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  • Exchange and the Eidolon:Analyzing Forgiveness in Euripides's Helen
  • Michelle C. Jansen (bio)

In Alice Doesn't, Teresa de Lauretis writes,

The hero, the mythical subject, is constructed as human being and as male; he is the active principle of culture, the establisher of distinction, the creator of differences. Female is what is not susceptible to transformation, to life or death; she (it) is an element of plot-space, a topos, a resistance, matrix and matter.1

Though Euripides's eidolon of Helen "dies," she is preserved through the "real" Helen's skillful deception as a means of creating a topos in which Menelaus may be reborn a hero. Helen succeeds at securing her own reputation as well as the survival of her husband in Penelopic fashion. Reconciled with Menelaus through the cognitive process of sungnome, the Persephonic figure of Helen restores the fertility of civilization and brings about "a mitigation of past suffering and destruction," as she returns to her rightful place in Sparta.2

Scholars have long puzzled over Euripides's Helen, questioning everything from its imaginative reconception of Helen's fate to its very genre. As many scholars have noted, Euripides's Helen incorporates and plays off of a dialectic of appearance and reality.3 This thematic of appearance is rooted in the presence of the eidolon, the astral double of Helen. Like numerous other tragicomic heroines, Helen appears to be actively positioning herself in an [End Page 327] economy by giving herself to another. Only through the medium of death may Menelaus understand the reality of the situation, thus allowing the couple to recommunicate and reconcile. Death of the woman, in some form, is the only way to differentiate between appearance and reality; it is the only way for the new economy of forgiveness to take place. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Helen, as the "dying words" of the eidolon Helen exonerate the real Helen, allowing her to reconcile with Menelaus and renew their union. Helen and Menelaus must actively work toward their reconciliation, which cannot be constituted by a mere performative utterance (e.g. "I am sorry" or "I forgive you"). As the ancient Greek concept of forgiveness, or sungignosko, is rooted in cognition and perceived as a process of "thinking together," the estranged couple must labor together as a couple, rebuilding their trust and their connubial unity through recognition and compassion. Yet, even as Helen and Menelaus reconcile as seemingly equal partners, Helen's subjectivity is sublated when she returns to the familiar role as Menelaus's prized possession. As his agalma of Ilium, his "object of inestimable value and prestige" that would characteristically denote ancient gift exchanges, Helen ultimately marks Menelaus's return to the Greek homosocial.4

Spectrality and Helen: Name and Body

Though presented at the Dionysia in 412 BC as a tragedy, the Helen does not deal with very tragic material. Some scholars have sustained its identification as tragic, focusing on Theonoe's discussion of dike (justice) and the role of the gods. Others have looked at the apparent bumbling of the pathetic Menelaus and considered the play to be a form of tragi-comedy as akin to the ancient burlesque satyr play. Charles Segal and Anne Pippin Burnett cannot help but label this play a romance given the restorative nature of the final scene, even if it is a scene of bloodshed of innocent Egyptians and questionable heroics by Menelaus. Burnett perhaps best combines the romantic and tragic elements when she suggests that the Helen is "an experiment in a new sort of comedy in which a romantic plot is used as an excuse for the poetic expression of philosophical ideas."5

More frequently explored by scholars, however, is Euripides's surprising use of the revised account of Helen in which a phantom image went to Troy in the Spartan queen's place, while she was taken to Egypt for safekeeping. This alternate tale of Helen was vastly lesser known than the standard story in which Helen is either captured or captivated by Paris, who brings her back to Troy to marry her.6 Indeed, ancient accounts contradict one another, and even themselves, concerning the...


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