43 pages 1 hour read



Fiction | Play | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Hecuba is an Attic tragedy composed by Euripides (circa 480-406 BCE). There is no definite information about when the play was first performed, though metrical and stylistic analysis suggests a date of around 424 BCE. The play was presumably performed at the dramatic contests that were held in ancient Greece as part of the annual festival of the Great Dionysia; the names and contents of the other plays in the tetralogy are unknown. Hecuba, which is set amidst the sufferings of the Trojan women held captive by the Greeks after the sack of Troy, explores themes such as Enduring the Vicissitudes of Fortune, the Degeneration of Character, and the Role of Good and Evil in the Human Experience.

This study guide refers to William Arrowsmith’s translation of the play from the third edition of the University of Chicago Press series The Complete Greek Tragedies (2013).

Content Warning: The source material features themes of war, human sacrifice, slavery, murder, and mentions of a character’s future death by suicide.

Plot Summary

The play is set on the shores of the Thracian Chersonese, across the strait from Troy, which has just been conquered by the Greeks. The ghost of Polydorus enters, perhaps suspended above the stage. In a monologue which comprises the play’s Prologue, the ghost reveals his identity and explains that his parents Priam and Hecuba, the king and queen of Troy, sent him to the Thracian King Polymestor for safekeeping, hoping that as their youngest son he would escape the imminent war with the Greeks and survive even should Troy fall. But when Troy fell, Polymestor killed Polydorus and threw his body into the sea. Now, says Polydorus, his body is to be discovered by his mother Hecuba, who has arrived on the beach with the other Trojan women enslaved by the Greeks. Moreover, the Greek fleet cannot sail because they have no wind, and the ghost of the Greek hero Achilles has demanded that the Greeks sacrifice Polyxena, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, on his grave to remedy the weather.

The ghost of Polydorus departs as Hecuba enters. In the ensuing lyric exchange, Hecuba reveals that she has been awakened by troubling dreams about her children Polydorus and Polyxena. The Chorus, made up of enslaved Trojan women, tells Hecuba that the Greeks are going to sacrifice Polyxena to Achilles.

Polyxena enters. Learning of her fate, she expresses grief for her mother, who must now lose another one of her children, though Polyxena herself no longer views death as such a terrible misfortune.

Odysseus enters. He has come to take Polyxena away. Hecuba begs him to spare her daughter, reminding him that she saved his life during the war when he stole into Troy as a spy. Odysseus, however, ignores Hecuba. Polyxena bravely accompanies Odysseus, accepting her fate. Hecuba is overcome by grief and faints. To end the play’s first episode, the Chorus sings the first stasimon, or chorus song, wondering who will be their enslavers in Greece.

In the second episode, the herald Talthybius enters to tell Hecuba how nobly Polyxena died. Hecuba, somewhat consoled to know that her daughter died so well, sends her handmaid to fetch water from the shore to clean Polyxena’s body and prepare it for burial. The Chorus sings the second stasimon, tracing their misfortunes to the voyage Paris made to Sparta to carry off Helen.

The handmaid returns to Hecuba with the body of Polydorus, which she found washed up on the shore. Hecuba realizes that Polymestor murdered Polydorus. Agamemnon enters. Hecuba pleads for justice for her son, asking Agamemnon to help her take revenge on Polymestor. Agamemnon, motivated by his lust for Hecuba’s daughter Cassandra, responds that while he cannot openly support Hecuba because of the Greeks’ alliance with Polymestor, he will make sure that she has gets the time she needs to put her plans into effect. The Chorus sings the third stasimon, remembering the night when Troy was sacked and they were enslaved. They curse Helen and Paris.

The fourth episode begins with the arrival of Polymestor and his sons. Hecuba lures him into her tent with the promise of treasure. After his cries are heard from inside, Polymestor emerges and explains that his sons were killed by the Trojan women while he himself has been blinded. Polymestor asks Agamemnon to punish Hecuba for what she has done. Hecuba makes her own case, justifying her actions as just revenge for Polymestor’s murder of her son Polydorus. Agamemnon sides with Hecuba. Polymestor prophesies that Hecuba will be transformed into a dog, while Agamemnon and Cassandra will be murdered upon their arrival in Greece. Agamemnon maroons Polymestor on a desert island before noting that the winds have picked up and ordering the fleet to set sail.