Adapting Hecuba: Where Do Problems Begin?

Nancy Nanney
West Virginia University at Parkersburg

Conference Presentation
video: Randolph College

PDF of the Script

For the 2001 NEH summer seminar on “Literature and Values,” which I attended at the University of North Carolina, one of the selected readings was Euripides’ Hecuba (425 or 424 BCE), translated by Janet Lembke and Kenneth J. Reckford. As group leader for the Hecuba discussion, I created a short script that brings the original play into focus from modern, ethical points of view. The seminar participants were all assigned character roles and read their parts as if we were at a prerehearsal meeting.  In this way, the “companion” script served as a prelude to a fuller examination of the ethical issues encountered in the play. In devising the dialogue, I took some liberties in considering Hecuba in both its own time (when staged in ancient Greece) and the present. Since the seminar, I have regularly taught Euripides’ Hecuba in my university courses. After students read the original play, I use the teaching script (revised over the years) in class as a discussion motivator. An updated version, akin to what was presented at the 2010 Ancient Drama in Performance Conference at Randolph College, is included here and may be further adapted at any reader’s discretion.

In particular, the teaching script for Hecuba, though brief, brings to light certain less-frequently discussed aspects of the original play. One especially highlighted sequence of events occurs farther back in time than those usually addressed in relation to Hecuba: that is, how King Priam and Queen Hecuba treat their infant son Paris. As the legend (but not the play) tells the story, the pregnant Hecuba has a disturbing dream of a firebrand that sets fire to all of Troy. A seer interprets the dream as foretelling that the royal infant will, in time, bring about the city’s ruin. This devastating prospect prompts the king to give his newborn son to a shepherd, Agelaus, with instructions to kill the child. However, rather than kill Paris outright, Agelaus leaves him to die on Mt. Ida. Yet Paris does not die, and, amazed to see the infant still alive after lying alone for several days, Agelaus decides instead to raise the boy himself, as a shepherd.

Not surprisingly, this legendary tale has generated different versions. In one, Paris later comes to Troy and is allowed to compete in a sporting event, organized coincidentally in memory of his own presumed death. At this time, Paris’s true identity is revealed. Thus, the youthful herdsman wins not just the match but also his place back in the royal family, since Priam accepts his return.1 Perhaps the king is so impressed by his son’s youthful prowess that he ignores the dire prophecy, or perhaps parental guilt finally enters the picture.  In this version of the tale, it is apparently from Troy that Paris (perhaps still identified as a “herdsman”) returns to Mt. Ida to judge a beauty contest at Zeus’s request. Among the three contestants, each a goddess with a “bribe,” Paris chooses Aphrodite as the winner. Aphrodite in turn grants Paris her own special prize: the opportunity to bring the captivating but already-married Helen back to Troy2 (with accounts varying as to whether she comes as an abducted woman or consensually). Of course, Menelaus is angered that his wife has been taken from Sparta and, along with his brother Agamemnon, amasses a Greek military force to punish Troy and reclaim Helen.  Indeed, by most versions, it is “The Judgment of Paris” that is deemed the cause of the Trojan War, leading to the defeat of Troy after ten years of battle.

In Euripides’ Hecuba, there is no clear mention of the queen’s frightening firebrand dream, her newborn’s prophesied role in Troy’s demise, or her and Priam’s decision that their infant son should die. Euripides’ preference not to add further complexity to his multiplot tragedy suggests that the playwright may have wanted to avoid dealing with the issue of a far-reaching fate. After all, Euripides portrays Hecuba, at least at first, as a sympathetic character unburdened by the parental decision she and Priam made about Paris many years before. Hecuba’s present burdens—the loss of her husband and sons in the Trojan war, the total destruction of their kingdom, and her own current enslavement, along with that of her daughters and other Trojan women, by the Greeks—are overwhelming enough. To question her earlier actions—or even lay partial blame on her for how she and Priam reacted to the seer’s interpretation of her dream—might detract from the more immediate postwar concerns in the play. Curiously, however, when we first meet Hecuba, she is still disturbed by menacing dreams, although their interpretation appears connected to other miseries: the sacrifice of her virgin daughter Polyxena to Achilles’ ghost and the murder of her young son Polydorus by his deceitful Thracian protector, King Polymestor.

Even though Paris is not a stage character in Euripides’ play, there is still mention of him by the Chorus and Hecuba. According to the Chorus of enslaved Trojan women, their disastrous fate was sealed “The moment the pines on Mt. Ida/ Were cut down by Paris/ To build the ship he would steer through high waves/ To the bed of Helen.”3  The Chorus then explains that this plan came about “when Paris, a herdsman on Ida,/ Judges three daughters of gods.”4 Thus, it is clear that in Euripides’ Hecuba, Paris is still a “herdsman” when he makes his fateful judgment; most likely he had not yet returned to Troy to assume his role as a royal prince. In this case, other questions might come to mind: what compels Paris to bring Helen to Troy and how do his parents react to his “homecoming”? Do they welcome Helen? Are they pleased to possess in their midst the pride of Greece? Have Priam and Hecuba grown so confident in their long-term reign that they no longer fear their son? Over the centuries, the answers—and questions—may change, but the curiosity this play inspires is ever present.

For example, there is a section in which Hecuba acknowledges some role in the disasters at hand. When pleading with Odysseus to reverse the army’s decision to sacrifice Polyxena, Hecuba tells the Greek leader that she, rather than her daughter, should be sacrificed: “Kill me without a qualm./ I gave birth to Paris/ Whose arrows shot down Achilles.”5 One assumes, however, that she does not really blame Paris for killing Achilles during the course of the war—although one may wonder how she feels at this point about having given birth to Paris in the first place. If so, this is indeed a subtle reference to the prophecy; more likely, she simply wants to save Polyxena and is willing to die in her place. In fact, later in the play we hear Hecuba praising all of her sons and showing pride in her role as their mother: “O Priam, you owned wealth and beauty, you fathered/ strong sons, and I, gone grey, was their mother.”6

Regardless, however, of the fact that Euripides does not specifically mention the fearful episode surrounding Paris’s birth, a modern interpreter may be reluctant to dispense with Priam and Hecuba’s quick choice of infanticide (even though Paris survives). Today a critic might probe Priam and Hecuba’s drastic parental decision for its ethical implications in subsequent dramatic events, including the eventual destruction of Troy. In addition, the foretelling of the infant Paris’s destructive future is obviously reminiscent of the prophecy that sets the Oedipus tale in motion. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (429 BCE) was staged in Athens only four or five years before Hecuba. In both plots, the young men—Oedipus and Paris—are recognized for forming inappropriate relationships with women. As is easily recalled, Oedipus, after killing his father, marries his mother and fathers four children incestuously; Paris steals—or entices—Menelaus’s wife. Of course, Oedipus does not know until much later that Jocasta is his mother (the marriage having been “won” once he solves the riddle of the Sphinx). In the Trojan case, Paris apparently feels compulsively drawn to Helen after “winning” her with Aphrodite’s assistance.

There is, however, a kind of “payback” for both Oedipus and Paris in terms of the misfortunes that strike their families and states. That is, the infanticide prescribed by their parents in response to a prophecy (troubling as the prophecy was) may be seen to undermine the ethos of family loyalty and the state as protector. If choosing to kill one’s own child can be considered “acceptable,” what does this say about the ethical underpinnings of a society? Is this where problems begin for both Thebes and Troy? On the other hand, allowing for a residual culture of prophecy in 5th-century Greece, an ancient might argue that it is better to let a single person (especially an infant that has not yet substantially invested in life) die than to risk a multitude of deaths, that fate is unstoppable in any case (ergo, Oedipus and Paris were not yet destined to die no matter what actions their parents took), or that safeguarding the family and state overrides any presumed rights due an individual. This then is the point: whether Priam and Hecuba have, in this case, the parental—or royal—prerogative to decide and arrange for their son’s death is an arguable matter (from both ancient and modern perspectives) and not a simple, “understandable under the circumstances” fait accompli that can be relegated to old news. So, upon review, was it the couple’s treatment of Paris that contributed to the fall of Troy and the ashen aftermath—rather than an inflamed dream?

Indeed, whatever Euripides’ reason for leaving direct reference to Paris’s “death sentence” out of the script, Priam and Hecuba’s actions—their “solution”—still raises questions centuries later regarding the consequences for both individuals and groups. For example, in Michael Tippett’s 1962 modern opera King Priam, Priam expresses sincere regret for making the decision that his son must die; in this version of the tale, Priam clearly experiences fatherly compassion for Paris as well as a troubled conscience about authorizing the infant’s murder;7 Priam is not put fully at ease by the justification that murdering one for the sake of many is acceptable. In contrast, after hearing the seer’s interpretation of her distressing dream, Hecuba (in Tippett’s version) quickly disowns her newborn baby in an effort to ensure the safety of her husband and city. Later in the opera, Priam and his eldest son Hector are on a hunting trip when they meet the herdsman Paris, whose true identity is revealed. Priam is overjoyed that the young man has survived after all and decides to bring him back into the family fold, whatever the consequences. Later in the final act, Priam acknowledges that he chose fate, highlighting the issue of “choice” in life. While acknowledging the troubling nature of Priam and Hecuba’s initial decision to have Paris killed, the opera also recognizes the endurance of the father-son relationship, in this case apparently overshadowing that of mother and son.

Even a staging that remains close to Euripides’ script can have extended significance for contemporary communities. In 1995, the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco staged Hecuba, under Carey Perloff’s direction, with a clear reference to the Bosnian War. The chorus was performed by the KITKA vocal ensemble, an established female acappella group that draws inspiration from the music of Eastern Europe. Tippett’s interpretation, with its focus on individual choice, and the American Conservatory Theatre’s production, with its relevance to communal conflict, are just two examples of the legend’s adaptability across time, place, and genre.

In the teaching script (PDF), this underlying issue of child neglect (call it endangerment or abandonment), among the many other questions raised in Euripides’ play, is left purposely—and perhaps provocatively—unanswered. What might people do today if confronted by a prophetic vision that their child will cause them, their family, and their community irreparable harm? For a modern viewer it might be simple to say: “I don’t believe in seers.” In reply, one might argue that people still need to know how to deal with potential troublemakers—who are often themselves deeply troubled. Some individuals may be marginalized or go unrecognized for the threat they present until, in very unfortunate cases, they resort to extreme measures to address their personal/societal frustrations, as seen in the Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Tucson, and Norway attacks. What can help alleviate an individual’s mounting fears, frustrations, and compulsions? In fact, one lesson to be drawn from Hecuba is that “avoidance” is not the solution. Was Paris intent on “stealing” Helen because his mother had been “stolen” from him early in life? Did he need to find a woman he could possess without fear of abandonment, despite the cost? Was knowingly endangering others a way of “paying back” for his own endangerment as an infant? Perhaps not. Still, considering what happened to Paris before he was even born and soon thereafter need not be avoided in an analysis of Euripides’ thought-provoking drama.8

We continue to study, perform, and critique Greek tragedy as script and performance not only because its actions are so intense and unnerving but also because its motivations are so deeply human and the ethical concerns it raises remain strikingly relevant. Still, from a 21st-century perspective, with multiple psychosocial theories at hand, the answers are not always clear cut. The use of a teaching script, even one written in a somewhat “over-the-top” manner, may assist students in thinking through a play’s spectrum of issues. As evidenced in Hecuba, Greek dramacontinues to challenge our own concepts of “being human” as we deal with the psychological and social complexities of contemporary life.


1 Greek Mythology Index, s.v. “Paris,” mythology/P/Paris.html (accessed August 3, 2011).

2 Andrew Brown, A New Companion to Greek Tragedy (Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble Books, 1983), 144.

3 Euripides, Hecuba, trans. Janet Lembke and Kenneth J. Reckford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), lines 669-672.

4 Ibid., 681-682.

5 Ibid., 415-416.

6 Ibid., 658-659

7 Synopses (English National Opera), s.v. “King Priam Synopsis,” (accessed August 3, 2011).

8 Related issues come to the fore in Lucy Thurber’s new play The Insurgents, which had its world premiere at the 2011 Contemporary American Theatre Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. In this play, a young woman is forced to leave college when, because of an injury, she loses her athletic scholarship. Returning to a dysfunctional family and feeling not only her own loss but the loss of a civilization, she grows increasingly fearful and frustrated in her isolation and, in her mind, identifies with a broad spectrum of insurgents. A reunited family and renewed sense of social engagement may, in time, turn this potential, gun-toting “troublemaker” into a constructive, non-violent citizen.


A PDF of this piece: Volume 8, Number 23.