The Trojan Women is a Greek tragedy by Euripides, one of the most popular playwrights of his time, about the destruction of Troy by the Greeks (the Trojan War). The play takes place in Troy, just after the Trojans’ defeat. Euripides follows the fate of the women of Troy after their city has been destroyed, after their husbands and sons have been killed, and as they await their division and enslavement by the Greeks.
I’ve been interested in Greek tragedies lately for my research project (related to ethics and philosophy) and asked Davis to find tickets to see a live Greek tragedy in Chicago. He tracked down a production of The Trojan Women (adapted by Sartre) at Three Crows Theater in Evanston, IL.
You can look at the original play here, if you’d like.
What I like about Greek tragedies is that there are SO MANY lessons to be learned and applied and they are 100% applicable to life today. Really, they’re timeless little pieces of philosophy in story form.
Here’s a little information about some of the characters to give you a some context:
Poseidon and Athena
Opening the play, Poseidon strategizes with Athena ways to punish the Greek armies after misconduct during the war. We don’t see him much for the rest of the play, but Poseidon does return to deliver the conclusion to the audience at the end of the play.
Hecuba, Queen of Troy
Distraught throughout most of the play, with some glimmers of hope, Hecuba comes to terms with her fate as a fallen queen-turned-slave. She blames Helen for the war (conveniently overlooking her son’s role in bringing Helen to Troy).
Paris, Prince of Troy and son of Hecuba
Paris died during the war, leaving behind his mother and Helen. Menelaus’ revenge on Paris for stealing his wife caused the destruction of Troy.
Menelaus, King of Sparta
After the Greek army defeats Troy, Menelaus returns to retrieve Helen and administer punishment for her betrayal. Helen manipulates him and they return, as a couple, to Sparta.
Helen of Troy, formerly Helen of Sparta
Considered the most beautiful woman in the world in Greek mythology, Helen left her husband, Menelaus, to be with Paris in Troy. She spends the majority of her role in the play trying to defend her actions by blaming the gods and manipulating Menelaus into not punishing her. We never see her or anyone else accept personal responsibility for their role in causing the war.
Cassandra, Princess of Troy and daughter of Hecuba
Having supernatural powers to foresee the future, Cassandra isn’t worried about Sparta receiving their punishment for their conduct because she has had visions of them being punished.
Talthybius, Herald of the Greeks
Popping in and out of scenes throughout the play to deliver information about the fate of the Trojan women and their future as slaves to the Greeks, Talthybius takes a don’t-shoot-the-messenger stance, showing no bravery or integrity.
Chorus- Captive Trojan Women
The Trojan Women share bits of their grief with us, following Hecuba’s lead, throughout the play.
Here are the lessons I took away from The Trojan Women combined with some further research and real-life applications:
- Do not seek vengeance
From the play:
Vengeance is sought by Menelaus, the King of Sparta, after his wife Helen –attracted to the opulent living of the royalty in Troy– leaves the King for Paris, the handsome Prince of Troy. This is cited throughout the play as the cause of the war between Troy and Sparta.
Hecuba, Queen of Troy and mother of Paris, wishes harm on Helen, who she views as responsible for the King of Sparta’s actions of war against Troy. You know, typical mother-in-law issues. She can’t wait for Helen to be punished.
In Berkeley’s Science of Happiness course, vengeance is shown to be a negative and unhelpful reaction and a symptom of an inability to forgive an offender.
Unforgiveness is associated with a negative emotional state that increases blood pressure and heart rate. It also leads to release of cortisol, the stress hormone. Basically, it’s really bad for your health!
Studies have shown that forgiveness decreases nervousness, restlessness, and sadness while increasing well being. (1)
Seeking vengeance isn’t good for anyone involved, including you. You don’t have to absolve a person from their wrongdoings, but you’ll have much better personal and work relationships if you learn to speak calmly about your issues with others and make a conscious effort to forgive instead of seeking vengeance or cutting ties.
- Stop thinking that evil always wins
From the play:
One of the Trojan Women repeats “crime pays” in the last scene of Sartre’s adaptation of the play when it’s clear to her that the gods will not punish the Spartans for their unjust behavior. Hecuba reminds her that Troy will be remembered forever and it will be known that the Greeks acted wrongly. And this play serves as the vehicle for communicating that knowledge!
There are a TON of instances of crime paying in the short term and punishing in the long term. Just take a look at current events that involve Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Martin Shkreli and EpiPen, Roger Ailes (once called one of the “worst Americans ever”), and Sophia Amoruso of Nasty gal –just to name a few. Some of these issues are still working themselves out, but these people fell hard and fast. And there’s a lot more where that came from.
Crime and wrongdoing ALWAYS have a price. We just tend to not see the punishment because it’s often hiding behind money, which we give people WAY too much credit for possessing.
Unethical people pay the price of their decisions through erosion of relationships, lack of happiness, and poor mental and physical health. Plus, the fall to the bottom is hard once people find out how awful you are.
Accepting the false narrative that corruption and dishonesty is all a part of success isn’t fair to you or the society you live in. Be careful when you make decisions because every action has a reaction.
- Come to terms with the fact that materialism corrupts (and that includes you)
From the play:
Helen is attracted to the opulent living in Troy and the physical attractiveness of Paris, Prince of Troy. She abandons her husband and her home for shallow desires.
In the end, she is hated by both the Greeks and Trojans, with both sides wishing her harm, but her grip is tight as she manipulates them with her beauty and deceptiveness. Helen lives despite Menelaus’ resolve to put her to death (he is weak) but her reputation lives on.
Studies have shown that we experience a short-term increase in happiness right after we buy something, but we then return to our baseline happiness level very soon after. Money only boosts happiness when it brings and individual out of an impoverished situation. Otherwise, it doesn’t impact happiness at all. (2)
What does lead to happiness is strong social ties and belonging to a strong community. Friendship activates oxytocin, which reduces stress hormones, and is one of the most powerful determinants of happiness. (1)
By realizing the science behind consumption, we can curtail our focus of attainment of physical items and refocus our efforts on building relationships. Change your whole outlook on what your work means to you and, once your priority transitions from the paycheck to relationships and doing good, you’ll see how much more fulfilled your are in your work.
- Expediency is punishable
From the play:
Helen left Greece to live a better life in Troy (comfort-wise) and was quick to manipulate Menelaus and tell him her actions were the fault of the gods instead of her own fault because she feared being punished.
Humans naturally desire to punish people who act with expediency and self-interest. We are naturally compassionate creatures but we also choose who we exclude from that compassion –often those who display selfish behaviors. (1)
In addition, those who accept fault for their wrongdoings and make the effort to ask for forgiveness have stronger social ties and better relationships, which leads to greater well-being in lots of areas, including mental and physical health and stronger support networks. (1)
Caring about others does pay off –don’t be fulled by what you see on the surface with self-oriented people. They do pay the price in some way…you just aren’t witnessing the punishment. You’ll be more successful at work when you begin to truly care about the people you work with. You might even find that others will begin to root for your success instead of being unnecessarily competitive with you.
If you haven’t already, work on your apology skills. An effective apology includes:
- Remorse, shame, and/or humility
- Acknowledgement of offense and accepting of responsibility
- Offering of empathy/explanation
- Undoing of the harm: offering of compensation/reparation
- Reassuring that there is low likelihood of recurrence (3)
5. Align your values with your actions
From the play:
Talthybius, herald of the Greeks, continuously returns to deliver more bad news to the Trojan women, including the pending execution of the child heir to the throne due to the Greeks’ fear of future retaliation and announcements of future owners for the women’s enslavement.
We also continuously see Talthybius ask the women not to blame him because he is simply the messenger and is only communicating the King’s commands.
Talthybius’ don’t-shoot-the-messenger approach reminds me of research that has been done in the area of value and action alignment, as well as a concept called flow, which posits that we are happiest when we can throw ourselves into something that we truly value and believe in.
I see a lot of people in employment situations where they have to do and support things that they explicitly do not agree with and they are afraid to make a career change because it’s not fun looking for a new job or making a career move.
Ultimately, it’s far more detrimental to stay on the path that clearly doesn’t work for you. A person who is in the right work is excited to get up in the morning and make progress on a project that they are passionate about and that their skills and interests are aligned with.
What’s your favorite Greek tragedy? Tweet at me with your thoughts.
- Berkeley’s Science of Happiness course on EdX
- David Myers’s The American Paradox
- Aaron Lazare’s On Apology
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow
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