If People magazine had been around in ancient Troy, Helen would have been the tabloid mag's "Sexiest Woman Alive" 10 years in a row. (You know, because that's how long the Trojan War lasted.)
Her beauty is so legendary it "hath launch'd above a thousand ships" (2.2.82), and she's always being described as "the mortal Venus, the heart-blood of beauty, / love's invisible soul" (3.1.32-33). But don't hate her because she's beautiful—it's a hard life. Her relationship with Paris is the whole cause of the Trojan War.
Does Helen Live Up to the Hype?
Here's the thing. In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare gives his Helen some serious flaws. Throughout the play, she comes off as shallow and self-absorbed. And in a lot of productions, actresses play Helen as a silly, giggling airhead or just a straight up bimbo. Why's that? Because she comes off as a woman who likes to spend her time flirting with men while countless soldiers lose their lives fighting over her.
Think about it. When she's not canoodling with Paris, talking dirty to Pandarus, or tickling Troilus's chin, she's making silly, off-hand comments about how "this love will undo us all" (3.1.110). Um, hello, Helen? Your little affair with Paris is going to do just that.
What's our point? Like all the other characters in this play, Helen doesn't exactly live up to all the hype surrounding her mythological reputation. She may be beautiful on the outside, but she sure looks ugly on the inside. (Kind of like the soldier in shiny armor that we see in Act 5. Go to "Symbols" for more on this.)
Just an Excuse to Fight?
So, Shakespeare doesn't seem to think much of Helen. Neither do most of the people in the play. We lost count of the number of times Thersites harshly refers to her as a "whore" (2.3.71), and the Trojan military leaders even have a big debate about whether or not they should just send her back to Greece in order to put an end to all the fighting.
Hector especially isn't shy about the fact that he thinks Helen isn't "worth" keeping (2.2.22). What's interesting is that, in the end, the Trojans decide to keep fighting to keep her because they think of her as the "theme of honor":
She is a theme of honor and renown,
A spur to valiant and magnanimous deeds,
Whose present courage may beat down our foes,
And fame in time to come canonize us. (2.2.199-201)
Now this is interesting. When Troilus calls her the "theme of honor," he basically says that Helen is just an excuse for the Trojans to keep fighting in order to gain "honor and renown" by carrying out "valiant and magnanimous deeds" on the battlefield. In other words, Helen is really beside the point. These guys just want to get their battle on so they can earn props from other men.
So, it seems to us that the Trojan War isn't exactly Helen's fault. If we're looking to blame someone, let's go ahead and point the finger at the guys doing the fighting and making all the political decisions.
Was Helen Raped?
Before we wrap up, let's talk about the big fat elephant in the room: was Helen raped and stolen or did she go willingly with Paris when he took her from her home in Greece? Unfortunately, this play never really gives us a good answer.
On the one hand, Helen is referred to as being "ravish'd" by Paris (Prologue, 10). But, the term "ravish" can mean a few different things: (1) filled with intense delight, (2) seized and carried off, or (3) sexually assaulted. So, which is it?
We also know that Paris acknowledges that it was wrong for him to have snagged another man's wife and describes the taking of Helen as a "fair rape" (2.2.148). But in Shakespeare's day, the term "rape" could refer to kidnapping or sexual assault—the word comes from a Latin term meaning "to seize," and sexual assault was literally "seizing" some other man's property, either the dad's or her husband's. So, we definitely get the sense that Paris "stole" Helen away from Menelaus, but it's not clear that she was assaulted.
To complicate matters, Helen seems pretty happy with Paris. The two lovers can hardly keep their hands off each other and she doesn't exactly seem sad about being in Troy. Does that suggest Helen willingly left her husband for Paris? That she's truly happy to be by Paris' side?
Or—like Cressida—is it possible that she's just faking it because she has no other choice? After all, Helen is pretty much treated like a commodity on eBay. At one point, she's even compared to an expensive piece of "silk" that's valued for its beauty but can be bought, sold, stolen, or traded between men (2.2.69-70). Go to "Themes: Philosophical Viewpoints" and we'll tell you more about this.