Towards the end of the sixth century before Christ, one of the most momentous advances in literature was made by the genius of Aeschylus. European drama was created and a means of utterance was given to the rapidly growing democratic spirit of Greece. Before Aeschylus wrote, rude public exhibitions had been given of the life and adventures of Dionysus, the god of wine. Choruses had sung odes to the deity and variety was obtained by a series of short dialogues between one of the Chorus and the remainder. Aeschylus added a second actor to converse with the first; he thus started a movement which eventually ousted the Chorus from its place of importance, for the interest now began to concentrate on the two actors; it was their performance which gave drama its name. In time more characters were added; the Chorus became less necessary and in the long run was felt to be a hindrance to the movement of the story. This process is plainly visible in the extant works of the Attic tragedians.
Aeschylus was born at Eleusis in 525; before the end of the century he was writing tragedies. In 490 he fought in the great battle of Marathon and took part in the victory of Salamis in 480. This experience of the struggle for freedom against Persian despotism added a vigour and a self-reliance to his writing which is characteristic of a growing national spirit. He is said to have visited Sicily in 468 and again in 458, various motives being given for his leaving Athens. His death at Gela in 456 is said to have been due to an eagle, which dropped a tortoise upon his head which he mistook for a stone. He has left to the world seven plays in which the rapid development of drama is conspicuous.
One of the earliest of his plays is the Suppliants, little read owing to the uncertainty of the text and the meagreness of the dramatic interest. The plot is simple enough. Danaus, sprung from Io of Argos, flees from Egypt with his fifty daughters who avoid wedlock with the fifty sons of Aegyptus. He sails to Argos and lays suppliant boughs on the altars of the gods, imploring protection. The King of Argos after consultation with his people decides to admit the fugitives and to secure them from Aegyptus' violence. A herald from the latter threatens to take the Danaids back with him, but the King intervenes and saves them. There is little in this play but long choral odes; yet one or two Aeschylean features are evident. The King dreads offending the god of suppliants
“lest he should make him to haunt his house, a dread visitor who
quits not sinners even in the world to come.”
The Egyptian herald reverences no gods of Greece “who reared him not nor brought him to old age”. The Chorus declare that “what is fated will come to pass, for Zeus' mighty boundless will cannot be thwarted”. Here we have the three leading ideas in the system of Aeschylus—the doctrine of the inherited curse, of human pride and impiety, and the might of Destiny.
The Persians is unique as being the only surviving historical play in Greek literature. It is a poem rather than a drama, as there is little truly dramatic action. The piece is a succession of very vivid sketches of the incidents in the great struggle which freed Europe from the threat of Eastern despotism. A Chorus of Persian elders is waiting for news of the advance of the great array which Xerxes led against Greece in 480. They tell how Persia extended her sway over Asia. Yet they are uneasy, for
“what mortal can avoid the crafty deception of Heaven? In seeming
kindness it entices men into a trap whence they cannot escape.”
The Queen-mother Atossa enters, resplendent with jewels; she too is anxious, for in a dream she had seen Xerxes yoke two women together who were at feud, one clad in Persian garb, the other in Greek. The former was obedient to the yoke, but the latter tore the car to pieces and broke the curb. The Chorus advises her to propitiate the gods with sacrifice, and to pray to Darius her dead husband to send his son prosperity. At that moment a herald enters with the news of the Greek victory at Salamis. Xerxes, beguiled by some fiend or evil spirit, drew up his fleet at night to intercept the Greeks, supposed to be preparing for flight. But at early dawn they sailed out to attack, singing mightily
“Ye sons of Greece, onward! Free your country, your children and
wives, the shrines of your fathers' gods, and your ancestral tombs.
Now must ye fight for all.”
Winning a glorious victory, they landed on the little island (Psyttaleia) where the choicest Persian troops had been placed to cut off the retreat of the Greek navy, and slew them all. Later, they drove back the Persians by land; through Boeotia, Thessaly and Macedonia the broken host retreated, finally recrossing to Asia over the Hellespont.
On hearing the news Atossa disappears and the Persian Chorus sing a dirge. The Queen returns without her finery, attired as a suppliant; she bids the Chorus call up Darius, while she offers libations to the dead. The ghost of the great Empire-builder rises before the astonished spectators, enquiring what trouble has overtaken his land. His release from Death is not easy, “for the gods of the lower world are readier to take men's spirits than to let them go”. On learning that his son has been totally defeated, he delivers his judgment. The oracles had long ago prophesied this disaster; it was hurried on by Xerxes' rashness, for when a man is himself hurrying on to ruin Heaven abets him. He had listened to evil counsellors, who bade him rival his father's glory by making wider conquests. The ruin of Persia is not yet complete, for when insolence is fully ripe it bears a crop of ruin and reaps a harvest of tears. This evil came upon Xerxes through the sacrilegious demolition of altars and temples. Zeus punishes overweening pride, and his correcting hand is heavy. Darius counsels Atossa to comfort their son and to prevent him from attacking Greece again; he further advises the Chorus to take life's pleasures while they can, for after death there is no profit in wealth. A distinctly grotesque touch is added by the appearance of Xerxes himself, broken and defeated, filling the scene with lamentations for lost friends and departed glory, unable to answer the Chorus when they demand the whereabouts of some of the most famous Persian warriors.
The play is valuable as the result of a personal experience of the poet. As a piece of literature it is important, for it is a poetic description of the first armed conflict between East and West. It directly inspired Shelley when he wrote his Hellas at a time when Greece was rousing herself from many centuries of Eastern oppression. As a historical drama it is of great value, for it is substantially accurate in its main facts, though Aeschylus has been compelled to take some liberties with time and human motives in order to satisfy dramatic needs. From Herodotus it seems probable that Darius himself hankered after the subjugation of Greece, while Xerxes at the outset was inclined to leave her in peace.
One or two characteristic features are worth note. The genius of Aeschylus was very bold; it was a daring thing to bring up a ghost from the dead, for the supernatural appeal does not succeed except when it is treated with proper insight; yet even Aeschylus' genius has not quite succeeded in filling his canvas, the last scenes being distinctly poor in comparison with the splendour of the main theme. On the other hand a notable advance in dramatic power has been made. The main actors are becoming human; their wills are beginning to operate. Tragedy is based on a conflict of some sort; here the wilful spirit of youth is portrayed as defying the forces of justice and righteousness; it is insolence which brings Xerxes to ruin. The substantial creed of Aeschylus is contained in Darius' speech; as the poet progresses in dramatic cunning we shall find that he constantly finds his sources of tragic inspiration in the acts of the sinners who defy the will of the gods.
The Seven against Thebes was performed in 472. It was one of a trilogy, a series of three plays dealing with the misfortunes of Oedipus' race. After the death of Oedipus his sons Polyneices and Eteocles quarrelled for the sovereignty of Thebes. Polyneices, expelled and banished by his younger brother, assembled an army of chosen warriors to attack his native land. Eteocles opens the play with a speech which encourages the citizens to defend their town. A messenger hurries in telling how he left the besiegers casting lots to decide which of the seven gates of Thebes each should attack. Eteocles prays that the curse of his father may not destroy the town and leaves to arrange the defences. In his absence the Chorus of virgins sing a wild prayer to the gods to save them. Hearing this, the King returns to administer a vigorous reproof; he declares that their frenzied supplications fill the city with terrors, discouraging the fighting men. He demands from them obedience, the mother of salvation; if at last they are to perish, they cannot escape the inevitable. His masterful spirit at last cows them into a better frame of mind; this scene presents to us one of the most manly characters in Aeschylus' work.
After a choral ode a piece of intense tragic horror follows. The messenger tells the names of the champions who are to assault the gates. As he names them and the boastful or impious mottoes on their shields, the King names the Theban champions who are to quell their pride in the fear of the gods. Five of the insolent attackers are mentioned, then the only righteous one of the invading force, Amphiaraus the seer; he it was who rebuked the violence of Tydeus, the evil genius among the besiegers, and openly reviled Polyneices for attacking his own native land. He had prophesied his own death before the city, yet resolved to meet his fate nobly; on his shield alone was no device, for he wished to be, not to seem, a good man. The pathos of the impending ruin of a great character through evil associations is heightened by the terror of what follows. Only one gate remains without an assailant, the gate Eteocles is to defend; it is to be attacked by the King's own brother, Polyneices. Filled with horror, the Chorus begs him send another to that gate, for “there can be no old age to the pollution of kindred bloodshed”. Recognising that his father's curse is working itself out, he departs to kill and be killed by his own brother, for “when the gods send evil none can avoid it”.
In an interval the Chorus reflect on their King's impending doom. His father's curse strikes them with dread; Oedipus himself was born of a father Laius who, though warned thrice by Apollo that if he died without issue he would save his land, listened to the counsels of friends and in imprudence begat his own destroyer. Their song is interrupted by a messenger who announces that they have prospered at six gates, but at the seventh the two brothers have slain each other. This news inspires another song in which the joy of deliverance gradually yields to pity for an unhappy house, cursed and blighted, the glory of Oedipus serving but to make more acute the shame of his latter end and the triumph of the ruin he invoked on his sons. The agony of this scene is intensified by the entry of Ismene and Antigone, Oedipus' daughters, the latter mourning for Polyneices, the former for Eteocles. The climax is reached when a herald announces a decree made by the senate and people. Eteocles, their King who defended the land, was to be buried with all honours, but Polyneices was to lie unburied. Calmly and with great dignity Antigone informs the herald that if nobody else buries her brother, she will. A warning threat fails to move her. The play closes with a double note of terror at the doom of Polyneices and pity for the death of a brave King.
Further progress in dramatic art has been made in this play. One of the main sources of the pathos of human life is the operation of what seems to us to be mere blind chance. Just as the casual dropping of Desdemona's handkerchief gave Iago his opportunity, so the casual allotting of the seven gates brings the two brothers into conflict. But behind it was the working of an inherited curse; yet Aeschylus is careful to point out that the curse need never have existed at all but for the wilfulness of Laius; he was the origin of all the mischief, obstinately refusing to listen to a warning thrice given him by Apollo. Another secret of dramatic excellence has been discovered by the poet, that of contrast. Two brothers and two sisters are balanced in pairs against one another. The weaker sister Ismene laments the stronger brother, while the more unfortunate Polyneices is championed by the more firmly drawn sister. Equally admirable is the contrast between the righteous Amphiaraus and his godless companions. The character of each of these is a masterpiece. War, horror, kindred bloodshed, with a promise of further agonies to arise from Antigone's resolve are the elements which Aeschylus has fused together in this vivid play.
“There was war in Heaven” between the new gods and the old. The Prometheus Bound contains the story of the proud tyranny of Zeus, the latest ruler of the gods. Hephaestus, the god of fire, opens a conversation with Force and Violence who are pinning Prometheus with chains of adamant to the rocks of Caucasus. Hephaestus performs his task with reluctance and in pity for the victim, the deep-counselling son of right-minded Law. Yet the command of Zeus his master is urgent, overriding the claims of kindred blood. Force and Violence, full of hatred, hold down the god who has stolen fire, Hephaestus' right, and given it to men. They bid the Fire-God make the chains fast and drive the wedge through Prometheus' body. When the work is done they leave him with the taunt:
“Now steal the rights of the gods and give them to the creatures
of the day; what can mortals do to relieve thy agonies? The gods
wrongly call thee a far-seeing counsellor, who thyself lackest a
counsellor to save thee from thy present lot.”
Abandoned of all, Prometheus breaks out into a wild appeal to earth, air, the myriad laughter of the sea, the founts and streams to witness his humiliation; but soon he reflects that he had foreseen his agony and must bear it as best he can, for the might of Necessity is not to be fought against. A sound of lightly moving pinions strikes his ears; sympathisers have come to visit him; they are the Chorus, the daughters of Ocean, who have heard the sound of the riveted chains and hurried forth in their winged car Awestruck, they come to see how Zeus is smiting down the mighty gods of old. It would be difficult to imagine a more natural and touching motive for the entry of a Chorus.
In the dialogue that follows the tragic appeal to pity is quickly blended with a different interest. By a superb stroke of art Aeschylus excites the audience to an intense curiosity. Though apparently subdued, Prometheus has the certainty of ultimate triumph over his foe; he alone has secret knowledge of something which will one day hurl Zeus from his throne; the time will come when the new president of Heaven will hurry to him in anxious desire for reconciliation; when ruin threatens him he will forsake his pride and beg Prometheus to save him. But no words will prevail on the sufferer till he is released from his bonds and receives ample satisfaction for his maltreatment. The Chorus bids him tell the whole history of the quarrel. To them he unfolds the story of Zeus' ingratitude. There was a discord among the older gods, some wishing to depose Cronos and make Zeus their King. Warned by his mother, Prometheus knew that only counsel could avail in the struggle, not violence. When he failed to persuade the Titans to use cunning, he joined Zeus who with his aid hurled his foes down to Tartarus. Securing the sovereignty, Zeus distributed honours to his supporters, but was anxious to wipe out the human race and create a new stock. Prometheus resisted him, giving mortals fire the creator of many arts and ridding them of the dread of death. This act brought him into conflict with Zeus. He invites the Chorus to step down from their car and hear the rest of his story. At this point Ocean enters, one of the older gods. He offers to act as a mediator with Zeus, but Prometheus warns him to keep out of the conflict; he has witnessed the sorrows of Atlas, his own brother, and of Typhos, pinned down under Etna, and desires to bring trouble upon no other god; he must bear his agonies alone till the time of deliverance is ripe. Ocean departing, Prometheus continues his story. He gave men writing and knowledge of astronomy, taught them to tame the wild beasts, invented the ship, created medicine, divination and metallurgy. Yet for all this, his art is weaker far than Necessity, whereof the controllers are Fate and the unforgetting Furies. Terror-struck at his sufferings, the Chorus point out how utterly his goodness has been wasted in helping the race of mortals who cannot save him. He warns them that a time would come when Zeus should be no longer King; when they ask for more knowledge, he turns them to other thoughts, bidding them hide the secret as much as possible. Their interest is drawn away to another of Zeus' victims, who at this moment rushes on the scene; it is lo, cajoled and abandoned by Zeus, plagued and tormented by the dread unsleeping gadfly sent by Zeus' consort Hera. She relates her story to the wondering Chorus, and then Prometheus tells her the long tale of misery and wandering that await her as she passes from the Caucasus to Egypt, where she is promised deliverance from her tormentor.
The play now moves to its awful climax. The sight of Io stirs Prometheus to prophesy more clearly the end in store for Zeus. There would be born one to discover a terror far greater than the thunderbolt, and smite Zeus and his brother Poseidon into utter slavery. On hearing this Zeus sends from heaven his messenger Hermes to demand fuller knowledge of this new monarch. Disdaining his threats, Prometheus mocks the new gods and defies their ruler to do his worst. Hermes then delivers his warning. Prometheus would be overwhelmed with the terrors of thunder and lightning, while the red eagle would tear out his heart unceasingly till one should arise to inherit his agonies, descending to the depths of Tartarus. He advises the Chorus to depart from the rebel, lest they too should share in the vengeance. They remain faithful to Prometheus, ready to suffer with him; then descend the thunderings and lightnings, the mountains rock, the winds roar, and the sky is confounded with sea; the dread agony has begun.
Once more the bold originality of Aeschylus displays itself. Here is a theme unique in Greek literature. The strife between the two races of gods opens out a vista of the world ages before man was created. It will provide a solution to a very difficult problem which will confront us in a later play. The conflict between two stubborn wills is the source of a sublime tragedy in which our sympathies are with the sufferer; Zeus, who punishes Prometheus for “unjustly” helping mortals, himself falls below the level of human morality; he is tyrannous, ungrateful and revengeful—in short, he displays all the wrong-headedness of a new ruler. No doubt in the sequel these defects would have disappeared; experience would have induced a kindlier temper and the sense of an impending doom would have made it essential for him to relent in order to learn the great secret about his successor.
Pathos is repeatedly appealed to in the play. Hephaestus is one of the kindliest figures in Greek tragedy; the noble-hearted young goddesses cannot fail to hold our affection. They are the most human Chorus in all drama; their entry is admirable; in the sequel we should have found them still near Prometheus after his cycle of tortures. But the subject-matter is calculated to win the admiration of all humanity; it is the persecution of him to whom on Greek principles mankind owes all that it is of value in its civilisation. We cannot help thinking of another God, racked and tormented and nailed to a cross of shame to save the race He loved. The very power and majesty of Aeschylus' work has made it difficult for successors to imitate him; few can hope to equal his sublime grandeur; Shelley attempted it in his Prometheus Unbound, but his Prometheus becomes abstract Humanity, ceasing to be a character, while his play is really a mere poem celebrating the inevitable victory of man over the evils of his environment and picturing the return of an age of happiness.
Nearly all the characters in Greek tragedy were the heroes of well-known popular legends. In abandoning the well-trodden circle Aeschylus has here ensured an undying freshness for his work—it is novel, free and unconventional; more than that, it is dignified.
The slightest error of taste would have degraded if to the level of a comedy; throughout it maintains a uniform tone of loftiness and sincerity. The language is easy but powerful, the art with which the story is told is consummate. Finally, it is one of the few pieces in the literature of the world which are truly sublime; it ranks with Job and Dante. The great purpose of creation, the struggles of beings of terrific power, the majesty of gods, the whole universe sighing and lamenting for the agonies of a deity of wondrous foresight, saving others but not himself—such is the theme of this mighty and affecting play.
In 458 Aeschylus wrote the one trilogy which is extant. It describes the murder of Agamemnon, the revenge of Orestes and his purification from blood-guiltiness. It will be necessary to trace the history of Agamemnon's family before we can understand these plays. His great-grandfather was Tantalus, who betrayed the secrets of the gods and was subjected to unending torture in Hades. Pelops, his son, begat two sons, Atreus and Thyestes. The former killed Thyestes' son, invited the father to a banquet and served up his own son's body for him to eat. The sons of Atreus were Agamemnon and Menelaus, who married respectively Clytemnestra and Helen, daughters of Zeus and Leda, both evil women; the son of Thyestes was Aegisthus, a deadly foe of his cousins who had banished him. The “inherited curse” then had developed itself in this unhappy stock and it did not fail to ruin it.
When Helen abandoned Menelaus and went to Troy with Paris, Agamemnon led a great armament to recover the adulteress. The fleet was wind-bound at Aulis, because the Greeks had offended Artemis. Chalcas the seer informed Agamemnon that it would be impossible for him to reach Troy unless he offered his eldest daughter Iphigeneia to Artemis. Torn by patriotism and fatherly affection, Agamemnon resorted to a strategem to bring his daughter to the sacrifice. He sent a messenger to Clytemnestra saying he wished to marry their child to Achilles. When the mother and daughter arrived at Aulis they learned the bitter truth. Iphigeneia was indeed sacrificed, but Artemis spirited her away to the country now called Crimea, there to serve as her priestess. Believing that her daughter was dead, Clytemnestra returned to Argos to plot destruction for her husband, forming an illicit union with his foe Aegisthus, nursing her revenge during the ten years of the siege.
The Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy, opens in a romantic setting. It is night. A watchman is on the wall of Argos, stationed there by the Queen. For ten years he had waited for the signal of the beacon-fire to be lit at Nauplia, the port of Argos, to announce the fall of Troy. At last the expected signal is given. He hurries to tell the news to the Queen, a woman with the resolution of a man; in his absence the Chorus of Argive Elders enter the stage, singing one of the finest odes to be found in any language. It likens Agamemnon and his brother to two avenging spirits sent to punish the sinner. The Chorus are past military age, and are come to learn from Clytemnestra why there is sacrifice throughout all Argos. They remember the woes at the beginning of the campaign, how Chalcas prophesied that in time Troy would be taken, yet hinted darkly of some blinding curse of Heaven hanging over the Greeks, his burden being
“Sing woe, sing woe, but let the good prevail.”
“Yea, the law of Zeus is, wisdom by suffering, for thus soberness of
thought comes to those who wish not for it. First men are emboldened
by ill-counselling foolish frenzy which begins their troubles; even
as Agamemnon, through sin against Artemis, was compelled to slay his
daughter to save his armament. Her cries for a father's mercy, her
unuttered appeals to her slayers—these he disregarded. What is to
come of it, no man knows; yet it is useless to lament the issue before
it comes, as come it will, clear as the light of day.”
Clytemnestra enters, the sternest woman figure in all literature. She reminds the Chorus that she is no child and is not known to have a slumbering wit. When they enquire how she has learned so quickly of the capture of Troy, she describes with great brilliance the long chain of beacon fires she has caused to be made, stretching from Ida in Troyland to Argos. She imagines the wretched fate of the conquered and the joy of the victors, rid for ever of their watchings beneath the open sky. Striking the same ominous note as Chalcas did, she continues:
“If they reverence the Gods of Troy and their shrines, they shall not
be caught even as they have taken the city. May no lust of plundering
fall upon the army, for it needs a safe return home. Yet even if the
army sins not against the gods, the anger of the slain may awake,
though no new ills arise. But let the right prevail, for all to see
This speech inspires the Chorus to sing another solemn ode. Too much prosperity leads to godlessness; Paris carried away Helen in pride and infatuation, stealing the light of Menelaus' eyes, leaving him only the torturing memories of her beauty which visited him in his dreams. But there is a spirit of discontent in every city of Greece; all had sent their young men to Troy in the glory of life, and in return they had a handful of ashes, asking why their sons should fall in murderous strife for another man's wife. At night the dark dread haunts Argos that the gods care not for men who shed much blood, who succeed by injustice, who are well spoken of overmuch. Often these are smitten full in the face by the thunderbolt; and perhaps this beacon message is mere imagining or a lie sent from heaven.
Hearing this the Queen comes forth to prove the truth of her story. A herald at that moment advances to confirm it, for Troy has been sacked.
“Altars and shrines have been demolished and all the seed of land
destroyed. Thus is Agamemnon the happiest man of mortals, most
worthy of honour, for Paris and his city cannot say that their
crime was greater than its punishment.”
Immediately after learning this story, Clytemnestra makes the first of a number of speeches charged with a dreadful double meaning.
“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 refuses.
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 end.
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 honour?
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 solve it.
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 and irreverent.
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 (prose).
Versions also appear in Verrall's editions of separate plays (Macmillan).
An admirable volume called Greek Tragedy by G. Norwood (Methuen) contains a summary of the latest views on the art of the Athenian dramatists.
See Symonds' Greek Poets as above.