Sunday, January 19, 2014

Which Is Better, Andromache?

After a disappointment with Orestes, I had great hopes for Andromache, the next in a group of plays by Euripides about the aftermath of the Trojan War, and the last Greek drama on my schedule this year. Andromache, the wife of Hector, is one of the most sympathetic characters in the Iliad because of her touching farewell scene in book VI, and I hoped that the later poet would preserve all that I liked about her. Happy to say, Euripides came through for me.

Not only is Andromache sympathetic here, she’s almost the only likeable character in the play. One of the spoils of war, Andromache has been given as a slave-wife to Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. The problem is, Neoptolemus has a free, Hellenic wife, too: Hermione, daughter of Menelaus. The action takes place after that of Orestes, so Hermione has previously married Orestes only to be handed over as a tribute to the family of Achilles for that demigod’s service in the war. She doesn’t seem to mind being a political pawn, though, as long as she has something to complain about. And since she has yet to conceive a child for Neoptolemus, she decides one way or another it must be Andromache’s fault. Menelaus shows up to support Hermione, and his arguments make no more sense than his daughter’s. Orestes shows up (in the interest of a cousin but mostly ignoring the fact that Hermione is his ex), and he’s a jerk, too. Apollo comes up in conversation, but all parties mostly agree that, as gods go, he’s been pretty annoying.

The success of this drama centers on Andromache being almost alone in her virtue. It’s the philosophical tensions in the dialog between Andromache and all these unsavoury characters that interested me so much as I read last week. Euripides reminded me of the man in the recent AT&T commercials as he got me thinking about about some basic dichotomies. Which is better? Freedom or slavery? Man or woman? Young or old? Reason and passion? Hellene or Trojan? (OK, that one’s maybe not so basic.) He even asks, Which is better? Good or bad? (“GOOD!” shout the adorable kids to the deadpan man in the suit.) But actually and more precisely, Euripides directed me toward thinking about what is good in each of the two sides. How is possible for a slave to be good? The kids in the AT&T ad would opt for freedom, but Andromache is good, and she’s a slave. How can that be? For that matter, how can a woman be good? She doesn’t have any of the political power or education that Greek men prided themselves in, and yet she’s a good person. How can this be? Old Peleus shows up, and he has none of the manly beauty and strength that the Greeks admired, and yet he is clearly a better man than Orestes. The Hellenic audience may have found that one particularly hard to assimilate.

Euripides presents one dichotomy, though, with no nuances or surprises in its judgment, which must have pleased his audience especially well. Like other Greek writers, he sees the Trojans as the nobler of the two forces in the semi-legendary war. For a Greek, this stance usually represents some cultural humility if the ten-year calamity is seen as a war between Trojans and home-town boys. But in Andromache, Euripides denies Athens any relationship to the Greeks who fought at Troy. The Trojan War was a war of the Argives, he makes clear, those western Greeks who lived on the Peloponnesian peninsula. And at the time Andromache first appeared, Athens was engaged in a war with the chief city of that peninsula: Sparta. So Euripides had a plan when he referred to the Argives in this play anachronistically as Spartans. The Spartans caused this war! The Spartans brought down all this woe! Which is worse, kids? Trojans or Spartans? SPARTANS!

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