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The Revenge of the Trojan Women

In response to:

The Art of Risk from the June 14, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Much as I enjoyed Glen Bowersock’s review of Grief Lessons, Anne Carson’s translations of four plays by Euripides [NYR, June 14], he made two assertions that need to be challenged. First he writes of Hekabe that Polymestor, who had murdered Hekabe’s son Polydoros, is lured into Hekabe’s tent: “He thought he would be safe there, but, as Hekabe had planned, the women kill him.” Actually the women do not kill him. Polymestor is held down and watches as his two sons are killed, and then Hekabe blinds him. Polymestor demands justice and a makeshift court is set up by Agamemnon. Unknown to Polymestor, Hekabe has already won Agamemnon to her side and Polymestor loses his case and is exiled. In a brilliant example of Euripides’ moral “flux” we watch as victim (Hekabe) becomes victimizer and as victimizer (Polymestor) becomes victim. Euripides denies us the easy melodrama of the villain receiving poetic justice and forces us to acknowledge two sets of murders against innocent children in a very gray moral universe. The second assertion Bowersock makes is that Euripides missed a chance to present a more sympathetic and developed Clytemnestra: “If he could elicit sympathy for Medea, think what he might have done with Clytemnestra” and mentions only his Elektra and Orestes. In fact, of Euripides’ final two plays, both produced posthumously and awarded first place at the festival, one was Iphigeneia in Aulis. In this tragedy Euripides creates a brilliant portrait of Clytemnestra in which he elicits tremendous sympathy.

Steven Burch

Department of Theatre and Dance

University of Alabama

Tuscaloosa, Alabama

Glen Bowersock replies:

I am grateful to Steven Dedalus Burch for his sharp observations on my remarks about Polymestor and Clytaemnestra. I should not have said that Hekabe and her Trojan women actually killed Polymestor, when they killed his two sons and blinded him. But I have to point out that the chorus in Hekabe explicitly described what happened to Polymestor as a kind of killing. In lines 1027 and 1033 of the Greek they twice speak of his losing his life. In line 1121 Polymestor himself tells Agamemnon that Hekabe has destroyed him, and he goes on to say “not destroyed me, but worse than that.” In other words, Hekabe and her women meted out a revenge that was even more terrible than the straightforward killings of Polymestor’s two sons. I am less certain than Burch that Euripides seriously expected his audience at this point to view Polymestor as a victim, rather than as a criminal who has received his just deserts from courageous women.

As for Clytemnestra, Burch plausibly suggests that I might have mentioned the Iphigeneia in Aulis, in addition to the Elektra and Orestes, to reinforce my point about Euripides’ sympathetic reimagining of Clytemnestra. I had been thinking more of the murder of Agamemnon, and besides there are problems with the Euripidean authorship of some parts of that posthumous play. I might take this occasion to note that Anne Carson has recently completed a translation of Orestes.

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