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 Rhesus.
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 pathetic.
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 murderer.
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 emotional triumphs.
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 ambiguous:
“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 is over.
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 the dead.
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 comedy.
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 slain children.
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 proud master.
“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 latter in shameless impudence pleads that she has saved Greece from invasion and that Love who came with Paris to Sparta was the cause of her fault. Hecuba ridicules the idea that Hera and Artemis could desire any prize of beauty. It was lust of Trojan gold that tempted Helen; never once was she known to bewail her sin in Troy, rather she always tried to attract men's eyes. Such a woman's death would be a crown of glory to Greece. Menelaus says her fate will be decided in Argos. Talthybius brings in the body of Astyanax, over which Hecuba bursts into a lament of exceptional beauty and then passes out to slavery.
In this drama Euripides draws upon all his resources of pathos. It is a succession of brilliantly conceived sorrows. Cassandra's exulting prophecy of the revenge she is to bring is one of the great things in Euripides. In this play we have a most vivid picture of the destructive effects of evil, an inevitable consequence of which it is that the woman, however innocent she may be, always pays. Hecuba drank the cup of bereavement to the very last drop.
The Electra, acted about 418, is characteristic. Electra has been compelled to marry a Mycenean labourer, a man of noble instincts who respects the princess and treats her as such. Both enter the scene; the man goes to labour for Electra, “for no lazy man by merely having God's name on his lips can make a livelihood without toil”. Orestes and Pylades at first imagine Electra to be a servant; learning the truth they come forward and question her. She tells the story of her mother's shame and Aegisthus' insolence which Orestes promises to recount to her brother, “for in ignorant men there is no spark of pity anywhere, only in the learned.” The labourer returns and by his speech moves Orestes to declare that birth is no test of nobility. Electra sends him to fetch an old Tutor of her father to make ready for her two guests; he departs remarking that there is just enough food in the house for one day.
The old Tutor arrives in tears; he has found a lock of hair on Agamemnon's tomb. Gazing intently on the two strangers, he recognises Orestes by a scar on the eyebrow. They then proceed to plot the death of their enemies. Orestes goes to meet Aegisthus is close by sacrificing, and presently returns with the corpse, at which Electra hurls back the taunts and jeers he had heaped on her in his lifetime. She had sent to her mother saying she had given birth to a boy and asking her to come immediately.
Orestes quails before the coming murder, but Electra bids him be loyal to his father. Clytemnestra on her arrival querulously defends her past, alleging as her pretext not the death of Iphigeneia but the presence of a rival, Cassandra. Electra after refuting her invites her inside the wretched hut to offer sacrifice for her newly born child, where she is slain by Orestes. At the end of the play the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, bid Pylades marry Electra, tell Orestes he will be purified in Athens and prophesy that Menelaus and Helen, just arrived from Egypt, will bury Agisthus real Helen never went to Troy, a wraith of her being sent there with Paris.
The startling realism of this drama is apparent. The poverty of Electra, the more certain identification of Orestes by a scar than by a lock of hair, the mention of Cassandra as the real motive for the murder of Agamemnon all indicate that Euripides was not content with the accepted legend. His Clytemnestra is a feeble creation even by the side of that of Sophocles.
Stesichorus in a famous poem tells how Helen blinded him for maligning her; she never went to Troy; it was a wraith which accompanied Paris. Such is the central idea of a very strange play, the Helen. The scene is in Egypt. Teucer, banished by his father, meets the real Helen; to her amazement he tells of her evil reputation and of the great war before Troy, adding that Menelaus is sailing home with another Helen. The latter enters, to learn that he is in Egypt, where the real Helen has lived for the last seventeen years. Warned by a prophetess Theonoe that her husband is not far off, Helen comes to be reunited to him. A messenger from the coast announces that the wraith has faded into nothingness.
Helen then warns Menelaus of her difficult position. She is wooed by Theoclymenus, king of the land, brother of Theonoe. Menelaus in despair thinks of killing himself and Helen to escape the tyrant. Theonoe holds their fate in her hands; Helen pleads with her; “It is shameful that thou shouldest know things divine, and not righteousness.” Menelaus declares his intention of living and dying with his wife. The prophetess leaves them to discover some means of escape which Helen devises. Pretending that Menelaus is a messenger bringing news of her husband's death at sea, she persuades the tyrant to provide a ship and rowers that Helen may perform the last rites to the dead on the element where he died. At the right moment the Greek sailors overpowered the rowers and sailed home with the united pair.
Very commonly real drama suffers the fate which has overtaken it in this piece; it declines into melodrama. Here are to be found all the stock melodramatic features—a bold hero, a scheming beauty, a confidante, a dupe, the murder of a ship's crew. Massinger piloted Elizabethan drama to a similar end. Given an uncritical audience melodrama is the surest means of filling the house. Reality matters little in such work; the facts of life are like Helen's wraith, when they become unmanageable they vanish into thin air.
About 412 the Iphigeneia in Tauris appeared. South Russia was the seat of a cult of Artemis; the goddess spirited Iphigeneia to the place when her father sacrificed her at Aulis. Orestes, bidden by Apollo to steal an image of the goddess to get his final purification, comes on the stage with Pylades; on seeing the temple they are convinced of the impossibility of burgling it. A shepherd describes to Iphigeneia their capture, for strangers were taken and offered to the goddess without exception. One of the two was seized with a vision of the avenging deities; attacked by a band of peasants both were overpowered after a stubborn resistance. Formerly Iphigeneia had pitied the Greeks who landed there; now, warned of Orestes' death by a dream, she determines to kill without mercy. One of them shall die, the other taking back to Greece a letter. Orestes insists on dying himself, reminding Pylades of his duty to Electra. When the letter is brought Pylades swears to fulfil his word, but asks what is to happen if the ship is wrecked. Iphigeneia reads the letter to him; it is addressed to Orestes and tells of his sister's weary exile. After the recognition is completed, Orestes relates the horrors of his life and begs his sister to help him to steal the all-important image.
Thoas, the King of the land, learns from her that the two Greeks are guilty of kindred murder; their presence has defiled the holy image which needs purification in the sea as well as the criminals. The priestess obtains permission to bind the captives and take the image to be cleansed with private mystic rites. The plot succeeds; Orestes' ship puts in; after a struggle the three board it, carrying the image with them. Thoas is prevented from pursuit by an intervention of Athena.
Goethe used this play for his drama of the same name; he made Thoas the lover of Iphigeneia, whom he represents as the real image whom Orestes is to remove. Her departure is not compassed by a stratagem, but is permitted by the King, a man of singular nobility and self-denial.
The Phaenissae has been much admired in all ages. Jocasta tells how after the discovery of his identity Oedipus blinded himself but was shut up by his two sons whom he cursed for their impiety. Eteocles then usurped the rule while Polyneices called an Argive host to attack Thebes. A Choral description of this army is succeeded by an unexpected entry into the city of Polyneices who meets his mother and tells her of his life in exile. She sends for Eteocles in the hope of reconciling her two sons. Polyneices promises to disband his forces if he is restored to his rights, but Eteocles, enamoured of power, refuses to surrender it. Jocasta vainly points out to him the burden of rule, nor can she persuade Polyneices not to attack his own land.
When the champions have taken up their position at the gates, Teiresias tells Creon that Thebes can be saved by the sacrifice of his own son Menoeceus. Creon refuses to comply and urges his son to escape. Pretending to obey Menoeceus threw himself from the city walls. The struggle at the gates is followed by a challenge to Polyneices issued by Eteocles to settle the dispute in single combat. Jocasta and Antigone rush out to intervene, too late. They find the two lying side by side at death's door. Eteocles is past speech, but Polyneices bids farewell to his mother and sister, pitying his brother “who turned friendship into enmity, yet still was dear”. In agony, Jocasta slays herself over her sons' bodies.
Led in by Antigone, Oedipus is banished by Creon, who forbids the burial of Polyneices. After touching the dead Jocasta and his two sons, he passes to exile and rest at Colonus.
The harsh story favoured by Sophocles has been greatly humanised by Euripides, who could not accept all the savagery of the received legend. Apart from the unexplained presence of Polyneices in the city, the plot is excellent. The speeches are vigorous and natural, the characters thoroughly human. The criticising and refining influence of Euripides is manifest throughout, together with a simple and noble pathos.
An ancient critic says of the Orestes, written in 408, “the drama is popular but of the lowest morality; except Pylades, all are villains”. Electra meets Helen, unexpectedly returned from Egypt to Argos with Menelaus, who sends her daughter Hermione with offerings to the tomb of Agamemnon. Electra's opinion of her is vividly expressed.
“See how she has tricked out her hair, preserving her beauty; she
is old Helen still. Heaven abhor thee, the bane of me and my
brother and Greece.”
The Chorus accidentally awakens Orestes who is visited by a wild vision of haunting Furies. When he regains sanity he begs the assistance of Menelaus, his last refuge. His uncle, a broken reed, is saved from committing himself by the entry of Tyndareus, father of Clytemnestra and Helen. He righteously rebukes the bloodthirsty Orestes, though he is aware of the evil in his two daughters. Orestes breaks out into an insulting speech which alienates completely his grandfather. Menelaus, when appealed to again, hurries out to try to win him back.
Pylades suggests that he and Orestes should plead their case before the Argive Assembly, which was to try them for murder of Clytemnestra. A very brilliant and exciting account of the debate tells how the case was lost by Orestes himself, who presumed to lecture the audience on the majesty of the law he himself had broken. He and Electra are condemned to be stoned that very day. Determined to ruin Menelaus before they die, they agree to kill Helen, the cause of all their troubles, and to fire the fortified house in which they live. Electra adds that they should also seize Hermione and hold her as a check on Menelaus' fury for the death of Helen. The girl is easily trapped as she rushes into the house hearing her mother's cries for help. Soon after a Trojan menial drops from the first story. He tells how Helen and Hermione have so far escaped death, but the rest is unknown to him. In a ghastly scene Orestes hunts the wretch over the stage, but finally lets him go as he is not a fit victim for a free man's sword. Almost immediately the house is seen to be ablaze; Menelaus rushes up in a frenzy, but is checked by the sight of Orestes with Hermione in his arms. When Menelaus calls for help, Orestes bids Pylades and Electra light more fires to consume them all. A timely appearance of Apollo with Helen deified by his side saves the situation.
It is plain that Euripides has here completely rejected the old legend. He never makes Orestes even think of pleading Apollo's command to him to slay his mother. He is concerned with the defence which a contemporary matricide might make before a modern Athenian assembly and with the fitting doom of self-destruction which would overtake him. Like Vanity Fair, the play shows us the life of people who try to do without God.
The Bacchae is one of Euripides' best plays. In the absence of Pentheus the King, Cadmus and Teiresias join in the worship of the new god Dionysus at Thebes. Pentheus returns to find that noble women, including Agave, his own mother, have joined the strange cult brought to the place by a mysterious Lydian stranger “whose hair is neatly arranged in curls, his face like wine, his eyes as full of grace as Aphrodite's”.
Teiresias advises him to welcome the god, Cadmus to pretend that he is divine, even if he is only a mortal; this new religion is the natural outlet of the desire for innocent revelry born in both sexes. The Lydian is arrested and brought before Pentheus, whom he warns that the god will save him from insult, but Pentheus hurries him away into a dungeon.
The Chorus of Bacchae are alarmed on hearing a tumult. The stranger appears to tell how Pentheus was made mad by Dionysus in the act of imprisoning him. The King in amazement sees his prisoner standing free before him and becomes furiously angry on hearing that his mother has joined a new revel on Mount Cithaeron. The stranger suggests that he should go disguised as a Bacchante to see the new worship. When he appears transformed, the Lydian comments with exquisite and deadly irony on his appearance. His fate is vividly and terribly painted. Placing him in a pine, the stranger suddenly disappeared, while the voice of Dionysus summoned the rout to punish the spy. Rushing to the tree, the woman tore it up by the roots and then rent Pentheus piecemeal, Agave herself leading them on.
She comes in holding what she imagines to be a trophy. Cadmus slowly reveals to her the horror of her deed, the proof of which is her son's head in her grasp. Dionysus himself comes in to point out that this tragedy is the result of the indignity which Thebes put upon him and his mother Semele. Broken with grief, Agave passes out slowly to her banishment. The Bacchae was composed in Macedonia; it contains all the mystery of the supernatural. Dionysus' character is admirably drawn, while the infatuation of Pentheus is a fitting prelude to his ruin. The cult of Dionysus was essentially democratic, intended for those who could claim no share in aristocratic ritual: hence its popularity and prevalence. We may regard the Bacchae as the poet's declaration of faith in the worship which gave Europe the Drama; it is altogether fitting that he who has left us the greatest number of tragedies should have been chosen by destiny to bequeath us the one drama which tells of one of the adventures of its patron deity.
The Iphigeneia in Aulis was written in the last year of the poet's life. Agamemnon sends a private letter to his wife countermanding an official dispatch summoning her and Iphigeneia. This letter is intercepted by Menelaus, who upbraids his brother; later, seeing his distress, he advises him to send the women home again. But public opinion forces the leader to obey Artemis and sacrifice his daughter. When he meets his wife and child, he tries to temporise but fails. Achilles meets Clytemnestra and is surprised to hear that he is to marry Iphigeneia, such being the bait which brought Clytemnestra to Aulis. Learning the real truth, she faces her husband, pleading for their daughter's life. Iphigeneia at first shrinks from death; the army demands her sacrifice, while Achilles is ready to defend her. The knot is untied by Iphigeneia herself, who willingly at last consents to die to save her country.
This excellent play shows no falling in dramatic power; it was imitated by Racine and Schiller. The figures are intensely human, the conflict of duties firmly outlined, the pathos sincere and true, there is no divine appearance to straighten out a tangled plot. Thus Euripides' career ends as it began, with a story of a woman's noble self-sacrifice.
The poet's popularity is indicated by the number of his extant dramas and fragments, both of which exceed in bulk the combined work of Aeschylus and Sophocles. All classes of writers quoted him, philosophers, orators, bishops. In his own lifetime Socrates made a point of witnessing his plays; the very violence of Aristophanes' attack proves Euripides' potent influence; his lost drama Melanippe turned the heads of the Athenians, the whole town singing its odes. Survivors of the Sicilian disaster won their freedom by singing his songs to their captors, returning to thank their liberator in person; the fragments of Menander discovered in 1906 contain many reminiscences of him, even slaves quoting passages of him to their masters. For it was the very width of his appeal that made him universally loved; women and slaves in his view were every whit as good as free-born men, sometimes they were far nobler. If drama is the voice of a democracy, the Athenians had found a more democratic mouthpiece than they had bargained for.
With the educated men it was different. They suspected a poet who was upsetting their tradition. Besides, they were asked to crown a person who told them in play after play that they were really like Jason, Menelaus, Polymestor, poor creatures if not quite odious. He made them see with painful clearness that the better sex was the one which they despised, yet which was sure one day to find the utterance to which it had a right in virtue of its greater nobility. The feminism of Euripides is evident through his whole career; it is an insult to our powers of reading to imagine that he was a woman-hater. It is then not to be wondered at that he won the prize only five times, and it can hardly be an accident that he gained it once with the Hippolytus, which on a surface view condemns the female sex.
For the officials could not see that Euripides was not a man only, he was a spirit of development. Privilege and narrowness in every form he hated; he demanded unlimited freedom for the intelligence. The narrow circle of legends, the conventional unified drama, state religion, a pseudo-democracy based on slavery he fearlessly criticised. Rationalism, humanism, free speculation were his watchwords; he was always trying new experiments in his art, introducing politics, philosophy, melodrama and trying to get rid of the chorus wherever he could. He was a living and a contemporary Proteus, pleading like an advocate in a lawsuit, discussing political theory, restating unsolved problems in modern form and seasoning his work with his own peculiar and often elevating pathos. Such a man was anathema to conservative Athens.
But to us he is one of ourselves. He exactly hits off our modern taste, with its somewhat sentimental tendency, its scepticism, love of excitement, and its great complexity. We know we have many moods and passions which strangely blend and thwart each other; these we treat in our novels, and Euripides' plays are a sort of novel, but for the divine appearances in the last scenes. He shows us the inevitable end of actions of beings exactly like ourselves, acting from merely human motives, neither higher nor lower than we, though perhaps disguised under heroic names. He is in a word the first modern poet.
A. S. Way, Loeb Series. This verse translation is the most successful; it renders the choric odes with skill.
Professor Gilbert Murray has published verse translations of various plays. He is an authority on the text. His volume on Euripides in the Home University Library is admirable.
Euripides the Rationalist and Four Plays of Euripides by A. W. Verrall are well known; the latter is particularly stimulating. The views it expounds are original but not traditional.
See Symonds' Greek Poets as above.