I read Hecuba during summer, but it had nothing of a summer read. Compared to Euripides tragedies, Zola, Thomas Hardy and the likes look like stand-up comedy professionals.
Hecuba is Queen of Troy and wife to King Priam, mother of Hector, Cassandra and lots of other children destined to be slaughtered in various ways. You don’t need her full CV to know that it will end badly. And the fact that she’s sent in exile as a slave after the fall of Troy (instead of being killed with the others) tells you that the misery will probably drag far longer than “just” 10 years of Trojan war.
I got interested in this play after reading the Aeneid last year (because Aeneas seemed lucky to escape Troy the easy way, and I wanted to see other sides to the tragedy), but it took me ages to actually open the book and read it. I always seem to find time for a grisly murder or two, but when it comes to real tragedy, I mean hair-pulling, gut-wrenching, tear-jerking serious stuff that has survived centuries and centuries, nah, I’m the queen of procrastination.
Hecuba was actually a surprise, because I expected only a long protracted declaration of grief, while the second half of the play isn’t even set in Troy and actually sees some action.
At the beginning we witness how the Greeks plunder the fallen city of Troy and share the aristocratic women between themselves to serve them as slaves, and how one of the last remaining daughter of Hecuba is to be killed on the tomb of Achille. This isn’t so different as other accounts of defeat lived by women (I’m thinking the Anonyma diary), the barbarity being different in degree but probably not in essence.
But the second part of the play is about a foreign king Polymestor, who was a Trojan ally at first and had accepted to shelter a young son of Priam along with lots of money for safekeeping, only to kill him and steal the dough when things took a turn for the worst. This seems to be the last straw for Hecuba (although is it really the last?). When she learns this vicious and dishonorable crime, all she wants is revenge, and she takes the matter in her own hands.
It’s a strange alternate between vulnerability and power, between resignation and refusing one’s fate. While Polyxena (the daughter) accepts death with dignity and refuses to become a slave, Hecuba is turned into a fury by grief and injustice and gets away with murder. I felt like I missed a lot about this reading, so I’ll complete this reading with The Trojan Women.