Hecuba by Euripides.

Hecuba and Polyxena by Merry-Joseph Blondel
(after 1814).
Hecuba (Ἑκάβη) is a tragedy by Euripides, first performed around 424 B.C. and based on the events after the Trojan War though still in Troy. In it Euripides tells the story of Hecuba, the wife of King Priam, the king of Troy during the Trojan War.

By the beginning of the play Priam has been killed in the war by Achilles' son Neoptolemus (this is described in Virgil's Aeneid) as have all Hecuba's children except her daughter Polyxena. The play opens with the ghost of Polydorus, one of Hecuba's sons, who was murdered by Polymestor, the King of Thrace:
... But when Troy fell and Hector lost his life and my father's hearth was rooted up, and himself fell butchered at the god-built altar by the hands of Achilles' murderous son; then did my father's friend slay me his helpless guest for the sake of the gold, and thereafter cast me into the swell of the sea, to keep the gold for himself in his house. And there I lie one time upon the strand, another in the salt sea's surge, drifting ever up and down upon the billows, unwept, unburied; but now am I hovering o'er the head of my dear mother Hecuba, a disembodied spirit, keeping my airy station these three days, ever since my poor mother came from Troy to linger here in Chersonese...
He then explains that to appease the ghost of Achilles his sister Polyxena must be sacrificed.

We meet Hecuba next, supported by the chorus, in mourning for all of her losses and in great fear of the pending sacrifice of Polyxena. Polyxena arrives and Hecuba tells her of what is to happen and she too mourns, but she mourns her loss for her own mother's sake:
Alas, for thy cruel sufferings! my persecuted mother! woe for thy life of grief! What grievous outrage some fiend hath sent on thee, hateful, horrible! No more shall I thy daughter share thy bondage, hapless youth on hapless age attending. For thou, alas! wilt see thy hapless child torn from thy arms, as a calf of the hills is torn from its mother, and sent beneath the darkness of the earth with severed throat for Hades, where with the dead shall I be laid, ah me! For thee I weep with plaintive wail, mother doomed to a life of sorrow! for my own life, its ruin and its outrage, never a tear I shed; nay, death is become to me a happier lot than life.
Odysseus arrives to take Polyxena telling Hecuba it is all for the greater good:
Endure these sorrows; for us, if we are wrong in resolving to honour the brave, we shall bring upon ourselves a charge of ignorance; but as for you barbarians, regard not your friends as such and pay no homage to your gallant dead, that Hellas may prosper and ye may reap the fruits of such policy. 
Meanwhile Polyxena declares she would prefer death to being a slave in a very moving speech -
Why should I prolong my days? I whose sire was king of all the Phrygians?-my chiefest pride in life, Then was I nursed on fair fond hopes to be a bride for kings, the centre of keen jealousy amongst suitors, to see whose home I would make my own; and o'er each dame of Ida I was queen; ah me! a maiden marked amid her fellows, equal to a goddess, save for death alone, but now slave! That name first makes me long for death, so strange it sounds; and then maybe my lot might give me to some savage master, one that would buy me for money,-me the sister of Hector and many another chief,-who would make me knead him bread within his halls, or sweep his house or set me working at the loom, leading a life of misery; while some slave, bought I know not whence, will taint my maiden charms, once deemed worthy of royalty. No, never! Here I close my eyes upon the light, free as yet, and dedicate myself to Hades. Lead me hence, Odysseus, and do thy worst, for I see naught within my reach to make me hope or expect with any confidence that I am ever again to be happy. Mother mine! seek not to hinder me by word or deed, but join in my wish for death ere I meet with shameful treatment undeserved. For whoso is not used to taste of sorrow's cup, though he bears it, yet it galls him when he puts his neck within the yoke; far happier would he be dead than alive, for life of honour reft is toil and trouble.
Hecuba Blinding Polymestor by Giuseppe Maria Crespi (18th century).
And then poor Polyxena is sacrificed, and, when Hecuba requests cleansing water for her body Polydorus' body is found on the shore. Hecuba rightly suspects that Polymestor is to blame and so plots her revenge, asking Agamemnon (who himself sacrificed a daughter, Iphigenia, for a safe voyage to Troy) to summon him to her. He does so and Hecuba, falsely telling Polymestor she has treasure to give him, leads him and his sons into the tent. The next we hear is Polymestor's cries - "O horror! I am blinded of the light of my eyes, ah me!", then "O horror! horror! my children! O the cruel blow."

Agamemnon now must judge Hecuba and Polymestor to ensure justice is served. In this scene Polymestor makes various prohecies - that Hecuba will die on her way to Greece leaping from the mast by her own accord when she will "become a dog with bloodshot eyes" (an account of this transformation can be read in Book XIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses), and that Hecuba's daughter Cassandra will be murdered by Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra (this is told in Aeschylus' Agamemnon). At the end of this speech Agamemnon banishes him to live alone on an island:
Haste and cast him upon some desert island, since his mouth is full of such exceeding presumption. Go thou, unhappy Hecuba, and bury thy two corpses; and you, Trojan women, to your master's tents repair, for lo! I perceive a breeze just rising to waft us home. God grant we reach our country and find all well at home, released from troubles here!
Hecuba is a tale of suffering and woe, and there is no relief. Even Polymestor's punishment comes with bleak prophecies Euripides' audience would have known would come true. It is a play of great bitterness and anger, Hecuba, once a victim of men, war, and justice, becomes the revenger not only blinding Polymestor but killing his sons too, yet she is a sympathetic character despite this bloodshed. It is a desolate play, one I couldn't quite get into but nevertheless a valuable read.

♔♔♔

The Plays of Euripides

Alcestis | Medea  | Heracleidae | Hippolytus | Andromache | Hecuba

Comments

  1. Hmmm. I am curious. What translation did you read (and quote from in your posting)? I have my favorites among translators of Greek drama, but I do not recognize the source of the prose excerpts.

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  2. E. P. Coleridge - The Plays of Euripides, 1910.

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  3. Thanks for the information. I prefer the verse translations of the Greeks from later 20th c. people like Lattimore, Grene, Fitzgerald, and others. If you get the chance to read those translators' work, you might find them more readable (and certainly more faithful to the original versions).

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  4. whatever the translation, it's certainly strong stuff; perhaps reflective of the difficult lives led by the contemporary greeks...

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    1. Strong indeed - very powerful, but so far I think Medea is his finest :)

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  5. Everything I've read about Hecuba comes across as very powerful. Her plight was truly pitiful. Great review!

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    1. Thank you :) I'll be interested to read more on Hecuba - I might be wrong but I think she pops up again in The Trojan Women. I really don't know though, I'll see when I get to it!

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