BMCR 2006.05.25

Euripides: Hecuba

, , Hecuba. Focus classical library. Newburyport, MA: Focus Pub./R. Pullins Co, 2006. 111 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9781585101481 $8.95 (pb).

Long relegated to the second rank of Euripides’ tragedies, Hecuba is now attracting increased attention and respect. Two commentaries and a monograph devoted to the play appeared in the 1990s,1 and the last two years alone have seen two high-profile productions which originated in London and were subsequently exported to the U.S.2 Robin Mitchell-Boyask’s new version of Hecuba (which in addition to the translation offers an introduction, a structural synopsis, notes, an interpretive essay, and a bibliography) thus appears at a propitious time.

Critical opinion on the play’s tendency and tone remains divided, with the lines of disagreement converging on the protagonist’s characterization. Everyone concurs that the play falls into two parts, a division underscored by Hecuba’s emphatic exit at the end of the second episode; the first part centers on the sacrificial death of Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena at the hands of the victorious Greeks, and the second on her response to the murder of her son Polydorus at the hands of the Thracian king Polymestor. In the first part the Trojan queen is a helpless victim of Greek machinations; in the second she becomes an inexorable force of vengeance, skillfully luring Polymestor and his small sons into a trap, then ordering her attendants to kill his children and gouge out his eyes. Scholars diverge on how to interpret this development. As Mitchell-Boyask summarizes the problem (p.19), “[I]s the change in [Hecuba] credible, does she thus become as morally bankrupt as Polymestor, or is there even really a change?”

The answer to those questions will depend in part on one’s attitude toward vengeance. In assessing Hecuba’s punishment of Polymestor it is critical to distinguish between ancient values and modern, and to bear in mind that in a pre-Christian ethical system vengeance was not just permitted but mandatory for the victim’s kin. It is surely significant that no speaker—not even Polymestor—ever condemns Hecuba’s actions as morally reprehensible. In fact, the only possible support for the idea that the play condemns Hecuba’s vengeance is to be found in the prophecy delivered by Polymestor at the close: he tells Hecuba that in the moments before her death she will be transformed into a “bitch dog … possessing fiery eyes” (1265). In my 1999 commentary (graciously acknowledged by Mitchell-Boyask as a resource for his translation) I argued that the dog is symbolic of Hecuba’s fierce maternity, but I clearly failed to persuade Mitchell-Boyask, who concludes that the metamorphosis “externalizes [Hecuba’s] inner savagery” (97). This interpretation naturally contributes to his dark view of the play as a whole.

The answer to the question of how Hecuba is characterized also depends on the background against which the play is read. Mitchell-Boyask describes Hecuba as the “cousin” of Medea (95). This pairing can only fuel doubts about the motives and justifications of the protagonist; it is tempting to condemn Hecuba as a brutal and misguided avenger who, like Medea, spares the life of the man who betrayed her while making innocent children pay for their father’s crimes. In Medea, however, the pathos of the children’s murder is enhanced by their significant role in the action, by Medea’s hesitation over killing them, and by their cries for help inside the skene. In Hecuba, by contrast, Polymestor’s children appear only briefly on stage and do not have speaking roles. In the classics-in-translation courses for whom this translation is intended, moreover, the play is more likely to be read in conjunction with Trojan Women as part of a sequence on the Trojan War. Trojan Women will probably be read first, despite the two plays’ order of composition, from considerations of internal chronology. Trojan Women presents a series of disasters visited by the Greeks on the utterly helpless Trojan women, and the Hecuba of that play powerfully articulates her frustration at being unable to take effective action (792-95). In Hecuba the Trojan queen is finally able to retaliate against at least one of her tormentors—and in my experience most students who encounter Hecuba after Trojan Women, far from feeling shocked at Hecuba’s actions, welcome them with relief and approval. Hecuba appears a sympathetic character to modern students (at least those of a feminist bent) even if they do not share Greek attitudes toward revenge, because they prefer “agency” to passive suffering.

Mitchell-Boyask reserves his critical opinions for the interpretive essay that follows the translation; the introduction and notes are sagacious, economical, and scrupulously neutral. In the introduction he summarizes the original conditions of performance, the political context of the 420s, and the characters’ mythical backgrounds. He alerts readers to the issue of unity and points to the motifs that link the two parts. Intriguingly, he draws attention to certain resemblances between Odysseus and Polymestor and to the way in which the three names linked by the prefix “Poly” (Polydorus, Polyxena, Polymestor) allude to important themes of the play. Finally, he sets forth the principles governing his translation, explaining that he has tried to keep as close as possible to the Greek, sometimes sacrificing English idiom “to the goal of preserving the flow of ideas from the original Greek lines” (23).

This policy yields mixed results. When Polyxena, saying farewell to Hecuba before she is led off to the sacrifice, asks her mother to “throw your cheek against mine” (410), the rendering of προσβαλεῖν as “throw” seems inappropriate in the context. for Polyxena has just been warning her mother against attempting any violent resistance that would lead to rough handling by the Greeks. On the other hand, when Talthybius reports that Polyxena insisted on being set free from her bonds and ordered the Greeks, “Let nobody touch my skin” (548), the literal translation effectively conveys the fastidiousness of a princess who will not tolerate any physical contact with her conquerors. Mitchell-Boyask goes so far as to retain historical presents, which may take readers aback but are helpful in drawing attention to a narrative’s climactic moments. While my own preference is for a less literal and more idiomatic version that offers students an easier read, Mitchell-Boyask has his reasons for translating as he does, and there is no doubt that his Hecuba will be appreciated by instructors, who can be confident that they will find reflected in the translation the points that they consider important in the Greek.

There are occasional lapses. At 198 a causal genitive has been missed, and at 228 a brachyology. At 482-83 the text is problematic, but the women cannot be lamenting their “homes in Europe traded for bedrooms in Hades,” since they were neither in Europe before, nor are they in Hades now. At 818 Hecuba wonders why more speakers don’t study the art of Persuasion and advocates “giving money in payment,” rather than “giving it [Persuasion?] money in payment.” At 843 she asks Agamemnon to help her, an old woman, “even if she [not ‘it’] is nothing.” And at 1247 Agamemnon surely speaks not of barbarians’ “quickly” killing a guest-friend, but of their “perhaps” killing a guest-friend. These slips are outweighed, however, by stylish colloquialisms (at 775 Agamemnon makes a correct guess as to Polymestor’s motive in killing Polydorus, and Hecuba answers, “Exactly”) and clever equivalences (as when the chorus at 1025 compares Polymestor to a man falling “into a harborless sewer,” rather than into the ever-baffling “bilge” of the Greek). In translating the choral odes Mitchell-Boyask uses repetition and alliteration to good effect; the first stasimon, for example, acquires the lilt of a sea shanty as the women of the chorus invoke the “Breeze, sea breeze,/ since you attend the seafaring swift skiffs against the sea swell…” (444-46).

The interpretive essay offers free-standing discussions of the episodes and of the lyrics which together make up a strong, coherent reading of the play. Mitchell-Boyask notes that the action dramatizes a crisis of the fundamental reciprocal values of ancient Greece: ξενία, αἰδώς, χάρις, ἱκετεία, and blood-sacrifice. While acknowledging that Hecuba ultimately “restores the codes of reciprocity among men and between men and gods” (96), he does not view her vengeance as relieving the bleakness of the play, arguing that it exacts too great a toll on all concerned, not least on Hecuba herself. In the second part of the essay Mitchell-Boyask surveys the function of the chorus in Greek tragedy as a whole and the engagement of the chorus of Hecuba with the play’s conjoined themes of necessity and slavery; he proceeds to summarize the choral odes and to relate each to its context, deftly ending his essay with the chorus leader’s final words in the play, “Necessity does not bend.” Mitchell-Boyask regards Hecuba as “the single most disturbing of the surviving Greek tragic dramas” because of its “portrayal of the wreckage of human character and … its utter denial of any form of redemptive suffering” (88). Another reader might protest that the protagonist’s character is not wrecked; rather, Hecuba embodies the refusal of the weak to bow before the strong. And while the play undoubtedly denies that suffering is redemptive, it also demonstrates why the powerful ought to think twice about perpetrating suffering in the first place. Thanks to Mitchell-Boyask’s thoughtful and vigorous translation, more students will now have a chance to draw their own conclusions about this extraordinary play.


1. Commentary with translation: C. Collard, Euripides: Hecuba (Warminster, 1991). Commentary: J. Gregory, Euripides: Hecuba (Atlanta, 1999). Monograph: J. Mossman, Wild Justice (Oxford, 1995).

2. Clare Higgins played Hecuba in a version by Frank McGuinness produced at the Donmar Warehouse in 2004; Marsha Mason is currently starring in the McGuinness version at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater (through June 18, 2006). Vanessa Redgrave played Hecuba in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s spring 2005 production, which was presented in revised form, with a new translation by Tony Harrison, in Washington, D.C. and Brooklyn.