October 26, 2004

Summary – 'Helen' by Euripides

Book front cover
Helen (Greek Tragedy in New Translations)
Euripides Euripides
Not rated


Play begins with Helen in Egypt, explaining that it was not her who Paris took off to Troy, but a replica made out of ether by Aphrodite – the real Helen was taken to Egypt by Hermes and given to King Proteus, a virtuous man. Helen explains that as long as Proteus lived she was safe, but now that he is dead, the new king (his son) Theoclymenus wants to marry her. Teucer, a Greek shipwrecked from Troy, enters, recognising Helen and, believing her story, tells her that he thinks Menelaus is dead. Helen, stricken with grief, determines to go to the prophetess Theonoe (Theoclymenus’ sister) to ask about her husband, vowing to kill herself if Teucer’s fears prove to be true.

Meanwhile, a ruined Menelaus lands in Egypt and goes to the house of an old woman to beg for food. The women tells him that, as a Greek, he will be killed if found by the king, and also tells him that Helen of Troy is on the island. Menelaus is confused, but assumes it to be a different Helen. Helen re-enters, cheered by Theonoe’s news that Menelaus is alive, and then she sees her husband. Menelaus at first does not believe her story, but a messenger arrives and tells Menelaus that ‘Helen’ has disappeared into thin air, and so Menelaus embraces his wife. Helen explains to Menelaus that if they are found by Theoclymenus they will be killed, and, as Theonoe already knows that he is on the island, their only chance is to beg her not to tell her brother. Theonoe enters and, moved by their speeches, tells them that she will keep quiet. Helen hatches a plan to tell Theoclymenus that Menelaus has been shipwrecked and that she needs a boat from him to give funeral offerings to the sea, as is the Greek custom. Theoclymenus, seeing that Helen will have to marry him afterwards, agrees, and, thinking Menelaus is a slave who survived the shipwreck, allows him to accompany her.

After the ship has set sail, a messenger tells Theoclymenus that Menelaus and Helen have escaped thanks to Menelaus’ crew overpowering his Egyptians. Theoclymenus, realising that Theonoe has lied to him, vows to kill his sister, but he is prevented from doing so by the Dioscori (the deified Castor and Polydeuces), who explain that Theonoe was just performing the will of Hera. Theoclymenus accepts that Fate took Helen away from him just as Fate had brought her to him.

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