I recently re-read Seneca’s Trojan Women. It’s a haunter. In a nutshell, the ladies of Troy whose husbands have all been killed in the Trojan War get either killed or parceled out to the Greek leaders in the wake of the war. Included in this brutality is the tossing of Hector’s toddler son, Astyanax, off of the battlements of Troy – a priest specifies that it is this sort of death alone that can assuage the fates, thus enabling the Greek army to return home. Odysseus is typically manipulative and insensitive. When he first confronts Astyanax’s mother, he says that he is only performing someone else’s business, and that the decision on this matter wasn’t his. Just a few paragraphs later, though, Odysseus notes that even if the priest had said nothing, all of the Greeks would agree that the thought of Hector’s son growing old and potentially seeking revenge is downright frightening. In one stunning moment, Odysseys suggests to Andromache, “You can’t assess things justly when you feel sorry for yourself. Think it over in your heart, and you’ll forgive the Greeks” (trans. Ahl). Uh, bro? Andromache’s husband was recently killed by Achilles, her father recently killed by Achilles, her father in law killed by Achilles’ son, her city sacked by the Greeks, and Andromache herself is to become the maidservant and bedmate of her father’s murderer. I don’t see much forgiving in her future. In any case, Andromache initially pretends that Astyanax has already died; in reality, she had hid him beforehand in Hector’s tomb. Odysseus teases out a sideways admission of guilt when he tells her, “You are naive to think you can conceal someone you’ll be betraying very soon.” Andromache replies, “I am a mother, and I pride myself that I will never be controlled by fear.” Invoking the same parental concern, Odysseus says, “But you are nurturing a war my son Telemachus will someday have to fight.” Odysseus devises a plan worthy of his name, although his plans don’t usually fail. First, he congratulates Andromache, since after all Astyanax, though “dead”, avoided the particularly horrendous death of being thrown off the battlements. He notices her trembling at the thought. He orders his men to perform a search for Astyanax, and pretends as if they’d found him. To Andromache, “Why do you keep turning and quivering? He is dead, isn’t he?” Andromache claims that her mind has been addled by recent terrors so much that she is still in a constant state of it. Odysseus, presumably frustrated that this job has taken so long, takes another approach by telling Andromache that the priest had also suggested an alternative path to success that involves tearing down Hector’s tomb and scattering his ashes into the ocean. Andromache makes a strange threat to the extent that she will punish the Greeks with violence for this sacrilege, like a Maenad who “wounds, but feels no wounds.” It’s raw enough to cause Odysseus’ henchmen to stop leveling the tomb. Odysseus orders them to continue. Andromache is confronted with the bleak possibility that she will watch her son die by being crushed by his own father’s grave. Talk about raw. She decides that the alternative is better and summons Astyanax from the tomb. Astyanax gets taken away to his death.
Act IV shifts to another Trojan woman, Hecuba. Hecuba is Hector’s mother and the queen of Troy. Hecuba’s daughter, Polyxena, is next on the chopping block, since the priest observed that Achilles’ ghost wished to marry her. Ergo she needed to be sacrificed on Achilles’ grave. Instead of Odysseus, the Greeks send out Helen to fetch Polyxena by means of deception and bring her to the grave. Helen finds her and tells her to turn that frown upside down, since she is to be married to Pyrrhus, so go get ready! Andromache, who is present, notes sarcastically that wow this is great news. Helen launches into a monologue about how she hasn’t had it so easy either: “To lose your homeland’s hard. But it is harder still when you’re afraid of going back….I am target for spite of both conquered and conqueror.” Later she says, “Please forgive this item of plunder.” Helen, though unsympathetic to the wailing of Andromache and Hecuba, is not able to maintain her ruse with Polyxena: “I can hardly restrain myself from tears”. Helen spills the beans about what’s really going on, and adds that she wishes she shared Polyxena’s fate. Before too long, it’s announced that Hecuba was granted to Odysseus as a war-prize. Hecuba wonders what gods would allow this stuff to go down. The final act consists of a messenger telling Andromache just what the death of Astyanax was like when he was thrown off the battlements. No reason to spare details, I guess, as in Senecan fashion we get a description of bones crunching, skin pulping, and brains spilling. Even Odysseus was weeping.