Euripides (c. 480 – 406 BC) is one of the famous trio of tragedians who wrote and performed plays in Athens during the 5th century BCE, under a radical democratic government where average (male adult) citizens had weekly meetings to decide on matters of state policy. During the period when Euripides was writing, Athens was almost constantly in a state of war: at first, with the allies of its arch-enemy Sparta, and then with Sparta itself, in the 20+-year catastrophe known as the “Peloponnesian War.” In this atmosphere, Euripides, like his contemporary fellow playwrights Aeschylus and Sophocles, often looked back into the past of Greece, to find solutions to how to live during wartime, and what kinds of effects war had on the ways humans relate to one another.
Specifically, all these playwrights mined and made into tragic plays the stories told by Homer about the Trojan War, which had (they thought) taken place almost 1000 years before their time, in the age of the heroes–Achilles, Agamemnon, Hector, Ajax, and other larger-than-life figures.
Euripides in particular looked back and saw the damage done by this war to the social fabric of Greece and of Troy. Most of his plays at least touch upon the evil consequences of war (or of murder itself) for those who survive–and this play draws us into the world of those survivors, taking as its start the desperate postwar situation of Andromache, the war-widow of Hector, foremost hero of the Trojan army and prince of Troy, who was killed by Achilles in the course of the fighting. Achilles himself had died, in fact, and his son, Neoptolemus, had followed his father’s footsteps into the war, helping the Greeks to victory in the 10th year of the war. As a prize, Neoptolemus, son of Achilles, was given his choice of the now-captive women of Troy, and he chose as his new slave concubine Andromache, former princess of Troy–after watching the Greeks kill her and Hector’s young son Astyanax by throwing him down from the walls of Troy. Neoptolemus brought Andromache back to his own (and his father Achilles’ and grandfather Peleus’) homeland, Phthia, in far northern Greece near the coast. Andromache soon bore the young Neoptolemus, her new master, a son as well – but she was not Neoptolemus’ only wife. Similarly to Andromache, in fact, the daughter of Menelaus and Helen, Hermione, had been “gifted” to the victorious hero Neoptolemus by her father at the conclusion of the war, despite having originally been promised in marriage to Orestes, son of Agamemnon and now murderer of his mother. Placed in this situation, passionate about love and worried because she has not yet born a child to her husband, Hermione tries to eliminate her now-slave rival, Andromache, and Andromache’s young son as well–one love is better than two, she argues, and attacks Andromache on the basis of her being “foreign” and “un-Greek” (“barbarian” is the derogatory term Greeks used for non-Greeks).
Starting from the war-caused social and personal dilemma of these two women, Euripides builds a story that emphasizes the humanity and tragic circumstances of all the people whose lives have been destroyed by the Trojan War: not just Andromache and Hermione, but Hermione’s father Menelaus has been drawn into the conflict on behalf of his daughter, and Achilles’ old father Peleus (who lost his only son in the war) must try to salvage his house’s line by supporting a barbarian who has borne his son a child over a Greek spouse who has not yet borne a child to take over the household.
Not only this set of problems, but the problems caused by Hermione’s having been torn away from her original marriage to Orestes resurface in the play as well–as the matricidal Orestes returns to regain his “lost bride” Hermione, and take his revenge on the offspring of Achilles…
The complications for the next generation of a long, brutal war are shown in granular detail, as the threat of death leads despite the best intentions of those involved to actual death, and the household of the hero Achilles, represented now only by the old hero Peleus, is extinguished before our eyes; meanwhile, marriages fall apart, young men die ambushed, the gods force men to fight and kill even against their will, and Andromache herself faces yet further displacement, yet further removal to another slavemaster and husband.
Every mortal in this play wants and needs to escape Troy, to escape the shadow of war–none of them can. As the messenger, a friend of Neoptolemus forced to confront the cruel results of this aftermath, asks: “The god held onto grudges, like a mean and petty man: how then can he be wise?” Meanwhile, the gods (in the guise of Apollo, who sends Orestes to kill his own mother out of revenge, and Thetis herself, who appears as a dea ex machina but only to send Andromache far away from her current household) “still love Troy”–and the wars continue.