legimus
Hecubam reginam.

The wheel is turned by Fortuna;
I go down, demeaned;
another is carried to the height;
far too high up
sits the king at the summit -
let him beware ruin!
for under the axis is written
Queen Hecuba.

It sounds much better, however, when it is sung. Here is the beginning...

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks for the link, Eric.