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Hecuba and Polyxena by Merry-Joseph Blondell

We can understand what a work of nonfiction “means”: the words in the text refer to some objective (typically) event in the physical world. A book on President Grant refers back to the life of President Grant.

When it comes to non-fiction, the question of “meaning” because more difficult: A play or poem or story does not express “meaning” in the same manner. Sometimes the “meaning” of a text is merely the entertainment the text provides.

Another type of “meaning” comes from a text which seeks to bring the reader to a new understanding of the world. There are always exceptions, but typically “bad” writing tells the reader plainly what to think. Most writers who attempt this work may try to “show and not tell” the reader what to think will handle it poorly.

But when a towering master performs this work it is a thing of beauty.  The effectiveness of the meaning comes from its ability to speak and persuade. Here is an example of brilliance in Euripides’ play Hecuba.

It would be easy to get lost in the names, so I’ll do my best to be clear.

The first thing you must know, is that the original audience for Euripides play were Greeks. The play itself concern the exploits of the great heroes and the great war of Greek of imagination: In the dim past the Greeks came to war against City of Troy as revenge for taking Helen from a Greek king. (How and why this took place is another story.)

You need to know that this story would be the equivalent of the Revolution and the Civil War and the World Wars all rolled into one. The men in this story are more than just George Washington or Abraham Lincoln; they are heroes, mythic figures, nearly divine.

The story Hecuba begins after the Greeks have sacked Troy. The king of Troy had sent his son to another kingdom with a treasure to keep him safe should Troy fall. Yet when the king of Thrace heard that Troy fell, he murdered his friend’s son to take the gold and treasure. The play beings with the ghost of the son telling what had happened to him, washed up on the shore, unburied (a horror to the Greeks).

Hecuba was the queen of Troy, now reduced to slavery is the moral and emotional center of the story. The audience hears from her what it is to be reduced and enslaved and in fear for her family. The natural sympathy of the story is thus skillfully built-up throw the eyes of the enemy in the greatest war in Greek history.

The tension increases when the ghost of Achilles appears above his tomb and demands the sacrifice of Hebuca’s daughter, the princess of Troy, Polyxena. It would be hard to overstate the greatness of Achilles in Greek imagination: Alexandra the Great thought himself in some way the second Achilles.

Thus, their greatest hero demanded the murder of an enslaved princess.

The message that Polyxena would be killed was brought to Hecuba by Odysseus. Again the space for Odysseus is difficult to explain. He is the hero of the second-half of the Greek “Bible” (if you will), the Odyssey. He is an arch-type of all Western Culture.

The tension is raised here, because Hecuba had spared Odysseus’s life during the time of the war. He is depicted as a groveling, dishonest, manipulative man who said anything just to stay alive. As he puts it, “Word-words full many I  found to escape death.”

It is this groveling, ungrateful wretch who is the hero of the Greeks seeking the murder of a young woman to appease the ghost of an even greater hero.

As we hear this scene, it comes to us through the perspective of Hecuba: the woman who home has been destroyed by an invading army, who family has been destroyed now sees a liar come to drag her daughter off to murder.

At this point, Euripides has made the enemies of Greek imagination sympathetic, and the heroes of Greek thought wretched and vicious.

The punch-line of this scene comes when Odysseus calls Hecuba a “Barbarian” (the height of Greek insults), because she is unwilling to pay homage to the dead.

Upon this insult, the Chorus, who are the moral conscience of the play respond, “Woe What a curse is thralldom’s nature.” Hecuba and Polyxena are “enduring wrong” and are “overborne” by the “strong constraint” of their captors.

Euripides didn’t say in blunt terms, destroying kingdoms, stealing women and sacrificing captives to barbaric.

Rather, by giving voice to the pain and fear of the “enemy” and showing the callous barbarism of the “heroes” he more effectively overturns a cheap chauvinism in his audience.

The “meaning” of the text is not some bare proposition (killing other human beings is generally bad).  Rather, the meaning is reversal of expectation the shock of heroes failing, the sorrow for the enemy. The meaning of the story is the transformation of perspective. 

One could repeat a proposition and even understand it’s cognitive content without being transformed. But cry for the enemy and feel shock for the hero is different than the bare proposition.  One can know and not be changed; but that would not be the “meaning” of this play. The meaning is the movement of the human heart.