Unlike the widely accepted legend of Helen making her single-handedly responsible for the woe and misery of the Trojan War, Euripides presents us with Helen's own version of how things actually happened.
First Helen brings up the matter of her birth, one day her mother was courted unsuspectingly by a swan, and 9 months later a little demi-god is born in the form of Helen...
"...a legend tells how Zeus winged his way to my mothers Leda's breast, in the semblance of a bird, even a swan, and thus as he fled from an eagle's pursuit, achieved by guile his amorous purpose..."
Her beauty is unsurpassed and legendary. She is wed to Menelaus and all goes smoothly until three goddesses, Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena put together a beauty pageant and challenge Paris to decide which of them is the most beautiful. Aphrodite, says that if Paris will choose her, then he can have Helen as his bride; so of course Paris chooses Aphrodite as the most beautiful of all the goddesses, and leaving his sheep and the shores of Ida makes his way to Sparta to claim his prize.
"But Hera, indignant at not defeating the goddesses, brought to naught my marriage with Paris, and gave to Priam's princely son not Helen, but a phantom endowed with life, that she made in my image out of the breath of heaven..."
So that's basically Helen's excuse. While she sat by, a victim to this mercurial world, a phantom went in her place and caused 10 years of bloodshed, while Hermes caught her up in the "embracing air" and set her down far away, in the Egyptian house of Proteus. Proteus, being virtuous, respected her marriage to Menelaus, so she has remained faithful to him these past 17 years.
As the play opens, Proteus has died, leaving Theoclymenus in his stead. Theo, is a little less "respectful" of Helen's claim to a previous marriage and plans on marrying Helen as soon as possible. Helen, alone more than ever sees only a hopeless future. The world hates her and curses her for the countless lives lost, the countless mothers, wives and daughters grieving all because of her alleged harlotry.
"Woe is thee, unhappy Troy! Thou through deeds not done by thee art ruined, and hast suffered direst woe; for the gift that Aphrodite gave to me, hath caused a sea of blood to flow and many an eye to weep, with grief on grief and tear on tear."
After a brief encounter with the exiled Teucer who claims that Menelaus is dead, Helen ponders the most honorable way to kill herself. What to do. If only Menelaus were here, in Egypt, with her, instead of dead on the far from glorious field of battle.
Enter Menelaus. A little worse for wear. These past 17 years have not been kind to him and at present he looks like a shipwrecked beggar. After a few moments of confusion, they finally recognize each other and after the momentary joy of being reunited, Menelaus is quick to ask about her fidelity, which she assures him is intact. The next order of business is how to escape, when a wedding is impending and Theo has a particular distaste for Spartans...
The first scheme is a gruesome Romeo and Juliet type. If they can not escape...Menelaus will slaughter his wife, laying her body upon an alter and then climb up and kill himself as well. After a little consideration they come up with a better scheme where they both get to live.
They will tell Theo that Menelaus' body has been found. Helen the faithful wife, now widowed, must perform the customary Spartan burial, which will involve Theo giving them a ship, a crew to sail and basic provision to that Helen can take his body to its watery grave. If Theo complies, Helen will be the most respectful and dutiful future wife, and the wedding can take place the moment she returns. Theo, decides that a compliant wife is better than a sullen and brooding wife, so he approves their plan and they sail out to sea, and begin their journey home.
"What mortal claims, by searching to the utmost limit, to have found out the nature of God, or of his opposite, or of that which comes between, seeing as he does this world of man tossed to and fro by waves of contradiction and strange vicissitudes?...That which gods pronounce have I found true."
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