Menelaus is the King of Sparta. He and his brother Agamemnon (who isn’t in this play) led an army of Greeks to Troy to take back Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, who is, or was Menelaus’ wife, and Queen of Sparta. He’s one of the lesser known figures in the Trojan War, more or less relegated by Homer and most Greek tragedians to the role of aging cuckold whose stolen wife is used as the reason to start the war, but who himself has little to do with the war: Agamemnon and Odysseus lead the Greeks, and stalwart and famous Greek warriors fight the war.
Yet, despite this, or perhaps because of this, Euripedes chose Menelaus as the only major Greek figure in The Trojan Women, and his scene with Helen and Hecuba is the only one with running dialogue and dramatized conflict. Why? In my mind, it’s because The Trojan Women is a play about domestic tragedy on an epic scale. Menelaus and Helen’s story is the story of the wronged husband, which follows the story about losing a child (at the end of the first half). Menelaus is faced with the same choices that any man whose wife has cheated does, but his choice will have a much bigger effect, and his cuckolding played out on an epic stage.
Menelaus is a man rocked by conflicting emotions, the strongest of which, I think, is his love. His honor, which is one of the bases of his position as King of Sparta, has been doubly marred — first by having his wife, the Queen, stolen from him, and then her apparent willingness. When he comes to Troy, he’s only aware of the first and merely longs to kill Paris and get his wife back. But as the years of the Trojan War drag on, it becomes more and more apparent to him and all the Greeks that Helen must be complicit in her captivity. And this is where things get confusing for him. His love for Helen never lessens, but instead produces anger, bitterness, hurt, sadness, as only love that’s been twisted by betrayal can. And yet, when he’s in public he still has to behave as a king, basically putting a lid on what is a pot boiling over.
So, in the end, the answer is that he’s neither. In his own mind, he’s the good guy, the guy who crossed the Aegean Sea with an army to take back what is his. Conveying this and the turmoil of all the conflicting emotions is my challenge as an actor. Yours is to decide for yourself good guy, bad guy, or both.
The Trojan Women is showing Thursdays through Saturdays, July 9th – 25th. Tickets are available here.