41 pages 1 hour read



Fiction | Play | Adult | BCE

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Summary and Study Guide


Helen is a play by Euripides (480–406 BCE), produced as part of his theatrical entry into the festival of Dionysia in 412 BCE. It is one of at least 90 plays Euripides wrote in his lifetime, of which nearly 20 survive intact (fragments of most of the others also remain). Helen, which focuses on the famous Greek mythological figure Helen of Troy years after the events of the Trojan War, is one of his later plays, and he was already a well-established playwright at its presentation. This guide refers to the 1992 Oxford University Press edition of its Greek Tragedy in New Translations series, translated by James Michie and Colin Leach.

For discussion purposes, this play has been divided into four parts, but these divisions are not specified in the text other than by the arrivals and exits of major characters. The plays of Euripides did not feature divisions into scenes or acts. The line numbers included in this guide refer to the English translation as provided in the Oxford edition, but other editions may employ their own numbering system or refer to line numbers in the Greek original. The spelling of proper names also follows the Oxford edition, which has opted to render many of the names more faithfully to the Greek originals than the Latinized versions one might find in other sources. This edition also chooses to capitalize some references to the divine (“God”) and not others (“god”), depending on whether a single, overarching providential power or a specific god is in view.

Plot Summary

The play opens with Helen in Egypt, seven years after the end of the Trojan War. Helen has lived in Egypt throughout the whole span of that war, and not, as her contemporaries assumed, in Troy itself. The real Helen, it turns out, was never in Troy at all. Rather, the goddess Hera, attempting to undermine Aphrodite’s schemes, had substituted a phantom Helen for the real one, and Hermes had spirited the true Helen away to King Proteus’s realm in Egypt. The Helen who had gone with Paris to Troy was nothing more than a fake, albeit a very convincing fake. Thus, Helen herself had never gone away with Paris, had never been unfaithful to Menelaos, and did not deserve the shame and reproach of her fellow Greeks for the carnage which ensued at Troy.

The true Helen, who has become aware of these events, is nonetheless powerless to change them and remains uncertain of the fate of her husband. The distress of this uncertainty is magnified by the fact that the late King Proteus’s son, Theoklymenos, has now ascended the throne of Egypt and is preparing to force Helen to marry him. While Helen is standing outside the royal palace in Egypt, a refugee from the Trojan War approaches. He identifies himself as Teucer, and he describes the devastation wrought by the war, the downfall of Helen’s own family members back in Greece, and the presumption that her husband, Menelaos, has been lost at sea. Helen mourns these revelations in a series of discussions with the Chorus (composed of captive Greek women), who advise her to bring her questions about Menelaos’s fate to Theonöe, the sister of King Theoklymenos, who functions as a royal prophetess with omniscient powers of perception.

While Helen is gone to consult Theonöe, Menelaos appears outside the palace doors. His ship has been destroyed in a storm, and the only survivors are himself, a few of his men, and the phantom Helen he brought from Troy. He has left the phantom Helen and the others to shelter in a cave along the coastline while he approaches the palace to seek aid. He is rebuffed at the doors by the portress, an old woman, who lets slip enough information about the true Helen to leave Menelaos bewildered. At this point Helen and the Chorus re-emerge from the palace to find Menelaos there, where the long-separated husband and wife see each other again. Menelaos is uncertain whether to believe Helen’s story that the woman he brought from Troy was merely a phantom copy, but one of his own servants arrives from the cave to report that Menelaos’s wife had suddenly and strangely vanished into thin air before their eyes. This report confirms Helen’s story and persuades Menelaos, and the happy couple is reunited.

Helen and Menelaos still face a grave problem: King Theoklymenos is intent on marrying Helen and will kill anyone who gets in his way. Helen realizes that Theonöe, being omniscient, must already know that Menelaos is there, so they beg her not to reveal his presence to Theoklymenos. Next, Helen devises a plan to trick Theoklymenos into letting them escape. When the king returns from his hunt, she greets him in the traditional aspect of a grieving widow. She explains that she has just received news that her husband, Menelaos, has perished at sea, and requests to be allowed to carry out the proper funeral rites. Theoklymenos agrees, believing that this turn of events will finally make her agreeable to his plan of marriage. Helen trades on his ignorance and gullibility by making up an elaborate shipboard ritual and convincing him that this is how Greeks must honor the death of someone lost at sea. Menelaos himself, in this ruse, plays the part of a shipwrecked Greek sailor who knows the appropriate rites and has agreed to oversee them. Thus, Helen tricks Theoklymenos into setting her and Menelaos onto a ship that is fully arrayed with everything they need to escape and set sail home for Greece.

The play closes with one of Theoklymenos’s sailors, having escaped from Helen and Menelaos’s capture of the ship, returning to the duped king to explain what has just happened. In a rage, the king sets off to kill his sister Theonöe, whom he realizes must have known about Menelaos’s presence, but the Leader of the Chorus tries to dissuade him. Finally, the Greek demigods Kastor and Polydeukes appear to Theoklymenos in a heavenly apparition and order him to desist, while giving their blessing to Helen for her voyage home.