These three plays round off the series of Euripedes’ plays on the events concerning the aftermath of the Trojan War. Andromache tells us the story of the former wife of the now-dead Hector, now enslaved as a concubine of Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. Helen is a romantic escape drama. Finally, Orestes takes place between Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides (assuming all of these plays roughly share the same universe). The war has now decisively ended, providing a background to the events of the plays but no longer becoming the focus, unlike in Hecuba or The Trojan Women, both of which dealt with the immediate aftermath of the war – sacrificial execution and enslavement of captives, mainly women. These three plays, in contrast, show more general aspects of the human condition, including relationships between the powerful and powerless (Andromache), crime begetting crime (Orestes), or plain romantic drama (Helen).
Andromache is somewhat similar to Hecuba: it’s interesting in its focus on a slave, who is only notable because of her past. Andromache is now a slave of the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus. She is not an ordinary working slave but also a concubine, having born a son (Molossus) to him. While the play portrays her as still having strong memories for Hector and her homeland and not trying to use her position to influence Neoptolemus, Hermione, Neoptolemus’ proper wife, is jealous of her and hates her. As revealed in her opening speech, the cause of her hatred towards Andromache is partially because she herself is barren, and partially because of a deep-seated inherent hatred of Trojans. Hermione’s prejudice against Trojan culture and people is shown in her criticism of Andromache as being barbaric because she has born a son to the son of the killer of her former husband, even though it’s obvious that Andromache would likely have little choice in the matter anyway, being a slave.
This hatred of Trojan culture is a noticeable shift in the general tone of the depiction of the Trojan war through the plays we have read so far. While Paris’ abduction of Helen has already been denounced several times as a barbaric action, the war would never have been depicted as such a monumental event if it had merely been a war against barbaric, inferior peoples. But here we see a shift: in this play in particular, Trojan culture and people are denounced several times by the Greek characters as barbaric and having shameful and inferior cultural practices. This seems to be an outgrowth of their defeat in war. Being dead and defeated, the Trojans are no longer able to do brave and heroic feats that demonstrate the noble aspects of their own culture. This is in contrast with the portrayal in The Iliad, for example, where Hector’s presence looms powerfully, balancing that of Achilles, Menelaus, Odysseus and the other Greek heroes, such that his death in a duel with Achilles is a major plot point.
Hermione’s hatred of Andromache drives the main plot of the play, where she and Menelaus seek to have her killed together with her infant son. Andromache is powerless to resist their threats and plans, up until Peleus, father of Achilles, shows up and boldly resists and rebukes them. In a powerful showdown Menelaus is defeated and denounced as a coward. Peleus astutely points out his lack of heroism at Troy, unlike that of Achilles. Finally he comments on Molossus that
…for oft ere now hath seed, sown on barren soil, prevailed o’er rich deep tilth, and many bastard has proved a better man than children better born.
Despite this notable statement on social mobility, Molossus’ capacity for greatness from his Trojan ancestry is not mentioned at all. Technically, Molossus is still a descendant of Trojan royalty as well, and the play’s overall focus on Andromache implies that she is a notable, noble character in her own right, not only in relation to Hector. The favorable depiction of her grace and resilience in the face of Hermione’s insults and threats supports this. Perhaps this is partially because ancient peoples seemed to believe that the father’s trait determined that of the children much more than the mother (hence the need to kill Astyanax, son of Hector, due to their fear of him arising to take revenge for his father). But it could also be a reflection that Trojan culture, having been destroyed, has lost all legitimacy and status.
At the end of the confrontation, Peleus orders Menelaus to retreat. At first he tries to resist, but Peleus, despite already being an old man, is undeterred, and eventually he does retreat. Her plans now foiled, Hermione panics, fearing that Neoptolemus would punish her if he came to know of her failed plot to kill an innocent woman and her child. She chooses to escape with Orestes. At the end of the play, Molossus’ presence becomes doubly important when it is revealed that Neoptolemus has been killed by Orestes, adding another element of tragedy. With now having no more living descendants other than Molossus, Peleus is overcome by grief.
At this point, the goddess Thetis, mother of Achilles (and former wife of Peleus), appears in a closing deus ex machina scene. Previously we saw the role of this dramatic device in Sophocles’ Trachiniae. And just like we saw here, Thetis’ appearance fulfills a specific role: being a goddess, she gives authoritative commands (for Peleus to bury Neoptolemus, and for Andromache to move to Molossia and marry Helenus), and forecasts what is to happen (Molossus would became king of Molossia, as will his descendants). After she proclaims this, Peleus is immediately comforted and promises to follow her commands. The grief built up in the preceding scene is thus completely resolved and nullified. Modern readers might think deus ex machina to be a nonsensical, anti-climactic device. It seems like a complete waste of dramatic resources. However, as we shall see in the other plays, this device does allow the play to finish with everything set back into order. Perhaps this is what the Greeks prefer.
Helen is more of an action play, the main part of the plot being the plan made by Menelaus and the titular character to deceive king Theoclymenus and escape from Egypt together. It shockingly reveals that the Helen abducted by Paris and fought over in the Trojan War was merely a phantom created by the gods so that the promise by Diana to Paris in the Judgement of Paris (to give Helen to him as his wife) could be fulfilled. Within the world of the play, this is a medium-sized plot point, one that increases the dramatic tension when Menelaus meets Helen for the first time and initially refuses to believe that she really is his Helen, as he thinks he had left her in a different cave during his previous journey. But after a messenger reveals that the “Helen” in the cave has mysteriously evaporated, Menelaus finally does believe and rejoices. So within the world of Helen, the revelation is just a good plot device.
Within the larger context of the story of the War, however, the revelation is a monumental shift, in fact a profoundly disappointing one, akin to revealing at the end of a novel that all the things that happened previously was only a dream – a literary move that beginning writers are exhorted to never do, as it nullifies the whole point of the preceding chapters. If this revelation is meant to be taken as “canon” in the universe of the Trojan War and all the stories surrounding it, this adds a strong tinge of futility to the whole affair: while there have been many characters complaining how petty the war was, being caused by only one woman, the fact that it was caused by a phantom of the woman makes the whole thing even more pointless, a tragic example of humans fighting over nothing. But the world of Helen doesn’t seem to want to realize that fact, treating the revelation as normal plot point.
The secret plotting in Helen, as they think of a way to convince the king Theoclymenus to let her and Menelaus out to the sea in a ship without suspicion, brings echoes of plotting in many other Greek plays, most recently Iphigenia in Tauris (where the escape of Iphigenia is plotted) but also in the various plays depicting the murder of Clytemnestra by Orestes and Electra. Here, the main device for the deception is Helen pretending that her culture demands her pay respects to her dead husband through a burial ceremony at sea. In Iphigenia in Tauris, religious ritual is also the main point of the deception, Iphigenia insisting that religious rules demand her bring Orestes out to the sea for ritual cleansing.
Ultimately the plan succeeds, partially because Theonoe, Theoclymenus’ seer sister, also supports the plan. When he finds out, he is enraged, but once again, gods show up and resolve everything, in this case the Dioscuri. We thus come back to the topic of deus ex machina. While this dramatic device seems like a cop-out, or worse, a harmful device that cheapens the overall impact of the play, what’s important to note is that in both Helen and Andromache, the god’s utterance does more than just resolve the plot points. Instead, they resolve the character’s emotions. In Andromache, we’ve already noted how they resolve Peleus’ great grief, assuring him that Achilles would still have a descendant in Molossus. Here, they resolve an even more powerful emotion, that of Theoclymenus, who is fuming with anger. When Theoclymenus hears from the Dioscuri that the man with Helen is truly Menelaus, her real husband, he immediately accepts the impropriety of forcing her to marry him while still being married to another man. So the gods become a device to authoritatively communicate to a human character what would be unconvincing if done by another human character.
But why do the Greeks want emotion to be resolved? As we’ve seen, most of the endings of plays by Euripedes have been tragic, sometimes slightly artificially so: like in Andromache, where Neoptolemus is suddenly revealed to have been killed. Deus ex machina seems to be a contradictory thing to do, as it lessens the amount of sorrow felt by the characters, and by extension the audience as well. Still, perhaps the purpose of Greek tragedy was not to completely destroy everyone, but only make them sad enough with still a strong assurance that things would get better. As a result, emotions such as anger and extreme grief must be resolved and neutralized. Is such a preference degrading to the overall literary quality?
I can see how deus ex machina can actually enhance the literary experience. Shakespeare is a playwright whose tragedies feature no gods coming in to save the day; in a tragedy such as King Lear, the emotional devastation by the end of the play is profoundly organic and logical with no respite. But on the other hand there are comedies like Twelfth Night, on which a lot of the humor depends on the fun in seeing the servant Malvolio get tricked and mocked by the other characters. By the end of the play, various conflicts are resolved and a happy ending forms. But Malvolio is still left there, being the butt of all the jokes, resulting in a noticeable hole in the emotional landscape of the characters at the conclusion of the play. Perhaps this is a situation which Greek playwrights and audiences wanted to avoid.
Orestes is another play with deus ex machina in the form of Apollo appearing. Here, though, the conflicts that have to be resolved by the deity are much more serious, beyond mere emotional catharsis. In the play, Orestes is being driven increasingly mad by the murder of his own mother Clytemnestra in response to her murdering his father Agamemnon. He supplicates Menelaus in an attempt to ask him to support them. But Menelaus, being more concerned about his own power and already being blamed for the whole Trojan War, refuses to consider it. As a result, Orestes, his cousin/friend Pylades, and his sister Electra are condemned by the people to be sentenced to death. While at first, Orestes vows that he would face his execution bravely, Pylades convinces him to murder Helen before they die in order to take revenge on Menelaus’ lack of support.
The trio go through an elaborate plan, which also involves taking Helen’s daughter Hermione hostage to prevent them getting killed. A messenger comes in and details what ended up happening: at the last, crucial moment, right before Orestes is about to kill her, she mysteriously evaporates. Confusion follows as Menelaus is at first not convinced that she is not dead. In a tense, climactic scene, Orestes and Menelaus engage in extended stichomythia where the former threatens to kill Hermione if the latter would not go and persuade the city to cancel his death sentence.
But Apollo comes down and tells everyone what happened: he was the one who magically whisked away Helen, leading her to become a goddess. He then decrees that Orestes should marry Hermione, return to Athens to be put on trial for his crime – but with an assurance that he would be acquitted (as depicted in The Eumenides by Aeschylus). Menelaus is commanded to return to rule over Argos again. All the characters immediately stop their conflict and obey. So we see how the deus ex machina in this case resolves major plot points and really sets everything back into order, which would otherwise have been impossible at that point without one of Menelaus and Orestes killing the other, in order to resolve the dramatic tension that had already been built by taking Hermione hostage and threatening to kill her. In this case we can see even more clearly that Euripedes doesn’t have any recourse to prevent further murders if he does not use deus ex machina. And given the common knowledge that the audience must have had about the characters (including the wealth of other stories about Menelaus and Orestes such as in Iphigenia in Tauris) that assumed both of them would be living, it would not make sense to make that murder happen. Thus in addition to being a device for emotional catharsis, perhaps deus ex machina is also a handy device for the playwright to maintain continuity with the “canon” of the material.