A discussion of the portrayal of Helen of Troy in Euripides’ The Trojan Women and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus
E. Agathokleous 2020
One of the most recurring figures in literature, Helen of Troy appears in numerous works, whether related to the Trojan War or not. From Homer to more recent times Helen has appeared and has been portrayed by many writers, poets or playwrights each time assuming the role assigned to her in the text. Homer’s Helen is a classic one, a creature of divine beauty able to start a war while Sepheris’ Helen is an elusive one, an idea sought but unable to be reached. Through time her portrayal heavily relies on the trend and climate of the time (Maguire x). Most often accused of her sensual nature and hated for the power vested upon her by her beauty, Helen is certainly a figure with the power to shape fates and cause events and she is the most appearing mythological figure not only in the epic but in a variety of works involving poetry, tragedy and comedy (Blondell xi). In Euripides’ Trojan Women, Helen appears as the cause of Troy’s devastation and she is given the opportunity to defend herself through the innovation of her physical presence on stage. On the other hand in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus which is more oriented towards religion, she is there as a devil in disguise acquiring a symbolic significance of sensual pleasure as the ultimate temptation.
In Trojan Women there is a background of pain and suffering, death and destruction, a lamenting of all Trojan women, the protagonists but also the chorus, and Helen is in the middle of it as the cause of everything. Before even Hecuba becomes aware of the whole extend of her tragedy and the pains that await her ahead she names Helen “hateful” (Euripides 131). Further on Andromache calls her “ vexatious” (Euripides 359) a poisonous woman who brings death and destruction . Menelaus also accuses Helen and sees her death as a fitting compensation to all of his men that died in the war (Euripides 880).
Despite the overwhelming accusations against her, Helen is given a rare chance to defend herself using her own voice and given a physical presence on stage only to reveal an individual that denies any personal responsibility wasting this way any chance to win the audience’s sympathy (Blondell 123). Helen is alive before the audience, asking to be heard and asking for their active participation and judgment (Blondell 124). She however, uses this opportunity to shift the blame to everyone else involved except her. Helen appears alarmed for her fate, judging her impending death as unjust (Euripides 895-96) and requests the right to speak in defense of herself and though Menelaus is hesitant Hecuba urges him to allow it so that she can refute all Helen’s arguments this way ensuring her death (Euripides 996-911). Helen’s defense relies on the accusation of everyone else involved in the way she came to Troy. She appears as someone avoiding any responsibility and accuses Hecuba because “that woman was the author of these troubles - by giving birth to Patis” (Euripides 920-921) and then Priam for not killing Paris (Euripides 925). Then she refers to the contest of the three goddesses and that she was promised as a gift to Paris from Aphrodite herself (Euripides 929-932). She also blames Menelaus because he “sailed away from Sparta to the land of Crete (Euripides 945) while Paris was there with her. According to Helen her elopement with Paris might not had been forced physically but she was rather rendered mentally unable to resist the god’s will. By these words “Enough of this! For all that followed I must question myself, not you;” (Euripides 945) she wants to make clear that her rational self would never flee her husband’s house and her home and thus she was not herself but under the influence of divine intervention. She further wants to assure Menelaus that she intended to leave Troy but was held there by force (Euripides 953-961). Helen goes as far as calling Menelaus a fool because by killing her, he unjustly kills an innocent victim of the gods (Euripides 964-966).
After she is done speaking, the Chorus demands Hecuba’s response. They find Helen eloquent and persuasive yet they do not believe her, “…her persuasive arguments, for she pleads well in spite of all her villainy;” (Euripides 967-9). Here, the chorus as the collective voice of the Trojan Women refuses to dismiss Helen’s responsibility and demands justice, this way affecting also the audience’s opinion. Hecuba refutes Helen’s speech and challenges the truth of her words by questioning the motives of the goddesses (Euripides 970). She insists on Helen’s “sin” (Euripides 984) and that her arguments could never convince anyone “wise” (Euripides 985). Menelaus is also not convinced and calls her arguments a mere attempt to avoid her punishment (Euripides 1040), a punishment well deserved not only for those who suffered but also for the shame she caused on him personally (Euripides 1041-2). Hecuba warns Menelaus that if he travels with Helen he will be persuaded to forgive her, once again (Euripides 1047-1051) stressing this way the power of Helen’s beauty and allure.
The content of Helen’s speech renders her as an individual which refuses all personal responsibility, a victim of circumstance. Helen has become someone that claims to have had no choice against the will of gods and thus no responsibility for any of the events trying this way to gain the sympathy of the audience (Euripides 1022-28). However the fact that she has no support on stage and that she does not refer to any attempts to resist Paris or to escape makes her seem desperate and unconvincing (Blondell, 125). Through her physical form and her own voice she is given the exceptional chance to defend herself only to say that she was helpless and disempowered thus using this privilege not in her favor but against her (Blondell, 126). The chorus also has a major part in discrediting Helen’s excuses by not accepting any truth in her argument of divine intervention. All Trojan Women suffer and will suffer greatly and comparing to them Helen can make no case of her being a victim (Blondell 127). These women now realize that even if they were so far oppressed due to their gender a much more violent and cruel oppression waits for them as slaves. The contrast between them and Helen becomes more apparent since she stands on stage sensational and beautiful as ever while they suffer degradation and slavery in desolate appearance (Blondell 127). By being able to see the stunning woman and hear her weak defense, the audience can now righteously blame Menelaus for the war and criticize his actions as the actions of a man seduced so far as to sacrifice his fellow men and destroy a whole country, for one woman (Blondell, 129).
Helen’s portrayal in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus shares some similarities with her portrayal in The Trojan Women but also has notable differences. Dr Faustus is a play that deals with religion, sin and virtue and that has also been widely discussed as a play portraying the Renaissance era using Faustus as a representative of the Renaissance who considers the acquisition of knowledge as the highest cause of man (Pal 17). Faustus, convinced that an alliance with the Devil can give him the power to become a God (Marlowe 76-89) makes a vow to Lucifer sacrificing his soul and accepting eternal damnation for a limited time of power and knowledge (Marlowe 328-340). This time Helen appears late in the play as a devil in disguise, an artificial Helen which Mephastoophilis magically manifested to please Faustus’s want. In Marlowe’s play she remains completely silent, a mere presence who is however able to ensure Faustus complete downfall without uttering a word.
Helen appears in Act 5, in the second scene, when a group of scholars decide that she is “the admirablest lady / that ever lived” (Marlowe 1789-1791). In this play as well, Helen’s beauty is in the centre, however now viewed by men as a valuable quality and not a destructive curse as viewed by the Trojan Women. With Mephastophilis’ magic she walks through the stage making the scholars comment impressed by her looks, her lips, the face that is “the pride of nature’s work” (Marlowe 1804-5). After they all see her and the scholars retire an old man enters the stage pleading Faustus and warning him to repent before it is too late (Marlowe 1813-1829). Faustus ponders on it however Mephastophilis persuades him by threat to restate his vow with his blood (Marlowe 1830-1856). Helen’s appearance is decisive in this moment that Faustus’ desire for sensual pleasure after seeing her makes him ask for her again claiming that she alone could erase any thought for remorse from his heart (Marlowe 1863-1871) and indeed this desire leads to his irrevocable downfall.