Women in History Wednesdays: Hecuba

by Rocco Graziano

In the famed Greek tragedy Hecuba, the playwright Euripides’ portrayal of the eponymous woman is in accordance with Aristotle’s account of the connections among virtue, happiness, and fortune, found in his The Nicomachean Ethics. Hecuba begins the play as a virtuous character and remains so, her virtue unshaken by her misfortune and resulting unhappiness. A change occurs not in her character, but in her agency: she changes from a passive to an active figure. Euripides, through Hecuba, presents the view that one’s character cannot be changed.

In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle outlines his structure for eudaimonia, or happiness. It involves three constituent parts: virtue, eudaimonia, and fortune. Virtue and eudaimonia are considered inextricably linked; one cannot be happy without being virtuous. However, in Aristotle’s view, one must not only be virtuous, but also must have good fortune to be happy. He develops a thought experiment where there is a virtuous man who meets with “the greatest disasters and misfortunes...no one would maintain that such a man is happy, except for arguments sake” (NE I.5 1096a). In Aristotle’s structure for happiness, when one’s fortune is shaken, one’s happiness is shaken as well. However, he emphasizes that one’s virtue, or character, remains unchanged even through the worst of misfortunes. Euripides seems to be making the same argument through the character of Hecuba, even having her spell it out: “But human nature never seems to change; / ignoble stays itself, bad to the end; / and nobility good, its nature uncorrupted / by any shock or blow, always the same, / enduring excellence” (Hecuba 596-599). The play opens after the Greek army has destroyed Troy, the city over which Hecuba was queen, and killed her entire family, save three of her children: Polyxena, Polydorus, and Cassandra. It is the death of Polydorus which triggers the aforementioned change in activity, but her virtue remains before and after.

Euripides presents Hecuba as a virtuous character before the death of Polydorus. She is a sympathetic character, one whom the reader is meant to take pity on. She fits into the archetype of the mater dolorosa, the sorrowful mother. She has lost most of her children, her husband, and her city. The Chorus Leader expresses the general sentiment which one is meant to feel for Hecuba, saying “No man could be so callous or so hard of heart / that he could hear your heartbreak and not weep” (Hecuba 296-297). Euripides provides ample evidence of Hecuba’s virtuous acts. In lines 239-250, she discusses with Odysseus how her virtue saved his life during the war. She recalls how he snuck into Troy disguised as a beggar, in rags, covered in filth. However, Helen saw through his disguise, and told Hecuba. He begged for his life, and Hecuba granted him mercy, allowing him to escape with his life. Odysseus acknowledges the service Hecuba has done for him: “Because of what you did, I live today...I readily admit how much I owe you” (Hecuba 250-301). She could have alerted the city to his presence and had him killed, but she chose to grant him the mercy for which he begged, a mercy which she is not shown in return when she begs for the life of her daughter Polyxena. At the start of the play, Hecuba is told that the ghost of Achilles demands the sacrifice of Polyxena, so that she might be his wife in the afterlife. Hecuba begs Odysseus to show her mercy as she showed him, but he refuses. She calls upon the gods, accusing him of murder, before finally offering her life in place of her daughter’s (Hecuba 384-389). This episode offers interesting insight into Hecuba’s motivations. Here, one can see that her eudaimonia derives from her family. When her family experiences good fortune, she is happy, and vice versa. Consequently, the crimes committed against her family are the source of her current unhappiness. This motivation is behind her offering herself in place of Polyxena; she is happier to die saving her daughter than to live as her daughter is sacrificed. Thus, one can see that Hecuba is presented as a virtuous character before the death of Polydorus.

The death of Hecuba’s last son, Polydorus, triggers a change in her. This is a change of agency rather than virtue. The question can be raised: what is different about Polydorus’ death that makes it change her in a way that the deaths of her other children did not? The answer lies in the circumstances of his death. Her other children all died at the hands of the Greek army. While Hecuba does hate the Greeks for this, it does not spur a change in her agency because she has no recourse against them. She is a slave to the Greek army so she can not easily seek retribution against them. Also, many of her other sons died in battle, killed by Greek soldiers who were fighting in a war begun by one of Hecuba’s sons. Polydorus’ killer, however, was a friend of Hecuba, King Polymestor of Thrace (Hecuba 710). She had sent Polydorus to him at the beginning of the Trojan War with gold and treasure, in order to protect him. However, when the Trojans lose, Polymestor kills Polydorus, steals the gold, and throws his body into the sea. When his body washes up on shore, and is brought to Hecuba, she can not reconcile herself with his death the way she has with the deaths of her other children. While her other sons were killed by enemies in battle, Polydorus was killed by a friend. Polymestor violated codes of friendship and xenia, the Greek concept of hospitality. Killing a guest and stealing from them was anathema in Greek society, let alone the child of one’s friend. The reason Hecuba reacts differently to the death of Polydorus is that she expected her last son to be safe, yet he is betrayed by a friend. It is a destruction of her value system, and she can’t make sense of it in her moral universe as she can the deaths of her other children.

Hecuba’s revenge against Polymestor does not reflect a change in her virtue. Her revenge is a just expression of her agency. She no longer wants to be a passive observer as her eudaimonia is broken down by various atrocities. She takes matters into her own hands, and kills Polymestor’s sons and blinds him. This does not mean she has lost her virtue, as her revenge itself is a just act. She has no legal recourse to seek retribution against Polymestor, and thus this is the only way she has to punish him for his crimes. Agamemnon, the Greek leader, judges the act and declares it to have been just, telling Polymestor, “You commited a brutal crime; / therefore accept the consequences of your act” (Hecuba 1251-1252). Even her motivations remain the same. Her eudaimonia is driven by her family, and this act of revenge is just a different expression of her love for her family. Since she can no longer protect her children, she can avenge them. Euripides is making a point that one’s actions and goals may change, but one’s virtue and character stays the same. Notably, Greek tragedy often sought to demonize women in revenge stories, such as Clytemnestra and Antigone, yet Euripides validates Hecuba’s maternal rage, even going as far to uphold it as just. Through misfortunes and tribulations, virtue remains unshaken by damage to one’s eudaimonia.

Michele Dale