Helen (Ancient Greek: Ἑλένη, Helenē) is a drama by Euripides about Helen, first produced in 412 BC for the Dionysia in a trilogy that also contained Euripides' lost Andromeda. The play has much in common with Iphigenia in Tauris, one of the playwright's later works.
Helen of Troy by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
|Chorus||Greek Slave Women|
|Date premiered||412 BC|
|Original language||Ancient Greek|
|Setting||Palace of Theoclymenus in Egypt|
Helen was written soon after the Sicilian Expedition, in which Athens had suffered a massive defeat. Concurrently, the sophists – a movement of teachers who incorporated philosophy and rhetoric into their occupation – were beginning to question traditional values and religious beliefs. Within the play's framework, Euripides starkly condemns war, deeming it to be the root of all evil.
About thirty years before this play, Herodotus argued in his Histories that Helen had never in fact arrived at Troy, but was in Egypt during the entire Trojan War. The Archaic lyric poet Stesichorus had made the same assertion in his "Palinode" (itself a correction to an earlier poem corroborating the traditional characterization that made Helen out to be a woman of ill repute). The play Helen tells a variant of this story, beginning under the premise that rather than running off to Troy with Paris, Helen was actually whisked away to Egypt by the gods. The Helen who escaped with Paris, betraying her husband and her country and initiating the ten-year conflict, was actually an eidolon, a phantom look-alike. After Paris was promised the most beautiful woman in the world by Aphrodite and he judged her fairer than her fellow goddesses Athena and Hera, Hera ordered Hermes to replace Helen, Paris' assumed prize, with a fake. Thus, the real Helen has been languishing in Egypt for years, while the Greeks and Trojans alike curse her for her supposed infidelity.
In Egypt, king Proteus, who had protected Helen, has died. His son Theoclymenus, the new king with a penchant for killing Greeks, intends to marry Helen, who after all these years remains loyal to her husband Menelaus.
Helen receives word from the exiled Greek Teucer that Menelaus never returned to Greece from Troy, and is presumed dead, putting her in the perilous position of being available for Theoclymenus to marry, and she consults the prophetess Theonoe, sister to Theoclymenus, to find out Menelaus' fate.
Her fears are allayed when a stranger arrives in Egypt and turns out to be Menelaus himself, and the long-separated couple recognize each other. At first, Menelaus does not believe that she is the real Helen, since he has hidden the Helen he won in Troy in a cave. However, the woman he was shipwrecked with was in reality, only a mere phantom of the real Helen. Before the Trojan war even began, a judgement took place, one that Paris was involved in. He gave the Goddess Aphrodite the award of the fairest since she bribed him with Helen as a bride. To take their revenge on Paris, the remaining goddesses, Athena and Hera, replaced the real Helen with a phantom. However, Menelaus did not know better. But luckily one of his sailors steps in to inform him that the false Helen has disappeared into thin air.
The couple still must figure out how to escape from Egypt, but the rumor that Menelaus has died is still in circulation. Thus, Helen tells Theoclymenus that the stranger who came ashore was a messenger there to tell her that her husband was truly dead. She informs the king that she may marry him as soon as she has performed a ritual burial at sea, thus freeing her symbolically from her first wedding vows. The king agrees to this, and Helen and Menelaus use this opportunity to escape on the boat given to them for the ceremony.
Theoclymenus is furious when he learns of the trick and nearly murders his sister Theonoe for not telling him that Menelaus is still alive. However, he is prevented by the miraculous intervention of the demi-gods Castor and Polydeuces, brothers of Helen and the sons of Zeus and Leda.