Authors of Greece
T. W. Lumb
Part 2 out of 4
"When the first news came, I shouted for joy, but now I shall hear
the story from the King himself. And I will use all diligence to
give my lord the best of all possible welcomes. Bid him come with
speed. May he find in the house a wife as faithful as he left her!
I know of no wanton pleasure with another man more than I know how
to dye a sword."
The Chorus understand well the hidden force of this sinister speech
and bid the messenger speak of Menelaus, the other beloved King of the
land. In reply he tells how a dreadful storm sent by the angry gods
descended upon the Greek fleet. In it fire and water, those ancient
foes, forsook their feud, conspiring to destroy the unhappy armament.
Whether Menelaus was alive or not was uncertain; if he lived, it was
only by the will of Zeus who desired to save the royal house. The
Chorus who look at things with a deeper glance than the herald, hear
his story with a growing uneasiness.
"Helen, the cause of the war, at first was a spirit ofcalm to Troy,
but at the latter end she was their bane, the evil angel of ruin.
For one act of violence begets many others like it, until
righteousness can no longer dwell within the sinner."
They touch a more joyous chord of welcome and loyalty when at last
they see the actual arrival of Agamemnon himself.
The King enters the stage accompanied by Cassandra, the prophetic
daughter of Priam, thus giving visible proof of his contempt for
Apollo, the Trojan protector and inspirer of the prophetess. He has
heard the Chorus' welcome and promises to search out the false friends
and administer healing medicine to the city. Clytemnestra replies in a
second speech of double significance.
"The Argive Elders well know how dearly she loves her lord and the
impatience of her life while he was at Troy. Often stories came of
his wounds; were they all true, he would have more scars than a net
has holes. Orestes their son has been sent away, lest he should be
the victim of some popular uprising in the King's absence. Her fount
of tears is dried up, not a drop being left."
After some words of extravagant flattery, she bids her waiting women
lay down purple carpets on which Justice may bring him to a home which
he never hoped to see. Agamemnon coldly deprecates her long speech;
the honour she suggests is one for the gods alone; his fame will speak
loud enough without gaudy trappings, for a wise heart is Heaven's
greatest gift. But the Queen, not to be denied, overcomes his
scruples. Giving orders that Cassandra is to be well treated, he
passes over the purple carpets, led by Clytemnestra who avows that she
would have given many purple carpets to get him home alive. Thus
arrogating to himself the honours of a god, he proceeds within the
palace, while she lingers behind for one brief moment to pray openly
to Zeus to fulfil her prayers and to bring his will to its appointed
end. Thoroughly alarmed, the Chorus give free utterance to the vague
forebodings which shake them, the song of the avenging Furies which
cries within their hearts.
"Human prosperity often strikes a sunken rock; bloodshed calls to
Heaven for vengeance; yet there is comfort, for one destiny may
override another, and good may yet come to pass."
These pious hopes are broken by the entry of the Queen who summons
Cassandra within: when the captive prophetess answers her not a word,
Clytemnestra declares she has no time to waste outside the palace:
already there stands at the altar the ox ready for sacrifice, a joy
she never looked to have; if Cassandra will not obey, she must be
taught to foam out her spirit in blood.
In the marvellous scene which follows Aeschylus reaches the pinnacle
of tragic power. Cassandra advances to the palace, but starts back in
horror as a series of visions of growing vividness comes before her
eyes. These find utterance in language of blended sanity and madness,
creating a terror whose very vagueness increases its intensity. First
she sees Atreus' cruel murder of his brother's children; then follows
the sight of Clytemnestra's treacherous smile and of Agamemnon in the
bath, hand after hand reaching at him; quickly she sees the net cast
about him, the murderess' blow. In a flash she foresees her own end
and breaks out into a wild lament over the ruin of her native city.
Her words work up the Chorus into a state of confused dread and
foreboding; they can neither understand nor yet disbelieve. When their
mental confusion is at its height, relief comes in a prophecy of the
greatest clearness, no longer couched in riddling terms. The palace is
peopled by a band of kindred Furies, who have drunk their fill of
human blood and cannot be cast out; they sit there singing the story
of the origin of its ruin, loathing the murder of the innocent
children. Agamemnon himself would soon pay the penalty, but his son
would come to avenge him. Foretelling her own death, she hurls away
the badges of her office, the sceptre and oracular chaplets, things
which have brought her nothing but ridicule. She prays for a peaceful
end without a struggle; comparing human life to a shadow when it is
fortunate and to a picture wiped out by a sponge when it is hapless,
she moves in calmly to her fate.
There is a momentary interval of reflection, then Agamemnon's dying
voice is heard as he is stricken twice. Frantic with horror, the
Chorus prepare to rush within but are checked by the Queen, who throws
open the door and stands glorying in the triumph of self-confessed
murder. Her real character is revealed in her speech.
"This feud was not unpremeditated; rather, it proceeds from an
ancient quarrel, matured by time. Here I stand where I smote him,
over my handiwork. So I contrived it, I freely confess, that he
could neither escape his fate nor defend himself. I cast over him
the endless net, and I smote him twice--in two groans he gave up
the ghost--adding a third in grateful thanksgiving to the King of
the dead in the nether world. As he fell he gasped out his spirit,
and breathing a swift stream of gore he smote me with a drop of
murderous dew, while I rejoiced even as does the cornfield under
the Heavensent shimmering moisture when it brings the ears to the
birth. Ye Argive Elders, rejoice if ye can, but I exult. If it were
fitting to pour thank-offerings for any death, 'twere just, nay,
more than just, to offer such for him, so mighty was the bowl of
curses he filled up in his home, then came and drank them up himself
to the dregs."
To their solemn warning that she would herself be cut off, banished
and hated, she replies:
"He slew my child, my dearest birth-pang, to charm the Thracian
winds. In the name of the perfect justice I have exacted for my
daughter, in the name of Ruin and Vengeance, to whom I have
sacrificed him, my hopes cannot tread the halls of fear so long
as Aegisthus is true to me. There he lies, seducer of this woman,
darling of many a Chryseis in Troyland. As for this captive
prophetess, this babbler of oracles, she sat on the ship's bench
by his side and both have fared as they deserved. He died as ye see;
but she sang her swan-song of death and lies beside him she loved,
bringing me a sweet relish for the luxury of my own love."
A little later she denies her very humanity.
"Call me not his spouse; rather the ancient dread haunting evil
genius of this house has taken a woman's shape and punished him,
a full-grown man in vengeance for little children."
Burial he should have, but without any dirges from his people.
"Let Iphigeneia, his daughter, as is most fitting, meet her father
at the swift-conveying passage of woe, throw her arms about him and
kiss him welcome."
The last scene of this splendid drama brings forward the poltroon
Aegisthus who had skulked behind in the background till the deed was
done. He enters to air his ancient grievance, reminding the Chorus how
his father was outraged by Atreus, how he himself was a banished man,
yet found his arm long enough to smite the King from far away. In
contempt for the coward the Elders prepare to offer him battle; they
appeal to Orestes to avenge the murder. The quarrel was stopped by
Clytemnestra, who had had enough of bloodshed and was content to leave
things as they were, if the gods consented thereto.
Before the sustained power of this masterpiece criticism is nearly
dumb. The conception of the inherited curse is by now familiar to us;
familiar too is the teaching that sacrilege brings its own punishment,
that human pride may be flattered into assuming the privilege of a
deity. These were enough to cause Agamemnon's undoing. But it is the
part played by Clytemnestra which fixes the dramatic interest. She is
inspired by a lust for vengeance, yet, had she known the truth that
her daughter was not dead but a priestess, she would have had no
pretext for the murder. This ignorance of essentials which originates
some human action is called Irony; it was put to dramatic uses for the
first time in European literature by Aeschylus. The horrible tragedy
it may cause is clear enough in the _Agamemnon_; its power is terrible
and its value as a dramatic source is inestimable. There is another
and a far more subtle form of Irony, in which a character uses
riddling speech interpreted by another actor in a sense different from
the truth as it is known to the spectators; this too can be used in
such a manner as to charge human speech with a sinister double meaning
which bodes ruin under the mask of words of innocence. Few dramatic
personages have used this device so effectively as Clytemnestra,
certainly none with a more fiendish intent. Again, in this play the
Chorus is employed with amazing skill; their vague uneasiness takes
more and more definitely the shape of actual terror in every ode; this
terror is raised to its height in the masterly Cassandra scene--it is
then abated a little, perhaps it is just beginning to disappear, for
nobody believed Cassandra, when the blow falls. This integral
connection between the Chorus and the main action is difficult to
maintain; that it exists in the _Agamemnon_ is evidence of a
constructive genius of the highest order.
The _Choephori_ (Libation-bearers), the second play of the trilogy,
opens with the entry of Orestes. He has just laid a lock of hair on
his father's tomb and sees a band of maidens approaching, among them
Electra, his sister. He retires with Pylades his faithful friend to
listen to their conversation. The Chorus tell how in consequence of a
dream of Clytemnestra they have been sent to offer libations to the
dead, to appease their anger and resentment against the murderers.
They give utterance to a wild hopeless song, full of a presentiment of
disaster coming on successful wickedness enthroned in power. They are
captives from Troy, obliged to look on the deeds of Aegisthus, whether
just or unjust, yet they weep for the purposeless agonies of
Agamemnon's house. When asked by Electra what prayers she should offer
to her dead father, they bid her pray for some avenging god or mortal
to requite the murderers. Returning to them from the tomb, she tells
them of a strange occurrence; a lock of hair has been laid on the
grave, and there are two sets of footprints on the ground, one of
which corresponds with her own. Orestes then comes forward to reveal
himself; as a proof of his identity, he bids her consider the garments
which she wove with her own hands; urging her to restrain her joy lest
she betray his arrival, he tells how Apollo has commanded him to
avenge his father's death, threatening him with sickness, frenzy,
nightly terrors, excommunication and a dishonoured death if he
In a long choral dialogue the actors tell of Clytemnestra's insolent
treatment of the dead King; she had buried him without funeral rites
or mourning, with no subjects to follow the corpse; she even mangled
his body and thrust Electra out of the palace; thus she filled the cup
of her iniquity. The Chorus remind Orestes of his duty to act, but
first he inquires why oblations have been offered; on learning that
they are the result of Clytemnestra's dreaming that she suckled a
serpent that stung her, and that she hopes to appease the angry dead,
he interprets the dream of himself. He then unfolds his plot. He and
Pylades will imitate a Phocian dialect and will seek out and slay
Aegisthus. An ode which succeeds recounts the legends of evil women,
closing with the declaration that Justice is firmly seated in the
world, that Fate prepares a sword for a murderer and a Fury punishes
him with it.
Approaching the palace Orestes summons the Queen and tells her that a
stranger called Strophius bade him bring to Argos the news that
Orestes is dead. Clytemnestra commands her servants within the house
to welcome him and sends out her son's old nurse Cilissa to take the
news to Aegisthus. The nurse stops to speak to the Chorus in the very
language of grief for the boy she had reared, like Constance in _King
John_. The Chorus advise her to summon Aegisthus alone without his
bodyguard, for Orestes is not yet dead; when she departs they pray
that the end may be speedily accomplished and the royal house cleansed
of its curse. Aegisthus crosses the stage into the palace to meet a
hasty end; seeing the deed, a servant rushes out to call Clytemnestra,
while Orestes bursts out from the house and faces his mother. For a
moment his resolution wavers; Pylades reminds him of Apollo's anger if
he fails. To his mother's plea that Destiny abetted her deed he
replies that Destiny intends her death likewise; before he thrusts her
into the palace she warns him of the avenging Furies she will send to
persecute him. She then passes to her doom.
After the Chorus have sung an ode of triumph Orestes shows the bodies
of the two who loved in sin while alive and were not separated in
death. He then displays the net which Clytemnestra threw around her
husband's body and the robe in which she caught his feet; he holds up
the garment through which Aegisthus' dagger ran. But in that very
moment the cloud of more agonies to come descends upon the hapless
family. In obedience to Apollo's command he takes the suppliant's
branch and chaplet, and prepares to hasten to Delphi, a wanderer cut
off from his native land. The dreadful shapes of the avenging Furies
close in upon him: the fancies of incipient madness thicken on his
mind: he is hounded out, his only hope of rest being Apollo's sacred
shrine. The play ends with a note of hopelessness, of calamity without
After the _Agamemnon_ this play reads weak indeed. Yet it displays two
marked characteristics. It is full of vigorous action; the plot is
quickly conceived and quickly consummated; the business is soon over.
Further, Aeschylus has discovered yet another source of tragic power,
the conflict of duties. Orestes has to choose between obedience to
Apollo and reverence for his mother. That these duties are
incompatible is clear; whichever he performed, punishment was bound to
follow. It is in this enforced choice between two evils that the
pathos of life is often to be found; that Aeschylus should have so
faithfully depicted it is a great contribution to the growth of drama.
The concluding play, the _Eumenides_, calls for a briefer description.
It opens with one of the most awe-inspiring scenes which the
imagination of man has conceived. The priestess of Delphi finds a man
sitting as a suppliant at the central point of the earth, his hands
dripping with blood, a sword and an olive branch in his hand. Round
him is slumbering a troop of dreadful forms, beings from darkness, the
avengers. When the scene is disclosed, Apollo himself is seen standing
at Orestes' side. He urges Hermes to convey the youth with all speed
to Athens where he is to clasp the ancient image of Athena.
Immediately the ghost of Clytemnestra arises; waking the sleeping
forms, she bids them fly after their victim. They arise and confront
Apollo, a younger deity, whom they reproach for protecting one who
should be abandoned to them. Apollo replies with a charge that they
are prejudiced in favour of Clytemnestra, whom, though a murderess,
they had never tormented.
The scene rapidly changes to Athens, where Orestes calls upon Athena;
confident in the privilege of their ancient office the Chorus awaits
the issue. The goddess appears and consents to try the case, the
Council of the Areopagus acting as a jury. Apollo first defends his
action in saving Orestes, asserting that he obeys the will of Zeus.
The main question is, which of the two parents is more to be had in
Athena herself had no mother; the female is merely the nurse of the
child, the father being the true generative source. The Chorus points
out that the sin of slaying a husband is not the same as that of
murdering a mother, for the one implies kinship, while the other does
not. Athena advises the Court to judge without fear or favour. When
the votes are counted, it is found that they are exactly even. The
goddess casts her vote for Orestes, who is thus saved and restored.
The Chorus threaten that ruin and sterility shall visit Athena's city;
they are elder gods, daughters of night, and are overridden by younger
deities. But Athena by the power of her persuasion offers them a full
share in all the honours and wealth of Attica if they will consent to
take up their abode in it. They shall be revered by countless
generations and will gain new dignities such as they could not have
otherwise obtained. Little by little their resentment is overcome;
they are conducted to their new home to change their name and become
the kindly goddesses of the land.
The boldness of Aeschylus is most evident in this play. Not content
with raising a ghost as he had done in the _Persae_, he actually shows
upon a public stage the two gods whom the Athenians regarded as the
special objects of their worship. More than this, he has brought to
the light the dark powers of the underworld in all their terrors; it
is said that at the sight of them some of the women in the audience
were taken with the pangs of premature birth. The introduction of
these supernatural figures was the most vivid means at Aeschylus'
disposal for bringing home to the minds of his contemporaries the
seriousness of the dramatic issue. It will be remembered that the
_Prometheus_ was the last echo of the contest between two races of
gods. The same strain of thought has made the poet represent the
struggle in the mind of Orestes as a trial between the primeval gods
and the newer stock; the result was the same, the older and perhaps
more terrifying deities are beaten, being compelled to change their
names and their character to suit the gentler spirit which a religion
takes to itself as it develops. At any rate, such is Aeschylus'
solution of the eternal question, "What atonement can be made for
bloodshed and how can it be secured?" The problem is of the greatest
interest; it may be that there is no real answer for it, but it is at
least worth while to examine the attempts which have been made to
Before we begin to attempt an estimate of Aeschylus it is well to face
the reasons which make Greek drama seem a thing foreign to us. We are
at times aware that it is great, but we cannot help asking, "Is it
real?" Modern it certainly is not. In the first place, the Chorus was
all-important to the Greeks, but is non-existent with us. To them
drama was something more than action, it was music and dancing as
well. Yet as time went on, the Greeks themselves found the Chorus more
and more difficult to manage and it was discarded as a feature of the
main plot. Only in a very few instances could a play be constructed in
such a manner as to allow the Chorus any real influence on the story.
Aeschylus' skill in this branch of his art is really extraordinary;
the Chorus does take a part, and a vital part too, in the play. Again,
the number of Greek actors was limited, whereas in a modern play their
number is just as great as suits playwright's convenience or his
capacity. The impression then of a Greek play is that it is a somewhat
thin performance compared with the vivacity and complexity of the
great Elizabethans. The plot, where it exists, seems very narrow in
Attic drama; it could hardly be otherwise in a society which was
content with a repeated discussion of a rather close cycle of heroic
legends. Yet here, too, we might note how Aeschylus trod out of the
narrow circumscribed round, notably in the _Prometheus_ and the
_Persoe_. Lastly, the Greek play is short when compared with a
full-bodied five-act tragedy. It must be remembered, however, that
very often these plays are only a third part of the real subject dealt
with by the playwright.
All Greek tragedy is liable to these criticisms; it is not fair to
judge a process just beginning by the standards of an art which thinks
itself full-blown after many centuries of history. Considering the
meagre resources available for Aeschylus--the masks used by Greek
actors made it impossible for any of them to win a reputation or to
add to the fame of a play--we ought to admire the marvellous success
he achieved. His defects are clear enough; his teaching is a little
archaic, his plots are sometimes weak or not fully worked out, his
tendency is to description instead of vigorous action, he has a
superabundance of choric matter. Sometimes it is said that the
doctrine of an inherited curse on which much of his work is written is
false; let it be remembered that week by week a commandment is read in
our churches which speaks of visiting the sins of the fathers upon the
third and fourth generation of them that hate God; all that is needed
to make Aeschylus' doctrine "real" in the sense of "modern" is to
substitute the nineteenth-century equivalent Heredity. That he has
touched on a genuine source of drama will be evident to readers of
Ibsen's _Ghosts_. More serious is the objection that his work is not
dramatic at all; the actors are not really human beings acting as
such, for their wills and their deeds are under the control of
Destiny. What then shall we say of this from Hamlet:--
"There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them as we will?"
In this matter we are on the threshold of one of our insoluble
problems--the freedom of the will. An answer to this real fault in
Aeschylus will be found in the subsequent history of the Attic drama
attempted in the next two chapters. Suffice it to say that, whether
the will is free or not, we act as if it were, and that is enough to
represent (as Aeschylus has done) human beings acting on a stage as we
ourselves would do in similar circumstances, for the discussions about
Destiny are very often to be found in the mouths not of the
characters, but of the Chorus, who are onlookers.
The positive excellences of Aeschylus are numerous enough to make us
thankful that he has survived. His style is that of the great sublime
creators in art, Dante, Michaelangelo, Marlowe; it has many a "mighty
line". His subjects are the Earth, the Heavens, the things under the
Earth; more, he reveals a period of unsuspected antiquity, the present
order of gods being young and somewhat inexperienced. He carries us
back to Creation and shows us the primeval deities, Earth, Night,
Necessity, Fate, powers simply beyond the knowledge of ordinary
thoughtless men. His characters are cast in a mighty mould; he taps
the deepest tragic springs; he teaches that all is not well when we
prosper. The thoughtless, light-hearted, somewhat shallow mind which
thinks it can speak, think, and act without having to render an
account needs the somewhat stern tonic of these seven dramas; it may
be chastened into some sobriety and learn to be a little less flippant
Aeschylus' influence is rather of the unseen kind. His genius is of a
lofty type which is not often imitated. Demanding righteousness,
justice, piety, and humility, he belongs to the class of Hebrew
prophets who saw God and did not die.
Miss Swanwick; E. D. A. Morshead; Campbell (all in verse). Paley
Versions also appear in Verrall's editions of separate plays
An admirable volume called _Greek Tragedy_ by G. Norwood (Methuen)
contains a summary of the latest views on the art of the Athenian
See Symonds' _Greek Poets_ as above.
In Aeschylus' dramas the will of the gods tended to override human
responsibility. An improvement could be effected by making the
personages real captains of their souls; drama needed bringing down
from heaven to earth. This process was effected by Sophocles. He was
born at Colonus, near Athens, in 495, mixed with the best society in
Periclean times, was a member of the important board of administrators
who controlled the Delian League, the nucleus of the Athenian Empire,
and composed over one hundred tragedies. In 468 he defeated Aeschylus,
won the first prize twenty-two times and later had to face the more
formidable opposition of the new and restless spirit whose chief
spokesman was Euripides. For nearly forty years he was taken to be the
typical dramatist of Athens, being nicknamed "the Bee"; his dramatic
powers showed no abatement of vigour in old age, of which the _Oedipus
Coloneus_ was the triumphant issue. He died in 405, full of years and
Providence has ordained it that his art, like his country's tutelary
goddess Athena, should step perfect and fully armed from the brain of
its creator. The _Antigone_, produced in 440, discusses one of the
deepest problems of civilised life. On the morning after the defeat of
the Seven who assaulted Thebes Polyneices' body lay dishonoured and
unburied, a prey to carrion birds before the gates of the city which
had been his home. His two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, discuss the
edict which forbids his burial. Ismene, the more timid of the two,
intends to obey it, but Antigone's stronger character rises in
Loss of burial was the most awful fate which could overtake a Greek
--before he died Sophocles was to see his country condemn ten generals
to death for neglect of burial rites, though they had been brilliantly
successful in a naval engagement. Rather than obey Antigone would die.
"Bury him I will; I will lie in death with the brother I love,
sinning in a righteous cause. Far longer is the time in which I
must please the dead than men on earth, for among the former I
shall dwell for ever. Do thou, if it please thee, hold in dishonour
what is honoured by Heaven."
Here is the source of the tragedy, the will of the individual in
conflict with established authority.
A chorus of Theban elders enters, singing an ode of deliverance and
joy; they have been summoned by Creon, the new King, uncle of Oedipus'
children. Full of the sense of his own importance Creon states the
official view. Polyneices is to remain unburied.
"Any man who considers private friendship to be more important than
the State is a man of naught. In the name of all-seeing Zeus I would
not hold my tongue if I saw ruin coming to the citizens instead of
safety, nor would I make a friend of my country's enemy. Sure am I
that it is the State that saves us; she is the ship that carries us;
we make our friendships without overturning her."
The elders promise obedience, but grave news is reported by a guard
who has been set to watch the corpse. Someone had scattered dust
lightly over the dead and departed without leaving any trace; neither
he nor his companions had done the deed.
When the Chorus suggest that it is the work of some deity, Creon
answers in great impatience:
"Cease, lest thou be proved a fool as well as old. Thy words are
intolerable when thou sayest that the gods can have a care of this
corpse. What, have they buried him in honour for his services to them?
Did he not come to burn their pillared temples and offerings and
precincts and shatter our laws?"
He angrily thrusts the watchman forth, threatening to hang him and his
companions alive unless they find the culprit.
"There are many marvels, but none greater than Man. He crosses the
wintry sea, he wears away the hard earth with his plough, ensnareth
the light-hearted race of birds, catcheth the wild beasts, trappeth
the things of the deep, yoketh the horse and the unwearying ox. He
hath taught himself speech and thought swift as the wind, hath learnt
the moods of a city life and can avoid the shafts of the frost; he
hath a device for every problem save Death--though disease he can
escape. Sometimes he moveth to ill, again to good; his cities rear
their heads when they reverence the laws and the gods; he wrecketh
his city when he boldly forsakes the good. May an evil-doer never
share my hearth or heart."
Such is the ordinary man's view of the action of Polyneices, for in
Sophocles the Chorus certainly represents average public opinion. It
is quickly challenged by the entry of Antigone with the Watchman,
whose story Creon hastens out to hear. With no little self-satisfaction
the Watchman tells how they caught the girl in the very act of replacing
the dust they had removed and pouring libations over the dead. Antigone
admits the deed. When asked how she dare defy the official ordinance,
"It came neither from Zeus nor from Justice, nor did I deem that thy
decrees had such power that a mortal could override the unwritten
and unshaken laws of Heaven. These have not their life from now or
yesterday, but from everlasting, and no man knows whence they have
appeared. It was not likely that, through fear of any man's will,
I would pay Heaven's penalty for their infringement. Die I must, even
hadst thou made no proclamation; if I die before my time, I count
it all gain. If my act seem folly to thee, maybe it is a foolish
judge who counts me mad."
Creon replies that this is sheer insolence; it is an insult that he, a
man, should give way to a woman. He threatens to destroy both girls,
but Antigone is sure that public opinion is with her, though for the
moment it is muzzled through fear. Ismene is brought in and offers to
die with her sister; Antigone refuses her offer, insisting that she
alone has deserved chastisement.
In a second ode the gradual extinction of Oedipus' race is described,
owing to foolish word and insensate thought, for "when Heaven leads a
man to ruin it makes him believe that evil is good". A new interest is
added by Creon's son Haemon, the affianced lover of Antigone, who
comes to interview his father. This is the first instance in European
drama of that without which much modern literature would have little
reason for existing at all--the love element, wisely kept in check by
the Greeks. A further conflict of wills adds to the dramatic effect of
the play; Creon insists on filial obedience, for he cannot claim to
rule a city if he fails to control his own family. Haemon answers with
courtesy and deference; he points out that the force of public opinion
is behind Antigone and suggests that the official view may perhaps be
wrong because it is the expression of an individual's judgment. When
he is himself charged thus directly with the very fault for which he
claimed to punish Antigone, Creon lets his temper get the mastery;
after a violent quarrel Haemon parts from him with a dark threat that
the girl's death will remove more than one person, and vows never to
cross his father's doorstep again.
Antigone is soon carried away to her doom; she is to be shut up in a
cavern without food. In a dialogue of great beauty she confesses her
human weakness--death is near, and with it banishment from the joys of
life. Creon bids her make an end; her last speech concludes with a
clear statement of the problem. Who knows if she is right? She herself
will know after death. If she has erred, she will confess it; if the
King is wrong, she prays he may not suffer greater woes than her own.
A reaction now occurs. Teiresias, the blind seer, seeks out Creon
because of the failure of his sacrificial rites; the birds of the air
are gorged with human blood, and fail to give the signs of augury. He
bids Creon return to his right senses and quit his stubbornness. When
the latter mockingly accuses the seer of being bribed, he learns the
dread punishment his obstinacy has brought him.
"Know that thou shalt not see out many hurrying rounds of the sun
before thou shalt give one sprung from thine own loins in exchange
for the dead, one in return for two, for thou hast thrust below
one of the children of the light, penning up her spirit in a tomb
with dishonour, and thou keepest above ground a body that belongs
to the gods below, without its share of funerals, unrighteously;
wherefore the late-punishing ruinous gods of death and the
Furies lie in wait for thee, to catch thee in like agonies."
Cowed by the terror, the King hurries to undo his work, calling for
pickaxes to open the tomb and himself going with all speed to set free
The sequel is told by a messenger who at the outset strikes a note of
"Creon I once envied, for he was the saviour of his land, and was
the father of noble children. Now all is lost. When men lose
pleasure, I deem that they are not alive but moving corpses. Heap
up wealth and live in kingly state, but if there is no pleasure
withal, I would not pay the worth of a shadow for all the rest.
Haemon is dead."
Hearing the news, Eurydice the Queen comes out, and bids him tell his
story in full. Creon found Haemon clasping the body of Antigone who
had hung herself. Seeing his father, he made a murderous attack on
him; when it failed, he drew his sword and fell on it--thus in death
the two lovers were not separated. In an ominous silence the Queen
departs. Creon enters with his son's body, to be utterly shattered by
a second and an unexpected blow, for his wife has slain herself.
Broken and helpless he admits his fault, while the Chorus sing in
"By far the greatest part of happiness is wisdom; men should
reverence the gods; mighty plagues repay the mighty words of the
over-proud, teaching wisdom to the aged."
To Aeschylus the power that largely controlled men's acts was Destiny.
A notable contrast is visible in the system of Sophocles. Destiny does
not disappear, rather it retires into the background of his thought.
To him the leading cause of ruin is evil counsel. Over and over again
this teaching is driven home. All the leading characters mention it,
Antigone, Haemon, Teiresias, and when it is disregarded, it is
remorselessly brought home by disaster. The dramatic gain is enormous;
man's sorrows are ascribed primarily to his own lack of judgment, the
tragic character takes on a more human shape, for he is more nearly
related to the ordinary persons we meet in our own experience. Another
great advance is visible in the construction of the plot. It is more
varied, more flexible; it never ceases developing, the action
continuing to the end instead of stopping short at a climax. Further,
the Chorus begins to fall into a more humble position, it exercises
but little influence on the great figures of the plot, being content
to mirror the opinions of the interested outside spectator. Truly
drama is beginning to be master of itself--"the play's the thing".
But far more important is the subject of this play. It raises one of
the most difficult problems which demand a solution, the harmonisation
of private judgment with state authority. The individual in a growing
civilisation sooner or later asks how far he ought to obey, who is the
lord over his convictions, whether disobedience is ever justifiable.
If a law is wrong how are we to make its immorality evident? In an age
when a central authority is questioned or loses its hold on men's
allegiance, this problem will imperiously demand an answer. When
Europe was aroused from the slumber of the Middle Ages and the
spiritual authority which had governed it for centuries was shattered,
the same right of resistance as that which Antigone claimed was
insisted upon by various reformers. It did not fail to bring with it
tragic consequences, for the "power beareth not the sword in vain".
Its sequel was the Thirty Years' War which barbarised central Germany,
leaving in many places a race of savage beings who had once been
human. In our own days resistance is preached almost as a sacred duty.
We have passive resisters, conscientious objectors, strikers and a
host of young and imperfectly educated persons, some armed with the
very serious power of voting, who claim to set their wills in flat
opposition to recognised authority. One or two contributions to the
solution of this problem may be found in the _Antigone_. The central
authority must be prepared to prove that its edicts are not below the
moral standard of the age; on the other hand, non-compliance must be
backed by the force of public opinion; it must show that the action it
takes will ultimately bring good to the whole community. It is of
little use to appeal to the so-called conscience unless we can produce
some credentials of the proper training and enlightenment of that
rather vague and uncertain faculty, whose normal province is to
condemn wrong acts, not to justify law-breaking. Most resisters talk
the very language of Antigone, appealing to the will of Heaven; would
that they could prove as satisfactorily as she did that the power
behind them is that which governs the world in righteousness.
A somewhat similar problem reappears in the _Ajax_. This play opens at
early dawn with a dialogue between Athena, who is unseen, and
Odysseus; the latter has traced Ajax to his tent after a night of
madness in which he has slain much cattle and many shepherds,
imagining them to be his foes, especially Odysseus himself who had
worsted him in the contest for the arms of Achilles. Athena calls out
the beaten hero for a moment and the sight of him moves Odysseus to
"I pity him, though my foe; for I think of mine own self as much as
of him. We men are but shadows, all of us, or fleeting shades."
To this Athena replies:--
"When thou seest such sights, utter no haughty word against the gods
and be not roused to pride, if thou art mightier than another in
strength or store of wealth. One day can bring down or exalt all
human state, but the gods love the prudent and hate the sinners."
A band of mariners from Salamis enter as the chorus; they are Ajax'
followers who have come to learn the truth. They are confronted by
Tecmessa, Ajax' captive, who confirms the grievous rumour, describing
his mad acts. When the fit was over, she had left him in his tent
prostrate with grief and shame among the beasts he had slain, longing
for vengeance on his enemies before he died.
The business of the play now begins. Coming forth, Ajax in a long
despairing speech laments his lot--persecuted by Athena, hated of
Greeks and Trojans alike, the secret laughter of his enemies.
Where shall he go? Home to the father he has disgraced? Against Troy,
leading a forlorn hope? He had already reminded Tecmessa with some
sternness that silence is a woman's best grace; now she appeals to his
pity. Bereft of him, she would speedily be enslaved and mocked; their
son would be left defenceless; the many kindnesses she had done him
cry for some return from a man of chivalrous nature, Ajax bade her be
of good cheer; she must obey him in all things and first must bring
his son Eurysaces. Taking him in his arms, he says:--
"If he is my true son, he will not quail at the sight of blood.
But he must speedily be broken into his father's warrior habit
and imitate his ways. My son, I pray thou mayest be happier than
thy sire, but like him otherwise, then thou shalt be no churl.
Yet herein I envy thee that thou canst not feel my agonies. Life
is sweetest in its careless years before it learns joy and pain;
but when thou art come to that, show thy father's enemies thy
nature and birth. Till then feed on the spirit of gladness,
gambol in the life of boyhood and gladden thy mother's heart."
He reflects that his son will be safe as long as Teucer lives, whom he
charges on his return to take the boy to his own father and mother to
be their joy. His arms shall not be a prize to be striven for; they
should be buried with him except his shield, which his son should take
and keep. This ominous speech dashes the hopes which he had raised in
Tecmessa's heart, even the Chorus sadly admitting that death is the
best for a brainsick man, born of the highest blood, no longer true to
Ajax re-enters, a sword in his hands. He feels his heart touched by
Tecmessa's words and pities her helplessness. He resolves to go to the
shore and there bury the accursed sword he had of Hector, which had
robbed him of his peace. He will soon learn obedience to the gods and
his leaders; all the powers of Nature are subject to authority, the
seasons, the sea, night and sleep. He has but now learned that an
enemy is to be hated as one who will love us later, while friendship
will not always abide. Yet all will be well; he will go the journey he
cannot avoid; soon all will hear that his evil destiny has brought him
salvation. This splendid piece of tragic irony is interpreted at its
surface value by the Chorus, who burst into a song of jubilation. But
the words have a darker meaning; this transient joy is but the last
flicker of hope before it is quenched in everlasting night.
A messenger brings the news that Teucer, Ajax' brother, on his return
to the camp from a raid was nearly stoned to death as the kinsman of
the army's foe. He inquires where Ajax is; hearing that he had gone
out to make atonement, he knows the terror that is to come. Chalcas
the seer adjured Teucer to use all means in his power to keep Ajax in
his tent that day, for in it alone Athena's wrath would persecute him.
She had punished him with madness for two proud utterances. On leaving
his father he had boasted he would win glory in spite of Heaven, and
later had bidden Athena assist the other Greeks, for the line would
never break where he stood. Such was his pride, and such its
punishment. Tecmessa hurries in and sends some to fetch Teucer, others
to go east and west to seek out her lord. The scene rapidly changes to
the shore, where Ajax cries to the gods, imprecates his foes, prays to
Death, and after a remembrance of his native land falls on his sword.
The Chorus enter in two bands, but find nothing. Tecmessa discovers
the body in a brake, and hides it under her robe. Distracted and
haunted by the dread of slavery and ridicule, she gives way to grief.
Teucer enters to learn of the tragedy; after dispatching Tecmessa to
save the child while there is yet time, he reflects on his own state.
Telamon his father will cast him off for being absent in his brother's
hour of weakness whom he loved as his own life. Sadly he bears out the
truth of Ajax utterance, that a foe's gifts are fraught with ruin; the
belt that Ajax gave Hector served to tie his feet to Achilles'
car--and Hector's sword was in his brother's heart.
The plot now appeals to fiercer passions. Menelaus entering commands
Teucer to leave the corpse where it is, for an enemy shall receive no
burial. He strikes the same note as Creon:--
"It is the mark of an ill-conditioned man that he, a commoner,
should see fit to disobey the powers that be. Law cannot prosper
in a city where there is no settled fear; where a man trembles and
is loyal, there is salvation; when he is insolent and does as he
will, his city soon or late will sink to ruin."
Teucer answers that Ajax never was a subject, but was always an equal.
He fought, not for Helen, but for his oath's sake. The dispute waxes
hot; the calm dignity of Teucer easily discomfits the Spartan
braggart, who departs to bring aid. Meanwhile Tecmessa returns with
the child whom Teucer in a scene of consummate pathos bids kneel at
his father's side, holding in his hand a triple lock of
hair--Teucer's, his mother's, his own; this sacred symbol, if
violated, would bring a curse on any who dared outrage him. While
the Chorus sing a song full of longings for home, Agamemnon advances to
the place, followed by Teucer. The King is deliberately insolent,
reviling Teucer for the stain on his birth. In reply the latter in a
great speech reminds him that there was a time when the flames licked
the Greek ships and there was none to save them but Ajax, who had
faced Hector single-handed. With kindling passion he hurls the taunt
of a stained birth back on Agamemnon and plainly tells him that Ajax
shall be buried and that the King will rue any attempt at violence.
Odysseus comes in to hear the quarrel. He admits that he had once been
the foe of the dead man, who yet had no equal in bravery except
Achilles. For all that, enmity in men should end where death begins.
Astonished at this defence of a foe, Agamemnon argues a little with
Odysseus, who gently reminds him that one day he too will need burial.
This human appeal obtains the necessary permission; Odysseus, left
alone with Teucer, offers him friendship. Too much overcome by
surprise and joy to say many words, Teucer accepts his friendship and
the play ends with a ray of sunlight after storm and gloom.
Once more Sophocles has filled every inch of his canvas. The plot
never flags and has no diminuendo after the death of Ajax. The cause
of the tragedy is not plainly indicated at the outset; with a skill
which is masterly, Sophocles represents in the opening scene Athena
and Odysseus as beings purely odious, mocking a great man's fall. With
the progress of the action these two characters recover their dignity;
Athena has just cause for her anger, while Odysseus obtains for the
dead his right of burial. We should notice further how the pathos of
this fine play is heightened by the conception of the "one day" which
brought ruin to a noble warrior. Had he been kept within his tent that
one day--had this fatal day been known, the ruin need not have
happened. "The pity of it", the needless waste of human life, what a
theme is there for a tragedy!
The _Ajax_ has never exercised an acknowledged influence on
literature. It was a favourite with the Greeks, but modern writers
have strangely overlooked it. For us it has a good lesson. Here was a
hero, born in an island, who unaided saved a fleet when his allies
were forced back on their trenches and beyond them to the sea. His
reward was such as Wordsworth tells of:--
Alas! the gratitude of men
Has oftener left me mourning.
We remember many a long month of agony during which another island
kept destruction from a fleet and saved her allies withal. In some
quarters this island has received the gratitude which Ajax had; her
friends asked, "What has England done in the war, anyhow?" If it
befits anybody to answer, it must be England's Teucer, who has built
another Salamis overseas, just as he did. Our kindred across the
oceans will give us the reward of praise; for us the chastisement of
Ajax may serve to reinforce the warning which is to be found on the
lips of not the least of our own poets:--
"For frantic boast and foolish word
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord."
The _Electra_ is Sophocles' version of the revenge of Orestes which
Aeschylus described in the _Choephori_ and is useful as affording a
comparison between the methods of the two masters. An aged tutor at
early dawn enters the scene with Orestes to whom he shows his father's
palace and then departs with him to offer libations at the dead king's
tomb. Electra with a Chorus of Argive girls comes forward, the former
describing the insolent conduct of Clytemnestra who holds high revelry
on the anniversary of her husband's death and curses Electra for
saving Orestes. Chrysothemis, another daughter, comes out to talk with
Electra; she is of a different mould, gentle and timid like Ismene,
and warns Electra that in consequence of her obstinacy in revering her
father's memory Aegisthus intends to shut her up in a rocky cavern as
soon as he returns. She advises her to use good counsel, then departs
to pour on Agamemnon's tomb some libations which Clytemnestra offers
in consequence of a dream.
The Queen finds Electra ranging abroad as usual in the absence of
Aegisthus. She defends the murder of her husband, but is easily
refuted by Electra who points out that, if it is right to exact a life
for a life, she ought to suffer death herself. Clytemnestra prays to
Apollo to avert the omen of her dream, her prayer seemingly being
answered immediately by the entry of the old tutor who comes to inform
her of the death of Orestes, killed at Delphi in a chariot race which
he brilliantly describes. Torn by her emotions, Clytemnestra can be
neither glad nor sorry.
"Shall I call this happy news, or dreadful but profitable? Hapless
am I, if I save my life at the cost of my own miseries. Strong is
the tie of motherhood; no parent hates a child even if outraged by
him. Yet, now that he is gone, I shall have rest and peace from his
Hearing so circumstantial a proof of her brother's death, Electra is
plunged into the depths of misery.
But soon Chrysothemis returns in a state of high excitement. She has
found a lock of Orestes' hair and some offerings at the tomb. Electra
quickly informs her that her elation is groundless, for their brother
is dead; she suggests that they two should strike the murderers, but
Chrysothemis recoils in horror from the plot. Then Orestes enters with
a casket in his hand; this he gives to Electra, saying it contains the
mortal remains of the dead prince. In utter hopelessness Electra takes
it and soliloquises over it. Seeing her misery, Orestes cannot
refrain; gently taking the casket from her he gradually reveals
himself. The tutor enters and recalls him to their immediate business.
Electra asks who the stranger is and learns that it is the very man to
whom she gave the infant boy her brother. The three advance to the
palace which Orestes enters to dispatch his mother, Electra bidding
him smite with double force, wishing only that Aegisthus were with her
The end of Aegisthus himself is contrived with Sophoclean art. He
comes in hurriedly to find the two strangers who have proof of
Electra tells him they are in the palace; they have not only told her
of the dead Orestes, but have shown him to her; Aegisthus himself can
see the unenviable sight; he can rejoice at it, if there is any joy in
it. Exulting, he sings a note of triumph at the removal of his fears
and threatens to chastise all who try henceforth to thwart his will.
He dashes open the door, and there sees the Queen lying dead. Orestes
bids him enter the palace, to be slain on the very spot where his
father was murdered.
Fortune has been kind in preserving us this play. The great difference
between the art of Sophocles and that of Aeschylus is here apparent.
Only one man has ventured to paint for us Aeschylus' Clytemnestra;
Leighton has revealed her, stern as Nature herself, remorseless, armed
with a sword to smite first, then argue if she can find time to do so.
Sophocles' Clytemnestra is a woman, lost as soon as she begins to
reason out her misdeeds. She prays to Apollo in secret, for fear lest
Electra may overhear her prayer and make it void. But the crudity of
Aeschylus' resources did not satisfy Sophocles, whose taste demanded a
contrast to heighten the character of his heroine and found one in the
Homeric story that Agamemnon had a second daughter. Aeschylus' stern
nature did not shrink from the sight of a meeting between mother and
son; Sophocles closed the doors upon the act of vengeance, though he
represents Electra as encouraging her brother from outside the palace.
The Aegisthus incident maintains the interest to the end in the
masterly Sophoclean style of refined and searching irony. The tone of
the play is singular; from misery it at first sinks to hopelessness,
then to despair, and finally it soars to triumphant joy. Such a
dangerous venture was unattempted before.
The most lovable woman in Greek literature is the heroine of the next
play, the _Trachiniae_, produced at an uncertain date. Deianeira had
been won and wed by Heracles; after a brief spell of happiness she
found herself left more and more alone as her husband's labours called
him away from her. For fifteen months she had heard no news of him.
Her nurse suggests that she should send her eldest son to Euboea to
seek him out, a rumour being abroad that he has reached that island.
The mother in her loneliness is comforted by a band of girls of
Trachis, the scene of the action. But her uneasiness is too great to
be cheered; she describes the strange curse of womanhood:--
"When it is young it groweth in a clime of its own, plagued by no
heat of the sun nor rain nor wind; in careless gaiety it builds up
its days till it is no longer maid, but wife; then in the night it
hath its meed of cares, terrified for lord or children. Only such a
one can know from the sight of her own sorrows what is my burden
But there is a deeper cause for anxiety; Heracles had said that if he
did not return in fifteen months he would either die or be rid for
ever of his labours; that very hour had come.
News reached her that Heracles is alive and triumphant; Lichas was coming
to give fuller details. Very soon he enters with a band of captive maidens,
telling how his master had been kept in slavery in Lydia; shaking off the
yoke, he had sacked and destroyed the city of Eurytus who had caused his
captivity, the girls were Heracles' offering of the spoils to Deianeira.
Filled with pity at their lot, she looked closely at them and was
attracted by one of them, a silent girl of noble countenance. Lichas when
questioned denied all knowledge of her identity and departed. When he had
gone, the messenger desired private speech with Deianeira. Lichas had
lied; the girl was Iole, daughter of Eurytus; it was for her sake that his
master destroyed the city, for he loved the maid and intended to keep her
in his home to be a rival to his wife. Lichas on coming out was confronted
by the messenger, and attempted to dissemble, but Deianeira appealed to
"Nay, deceive me not. Thou shalt not speak to a woman of evil heart,
who knoweth not the ways of men, how that they by a law of their
own being delight not always in the same thing. 'Tis a fool who
standeth up to battle against Love who ruleth even gods as he will,
and me too; then why not another such as I? Therefore if I revile
my lord when taken with this plague, I am crazed indeed--or this
woman is, who hath brought me no shame or sorrow. If my lord
teacheth thee to lie, thy lesson is no good one; if thou art
schooling thyself to falsehood in a desire to be kind to me, thou
shalt prove unkind. Speak all the truth; it is an ignoble lot for a
man of honour to be called false."
Completely won by this appeal, Lichas confesses the truth.
During the singing of a choral ode Deianeira has had time to reflect.
The reward of her loyalty is to take a second place. The girl is young
and her beauty is fast ripening; she herself is losing her charm. But
no prudent woman should fly into a passion; happily she has a remedy,
for in the first days of her wedded life Heracles had shot Nessus, a
half-human monster, for insulting her. Before he died Nessus bade her
steep her robe in his blood and treasure it as a certain charm for
recovering his waning affection. Summoning Lichas, she gives him
strict orders to take the robe to Heracles who was to allow no light
of the sun or fire to fall upon it before wearing it. After a short
interval, she returns in the greatest agitation; a little tuft of wool
which she had anointed with the monster's blood had caught the
sunlight and shrivelled up to dust. If the robe proved a means of
death, she determined to slay herself rather than live in disgrace. At
that moment Hyllus bursts in to describe the horrible tortures which
seized Heracles when he put on the poisoned mantle; the hero commanded
his son to ferry him across from Euboea to witness the curse which his
mother's evil deed would bring with it. Hearing these tidings
Deianeira leaves the scene without uttering a word.
The old nurse quickly rushes in from the palace to tell how Deianeira
had killed herself--while Hyllus was kissing her dead mother's lips in
vain self-reproach, bereft of both his parents. Heracles himself is
borne in on a litter, tormented with the slow consuming poison. In
agony, he prays for death; when he learns of the decease of his wife
and her beguilement by Nessus into an unintentional crime, his
resentment softens. In a flash of inspiration the double meaning of
the oracle comes over him, his labour is indeed over. Commanding
Hyllus to wed Iole he passes on his last journey to the lonely top of
Oeta, to be consumed on the funeral pyre.
The Sophoclean marks are clear enough in this play--the tragic moment,
the life and movement, the splendid pathos, breadth of outlook and
fascination of language. Yet there is a serious fault as well, for
Sophocles, like the youngest of dramatists, can strangely enough make
mistakes. The entry of Heracles practically makes the play double,
marring its continuity. The necessary and remorseless sequence of
events which is looked for in dramatic writing is absent. This
tendency to disrupt a whole into parts brilliant but unrelated is a
feature of Euripides' work; it may perhaps find a readier pardon
exactly because Sophocles himself is not able to avoid it always. But
the greatest triumph is the character of Deianeira. It is such as one
would rarely find in warm-blooded Southern peoples. She dreads that
loss of her power over her husband which her waning beauty brings; she
is grossly insulted in being forced to countenance a rival living in
the same house after she has given her husband the best years of her
life; yet she hopes on, and perhaps she would have won him back by her
very gentleness. This creation of a type of almost perfect human
nature is the justification of a poet's existence; it was a saying of
Sophocles that he painted men as they ought to be, Euripides painted
them as they are.
The rivalry of the younger poet produced its effect on another play
with which Sophocles gained the first prize in 409. _Philoctetes_, the
hero after whom it is named, had lit the funeral pyre of Heracles on
Oeta and had received from him his unconquerable bow and arrows. When
he went to Troy he was bitten in the foot by a serpent in Tenedos. As
the wound festered and made him loathsome to the army he was left in
Lemnos in the first year of the war. An oracle declared that Troy
could not be taken without him and his arrows; at the end of the
siege, as Achilles and Ajax were dead, Philoctetes, outraged and
abandoned, became necessary to the Greeks. How could they win him over
to rejoin them?
Odysseus his bitterest foe takes with him Neoptolemus, the young son
of Achilles. Landing at Lemnos, they find the cave in which
Philoctetes lives, see his rude bed, rough-hewn cup and rags of
clothing, and lay their plot. Neoptolemus is to say that he is
Achilles' son, homeward bound in anger with the Greeks for the loss of
his father's arms. As he was not one of the original confederacy,
Philoctetes will trust him. He is then to obtain the bow and arrows by
treachery, for violence will be useless. The young man's soul rises
against the idea of foul play but Odysseus bids him surrender to
shamelessness for one day, to reap eternal glory. Left alone with the
Chorus, composed of sailors from his ship, Neoptolemus pities the
hero's deserted existence, wretched, famished and half-brutalised. He
comes along towards them, creeping and crying in agony. Seeing them he
inquires who they are; Neoptolemus answers as he had been bidden and
wins the heart of Philoctetes who describes the misery of his life,
his desertion and the unquenchable malady that feeds on him. In return
Neoptolemus tells how he was beguiled to Troy by the prophecy that he
should capture it after his father's death; arriving there he obtained
possession of all Achilles' property except the arms, which Odysseus
had won. He pretends to return to his ship, but Philoctetes implores
him to set him once more in Greece. The great pathos of his appeal
wins the youth's consent; they prepare to depart when a merchant
enters with a sailor; from him they learn that Odysseus with Diomedes
are on the way to bring Philoctetes by force or persuasion to Troy
which cannot fall without his aid. The mere mention of Odysseus' name
fills Philoctetes with anger and he retires to the cave, taking
Neoptolemus with him.
When they reappear, a violent attack of the malady prostrates
Philoctetes who gives his bow to Neoptolemus, praying him to burn him
and put an end to his agony. Noticing a strange silence in the youth,
suspicions seem to be aroused in him, but when he falls into a slumber
the Chorus takes a decided part in the action, advising the youth to
fly with the bow and to talk in a whisper for fear of waking the
sleeper. The latter unexpectedly starts out of slumber, again begging
to be taken on board. Again Neoptolemus' heart smites him at the
villainy he is about to commit; he reveals that his real objective is
Troy. Betrayed and defenceless, Philoctetes appeals to Heaven, to the
wild things, to Neoptolemus' better self to restore the bow which is
his one means of procuring him food. A profound pity overcomes
Neoptolemus, who is in the act of returning the weapon when Odysseus
appears. Seeing him Philoctetes knows he is undone. Odysseus invites
him to come to Troy of his own freewill, but is met with a curse; as
he refuses to rejoin the Greeks, Odysseus and Neoptolemus depart
bearing with them the bow for Teucer to use.
Left without that which brought him his daily food Philoctetes bursts
out into a wild lyric dialogue with the Chorus. They advise him to
make terms with Odysseus, but he bids them begone. When they obey, he
recalls them to ask one little boon, a sword. At this moment
Neoptolemus runs in, Odysseus close behind him. He has come to restore
the bow he got by treachery. A violent quarrel ends in the temporary
retirement of Odysseus. Advancing to Philoctetes, Neoptolemus gives
him his property; Philoctetes takes it and is barely restrained from
shooting at Odysseus who appears for a moment, only to take refuge in
flight. Neoptolemus then tells him the whole truth about the prophecy,
promising him great glory if he will go back to Troy which can fall
only through him. In vain Neoptolemus assures him of a perfect cure;
nothing will satisfy the broken man but a full redemption of the
promise he had to be landed once more in Greece. When Neoptolemus
tells him that such action will earn him the hatred of the Greeks,
Philoctetes promises him the succour of his unerring shafts in a
The action has thus reached a deadlock. The problem is solved by the
sudden appearance of the deified Heracles. He commands his old friend
to go to Troy which he is to sack, and return home in peace. His lot
is inseparably connected with that of Neoptolemus and a cure is
promised him at the hands of Asclepius. This assurance overcomes his
obstinacy; he leaves Lemnos in obedience to the will of Heaven.
Such is the work of an old dramatist well over eighty years old. It is
exciting, vigorous, pathetic and everywhere dignified. The characters
of the old hero and the young warrior are masterly. The Chorus takes
an integral part in the action--its whisperings to Neoptolemus remind
the reader of the evil suggestions of which Satan breathed into Eve's
equally guileless ears in _Paradise Lost_. But the most remarkable
feature of the piece is its close resemblance to the new type of drama
which Euripides had popularised. The miserable life of Philoctetes,
his rags, destitution and sickness are a parallel to the Euripidean
Telephus; most of all, the appearance of a god at the end to untie the
knot is genuine Euripides. But there is a great difference; of the
disjointed actions which disfigure later tragedy and are not absent
from Sophocles' own earlier work there is not a trace. The odes are
relevant, the Chorus is indispensable; in short, Sophocles has shown
Euripides that he can beat him even on his own terms. Melodramatic the
play may be, but it wins for its author our affection by the sheer
beauty of a boyish nature as noble as Deianeira's; the return of
Neoptolemus upon his own baseness is one of the many compliments
Sophocles has paid to our human kind.
Many years previously Sophocles had written his masterpiece, the
_Oedipus Tyrannus_. It cannot easily be treated separately from its
sequel. A mysterious plague had broken out in Thebes; Creon had been
sent to Delphi by Oedipus to learn the cause of the disaster. Apollo
bade the Thebans cast out the murderer of the last King Laius, who was
still lurking in Theban territory. Oedipus on inquiry learns that
there are several murderers, but only one of Laius' attendants escaped
alive. In discovering the culprit Oedipus promises the sternest
vengeance on his nearest friends, nay, on his own kin, if necessary.
After a prayer from the Chorus of elders he repeats his determination
even more emphatically, invoking a curse on the assassin in language
of a terrible double meaning, for in every word he utters he
unconsciously pronounces his own doom. With commendable foresight he
had summoned the old seer Teiresias, but the seer for some reason is
unwilling to appear. When at last he confronts the King, he craves
permission to depart with his secret unsaid. Oedipus at once flies
into a towering passion, finally accusing him without any
justification of accepting bribes from Creon. With equal heat
Teiresias more and more clearly indicates in every speech the real
murderer, though his words are dark to him who could read the Sphinx's
The Chorus break out into an ode full of uneasy surmises as to the
identity of the culprit. When Creon enters, Oedipus flies at him in
headlong passion accusing him of bribery, disloyalty and eventually of
murder. With great dignity he clears himself, warning the King of the
pains which hasty temper brings upon itself. Their quarrel brings out
Jocasta, the Queen and sister of Creon, who succeeds in settling the
unseemly strife. She bids Oedipus take no notice of oracles; one such
had declared that Laius would be slain by his own son, who would marry
her, his mother. The oracle was false, for Laius had died at the hands
of robbers in a place where three roads met. Aghast at hearing this,
Oedipus inquires the exact scene of the murder, the time when it was
committed, the actual appearance of Laius. Jocasta supplies the
details, adding that the one survivor had implored her after Oedipus
became King to live as far away as possible from the city. Oedipus
commands him to be sent for and tells his life story. He was the
reputed son of Polybus and Merope, rulers of Corinth. One day at a
wine-party a man insinuated that he was not really the son of the
royal pair. Stung by the taunt he went to Delphi, where he was warned
that he should kill his father and marry his mother. He therefore fled
away from Corinth towards Thebes. On the road he was insulted by an
old man in a chariot who thrust him rudely from his path; in anger he
smote the man at the place where three ways met. If then this man was
Laius, he had imprecated a curse on himself; his one hope is the
solitary survivor whom he had sent for; perhaps more than one man had
killed Laius after all.
An ominous ode about destiny and its workings is followed by the entry
of the Queen who describes the mad terrors of Oedipus. She is come to
pray to Apollo to solve their troubles. At that moment a messenger
enters from Corinth with the tidings that Polybus is dead. In eager
joy Jocasta summons Oedipus, sneering at the truth of oracles. The
King on his appearance echoes her words after hearing the tidings-only
to sink back again into gloomy despondency. What of Merope, is she
also dead? The messenger assures him that his anxiety about her is
groundless, for there is no relationship between them. Little by
little he tells Oedipus his true history. The messenger himself found
him on Cithaeron in his infancy, his feet pierced through. He had him
from a shepherd, a servant of Laius, the very man whom Oedipus had
summoned. Suddenly turning to Jocasta, the King asks her if she knows
the man. Appalled at the horror of the truth which she knows cannot be
concealed much longer she affects indifference and beseeches him
search no further. When he obstinately refuses, bidding the man be
brought at once, she leaves the stage with the cry:
"Alack, thou unhappy one; that is all I may call thee and never
address thee again."
Oedipus by a masterstroke of art is made to imagine that she has
departed in shame, fearing he may be proved the son of a slave.
"But I account myself the son of Fortune, who will never bring me
to dishonour; my brethren are the months, who marked me out for
lowliness and for power. Such being my birth, I shall never prove
false to it and faint in finding out who I am."
The awful power of this astonishing scene is manifest.
The bright joyousness of the King's impulsive speech prepares the way
for the coming horror. When the shepherd appears, the messenger faces
him claiming his acquaintance. The shepherd doggedly attempts to deny
all knowledge of him, cursing him for his mad talkativeness. Oedipus
threatens torture to open his lips. Line by line the truth is dragged
from him; the abandoned child came from another--from a creature of
Laius--was said to be his son--was given him by Jocasta--to be
destroyed because of an oracle--why then passed over to the Corinthian
messenger?--"through pity, and he saved the child alive, for a mighty
misery. If thou art that child, know that thou art born a hapless
When the King rushes madly into the palace, the Chorus sings of his
departed glory. The horrors increase with the appearance of a
messenger from within, who tells how Oedipus dashed into Jocasta's
apartment to find her hanging in suicide; then he blinded himself on
that day of mourning, ruin, death and shame. He comes out a little
later, an object of utter compassion. How can he have rest on earth?
How face his murdered father in death? The memories of Polybus and
Merope come upon him, then the years of unnatural wedlock. Creon, whom
he has wantonly insulted, comes not to mock at him, but to take him
into the palace where neither land nor rain nor light may know him.
Oedipus begs him to let him live on Cithaeron, beseeching him to look
after his two daughters whose birth is so stained that no man can ever
wed them. Creon gently takes him within, to be kept there till the
will of the gods is known. The end is a sob of pity for the tragic
downfall of the famous man who solved the Sphinx' enigma.
No man can ever do justice to this masterpiece. It is so constructed
that every detail leads up inevitably to the climax. Slowly, and
playing upon all the deepest human emotions, anxiety, hope, gloom,
terror and horror, Sophocles works on us as no man had ever done
before. It is a sin against him to be content with a mere outline of
the play; the words he has chosen are significant beyond description.
Again and again they fascinate the reader and always leave him with
the feeling that there are still depths of thought left unsounded. The
casual mention of the shepherd at the beginning of the play is the
first stroke of perfect art; Jocasta's disbelief in oracles is the
next; then follows the contrast between the Queen's real motive for
leaving and the reason assigned to it by her son; finally, the
shepherd in torture is forced to tell the secret which plunges the
torturer to his ruin. Where is the like of this in literature? To us
it is heart-searching enough. What was it to the Greeks who were
familiar with the plot before they entered the theatre? When they who
knew the inevitable end watched the King trace out his own ruin in
utter ignorance, their feelings cannot have remained silent; they must
have found relief in sobbing or crying aloud.
The fault in Oedipus is his ungovernable temper. It is firmly drawn in
the play; he is equally unrestrained in anger, despair and hope. He is
the typical instance of the lack of good counsel which we have seen
was to Sophocles the prime source of a tragedy. Indeed, only a
headlong man would hastily marry a widowed queen after he had
committed a murder which fulfilled one half of a terrible oracle. He
should have first inquired into the history of the Theban royal house.
Imagining that the further he was fleeing from Corinth the more
certain he was to make his doom impossible of fulfilment, he
inevitably drew nearer to it. This is our human lot; we cannot see and
we misinterpret warnings; how shall not weaker men tremble for
themselves when Oedipus' wisdom could not save him from evil counsel?
In 405 Sophocles showed in his last play how Oedipus passed from earth
in the poet's own birthplace, Colonus. Oedipus enters with Antigone,
and on inquiry from a stranger finds that he is on the demesne of the
Eumenides. At once he sends to Theseus, King of Athens, and refuses to
move from the spot, for there he is fated to find his rest. A Chorus
from Colonus comes to find out who the suppliant is. When they hear
the name of Oedipus they are horror-struck and wish to thrust him out.
After much persuasion they consent to wait till Theseus arrives.
Presently Ismene comes with the news that Eteocles has dispossessed
his elder brother Polyneices; further, an oracle from Delphi declares
that Oedipus is all-important to Thebes in life and after death. His
sons know this oracle and Creon is coming to force him back. Declaring
he will do nothing for the sons who abandoned him, Oedipus obstinately
refuses his city any blessing. He sends Ismene to offer a sacrifice to
the Eumenides; in her absence Theseus enters, offers him protection
and asks why he has come. Oedipus replies that he has a secret to
reveal which is of great importance to Athens; at present there is
peace between her and Thebes:
"but in the gods alone is no age or death; all else Time confounds,
mastering everything. Strength of the Earth and of the body wastes,
trust dies, disloyalty grows, the same spirit never stands firm
among friends or allies. To some men early, to others late,
pleasures become bitter and then again sweet."
The secret Oedipus will impart at the proper time. The need for
protection soon comes. Creon attempts to persuade Oedipus to return to
Thebes but is met by a curse, whereupon the Theban guards lay hold of
Antigone--they had already seized Ismene--and menace Oedipus himself.
Theseus hearing the alarm rushes back, reproaches Creon for his
insolence and quickly returns with the two girls. He has strange news
to tell; another Theban is a suppliant at the altar of Poseidon close
by, craving speech with Oedipus. It is Polyneices, whom Antigone
persuades her father to interview. The youth enters, ashamed of his
neglect of his father, and begs a blessing on the army he has mustered
against Thebes. He is met by a terrible curse which Oedipus invokes on
both his sons. In despair Polyneices goes away to his doom.
"For me, my path shall be one of care, disaster and sorrows sent me
by my sire and his guardian angels; but, my sisters, be yours a
happy road, and when I am dead fulfil my heart's desire, for while
I live you may never perform it."
A thunderstorm is heard approaching; the Chorus are terrified at its
intensity, but Oedipus eagerly dispatches a messenger for Theseus.
When the King arrives he hears the secret; Oedipus' grave would be the
eternal protection of Attica, but no man must know its site save
Theseus who has to tell it to his heir alone, and he to his son, and
so onwards for ever. The proof of Oedipus' word would be a miracle
which soon would transform him back to his full strength. Presently he
arises, endued with a mysterious sight, beckoning the others to follow
him. The play concludes with a magnificent description of his
translation. A voice from Heaven called him, chiding him for tarrying;
commending his daughters to the care of Theseus, he greeted the earth
and heaven in prayer and then without pain or sorrow passed away. On
reappearing Theseus promised to convey the sisters back to Thebes and
to stop the threatened fratricidal strife.
The _Oedipus Coloneus_, like the _Philoctetes_, the other play of
Sophocles' old age, closes in peace. The old fiery passions still burn
fiercely in Oedipus, as they did in Lear; yet both were "every inch a
king" and "more sinned against than sinning". Oedipus' miraculous
return to strength before he departs is curiously like the famous end
of Colonel Newcome. There are subtle but unmistakable marks of the
Euripidean influence on this drama; such are the belief that Theban
worthies would protect Athens, the Theseus tradition, and the recovery
of worn-out strength. These features will meet us in the next chapter.
But it is again noteworthy that Sophocles has added those touches
which distinguish his own firm and delicate handiwork. There is
nothing of melodrama, nothing inconsequent, nothing exaggerated. It is
the dramatist's preparation for his own end. Shakespeare put his
valediction into the mouth of Prospero; Sophocles entrusted his to his
greatest creation Oedipus. Like him, he was fain to depart, for the
gods called. Our last sight of him is of one beckoning us to follow
him to the place where calm is to be found; to find it we must use not
the eyes of the body, but the inward illumination vouchsafed by
To the Athenians of the Periclean age Sophocles was the incarnation of
their dramatic ideal. His language is a delight and a despair. It
tantalises; it suggests other meanings besides its plain and surface
significance. This riddling quality is the daemonic element which he
possessed in common with Plato; because of it these two are the
masters of a refined and subtle irony, a source of the keenest
pleasure. His plots reveal a vivid sense of the exact moment which
will yield the intensest tragic effects--only on one particular day
could Ajax die or Electra be saved. Accordingly, Sophocles very often
begins his play with early dawn, in order to fill the few
all-important hours with the greatest possible amount of action. He
has put the maximum of movement into his work, only the presence ofthe
Chorus and the conventional messengers (two features imposed on him by
the law of the Attic theatre) making the action halt.
But it is in the sum-total of his art that his greatness lies; the
sense of a whole is its controlling factor; details are important,
indeed, he took the utmost pains to see that they were necessary and
convincing--yet they were details, subordinate, closely related, not
irrelevant nor disproportionate. This instinct for a definite plan
first is the essence of the classical spirit; exuberance is rigorously
repressed, symmetry and balance are the first, last and only aim. To
some judges Sophocles is like a Greek temple, splendid but a little
chilly; they miss the soaring ambition of Aeschylus or the more direct
emotional appeal of Euripides. Yet it is a cardinal error to imagine
that Sophocles is passionless; his life was not, neither are his
characters. Like the lava of a recent eruption, they may seem ashen on
the surface, but there is fire underneath; it betrays itself through
the cracks which appear when their substance is violently disturbed.
They, much enforced, show a hasty spark
And straight are cold again.
Repression, avoidance of extremes, dignity under provocation are the
marks of the gentle Sophoclean type and it is a very high type indeed.
For we have in him the very fountain of the whole classical tradition
in drama. Sophocles is something far more important than a mere
influence; he is an ideal, and as such is indestructible. To ask the
names of writers who came most under his "influence" is as sensible as
to ask the names of the sculptors who most faithfully followed the
Greek tradition of statuary. He is Classical tragedy. The main body of
Spanish and English drama is romantic, the Sophoclean ideal is that of
the small but powerful body of University men in Elizabeth's time
headed by Ben Jonson, of the typically French school of dramatists, of
Moratin, Lessing, Goethe, of the exponents of the Greek creed in
nineteenth-century England, notably Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater,
and of Robert Bridges. To this school the cultivation of emotional
expression is suspicious, if not dangerous; it leads to eccentricity,
to the revelation of feelings which frequently are not worth
experiencing, to sentimental flabbiness, to riot and extravagance.
Perhaps in dread of the ridiculous the Classical school represses
itself too far, creating characters of marble instead of flesh. These
creations are at least worth looking at and bring no shame; they are
better than the spectral psychological studies which many dramatists,
now dead or dying, have bidden us believe are real men and women.
Jebb (Cambridge). This is by far the best; it renders with success the
delicacy of the original.
Storr (Loeb Series).
Verse translations by Whitelaw and Campbell.
See Symonds' _Greek Poets_, and Norwood _Greek Tragedy_, as above.
No-Man's Land was the scene of many tragedies during the Great War.
There has come down to us a remarkable tragedy, called the _Rhesus_,
about a similar region. It treats first of the Dolon incident of the
Iliad. Hector sent out Dolon to reconnoitre, and soon afterwards some
Phrygian shepherds bring news that Rhesus has arrived that very night
with a Thracian army. Reviled by Hector for postponing his arrival
till the tenth year of the war, Rhesus answers that continual wars
with Scythia have occupied him, but now that he is come he will end
the strife in a day. He is assigned his quarters and departs to take
up his position.
Having learned the password from Dolon, Diomedes and Odysseus enter
and reach the tents of Hector who has just left with Rhesus. Diomedes
is eager to kill Aeneas or Paris or some other leader, but Odysseus
warns him to be content with the spoils they have won. Athena appears,
counselling them to slay Rhesus; if he survives that night, neither
Achilles nor Ajax can save the Greeks. Paris approaches, having heard
that spies are abroad in the night; he is beguiled by Athena who
pretends to be Aphrodite. When he is safely got away, the two slay
The King's charioteer bursts on to the stage with news of his death.
He accuses Hector of murder out of desire for the matchless steeds.
Hector recognises in the story all the marks of Odysseus' handiwork.
The Thracian Muse descends to mourn her son's death, declaring that
she had saved him for many years, but Hector prevailed upon him and
Athena caused his end.
This play is not only about No-man's land; it is a No-man's land, for
its author is unknown; it is sometimes ascribed to Euripides, though
it contains many words he did not use, on the ground that it reflects
his art. For it shows in brief the change which came over Tragedy
under Euripides' guidance. It is exciting, it seizes the tragic
moment, the one important night, it has some lovely lyrics, the
characters are realistic, the gods descend to untie the knot of the
play or to explain the mysterious, some detail is unrelated to the
main plot--Paris exercises no influence on the real action--it is
Sophocles said that he painted men as they ought to be, Euripides as
they are. This realistic tendency, added to the romanticism whence
realism always springs, is the last stage of tragedy before it
declines. A Euripides is inevitable in literary history.
Born at Salamis on the very day of the great victory of 480, Euripides
entered into the spirit of revolution in all human activities which
was stirring in contemporary Athens. He won the first prize on five
occasions, was pilloried by the Conservatives though he was a
favourite with the masses. Towards the end of his life he migrated to
Macedonia, where he wrote not the least splendid of his plays, the
_Bacchae_. On the news of his death in 406 Sophocles clothed his
Chorus in mourning as a mark of his esteem.
The famous _Alcestis_ won the second prize in 438. Apollo had been the
guest of Admetus and had persuaded Death to spare him if a substitute
could be found. Admetus' parents and friends failed him, but his wife
Alcestis for his sake was content to leave the light. After a series
of speeches of great beauty and pathos she dies, leaving her husband
desolate. Heracles arrives at the palace on the day of her death; he
notices that some sorrow is come upon his host, but being assured that
only a relation has died he remains. Meanwhile Admetus' parents arrive
to console him; he reviles them for their selfishness in refusing to
die for him, but is sharply reminded by them that parents rejoice to
see the sun as well as their children; in reality, he is his wife's
Heracles' reckless hilarity shocked the servants who were unwilling to
look after an unfeeling guest. He enters the worse for liquor and
advises a young menial to enjoy life while he can. After a few
questions he learns the truth. Sobered, he hurries forth unknown to
Admetus to wrestle with Death for Alcestis. Admetus, distracted by
loss of his wife, becomes aware that evil tongues will soon begin to
talk of his cowardice. Heracles returns with a veiled woman, whom he
says he won in a contest, and begs Admetus keep her till he returns.
After much persuasion Admetus takes her by the hand, and on being
bidden to look more closely, sees that it is Alcestis. The great
deliverer then bids farewell with a gentle hint to him to treat guests
more frankly in future.
This play must be familiar to English readers of Browning's
_Balaustion's Adventure_. It has been set to music and produced at
Covent Garden this very year. The specific Euripidean marks are
everywhere upon it. The selfish male, the glorious self-denial of the
woman, the deep but helpless sympathy of the gods, the tendency to
laughter to relieve our tears, the wonderful lyrics indicate a new
arrival in poetry. The originality of Euripides is evident in the
choice of a subject not otherwise treated; he was constantly striving
to pass out of the narrow cycle prescribed for Attic tragedians. A new
and very formidable influence has arisen to challenge Sophocles who
may have felt as Thackeray did when he read one of Dickens' early
In 431 he obtained the third prize with the _Medea_, the heroine of
the world-famous story of the Argonauts related for English readers in
Morris' _Life and Death of Jason_. A nurse tells the story of Jason's
cooling love for Medea and of his intended wedlock with the daughter
of Creon, King of Corinth, the scene of the play. Appalled at the
effect the news will produce on her mistress' fiery nature, she begs
the Tutor to save the two children. Medea's frantic cries are heard
within the house; appearing before a Chorus of Corinthian women she
plunges into a description of the curse that haunts their sex.
"Of all things that live and have sense women are the most hapless.
First we must buy a husband to lord it over our bodies; our next
anxiety is whether he will be good or bad, for divorce is not easy
or creditable. Entering upon a strange new life we must divine how
best to treat our spouse. If after this agony we find one to live
with us without chafing at the yoke, a happy life is ours--if not,
better to die. But when a man is surfeited with his mate he can
find comfort outside with friend or compeer; but we perforce look
to one alone. They say of us that we live a life free from danger,
but they fight in wars. It is false. I would rather face battle
thrice than childbirth once."
Desolate, far away from her father's home, she begs the Chorus to be
silent if she can devise punishment for Jason.
Creon comes forth, uneasy at some vague threats which Medea has
uttered and afraid of her skill as a sorceress. He intends to cast her
out of Corinth before returning to his palace, but is prevailed upon
to grant one day's grace. Medea is aghast at this blow, but decides to
use the brief respite. After a splendid little ode which prophesies
that women shall not always be without a Muse, Jason emerges. Pointing
out that her violent temper has brought banishment he professes to
sympathise, offering money to help her in exile. She bursts into a
fury of indignation, recounting how she abandoned home to save and fly
with him to Greece. He argues that his gratitude is due not to her,
but to Love who compelled her to save him; he repeats his offer and is
ready to come if she sends for him. Salvation comes unexpectedly.
Aegeus, the childless King of Athens, accidentally visits Corinth.
Medea wins his sympathy and promises him children if he will offer her
protection. He willingly assents and she outlines her plan. Sending
for Jason, she first pretends repentance for hasty speech, then begs
him to get her pardon from the new bride and release from exile for
the two children. She offers as a wedding gift a wondrous robe and
crown which once belonged to her ancestor the Sun. In the scene which
follows is depicted one of the greatest mental conflicts in
literature. To punish Jason she must slay her sons; torn by love for
them and thirsting for revenge she wavers. The mother triumphs for a
moment, then the fiend, then the mother again--at last she decides on
murder. This scene captured the imagination of the ancient world,
inspiring many epigrams in the Anthology and forming one of the mural
paintings of Pompeii.
A messenger rushes in. The robe and crown have burnt to death Glauce
the bride and her father who vainly tried to save her: Jason is coming
with all speed to punish the murderess. She listens with unholy joy,
retires and slays the children. Jason runs in and madly batters at the
door to save them. He is checked by the apparition of Medea seated in
her car drawn by dragons. Reviled by him as a murderess, she replies
that the death of the children was agony to her as well and prophesies
a miserable death for him.
This marvellous character is Euripides' Clytemnestra. Yet unlike her,
she remains absolutely human throughout; her weak spot was her
maternal affection which made her hesitate, while Clytemnestra was
past feeling, "not a drop being left". Medea is the natural Southern
woman who takes the law into her own hands. In the _Trachiniae_ is
another, outraged as Medea was, yet forgiving. Truly Sophocles said he
painted men as they ought to be, Euripides as they were.
The _Hippolytus_ in 429 won the first prize. It is important as
introducing a revolutionary practice into drama. Aphrodite in a
prologue declares she will punish Hippolytus for slighting her and
preferring to worship Artemis, the goddess of hunting. The young
prince passes out to the chase; as he goes, his attention is drawn to
a statue of Aphrodite by his servants who warn him that men hate
unfriendly austerity, but he treats their words with contempt. His
stepmother Phaedra enters with the Nurse, the Chorus consisting of
women of Troezen, the scene of the play. A secret malady under which
Phaedra pines has so far baffled the Nurse who now learns that she
loves her stepson. She had striven in vain against this passion, only
to find like Olivia that
Such a potent fault it is
That it but mocks reproof.
She decided to die rather than disgrace herself and her city Athens.
The Nurse advises her not to sacrifice herself for such a common
passion; a remedy there must be: "Men would find it, if women had not
found it already". "She needs not words, but the man." Scandalised by
this cynicism the Queen bids her be silent; the woman tells her she
has potent charms within the house which will rid her of the malady
without danger to her good name or her life. Phaedra suspects her plan
and absolutely forbids her to speak with Hippolytus. The answer is
"Be of good cheer; I will order the matter well. Only Queen
Aphrodite be my aid. For the rest, it will suffice to tell my
plan to my friends within."
A violent commotion arises in the palace; Hippolytus is heard
indistinctly uttering angry words. He and the Nurse come forth; in
spite of her appeal for silence, he denounces her for tempting him.
When she reminds him of his oath of secrecy, he answers "My tongue has
sworn, but not my will"--a line pounced upon as immoral by the poet's
many foes. Hippolytus' long denunciation of women has been similarly
considered to prove that the poet was an enemy of their sex. Left
alone with the Nurse Phaedra is terror-stricken lest her husband
Theseus should hear of her disgrace. She casts the Nurse off, adding
that she has a remedy of her own. Her last speech is ominous.
"This day will I be ruined by a bitter love. Yet in death I will
be a bane to another, that he may know not to be proud in my woes;
sharing with me in this weakness he will learn wisdom."
Her suicide plunges Theseus into grief. Hanging to her wrist he sees a
letter which he opens and reads. There he finds evidence of her
passion for his son. In mad haste he calls on Poseidon his father to
fulfil one of the three boons he promised to grant him; he requires
the death of his son. Hearing the tumult the latter returns. His
father furiously attacks him, calling him hypocrite for veiling his
lusts under a pretence of chastity. The youth answers with dignity;
when confronted with the damning letter, he is unable to answer for
his oath's sake. He sadly obeys the decree of banishment pronounced on
him, bidding his friends farewell.
A messenger tells the sequel. He took the road from Argos along the
coast in his chariot. A mighty wave washed up a monster from the deep.
Plunging in terror the horses became unruly; they broke the car and
dashed their master's body against the rocks. Theseus rejoices at the
fate which has overtaken a villain, yet pities him as his son. He bids
the servants bring him that he may refute his false claim to
innocence. Artemis appears to clear her devotee. The letter was forged
by the Nurse, Aphrodite causing the tragedy. "This is the law among us
gods; none of us thwarts the will of another but always stands aside."
Hippolytus is brought in at death's door. He is reconciled to his
father and dies blessing the goddess he has served so long.
The play contains the first indication of a sceptical spirit which was
soon to alter the whole character of the Drama. The running sore of
polytheism is clear. In worshipping one deity a man may easily offend
another, Aeschylus made this conflict of duties the cause of
Agamemnon's death, but accepted it as a dogma not to be questioned.
Such an attitude did not commend itself to Euripides; he clearly
states the problem in a prologue, solving it in an appearance of
Artemis by the device known as the _Deus ex machina_. It is sometimes
said this trick is a confession of the dramatist's inability to untie
the knot he has twisted. Rather it is an indication that the legend he
was compelled to follow was at variance with the inevitable end of
human action. The tragedies of Euripides which contain the _Deus ex
machina_ gain enormously if the last scene is left out; it was added
to satisfy the craving for some kind of a settlement and is more in
the nature of comedy perhaps than we imagine. Hippolytus is a somewhat
chilly man of honour, the Nurse a brilliant study of unscrupulous
intrigue. Racine's _Phedre_ is as disagreeable as Euripides' is noble.
Like _Hamlet_, the play is full of familiar quotations.
Two Euripidean features appear in the _Heracleidae_, of uncertain
date. Iolaus the comrade of Heracles flees with the hero's children to
Athens. They sit as suppliants at an altar from which Copreus, herald
of their persecutor Eurystheus, tries to drive them.
Unable to fight in his old age Iolaus begs aid. A Chorus of Athenians
rush in, followed by the King Demophon, to hear the facts. First
Copreus puts his case, then Iolaus refutes him. The King decides to
respect the suppliants, bidding Copreus defy Eurystheus in his name.
As a struggle is inevitable Iolaus refuses to leave the altars till it
Demophon returns to say that the Argive host is upon them and that
Athens will prevail if a girl of noble family freely gives her life;
he cannot compel his subjects to sacrifice their children for
strangers, for he rules a free city. Hearing his words, Macaria comes
from the shrine where she had been sheltering with her sisters and
Alcmena, her father's mother. When she hears the truth, she willingly
offers to save her family and Athens.
"Shall I, daughter of a noble sire, suffer the worst indignity?
Must I not die in any wise? We may leave Attica and wander again;
shall I not hang my head if I hear men say, 'Why come ye here with
suppliant boughs, cleaving to life? Depart; we will not help
cowards.' Who will marry such a one? Better death than such
A messenger announces that Hyllus, Heracles' son, has returned with
succours and is with the Athenian army. Iolaus summons Alcmena and
orders his arms; old though he is, he will fight his foe in spite of
Alcmena's entreaties. In the battle he saw Hyllus and begged him to
take him into his chariot. He prayed to Zeus and Hebe to restore his
strength for one brief moment. Miraculously he was answered. Two stars
lit upon the car, covering the yoke with a halo of light. Catching
sight of Eurystheus Iolaus the aged took him prisoner and brought him
to Alcmena. At sight of him she gloats over the coming vengeance. The
Athenian herald warns her that their laws do not permit the slaughter
of captives, but she declares she will kill him herself. Eurystheus
answers with great dignity; his enmity to Heracles came not from envy
but from the desire to save his own throne. He does not deprecate
death, rather, if he dies, his body buried in Athenian land will bring
to it a blessing and to the Argive descendants of the Heracleidae a
curse when they in time invade the land of their preservers.
Though slight and weakly constructed, this play is important. Its two
features are first, the love of argument, a weakness of all the
Athenians who frequented the Law Courts and the Assembly; this mania
for discussing pros and cons spoils one or two later plays. Next, the
self-sacrificing girl appears for the first time. To Euripides the
worthier sex was not the male, possessed of political power and
therefore tyrannous, but the female. He first drew attention to its
splendid heroism. He is the champion of the scorned or neglected
elements of civilisation.
The _Andromache_ is a picture of the hard lot of one who is not merely
a woman, but a slave. Hector's wife fell to Neoptolemus on the capture
of Troy and bore him a son called Molossus. Later he married Hermione,
daughter of Menelaus and Helen; the marriage was childless and
Hermione, who loved her husband, persecuted Andromache. She took
advantage of her husband's absence to bring matters to a head.
Andromache exposed her child, herself flying to a temple of Thetis
when Menelaus arrived to visit his daughter. Hermione enters richly
attired, covered with jewels "not given by her husband's kin, but by
her father that she may speak her mind." She reviles Andromache as a
slave with no Hector near and commands her to quit sanctuary. Menelaus
brings the child; after a long discussion he threatens to kill him if
Andromache does not abandon the altar, but promises to save him if she
obeys. In this dilemma she prefers to die if she can thus save her
son; but when Menelaus secures her he passes the child to his daughter
to deal with him as she will. Betrayed and helpless, Andromache breaks
out into a long denunciation of Spartan perfidy.
Peleus, grandfather of Neoptolemus, hearing the tumult intervenes.
After more rhetoric he takes Andromache and Molossus under his
protection and cows Menelaus, who leaves for Sparta on urgent
business. When her father departs, Hermione fears her husband's
vengeance on her maltreatment of the slave and child whom he loves.
Resolving on suicide, she is checked by the entry of Orestes who is
passing through Phthia to Dodona. She begs him to take her away from
the land or back to her father. Orestes reminds her of the old compact
which their parents made to unite them; he has a grievance against
Neoptolemus apart from his frustrated wedlock, for he had called him a
murderer of his mother. He had therefore taken measures to assassinate
him at Delphi, whither he had gone to make his peace with Apollo.
Hearing of Hermione's flight Peleus returns, only to hear more serious
news. Orestes' plot had succeeded and Neoptolemus had been
overwhelmed. In consternation he fears the loss of his own life in old
age. His goddess-wife Thetis appears and bids him marry Andromachus to
Hector's brother Helenus; Molossus would found a mighty kingdom, while
Peleus would become immortal after the burial of Neoptolemus.
A very old criticism calls this play "second rate". Dramatically it is
worthless, for it consists of three episodes loosely connected. The
motives for Menelaus' return and Hermione's flight with an assassin
from a husband she loved are not clear, while the _Deus ex machina_
adds nothing to the story. It is redeemed by some splendid passages,
but is interesting as revealing a further development of Euripides'
thought. He here makes the slave, another downtrodden class, free of
the privileges of literature, for to him none is vile or reprobate.
The famous painting _Captive Andromache_ indicates to us the
loneliness of slavery.
The same subject was treated more successfully in the _Hecuba_: she
has received her immortality in the famous players' scene in _Hamlet_.
The shade of Polydorus, Hecuba's son, outlines the course of the
action. Hecuba enters terrified by dreams about him and her daughter
Polyxena. Her forebodings are realised when she hears from a Chorus of
fellow-captives that the shade of Achilles has demanded her daughter's
sacrifice. Odysseus bids her face the ordeal with courage. She replies
in a splendid pathetic appeal. Reminding him how she saved him from
discovery when he entered Troy in disguise, she demands a requital.
"Kill her not, we have had enough of death. She is my comfort, my
nurse, the staff of my life and guide of my way. She is my joy in
whom I forget my woes. Victors should not triumph in lawlessness
nor think to prosper always. I was once but now am no more, for
one day has taken away my all."
He sympathises but dare not dishonour the mighty dead. Polyxena
intervenes to point out the blessings death will bring her.
"First, its very unfamiliar name makes me love it. Perhaps I might
have found a cruel-hearted lord to sell me for money, the sister
of Hector; I might have had the burden of making bread, sweeping
the house and weaving at the loom in a life of sorrow. A slave
marriage would degrade me, once thought a fit mate for kings."
Bidding Odysseus lead her to death, she takes a touching and beautiful
farewell. Her latter end is splendidly described by Talthybius.
A serving woman enters with the body of Polydorus; she is followed by
Agamemnon who has come to see why Hecuba has not sent for Polyxena's
corpse. In hopeless grief she shows her murdered son, begging his aid
to a revenge and promising to exact it without compromising him. A
message brings on the scene Polymestor, her son's Thracian host with
his sons. In a dialogue full of terrible irony Hecuba inquires about
Polydorus, saying she has the secret of a treasure to reveal. He
enters her tent where is nobody but some Trojan women weaving.
Dismissing his guards, he lets the elder women dandle his children,
while the younger admire his robes. At a signal they arose, slew the
children and blinded him. On hearing the tumult, Agamemnon hurries in;
turning to him, the Thracian demands justice, pretending he had slain
Polydorus to win his favour. Hecuba refutes him, pointing out that it
was the lust for her son's gold which caused his death. Agamemnon
decides for Hecuba, whereupon Polymestor turns fay, prophesying the
latter end of Agamemnon, Hecuba and Cassandra.
The strongest and weakest points of Euripides' appeal are here
apparent. The play is not one but two, the connection between the
deaths of both brother and sister being a mere dream of their mother.
The poet tends to rely rather upon single scenes than upon the whole
and is so far romantic rather than classical. His power is revealed in
the very stirring call he makes upon the emotions of pity and revenge;
because of this Aristotle calls him the most tragic of the poets.
The _Supplices_, written about 421, carries a little further the
history of the Seven against Thebes. A band of Argive women, mothers
of the defeated Seven, apply to Aethra, mother of Theseus, to prevail
on her son to recover the dead bodies. Adrastus, king of Argos, pleads
with Theseus who at first refuses aid but finally consents at the
entreaties of his mother. His ultimatum to Thebes is delayed by the
arrival of a herald from that city. A strange discussion of the
comparative merits of democracy and tyranny leads to a violent scene
in which Theseus promises a speedy attack in defence of the rights of
In the battle the Athenians after a severe struggle won the victory;
in the moment of triumph Theseus did not enter the city, for he had
come not to sack it but to save the dead. Reverently collecting them
he washed away the gore and laid them on their biers, sending them to
Athens. In an affecting scene Adrastus recognises and names the
bodies. At this moment Evadne enters, wife of the godless Capaneus who
was smitten by the thunderbolt; she is demented and wishes to find the
body to die upon it. Her father Iphis comes in search of her and at
first does not see her, as she is seated on a rock above him. His
pleadings with her are vain; she throws herself to her death. At the
sight Iphis plunges into a wild lament.
"She is no more, who once kissed my face and fondled my head. To a
father the sweetest joy is his daughter; son's soul is greater, but
less winsome in its blandishments."
Theseus returns with the children of the dead champions to whom he
presents the bodies. He is about to allow Adrastus to convey them home
when Athena appears. She advises him to exact an oath from Adrastus
that Argos will never invade Attica. To the Argives she prophecies a
vengeance on Thebes by the Epigoni, sons of the Seven.
This play is very like the _Heraclidae_ but adds a new feature; drama
begins to be used for political purposes. The play was written at the
end of the first portion of the Peloponnesian war, when Argos began to
enter the world of Greek diplomacy. This illegitimate use of Art
cannot fail to ruin it; Art has the best chance of making itself
permanent when it is divorced from passing events. But there are other
weaknesses in this piece; it has some fine and perhaps some
melodramatic situations; here and there are distinct touches of
The _Ion_ is a return to Euripides' best manner. Hermes in a prologue
explains what must have been a strange theme to the audience. Ion is a
young and nameless boy who serves the temple of Apollo in Delphi.
There is a mystery in his birth which does not trouble his sunny
intelligence. Creusa, daughter of Erectheus King of Athens, is married
to Xuthus but has no issue. Unaware that Ion is her son by Apollo, she
meets him and is attracted by his noble bearing. A splendid dialogue
of tragic irony represents both as wishing to find the one a mother,
the other a son. Creusa tells how she has come to consult the oracle
about a friend who bore a son to the god and exposed him. Ion is
shocked at the immorality of the god he serves; he refuses to believe
that an evil god can claim to deliver righteous oracles. Addressing
the gods as a body, he states the problem of the play.
"Ye are unjust in pursuing pleasure rather than wisdom; no longer
must we call men evil, if we imitate your evil deeds; rather the
gods are evil, who instruct men in such things."
Xuthus embraces Ion as his son in obedience to a command he has just
received to greet as his child the first person he meets on leaving
the shrine. Ion accepts the god's will but longs to know who is his
mother. Seeing an unwonted dejection in him Xuthus learns the reason.
Ion is afraid of the bar on his birth which will disqualify him from
residence at Athens, where absolute legitimacy was essential; his life
at Delphi was in sharp contrast, it was one of perfect content and
eternal novelty. Xuthus tells him he will take him to Athens merely as
a sightseer; he is afraid to anger his wife with his good fortune; in
time he will win her consent to Ion's succession to the throne.
Creusa enters with an old man who had been her father's Tutor. She
learns from the Chorus that she can never have a son, unlike her more
lucky husband who has just found one. The Tutor counsels revenge;
though a slave, he will work for her to the end.
"Only one thing brings shame to a slave, his name. In all else he
is every whit the equal of a free man, if he is honest."
The two decide to poison Ion when he offers libations. But the plot
failed owing to a singular chance. The birds in the temple tasted the
wine and one that touched Ion's cup died immediately. Creusa flees to
the altar, pursued by Ion who reviles her for her deed. At that moment
the old Prophetess appears with the vessel in which she first found
Ion. Creusa recognises it and accurately describes the child's
clothing which she wove with her own hands; mother and son are thus
united. The play closes with an appearance of Athena, who prophesies
that Ion shall be the founder of the great Ionian race, for Apollo's
hand had protected him and Creusa throughout.
The central problem of this piece is whether the gods govern the world
righteously or not. No more vital issue could be raised; if gods are
wicked they must fall below the standard of morality which men insist
on in their dealings with one another. Ion is the Greek Samuel; his
naturally reverent mind is disturbed at any suggestion of evil in a
deity. His boyish faith in Apollo is justified and Euripides seems to
teach in another form the lesson that "except we become as children,
we cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven."
The _Hercules Furens_ belongs to Euripides' middle period. Amphitryon,
father of Heracles, and Megara, the hero's wife, are in Theban
territory waiting for news. They are in grave danger, for Lycus, a new
king, threatens to kill them with Heracles' children, as he had
already slain Megara's father. He has easy victims in Amphitryon,
"naught but an empty noise", and Megara, who is resigned to the
inevitable. Faced with this terror, Amphitryon exclaims:--
"O Zeus, thou art a worse friend than I deemed. Though a mortal,
I exceed thee in worth, god though thou art, for I have never
abandoned my son's children. Thou canst not save thy friends;
either thou art ignorant or unjust in thy nature."
As they are led out to slaughter, Amphitryon makes what he is sure is
a vain appeal to Heaven to send succour. At that moment the hero
himself appears. Seeing his family clad in mourning, he inquires the
reason. At first his intention is to attack Lycus openly, but
Amphitryon bids him wait within; he will tell Lycus that his victims
are sitting as suppliants on the hearth; when the King enters Heracles
may slay him without trouble.
When vengeance has been taken Iris descends from heaven, sent by Hera
to stain Heracles with kindred bloodshed. She summons Madness who is
unwilling to afflict any man, much less a famous hero. Reluctantly
consenting she sets to work. A messenger rushes out telling the
sequel. Heracles slew two of his children and was barely prevented
from destroying his father by the intervention of Athena. He reappears
in his right mind, followed by Amphitryon who vainly tries to console
him. Theseus who accompanied Heracles to the lower world hurries in on
hearing a vague rumour. To him Heracles relates his life of
never-ending sorrow. Conscious of guilt and afraid of contaminating
any who touch him, he at length consents to go to Athens with Theseus
for purification. He departs in sorrow, bidding his father bury the
Like the _Hecuba_, this play consists of two very loosely connected
parts. The second is decidedly unconvincing. Madness has never been
treated in literature with more power than in Hamlet and Lear. Besides
Shakespeare's work, the description in the mouth of a messenger,
though vivid enough, is less effective, for "what is set before the
eyes excites us more than what is dropped into our ears" as Horace
remarks. But the point of the play is the seemingly undeserved
suffering which is the lot of a good character. This is the theme of
many a Psalm in the Bible; its answer is just this--"Whom the Lord
loveth He chasteneth."
In 415 Euripides told how Hecuba lost her last remaining child
Cassandra. The plot of the _Trojan Women_ is outlined by Poseidon and
Athena who threaten the Greeks with their hatred for burning the
temples of Troy. After a long and powerful lament the captive women
are told their fate by the herald Talthybius. Cassandra is to be
married to Agamemnon. She rushes in prophesying wildly. On recovering
calm speech she bids her mother crown her with garlands of victory,
for her bridal will bring Agamemnon to his death, avenging her city
and its folk. Triumphantly she passes to her appointed work of ruin.
Andromache follows her, assigned to Neoptolemus. She sadly points out
how her faithfulness to Hector has brought her into slavery with a
"Is not Polyxena's fate agony less than mine? I have not that thing
which is left to all mortals, hope, nor may I flatter my mind heart
with any good to come, though it is sweet to even to dream of it."
This despair is rendered more hopeless when she learns that the Greeks
have decided to throw her little son Astyanax from the walls.
Menelaus comes forward, gloating at the revenge he hopes to wreak on
Helen. On seeing him Hecuba first prays:--
"Thou who art earth's support and hast thy seat on earth, whoever
thou art, past finding out, Zeus, whether thou art a natural
Necessity or man's Intelligence, to thee I pray. Moving in a
noiseless path thou orderest all things human in righteousness."
"I praise thee, Menelaus, if thou wilt indeed slay thy wife, but
fly her sight, lest she snare thee with desire. She catcheth men's
eyes, sacketh cities, burneth homes, so potent are her charms. I
know her as thou dost and all who have suffered from her."
Hecuba and Helen then argue about the responsibility for the war. The
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