Two major strands in scholarship on Euripides’ Helen downplay its emotional aspects in different ways. On the one hand, emphasis on the play’s engagement with philosophical issues privileges intellectual over emotional effects (Solmsen 1934, Segal 1971, Downing 1990), and on the other hand, attention to its tragicomic or melodramatic qualities privileges plot over character (Kitto 1961: 311-29, Arnott 1990, Pucci 1997, Marshall 2014). I argue that, while Helen is indeed both exciting and thought-provoking, emotion is central to its design. Helen’s misery and her feelings of loss and abandonment motivate and sustain the action from her opening lines through her successful escape from Egypt.
In the prologue, for example, Helen is being pursued by the tyrant Theoclymenus and has taken refuge at his father’s tomb. Her posture is that of an abject suppliant, sleeping outdoors on straw beside the tomb. Teucer arrives to heighten her objective misery by reporting the plight of her family members, and also heightens her subjective misery by mirroring, in his exile and mistreatment by his father, Helen’s own situation. A chorus of Greek women join her to sing a long lyric lament, and then she sings a monody longing for death. As the play proceeds, incidents promise relief from her misery, only to prolong it. Even her roller-coaster reunion with Menelaus leads to the couple planning a double suicide.
In two brief episodes, Helen and her husband bamboozle Theoclymenus into enabling their escape with a sham funeral. Yet this Helen has disfigured herself in mourning, with hair cut short, wearing black, and with cheeks torn and bloody. As she explains to Theoclymenus why she is in mourning, she voices again the misery she recently expressed, and the new mask and costume make tangible for the audience the emotions that continue to impel her actions. After their escape, when Theoclymenus tries to kill his sister in revenge, Castor intervenes and foretells happiness for the reunited couple. But the more-or-less gratuitous finale offers a more-or-less superficial remedy, and the memory surely lingers of Helen’s profound and multiple miseries.
What is at stake in reading Helen not as a drama of ideas nor a suspenseful intrigue, but as wave after wave of overwhelming emotion? In a revisionist reading of modern English melodrama, Matthew Buckley argues that it affords a compulsive, almost addictive emotional stimulation, and that rather than being “emotionally superficial, patently unrealistic,” it is in fact “closer to sensational expressionism, an emotionally harrowing, psychologically incisive drama” (Buckley 2009: 187-8). Where Buckley finds such drama “credible most to those whose experiences of violence and dislocation were most intensive and sustained,” I conclude by noting how the situation in Athens in 412 BCE was likewise conducive to heightened affective arousal.
Greek Tragedy (2)