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Acoustic Ironies in Euripides’ Trojan Women

Emily Allen-Hornblower

Throughout Euripides’ Trojan Women, a wide array of gloomy sounds reflect the dire mood that attends the devastating portrayal of the fall of Troy, and mark the decisive moments and tremendous impact of its annihilation (Poole 1976; Davidson 2001). As they prepare to embark on the Greek ships, the chorus of captive women provide a mournful undertone to the entire play with their piteous lament (Suter 2003). The river Scamander echoes their wails (28-9), and the beaches groan like a bird crying for its young (825). Yet the play offers more to its audience than a univocal tune of misery. Interspersed within the fabric of somber sounds and desperate voices that engulf the city, a number of joyful notes are struck, whether they are sung, shouted out, or played on musical instruments. Only those endowed with a special form of knowledge — the audience, the gods, or Cassandra — are privy to their incongruity, while those that give voice to their jubilation remain as deaf to the muted, dissonant nature of their cries and songs as they are blind to their forthcoming doom.

We might call the jarring juxtaposition of gleeful tunes with events whose darkness remains invisible “acoustic ironies.” These play a crucial role in pointing up the central leitmotivs underlying the tragedy: the blindness of mortals to the long-term significance of a given event (past, present, or future), and the rapidly shifting nature of fate. In the moment of Troy’s capture, Euripides encapsulates the Trojans’ misguided impression that victory is at hand in their euphoric shout (521–2), and in the maidens’ cheerful strains as they dance to the tune of the Libyan pipe (543–6). Even as they embrace deceitful death (529–30), the Trojans’ mirthful songs of triumph inadvertently give voice to the exultation that the silent Greeks hiding within the Trojan horse are suppressing in their chests. Soon, a “bloody shout” shrouds the city (555–7), when the Trojans realize that the wooden beast actually brings with it death and defeat. In the end, the fallen city echoes Hecuba frantically beating the ground (1306), as Troy’s walls crumble with a thud (1325).

Cassandra’s discordant wedding song is a special case: it is only incongruous to the unknowing ear of other mortals (Papadopoulou 2000). The sardonic exultation of her frenzied singing in so dismal a context confounds her mother — only because Hecuba does not know what the audience has heard from the mouths of Poseidon and Athena in the prologue: that the Greeks, like the Trojans, fall victim to a deluded sense of triumph (88–91). For them, too, the very sounds that express happiness will soon turn out to have been preludes to impending death and destruction. The resounding tune of the trumpet (1266–7) that signals the much-awaited time for the Greeks to sail home is a seemingly unambiguous marker of victory and joy, which simultaneously signals the moment in which the defeated Trojan women must bid farewell to their fatherland. Unbeknownst to the euphoric Achaeans, however, the trumpet is a harbinger of woes to come for them as well: it heralds the time when the ships that brought the Achaeans to Ilion (122) are to be launched on water once again (1332), only to fill its depths with bodies: soon, the deep bay of Euboea will be filled with Greek corpses (84). Hecuba describes the music that accompanied the Greek ships to Troy as “a hateful paean of flutes and the hateful voice of tuneful pipes” (122–7); it will soon prove equally hateful to the Achaeans, when it becomes clear that it marked the beginning of a ruinous expedition for victor and victim alike. No wonder Hecuba likens mortals and their shifting world to a madman, “dancing like an idiot” (1205–6), to a tune that we can only assume to be chaotic, whose true significance remains obscure until it is too late.  

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Voice and Sound in Classical Greece

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