Euripides’ Hecuba has at times been faulted for lacking a traditional tragic plot, but for those of us who like their literature sententious, the play is full of great rhetorical flourishes and gnomic utterances, mostly on the subject of human misfortune. The play focuses on two events which befall Hecuba, the queen of Troy, subsequent to the fall of her city: the first is the Greeks’ sacrifice of her daughter Polyxena to appease the ghost of Achilles, and the second is the revelation that her son Polydorus was treacherously murdered by the Thracian king Polymestor, whom she subsequently blinds. By combining these two incidents, Euripides is able to dwell extensively on the misfortunes which occur not only in war, but in human existence more generally.
γίγνωσκε δ’ ἀλκὴν καὶ παρουσίαν κακῶν
τῶν σῶν· σοφόν τοι κἀν κακοῖς ἃ δεῖ φρονεῖν.
“Recognize the strength and presence of your misfortune. It is wise to think of what is necessary even in the midst of troubles.”
Lines 227-8 (Odysseus speaking)
λόγος γὰρ ἔκ τ’ ἀδοξούντων ἰὼν
κἀκ τῶν δοκούντων αὑτὸς οὐ ταὐτὸν σθένει.
“The same argument, coming from someone unknown, does not possess the same strength as when it comes from those with a reputation.”
Lines 295-6 (Hecuba speaking)
ὅστις γὰρ οὐκ εἴωθε γεύεσθαι κακῶν
φέρει μέν, ἀλγεῖ δ’ αὐχέν’ ἐντιθεὶς ζυγῶι·
“Whoever has not grown accustomed to the taste of misfortune may bear it, but will still grieve when placing the neck in the yoke.”
Lines 375-6 (Polyxena speaking)
Τα. ὦ Ζεῦ, τί λέξω; πότερά σ’ ἀνθρώπους ὁρᾶν
ἢ δόξαν ἄλλως τήνδε κεκτῆσθαι μάτην
[ψευδῆ, δοκοῦντας δαιμόνων εἶναι γένος],
τύχην δὲ πάντα τἀν βροτοῖς ἐπισκοπεῖν;
“O Zeus, what shall I say? That you watch over human affairs? Or that this is a vain and false opinion, believing that there is a race of divinities, when chance holds sway over all the affairs of mortals?”
Lines 488-91 (Talthybios speaking)
ὅτωι κατ’ ἦμαρ τυγχάνει μηδὲν κακόν.
“He is happiest to whom no daily evil befalls.”
Lines 627-8 (Hecuba speaking)
ἐν κακοῖσι δὲ
οὐ ῥάιδιον βροτοῖσιν εὐφημεῖν στόμα.
“In the midst of misfortune, it is not easy for mortals to refrain from ill-omened talk.”
Lines 663-4 (Servant speaking)
οὐκ ἔστι θνητῶν ὅστις ἔστ’ ἐλεύθερος·
ἢ χρημάτων γὰρ δοῦλός ἐστιν ἢ τύχης
ἢ πλῆθος αὐτὸν πόλεος ἢ νόμων γραφαὶ
εἴργουσι χρῆσθαι μὴ κατὰ γνώμην τρόποις.
“There is no mortal who is free. Either he is a slave to money or fortune, or the city’s mob or its laws make him live otherwise than he would wish.”
Lines 864-7 (Hecuba speaking)
ἀνθρώποισιν οὐκ ἐχρῆν ποτε
Tῶν πραγμάτων τὴν γλῶσσαν ἰσχύειν πλέον·
“It was never right that words should have more strength than deeds.’
Lines 1186-7 (Hecuba speaking)
στερρὰ γὰρ ἀνάγκη.
“Necessity is unyielding.”
Line 1295 (Chorus)