Analysis of Euripides' "Helen"
"What Are the Phantoms That
We Are After?"
Greek Literature has always treated the name and character of Helen
with ambiguity. On the one hand, she is represented as an eternal
symbol of beauty, mystery, and charming enchantment; on the other,
she is viewed as the "femme fatale" par excellence, the
manifestation of Hesiod's 'beautiful evil', the perpetual spark
igniting conflict, war and destruction.
According to the legend, which is followed by Homer and most of
the later writers, Helen had abandoned her Greek husband, and ran
away to Troy with the handsome prince Paris. To bring her back,
the Greeks organized a big expedition, which resulted in a long,
destructive war, the "Trojan War." Ever since, this has
become the mythical archetype of any war, the symbol of the perennial
conflict of East and West, and it has been inextricably connected
with Helen's beauty and unfaithfulness.
As in most cases, here too, Euripides departs from the tradition,
creating his own version of the story of Helen. Using some elements
he finds in Stesichorus, the sixth century BC lyrical poet, and
in Herodotus, the fifth century historian, he freely improvises,
and he creates a new story in which illusion and surprise play a
dominant role. So, in Euripides' play, Helen was never unfaithful,
she never went to Troy herself-her phantom did- and, like another
Penelope, she is patiently waiting for her husband in Egypt, where
she had been supernaturally transported by Hera. So, here, the long
struggle of the Greeks against Troy becomes an illusion, a deception
of the senses, a nothingness. At the war's end, the only reward
for the Greeks is to recapture only the phantom of what they had
perceived as being the real Helen.
It becomes obvious then that, in this play too, Euripides is playing
with our perceptions and he is challenging us to question their
validity. In a misty atmosphere of fantasy and imagination he makes
it clear for us that what is beautiful and true, the real Helen,
cannot be attained through conflict, and that the illusion of war
will always leave us empty handed.
In this seminar we will look more closely at our own reality, and
we will seek to discover the nature of the phantoms we often pursue.