While scholars have noted that Euripides’ Helen is indebted to epic (Homer) and lyric (Stesichorus), I suggest that an additional model for the play comes from the unlikely source of comedy, Aristophanes’ Acharnians, and that when Euripides incorporates the very tropes that Aristophanes had parodied in Acharnians into Helen, he is engaging in a dialogue with Aristophanes concerning the appropriate use and effectiveness of dramatic costuming. This argument adds to the growing scholarship on paracomedy, tragedy’s appropriation of elements from comedy (Scharffenberger 1996; Sommerstein 2002).
Aristophanes' Acharnians 393-479, in which Dicaeopolis visits Euripides to acquire assistance in persuading the elderly Acharnians, parodies Euripides' prominent use of rags in his early plays (e.g. Telephus, Bellerophon) by treating the rags metatheatrically as costumes (enskeuazō 'dress in a costume or disguise', Ach. 384) and portraying them as increasingly wretched and beggarly. Dicaeopolis declares that his costume must be as wretched as possible (athliōtatos, 384), and rejects rag after rag for not being wretched enough, desiring something 'more wretched' (athliōteros, 420) than Oeneus' rags, 'more wretched' (athliōteros, 422) than Phoenix's rags, and 'more beggarly' (ptōchisteros, 425) than Philoctetes' rags, eventually selecting the most wretched rags of Telephus.
Additionally, Aristophanes characterizes Euripides' rag costumes as 'old-fashioned' (palaios, 415), a word that was used as a metapoetic form of literary criticism (Wright 2012; Torrance 2013), and made Dicaeopolis adopt old-fashioned rags which were suited to his old-fashioned audience of elderly Acharnians (Ach. 179-181; 219-222; 286; 375). By doing so, Aristophanes asserts his own mastery over Euripides in regard to costumes and dramatic techniques in a form of costume control (Compton-Engle 2003).
In Helen, I propose that Euripides deliberately re-appropriates the elements Aristophanes had mocked by presenting Menelaus as Aristophanes' caricature of a tragic hero in rags: a beggar (ptōchos, Hel. 790) who becomes increasingly wretched. Menelaus’ wretchedness compounds in the same way that the wretchedness of the rag costumes compounds in Acharnians. Menelaus begins as 'wretched' (athlios, 49) since he had to retrieve Helen from Troy, then becomes more wretched after he is shipwrecked and discovers another Helen of Sparta (athliai, 483-4), still more wretched when he must become a beggar ('one thing caps all my other wretchedness', athliai, 510), and most wretched when he fears he might be killed (athliōtatos, 804), even metapoetically displaying awareness of the vast quantities of his wretchedness (957-8).
Menelaus' appropriation of Aristophanes' parodic tragic hero culminates when he assumes the costume that Dicaeopolis selected as the most wretched - that of Telephus. When Menelaus quotes Telephus fr. 697 at Helen 1079-1080, I suggest that Menelaus redefines his rags as a theatrical costume, offering metatheatrical commentary similar to Aristophanes’ Acharnians. Here, Euripides borrows another Aristophanic trick whereby a character’s costume determines his identity, a rarity in tragedy (Wyles 2011). When Dicaeopolis dons the rags of Telephus he immediately adopts Telephus’ persona and is filled with rhetorical skill (Ach. 446-447; cf. Thesm. 146-174, Ran. 494-500), and when Menelaus dons the rags of Telephus, he actually becomes a beggar instead of following the tragic trope of seeming to be a beggar while maintaining his original identity (cf. Telephus fr. 698). Euripides even goes so far as to transform the wretchedness (to athlion, Hel. 1082) of Menelaus’ rags into a benefit, and to metapoetically claim that his own plot is innovative (kainos, Hel. 1513), in a response to Aristophanes’ charges of ‘old-fashionedness’.
The correspondences between Acharnians and Helen are distinctive through their use of the same vocabulary, plots, and conceptions of costume - a beggar-hero wearing the rags of Telephus, who undergoes ever-increasing wretchedness and allows his own costume of rags determine his identity. By using paracomedy, Euripides is not being humorous, but engaging in cross-generic rivalry. Euripides nullifies Aristophanes’ paratragic attempt to dominate him and asserts that a costume of wretched rags, far from being trite and ineffective, can create a novel and compelling tragic plot.
Comedy and Comic Receptions