Euripides' Helen: tragedy or comedy?

by Rosie6409

Are the most important affinities of Euripides’ Helen with tragedy or with comedy?

When discussing genre there will always be some areas which create doubt or controversy, and as definitions can never be totally steadfast, there will always be exceptions. In the case of Euripides’ Helen, the debate lies in whether it should be classed as comedy or tragedy. In attempts to answer this question it has often been described as something in between the two, coining new terms such as tragicomedy, melodrama and escape-tragedy. Essentially, of course, Helen must be defined as a tragedy as this is how it was intended by Euripides, who was a tragedian. In ancient Greece there was no overlap between tragedy and comedy, a dramatist either wrote one or the other. Although in Plato’s Symposium Socrates puts forth the argument that it would be possible for one playwright to write both. However, it is made very clear that this did not happen, he merely suggests that it could be done. We know that the play was performed at a tragic festival, and therefore categorically must be defined as a tragedy. However, on closer reading of the play it becomes obvious that there is good reason for this definition being a little more difficult to place. Throughout the play many comic elements can be found, and the overall tone of the play does tend to be a little more light-hearted than your average tragedy.

The closest we can get to a definition of tragedy is that which we find in Aristotle’s Poetics, which states that the most important element to consider of a tragedy is the plot. In the plot of Helen we see many of the classic elements true to a tragedy, outlined by Aristotle as the most important are “reversal”, “discovery” and “calamity”. All of these features can be found in the Helen; a particularly fine example being the reversal of the real and ‘false’ Helens. This moment is accompanied by a double discovery; firstly for Menelaus as he discovers that his wife is still alive and faithful and secondly the solemn realisation that the whole Trojan war was fought for no good reason. This also serves to excite those two emotions that Aristotle is so fond of; fear and pity. The long speeches of lamentation from both Helen and Menelaus, as well as the scene with Teucer, immediately arouse our pity for the main characters, and this is intensified by the sympathy voiced by the chorus. The threat of Theoclymenus and the tense anxiety that the couple’s intricate plan will be discovered adds the element of fear to the play. Therefore by Aristotle’s standards Euripides has definitely produced a tragic plot.

Euripides as a playwright is renowned for creating vivid and interesting characters on stage, and studying them can help give us an insight into the play. The convention of tragedy is to portray characters of high and noble birth, and more specifically those who are famed either from true historical events or from mythology. The characters of Helen comply with this entirely, portraying Menelaus and Helen, two of the most renowned figures of the ancient world. Although slaves may be shown in tragedy they are often used as simple plot devices, such as messengers used to relate action that takes place offstage. They are commonly portrayed as foolish or ignorant, making the main highborn characters seem superior in comparison. In contrast comedy tend to centre around the actions of a normal man, and does not focus on characters of high birth. This is shown in Mercury’s Prologue to Plautus’ Amphitryo “For me to make it entirely to be a comedy, where Kings and Gods appear, I do not deem right”.

However, in the Helen we see an interesting reversal in this idea. Although the principle characters are indeed of high birth, they are not always portrayed with the highest dignity. The most obvious example of this being that of Menelaus appearing in rags and being forced to beg for food, putting him in the most ignoble of situations. Whereas it is the slaves that offer two of the most serious interventions in the play. Firstly after Menelaus and Helen are reunited, the slave is the first to draw attention to the fact that this means the whole Trojan war was in fact fought for no reason at all. Whilst Menelaus and Helen are happily revelling in having found one another again, it is the lowly slave who points out this solemn and poignant fact, one which is far too quickly passed over by Menelaus. His following speech is then one which displays real intelligence and informed understanding “having a mind, if not a name, that is free” (line 730). The same is seen again later in the play when Theoclymenus intends to kill his sister, Theonoe, and is confronted by his slave. The idea of a disobedient slave standing up to their master is surely something which is much more suited to a comedy than a tragedy. However although such a moment could be used to create humorous effects, Euripides chooses not to present this as at all comic. This presentation of the slave as a righteous and moral character undermining the authority of his master is something rarely seen in tragedy. Although this does not necessarily take the play any further away from its definition as a tragedy. Euripides is well known for breaking conventions and using innovative techniques in his plays, so this reversal of the normal status is hardly unexpected from such a playwright. The characterisation of Theoclymenus could also been seen as fairly comic, as the audience are induced to take delight in his downfall. He has been established as a cruel tyrant, he is the villain of the piece, and the audience are intended to sympathise with Menelaus and Helen. As we watch him being deceived, and the plan working out for Menelaus and Helen, his ignorance seems comic and his keen belief that he will soon marry Helen is ridiculous. In this respect parallels can be drawn between his character and that of Pentheus in Euripides’ The Bacchae, where Dionysus’ deception of Pentheus adds many humorous moments to the play.

The scene in the play that causes the most problems in the context of tragedy is that of Menelaus and the old woman at the door. It is at this point in the play that we see the most humorous moment that seems as though it would be much better suited to a comedy than a tragedy. In fact it seems reminiscent of one of the most comic scenes from Aristophanes’ Frogs when Dionysus and Xanthias are at the door of the palace of Hades. On first viewing this scene does seem humorous and out of place in a tragedy, especially when the old woman starts telling Menelaus off “Any minute now you’ll find yourself out on your ear!”(line 452). This ridiculousness of the situation, an old slave woman threatening and turning away one of the most powerful kings in Greece, is what makes this section of the play comic. On the other hand, this scene could be looked at as potentially a tragic one. The shame and humiliation that Menelaus must endure evokes great sympathy, especially given that we have just heard a long lament of all his misfortunes. This added with our concern for Menelaus, in that he may be discovered and killed by Theoclymenus, creates the perfect mixture of fear and pity that Aristotle so explicitly states as vital to a successful tragedy. Even if this scene was intended to be taken as comic, it is by no means the only tragedy where we see that small comic touches have been added. For example in Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers the nurse talks amusingly of toilet training, and in Sophocles’ Antigone there is a little humour added by the dithering speech of the guard. Whether Euripides’ own The Bacchae is comic has also been widely discussed, however there is never any doubt into whether it should be classified as a tragedy. In fact, despite the many innovations made by Euripides in The Bacchae there is no doubt as to its genre, even though it doesn’t strictly adhere to conventional rules. In comparison Helen’s comic elements seems to be just another little twist made by Euripides on the traditional rules of tragedy, and much to be expected.

Even though the overall tone of the play may be slightly light-hearted, the message at the centre of the play is a great deal more tragic and poignant. A clear theme that runs through the play is the number of people that have suffered as innocent victims due to Helen and the Trojan war. Of course once it is established that Helen did not in fact go to Troy, then it becomes clear that the whole, long war was fought for no reason; the ten years of war and death needn’t have happened. The thousands of men that were killed in battle due to Helen’s phantom are mentioned many times in the play, particularly by Helen, who although she is blameless cannot help by feel the responsibility given the sheer extent of the harm caused. There are also many other specific victims that are exhibited in the play. The first example of this is Teucer, who seems to serve little purpose in the play other than to bring Helen news of her family. Teucer speaks of his misfortune, with his brother Ajax having killed himself, leaving Teucer to be exiled by his own father. He also brings the news that Helen’s mother, Leda, has killed herself out of sorrow due to the shame her daughter has brought. On top of this Helen’s brothers, the Dioscuri, it seems have also committed suicide although they may have become immortal in the process. All of these personal grievances are portrayed to the audience, and are all essentially due to Helen. As well as all of this, Menelaus and Helen must also be included as victims, and their misfortunes are greatly lamented in the play, for each of them has gone through equally long drawn out suffering. Despite all the comic touches to the play, the fact still remains that a whole city has been totally wiped out all for the sake of a phantom. By displaying the victims of the Trojan war throughout the play, the audience are constantly reminded of the solemn nature of the play and therefore not allowing any of the humour to become too substantial.

The difficulties of defining the play’s genre are accentuated by fact that the play ends happily. If we are to follow closely to Aristotle’s definition of tragedy then the perfect tragedy should have an unhappy ending, most probably due to the main character’s fall from prosperity to misfortune. As Aristotle says “this is the right procedure…plays of this kind seem most tragic”, but this does not rule out the idea of a happy ending altogether. In fact there are many tragedies which can be seen to have happy endings, such as the end of The Eumenides by Aeschylus in which Orestes is acquitted of his crime, or Euripides’ Alcestis when Alcestis is brought back to life to be reunited with her husband, Admetos. In the same way it cannot be said that a comedy is defined by its happy ending, as we can see from Aristophanes’ The Clouds which is actually a comedy that ends badly. Therefore the genre of a play cannot be defined by its ending, although most often they do conform to unfortunate endings for tragedy and light-hearted or happy for comedy. On the other hand, the ending of the Helen could be interpreted as a sad one all the same. This is especially true of the disturbing and violent slaughter that is reported by the messenger, when Menelaus kills all the men on the ship despite the fact that they are innocent and unarmed. This needless killing seems a fairly dubious victory for Menelaus and Helen, and also works to remind the audience of the brutality of the Trojan war. Yet more victims have been added to Helen’s conscience, and for another rather sinister moment in the play it seems that Theonoe will have to pay the price and be killed by her brother. Even the supposed happy ending has some dark connotations, preventing the play from becoming too optimistic.

Taking the play from a purely contextual sense, it is to be classed as a tragedy, and its form and structure reflect this. It still remains that the essential message of the play is incredibly tragic, raising many disturbing questions about the pointlessness of war. Although it is clear that there are moments when comic elements have been introduced in order to lighten the mood slightly, this by no means detracts from the play’s status as a tragedy. If anything these moments serve as a way of intensifying the tragedy by means of contrast, as Wright expresses they act as “momentary release from tension and also cast the grimmer, darker moments into sharper relief” ('Euripides' escape tradegies' by Matthew Wright - Oxford,2005). Euripides has in the Helen, like in many other of his plays, experimented with a few slightly different ideas, but the play is still first and foremost a tragedy.

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