Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell
The Women of Troy (415 BC) — Play
Euripides, The Women of Troy | Translation by Don Taylor, 1990
Euripides’ play The Women of Troy (415 BC), which was written and originally performed in ancient Athens during wartime, presents an examination of the morality of war involving what constitutes a just war and what is just in the conduct of war and what is just in the securing of a peace settlement. Notably, the play presents the aftermath of the fall of Troy from the perspective of the defeated Trojan women, and in doing so invites the victors in war to have more understanding and compassion for the suffering of the vanquished.
Importantly, in this context, the play presents a warning to the theatre audience (especially those in the Athenian military) against impiety. In particular, it argues against the brutal excesses that can be exhibited in the sacking of a defeated city state by the victorious army that results in the violent desecration of temples and the depopulating of these venues of worship that were once full of devotees paying respect to the gods. This can offend the gods who will bring down severe punishment upon the perpetrators. This punishment can be so severe that the slaughter and suffering inflicted on the victors will resemble the slaughter and suffering experienced by the defeated.
The play makes extensive moral arguments against unjust conduct in war by presenting a sympathetic look at the great suffering experienced by the vanquished women just after their defeat, calling attention to their misery due to their unfortunate predicament of being at the mercy of brutal victors. Their menfolk had been slaughtered, their city state had been raised to the ground, and they and their children wait to be sent away to a life of slavery. Even though this was standard military practice at that time, the play chastises the Greek victors, who as Greeks prided themselves on their civilisation and civilised virtues, as acting according to base emotions, like urges to violence and lust, to therefore resemble in their deeds the volatile barbarians whom they routinely disparaged.
As well as calling attention to these injustices, the play consistently draws attention to the way that the major culprit responsible for the costly war, Helen, used her seductive beauty and artful sophistry to escape just punishment for her crimes of infidelity and political mischief. The play called for her execution. In this context, the play presented a protest against the rhetorical arts of the sophists by presenting these skills as devious because of their ability to distract men from appreciating reason and pursuing justice.
Meanwhile, the play extolls the virtue and value of heroes who can bravely protect their families and community from invaders who would inflict the ravages of war on vulnerable women and children. The play celebrates how these heroes will live forever in the epic stories about their deeds of valour that will be told for generations to come. A war fought to protect one’s homeland is presented as just.
In this context, the play raises philosophical moral issues about what constitutes a just war by questioning whether a war fought over an unfaithful wife and the male egos she bruised was worth the cost of the lives of so many warriors and the enormous suffering of civilians that resulted. The play also raises issues about what is just in the conduct of a war and what is just in the conclusion of a peace by calling attention to the desecration of temples and the merciless slaughter of those seeking sanctuary in those temples, and by focusing the play’s attention on the suffering of virtuous women (including a dignified queen, a consecrated virgin, and a wife who remains loyal to the memory of her heroic dead husband) who are forced into a degrading slavery, which will include sexual slavery in the cases of the virgin and the widow. The commentary on what constitutes a just peace includes a challenge to the realpolitik used to justify the execution of a small boy who could potentially grow into a prince who could then rebuild Troy to take revenge on the Greeks. The play presents that act as an atrocity rather than as a means to protect the Greeks from future conflict.
Notably, during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries this ancient play that engages with philosophical issues related to the morality of war was utilised by modern pacifists to present a pacifist indictment of war and the genocidal brutality that can happen in war. Meanwhile modern feminists can see the play as showing men to be the brutal perpetrators of war and injustice while women and children are the unfortunate victims. Modern pacifists and feminists can celebrate the play as presenting a sympathetic portrayal of the endurance of the civilian women who are victims of war, and for demonstrating that these women, the survivors, should be seen as the true heroes in war.
Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez
© Mark Lopez 2019 All RIGHTS RESERVED
The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal. (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.)
Subject: The Women of Troy meaning, The Women of Troy themes, The Women of Troy analysis, The Women of Troy notes
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