In Aeschylus' dramas the will of the gods tended to override human responsibility. An improvement could be effected by making the personages real captains of their souls; drama needed bringing down from heaven to earth. This process was effected by Sophocles. He was born at Colonus, near Athens, in 495, mixed with the best society in Periclean times, was a member of the important board of administrators who controlled the Delian League, the nucleus of the Athenian Empire, and composed over one hundred tragedies. In 468 he defeated Aeschylus, won the first prize twenty-two times and later had to face the more formidable opposition of the new and restless spirit whose chief spokesman was Euripides. For nearly forty years he was taken to be the typical dramatist of Athens, being nicknamed “the Bee”; his dramatic powers showed no abatement of vigour in old age, of which the Oedipus Coloneus was the triumphant issue. He died in 405, full of years and honours.
Providence has ordained it that his art, like his country's tutelary goddess Athena, should step perfect and fully armed from the brain of its creator. The Antigone, produced in 440, discusses one of the deepest problems of civilised life. On the morning after the defeat of the Seven who assaulted Thebes Polyneices' body lay dishonoured and unburied, a prey to carrion birds before the gates of the city which had been his home. His two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, discuss the edict which forbids his burial. Ismene, the more timid of the two, intends to obey it, but Antigone's stronger character rises in rebellion.
Loss of burial was the most awful fate which could overtake a Greek —before he died Sophocles was to see his country condemn ten generals to death for neglect of burial rites, though they had been brilliantly successful in a naval engagement. Rather than obey Antigone would die.
“Bury him I will; I will lie in death with the brother I love,
sinning in a righteous cause. Far longer is the time in which I
must please the dead than men on earth, for among the former I
shall dwell for ever. Do thou, if it please thee, hold in dishonour
what is honoured by Heaven.”
Here is the source of the tragedy, the will of the individual in conflict with established authority.
A chorus of Theban elders enters, singing an ode of deliverance and joy; they have been summoned by Creon, the new King, uncle of Oedipus' children. Full of the sense of his own importance Creon states the official view. Polyneices is to remain unburied.
“Any man who considers private friendship to be more important than
the State is a man of naught. In the name of all-seeing Zeus I would
not hold my tongue if I saw ruin coming to the citizens instead of
safety, nor would I make a friend of my country's enemy. Sure am I
that it is the State that saves us; she is the ship that carries us;
we make our friendships without overturning her.”
The elders promise obedience, but grave news is reported by a guard who has been set to watch the corpse. Someone had scattered dust lightly over the dead and departed without leaving any trace; neither he nor his companions had done the deed.
When the Chorus suggest that it is the work of some deity, Creon answers in great impatience:
“Cease, lest thou be proved a fool as well as old. Thy words are
intolerable when thou sayest that the gods can have a care of this
corpse. What, have they buried him in honour for his services to them?
Did he not come to burn their pillared temples and offerings and
precincts and shatter our laws?”
He angrily thrusts the watchman forth, threatening to hang him and his companions alive unless they find the culprit.
“There are many marvels, but none greater than Man. He crosses the
wintry sea, he wears away the hard earth with his plough, ensnareth
the light-hearted race of birds, catcheth the wild beasts, trappeth
the things of the deep, yoketh the horse and the unwearying ox. He
hath taught himself speech and thought swift as the wind, hath learnt
the moods of a city life and can avoid the shafts of the frost; he
hath a device for every problem save Death—though disease he can
escape. Sometimes he moveth to ill, again to good; his cities rear
their heads when they reverence the laws and the gods; he wrecketh
his city when he boldly forsakes the good. May an evil-doer never
share my hearth or heart.”
Such is the ordinary man's view of the action of Polyneices, for in Sophocles the Chorus certainly represents average public opinion. It is quickly challenged by the entry of Antigone with the Watchman, whose story Creon hastens out to hear. With no little self-satisfaction the Watchman tells how they caught the girl in the very act of replacing the dust they had removed and pouring libations over the dead. Antigone admits the deed. When asked how she dare defy the official ordinance, she replies—
“It came neither from Zeus nor from Justice, nor did I deem that thy
decrees had such power that a mortal could override the unwritten
and unshaken laws of Heaven. These have not their life from now or
yesterday, but from everlasting, and no man knows whence they have
appeared. It was not likely that, through fear of any man's will,
I would pay Heaven's penalty for their infringement. Die I must, even
hadst thou made no proclamation; if I die before my time, I count
it all gain. If my act seem folly to thee, maybe it is a foolish
judge who counts me mad.”
Creon replies that this is sheer insolence; it is an insult that he, a man, should give way to a woman. He threatens to destroy both girls, but Antigone is sure that public opinion is with her, though for the moment it is muzzled through fear. Ismene is brought in and offers to die with her sister; Antigone refuses her offer, insisting that she alone has deserved chastisement.
In a second ode the gradual extinction of Oedipus' race is described, owing to foolish word and insensate thought, for “when Heaven leads a man to ruin it makes him believe that evil is good”. A new interest is added by Creon's son Haemon, the affianced lover of Antigone, who comes to interview his father. This is the first instance in European drama of that without which much modern literature would have little reason for existing at all—the love element, wisely kept in check by the Greeks. A further conflict of wills adds to the dramatic effect of the play; Creon insists on filial obedience, for he cannot claim to rule a city if he fails to control his own family. Haemon answers with courtesy and deference; he points out that the force of public opinion is behind Antigone and suggests that the official view may perhaps be wrong because it is the expression of an individual's judgment. When he is himself charged thus directly with the very fault for which he claimed to punish Antigone, Creon lets his temper get the mastery; after a violent quarrel Haemon parts from him with a dark threat that the girl's death will remove more than one person, and vows never to cross his father's doorstep again.
Antigone is soon carried away to her doom; she is to be shut up in a cavern without food. In a dialogue of great beauty she confesses her human weakness—death is near, and with it banishment from the joys of life. Creon bids her make an end; her last speech concludes with a clear statement of the problem. Who knows if she is right? She herself will know after death. If she has erred, she will confess it; if the King is wrong, she prays he may not suffer greater woes than her own.
A reaction now occurs. Teiresias, the blind seer, seeks out Creon because of the failure of his sacrificial rites; the birds of the air are gorged with human blood, and fail to give the signs of augury. He bids Creon return to his right senses and quit his stubbornness. When the latter mockingly accuses the seer of being bribed, he learns the dread punishment his obstinacy has brought him.
“Know that thou shalt not see out many hurrying rounds of the sun
before thou shalt give one sprung from thine own loins in exchange
for the dead, one in return for two, for thou hast thrust below
one of the children of the light, penning up her spirit in a tomb
with dishonour, and thou keepest above ground a body that belongs
to the gods below, without its share of funerals, unrighteously;
wherefore the late-punishing ruinous gods of death and the
Furies lie in wait for thee, to catch thee in like agonies.”
Cowed by the terror, the King hurries to undo his work, calling for pickaxes to open the tomb and himself going with all speed to set free its victim.
The sequel is told by a messenger who at the outset strikes a note of woe.
“Creon I once envied, for he was the saviour of his land, and was
the father of noble children. Now all is lost. When men lose
pleasure, I deem that they are not alive but moving corpses. Heap
up wealth and live in kingly state, but if there is no pleasure
withal, I would not pay the worth of a shadow for all the rest.
Haemon is dead.”
Hearing the news, Eurydice the Queen comes out, and bids him tell his story in full. Creon found Haemon clasping the body of Antigone who had hung herself. Seeing his father, he made a murderous attack on him; when it failed, he drew his sword and fell on it—thus in death the two lovers were not separated. In an ominous silence the Queen departs. Creon enters with his son's body, to be utterly shattered by a second and an unexpected blow, for his wife has slain herself. Broken and helpless he admits his fault, while the Chorus sing in conclusion:—
“By far the greatest part of happiness is wisdom; men should
reverence the gods; mighty plagues repay the mighty words of the
over-proud, teaching wisdom to the aged.”
To Aeschylus the power that largely controlled men's acts was Destiny. A notable contrast is visible in the system of Sophocles. Destiny does not disappear, rather it retires into the background of his thought. To him the leading cause of ruin is evil counsel. Over and over again this teaching is driven home. All the leading characters mention it, Antigone, Haemon, Teiresias, and when it is disregarded, it is remorselessly brought home by disaster. The dramatic gain is enormous; man's sorrows are ascribed primarily to his own lack of judgment, the tragic character takes on a more human shape, for he is more nearly related to the ordinary persons we meet in our own experience. Another great advance is visible in the construction of the plot. It is more varied, more flexible; it never ceases developing, the action continuing to the end instead of stopping short at a climax. Further, the Chorus begins to fall into a more humble position, it exercises but little influence on the great figures of the plot, being content to mirror the opinions of the interested outside spectator. Truly drama is beginning to be master of itself—“the play's the thing”.
But far more important is the subject of this play. It raises one of the most difficult problems which demand a solution, the harmonisation of private judgment with state authority. The individual in a growing civilisation sooner or later asks how far he ought to obey, who is the lord over his convictions, whether disobedience is ever justifiable. If a law is wrong how are we to make its immorality evident? In an age when a central authority is questioned or loses its hold on men's allegiance, this problem will imperiously demand an answer. When Europe was aroused from the slumber of the Middle Ages and the spiritual authority which had governed it for centuries was shattered, the same right of resistance as that which Antigone claimed was insisted upon by various reformers. It did not fail to bring with it tragic consequences, for the “power beareth not the sword in vain”. Its sequel was the Thirty Years' War which barbarised central Germany, leaving in many places a race of savage beings who had once been human. In our own days resistance is preached almost as a sacred duty. We have passive resisters, conscientious objectors, strikers and a host of young and imperfectly educated persons, some armed with the very serious power of voting, who claim to set their wills in flat opposition to recognised authority. One or two contributions to the solution of this problem may be found in the Antigone. The central authority must be prepared to prove that its edicts are not below the moral standard of the age; on the other hand, non-compliance must be backed by the force of public opinion; it must show that the action it takes will ultimately bring good to the whole community. It is of little use to appeal to the so-called conscience unless we can produce some credentials of the proper training and enlightenment of that rather vague and uncertain faculty, whose normal province is to condemn wrong acts, not to justify law-breaking. Most resisters talk the very language of Antigone, appealing to the will of Heaven; would that they could prove as satisfactorily as she did that the power behind them is that which governs the world in righteousness.
A somewhat similar problem reappears in the Ajax. This play opens at early dawn with a dialogue between Athena, who is unseen, and Odysseus; the latter has traced Ajax to his tent after a night of madness in which he has slain much cattle and many shepherds, imagining them to be his foes, especially Odysseus himself who had worsted him in the contest for the arms of Achilles. Athena calls out the beaten hero for a moment and the sight of him moves Odysseus to say:—
“I pity him, though my foe; for I think of mine own self as much as
of him. We men are but shadows, all of us, or fleeting shades.”
To this Athena replies:—
“When thou seest such sights, utter no haughty word against the gods
and be not roused to pride, if thou art mightier than another in
strength or store of wealth. One day can bring down or exalt all
human state, but the gods love the prudent and hate the sinners.”
A band of mariners from Salamis enter as the chorus; they are Ajax' followers who have come to learn the truth. They are confronted by Tecmessa, Ajax' captive, who confirms the grievous rumour, describing his mad acts. When the fit was over, she had left him in his tent prostrate with grief and shame among the beasts he had slain, longing for vengeance on his enemies before he died.
The business of the play now begins. Coming forth, Ajax in a long despairing speech laments his lot—persecuted by Athena, hated of Greeks and Trojans alike, the secret laughter of his enemies.
Where shall he go? Home to the father he has disgraced? Against Troy, leading a forlorn hope? He had already reminded Tecmessa with some sternness that silence is a woman's best grace; now she appeals to his pity. Bereft of him, she would speedily be enslaved and mocked; their son would be left defenceless; the many kindnesses she had done him cry for some return from a man of chivalrous nature, Ajax bade her be of good cheer; she must obey him in all things and first must bring his son Eurysaces. Taking him in his arms, he says:—
“If he is my true son, he will not quail at the sight of blood.
But he must speedily be broken into his father's warrior habit
and imitate his ways. My son, I pray thou mayest be happier than
thy sire, but like him otherwise, then thou shalt be no churl.
Yet herein I envy thee that thou canst not feel my agonies. Life
is sweetest in its careless years before it learns joy and pain;
but when thou art come to that, show thy father's enemies thy
nature and birth. Till then feed on the spirit of gladness,
gambol in the life of boyhood and gladden thy mother's heart.”
He reflects that his son will be safe as long as Teucer lives, whom he charges on his return to take the boy to his own father and mother to be their joy. His arms shall not be a prize to be striven for; they should be buried with him except his shield, which his son should take and keep. This ominous speech dashes the hopes which he had raised in Tecmessa's heart, even the Chorus sadly admitting that death is the best for a brainsick man, born of the highest blood, no longer true to his character.
Ajax re-enters, a sword in his hands. He feels his heart touched by Tecmessa's words and pities her helplessness. He resolves to go to the shore and there bury the accursed sword he had of Hector, which had robbed him of his peace. He will soon learn obedience to the gods and his leaders; all the powers of Nature are subject to authority, the seasons, the sea, night and sleep. He has but now learned that an enemy is to be hated as one who will love us later, while friendship will not always abide. Yet all will be well; he will go the journey he cannot avoid; soon all will hear that his evil destiny has brought him salvation. This splendid piece of tragic irony is interpreted at its surface value by the Chorus, who burst into a song of jubilation. But the words have a darker meaning; this transient joy is but the last flicker of hope before it is quenched in everlasting night.
A messenger brings the news that Teucer, Ajax' brother, on his return to the camp from a raid was nearly stoned to death as the kinsman of the army's foe. He inquires where Ajax is; hearing that he had gone out to make atonement, he knows the terror that is to come. Chalcas the seer adjured Teucer to use all means in his power to keep Ajax in his tent that day, for in it alone Athena's wrath would persecute him. She had punished him with madness for two proud utterances. On leaving his father he had boasted he would win glory in spite of Heaven, and later had bidden Athena assist the other Greeks, for the line would never break where he stood. Such was his pride, and such its punishment. Tecmessa hurries in and sends some to fetch Teucer, others to go east and west to seek out her lord. The scene rapidly changes to the shore, where Ajax cries to the gods, imprecates his foes, prays to Death, and after a remembrance of his native land falls on his sword.
The Chorus enter in two bands, but find nothing. Tecmessa discovers the body in a brake, and hides it under her robe. Distracted and haunted by the dread of slavery and ridicule, she gives way to grief. Teucer enters to learn of the tragedy; after dispatching Tecmessa to save the child while there is yet time, he reflects on his own state. Telamon his father will cast him off for being absent in his brother's hour of weakness whom he loved as his own life. Sadly he bears out the truth of Ajax utterance, that a foe's gifts are fraught with ruin; the belt that Ajax gave Hector served to tie his feet to Achilles' car—and Hector's sword was in his brother's heart.
The plot now appeals to fiercer passions. Menelaus entering commands Teucer to leave the corpse where it is, for an enemy shall receive no burial. He strikes the same note as Creon:—
“It is the mark of an ill-conditioned man that he, a commoner,
should see fit to disobey the powers that be. Law cannot prosper
in a city where there is no settled fear; where a man trembles and
is loyal, there is salvation; when he is insolent and does as he
will, his city soon or late will sink to ruin.”
Teucer answers that Ajax never was a subject, but was always an equal. He fought, not for Helen, but for his oath's sake. The dispute waxes hot; the calm dignity of Teucer easily discomfits the Spartan braggart, who departs to bring aid. Meanwhile Tecmessa returns with the child whom Teucer in a scene of consummate pathos bids kneel at his father's side, holding in his hand a triple lock of hair—Teucer's, his mother's, his own; this sacred symbol, if violated, would bring a curse on any who dared outrage him. While the Chorus sing a song full of longings for home, Agamemnon advances to the place, followed by Teucer. The King is deliberately insolent, reviling Teucer for the stain on his birth. In reply the latter in a great speech reminds him that there was a time when the flames licked the Greek ships and there was none to save them but Ajax, who had faced Hector single-handed. With kindling passion he hurls the taunt of a stained birth back on Agamemnon and plainly tells him that Ajax shall be buried and that the King will rue any attempt at violence. Odysseus comes in to hear the quarrel. He admits that he had once been the foe of the dead man, who yet had no equal in bravery except Achilles. For all that, enmity in men should end where death begins. Astonished at this defence of a foe, Agamemnon argues a little with Odysseus, who gently reminds him that one day he too will need burial. This human appeal obtains the necessary permission; Odysseus, left alone with Teucer, offers him friendship. Too much overcome by surprise and joy to say many words, Teucer accepts his friendship and the play ends with a ray of sunlight after storm and gloom.
Once more Sophocles has filled every inch of his canvas. The plot never flags and has no diminuendo after the death of Ajax. The cause of the tragedy is not plainly indicated at the outset; with a skill which is masterly, Sophocles represents in the opening scene Athena and Odysseus as beings purely odious, mocking a great man's fall. With the progress of the action these two characters recover their dignity; Athena has just cause for her anger, while Odysseus obtains for the dead his right of burial. We should notice further how the pathos of this fine play is heightened by the conception of the “one day” which brought ruin to a noble warrior. Had he been kept within his tent that one day—had this fatal day been known, the ruin need not have happened. “The pity of it", the needless waste of human life, what a theme is there for a tragedy!
The Ajax has never exercised an acknowledged influence on literature. It was a favourite with the Greeks, but modern writers have strangely overlooked it. For us it has a good lesson. Here was a hero, born in an island, who unaided saved a fleet when his allies were forced back on their trenches and beyond them to the sea. His reward was such as Wordsworth tells of:—
Alas! the gratitude of men
Has oftener left me mourning.
We remember many a long month of agony during which another island kept destruction from a fleet and saved her allies withal. In some quarters this island has received the gratitude which Ajax had; her friends asked, “What has England done in the war, anyhow?” If it befits anybody to answer, it must be England's Teucer, who has built another Salamis overseas, just as he did. Our kindred across the oceans will give us the reward of praise; for us the chastisement of Ajax may serve to reinforce the warning which is to be found on the lips of not the least of our own poets:—
“For frantic boast and foolish word
Thy mercy on Thy people, Lord.”
The Electra is Sophocles' version of the revenge of Orestes which Aeschylus described in the Choephori and is useful as affording a comparison between the methods of the two masters. An aged tutor at early dawn enters the scene with Orestes to whom he shows his father's palace and then departs with him to offer libations at the dead king's tomb. Electra with a Chorus of Argive girls comes forward, the former describing the insolent conduct of Clytemnestra who holds high revelry on the anniversary of her husband's death and curses Electra for saving Orestes. Chrysothemis, another daughter, comes out to talk with Electra; she is of a different mould, gentle and timid like Ismene, and warns Electra that in consequence of her obstinacy in revering her father's memory Aegisthus intends to shut her up in a rocky cavern as soon as he returns. She advises her to use good counsel, then departs to pour on Agamemnon's tomb some libations which Clytemnestra offers in consequence of a dream.
The Queen finds Electra ranging abroad as usual in the absence of Aegisthus. She defends the murder of her husband, but is easily refuted by Electra who points out that, if it is right to exact a life for a life, she ought to suffer death herself. Clytemnestra prays to Apollo to avert the omen of her dream, her prayer seemingly being answered immediately by the entry of the old tutor who comes to inform her of the death of Orestes, killed at Delphi in a chariot race which he brilliantly describes. Torn by her emotions, Clytemnestra can be neither glad nor sorry.
“Shall I call this happy news, or dreadful but profitable? Hapless
am I, if I save my life at the cost of my own miseries. Strong is
the tie of motherhood; no parent hates a child even if outraged by
him. Yet, now that he is gone, I shall have rest and peace from his
Hearing so circumstantial a proof of her brother's death, Electra is plunged into the depths of misery.
But soon Chrysothemis returns in a state of high excitement. She has found a lock of Orestes' hair and some offerings at the tomb. Electra quickly informs her that her elation is groundless, for their brother is dead; she suggests that they two should strike the murderers, but Chrysothemis recoils in horror from the plot. Then Orestes enters with a casket in his hand; this he gives to Electra, saying it contains the mortal remains of the dead prince. In utter hopelessness Electra takes it and soliloquises over it. Seeing her misery, Orestes cannot refrain; gently taking the casket from her he gradually reveals himself. The tutor enters and recalls him to their immediate business. Electra asks who the stranger is and learns that it is the very man to whom she gave the infant boy her brother. The three advance to the palace which Orestes enters to dispatch his mother, Electra bidding him smite with double force, wishing only that Aegisthus were with her mother.
The end of Aegisthus himself is contrived with Sophoclean art. He comes in hurriedly to find the two strangers who have proof of Orestes' death.
Electra tells him they are in the palace; they have not only told her of the dead Orestes, but have shown him to her; Aegisthus himself can see the unenviable sight; he can rejoice at it, if there is any joy in it. Exulting, he sings a note of triumph at the removal of his fears and threatens to chastise all who try henceforth to thwart his will. He dashes open the door, and there sees the Queen lying dead. Orestes bids him enter the palace, to be slain on the very spot where his father was murdered.
Fortune has been kind in preserving us this play. The great difference between the art of Sophocles and that of Aeschylus is here apparent. Only one man has ventured to paint for us Aeschylus' Clytemnestra; Leighton has revealed her, stern as Nature herself, remorseless, armed with a sword to smite first, then argue if she can find time to do so. Sophocles' Clytemnestra is a woman, lost as soon as she begins to reason out her misdeeds. She prays to Apollo in secret, for fear lest Electra may overhear her prayer and make it void. But the crudity of Aeschylus' resources did not satisfy Sophocles, whose taste demanded a contrast to heighten the character of his heroine and found one in the Homeric story that Agamemnon had a second daughter. Aeschylus' stern nature did not shrink from the sight of a meeting between mother and son; Sophocles closed the doors upon the act of vengeance, though he represents Electra as encouraging her brother from outside the palace. The Aegisthus incident maintains the interest to the end in the masterly Sophoclean style of refined and searching irony. The tone of the play is singular; from misery it at first sinks to hopelessness, then to despair, and finally it soars to triumphant joy. Such a dangerous venture was unattempted before.
The most lovable woman in Greek literature is the heroine of the next play, the Trachiniae, produced at an uncertain date. Deianeira had been won and wed by Heracles; after a brief spell of happiness she found herself left more and more alone as her husband's labours called him away from her. For fifteen months she had heard no news of him. Her nurse suggests that she should send her eldest son to Euboea to seek him out, a rumour being abroad that he has reached that island. The mother in her loneliness is comforted by a band of girls of Trachis, the scene of the action. But her uneasiness is too great to be cheered; she describes the strange curse of womanhood:—
“When it is young it groweth in a clime of its own, plagued by no
heat of the sun nor rain nor wind; in careless gaiety it builds up
its days till it is no longer maid, but wife; then in the night it
hath its meed of cares, terrified for lord or children. Only such a
one can know from the sight of her own sorrows what is my burden
But there is a deeper cause for anxiety; Heracles had said that if he did not return in fifteen months he would either die or be rid for ever of his labours; that very hour had come.
News reached her that Heracles is alive and triumphant; Lichas was coming to give fuller details. Very soon he enters with a band of captive maidens, telling how his master had been kept in slavery in Lydia; shaking off the yoke, he had sacked and destroyed the city of Eurytus who had caused his captivity, the girls were Heracles' offering of the spoils to Deianeira. Filled with pity at their lot, she looked closely at them and was attracted by one of them, a silent girl of noble countenance. Lichas when questioned denied all knowledge of her identity and departed. When he had gone, the messenger desired private speech with Deianeira. Lichas had lied; the girl was Iole, daughter of Eurytus; it was for her sake that his master destroyed the city, for he loved the maid and intended to keep her in his home to be a rival to his wife. Lichas on coming out was confronted by the messenger, and attempted to dissemble, but Deianeira appealed to him thus:—
“Nay, deceive me not. Thou shalt not speak to a woman of evil heart,
who knoweth not the ways of men, how that they by a law of their
own being delight not always in the same thing. 'Tis a fool who
standeth up to battle against Love who ruleth even gods as he will,
and me too; then why not another such as I? Therefore if I revile
my lord when taken with this plague, I am crazed indeed—or this
woman is, who hath brought me no shame or sorrow. If my lord
teacheth thee to lie, thy lesson is no good one; if thou art
schooling thyself to falsehood in a desire to be kind to me, thou
shalt prove unkind. Speak all the truth; it is an ignoble lot for a
man of honour to be called false.”
Completely won by this appeal, Lichas confesses the truth.
During the singing of a choral ode Deianeira has had time to reflect. The reward of her loyalty is to take a second place. The girl is young and her beauty is fast ripening; she herself is losing her charm. But no prudent woman should fly into a passion; happily she has a remedy, for in the first days of her wedded life Heracles had shot Nessus, a half-human monster, for insulting her. Before he died Nessus bade her steep her robe in his blood and treasure it as a certain charm for recovering his waning affection. Summoning Lichas, she gives him strict orders to take the robe to Heracles who was to allow no light of the sun or fire to fall upon it before wearing it. After a short interval, she returns in the greatest agitation; a little tuft of wool which she had anointed with the monster's blood had caught the sunlight and shrivelled up to dust. If the robe proved a means of death, she determined to slay herself rather than live in disgrace. At that moment Hyllus bursts in to describe the horrible tortures which seized Heracles when he put on the poisoned mantle; the hero commanded his son to ferry him across from Euboea to witness the curse which his mother's evil deed would bring with it. Hearing these tidings Deianeira leaves the scene without uttering a word.
The old nurse quickly rushes in from the palace to tell how Deianeira had killed herself—while Hyllus was kissing her dead mother's lips in vain self-reproach, bereft of both his parents. Heracles himself is borne in on a litter, tormented with the slow consuming poison. In agony, he prays for death; when he learns of the decease of his wife and her beguilement by Nessus into an unintentional crime, his resentment softens. In a flash of inspiration the double meaning of the oracle comes over him, his labour is indeed over. Commanding Hyllus to wed Iole he passes on his last journey to the lonely top of Oeta, to be consumed on the funeral pyre.
The Sophoclean marks are clear enough in this play—the tragic moment, the life and movement, the splendid pathos, breadth of outlook and fascination of language. Yet there is a serious fault as well, for Sophocles, like the youngest of dramatists, can strangely enough make mistakes. The entry of Heracles practically makes the play double, marring its continuity. The necessary and remorseless sequence of events which is looked for in dramatic writing is absent. This tendency to disrupt a whole into parts brilliant but unrelated is a feature of Euripides' work; it may perhaps find a readier pardon exactly because Sophocles himself is not able to avoid it always. But the greatest triumph is the character of Deianeira. It is such as one would rarely find in warm-blooded Southern peoples. She dreads that loss of her power over her husband which her waning beauty brings; she is grossly insulted in being forced to countenance a rival living in the same house after she has given her husband the best years of her life; yet she hopes on, and perhaps she would have won him back by her very gentleness. This creation of a type of almost perfect human nature is the justification of a poet's existence; it was a saying of Sophocles that he painted men as they ought to be, Euripides painted them as they are.
The rivalry of the younger poet produced its effect on another play with which Sophocles gained the first prize in 409. Philoctetes, the hero after whom it is named, had lit the funeral pyre of Heracles on Oeta and had received from him his unconquerable bow and arrows. When he went to Troy he was bitten in the foot by a serpent in Tenedos. As the wound festered and made him loathsome to the army he was left in Lemnos in the first year of the war. An oracle declared that Troy could not be taken without him and his arrows; at the end of the siege, as Achilles and Ajax were dead, Philoctetes, outraged and abandoned, became necessary to the Greeks. How could they win him over to rejoin them?
Odysseus his bitterest foe takes with him Neoptolemus, the young son of Achilles. Landing at Lemnos, they find the cave in which Philoctetes lives, see his rude bed, rough-hewn cup and rags of clothing, and lay their plot. Neoptolemus is to say that he is Achilles' son, homeward bound in anger with the Greeks for the loss of his father's arms. As he was not one of the original confederacy, Philoctetes will trust him. He is then to obtain the bow and arrows by treachery, for violence will be useless. The young man's soul rises against the idea of foul play but Odysseus bids him surrender to shamelessness for one day, to reap eternal glory. Left alone with the Chorus, composed of sailors from his ship, Neoptolemus pities the hero's deserted existence, wretched, famished and half-brutalised. He comes along towards them, creeping and crying in agony. Seeing them he inquires who they are; Neoptolemus answers as he had been bidden and wins the heart of Philoctetes who describes the misery of his life, his desertion and the unquenchable malady that feeds on him. In return Neoptolemus tells how he was beguiled to Troy by the prophecy that he should capture it after his father's death; arriving there he obtained possession of all Achilles' property except the arms, which Odysseus had won. He pretends to return to his ship, but Philoctetes implores him to set him once more in Greece. The great pathos of his appeal wins the youth's consent; they prepare to depart when a merchant enters with a sailor; from him they learn that Odysseus with Diomedes are on the way to bring Philoctetes by force or persuasion to Troy which cannot fall without his aid. The mere mention of Odysseus' name fills Philoctetes with anger and he retires to the cave, taking Neoptolemus with him.
When they reappear, a violent attack of the malady prostrates Philoctetes who gives his bow to Neoptolemus, praying him to burn him and put an end to his agony. Noticing a strange silence in the youth, suspicions seem to be aroused in him, but when he falls into a slumber the Chorus takes a decided part in the action, advising the youth to fly with the bow and to talk in a whisper for fear of waking the sleeper. The latter unexpectedly starts out of slumber, again begging to be taken on board. Again Neoptolemus' heart smites him at the villainy he is about to commit; he reveals that his real objective is Troy. Betrayed and defenceless, Philoctetes appeals to Heaven, to the wild things, to Neoptolemus' better self to restore the bow which is his one means of procuring him food. A profound pity overcomes Neoptolemus, who is in the act of returning the weapon when Odysseus appears. Seeing him Philoctetes knows he is undone. Odysseus invites him to come to Troy of his own freewill, but is met with a curse; as he refuses to rejoin the Greeks, Odysseus and Neoptolemus depart bearing with them the bow for Teucer to use.
Left without that which brought him his daily food Philoctetes bursts out into a wild lyric dialogue with the Chorus. They advise him to make terms with Odysseus, but he bids them begone. When they obey, he recalls them to ask one little boon, a sword. At this moment Neoptolemus runs in, Odysseus close behind him. He has come to restore the bow he got by treachery. A violent quarrel ends in the temporary retirement of Odysseus. Advancing to Philoctetes, Neoptolemus gives him his property; Philoctetes takes it and is barely restrained from shooting at Odysseus who appears for a moment, only to take refuge in flight. Neoptolemus then tells him the whole truth about the prophecy, promising him great glory if he will go back to Troy which can fall only through him. In vain Neoptolemus assures him of a perfect cure; nothing will satisfy the broken man but a full redemption of the promise he had to be landed once more in Greece. When Neoptolemus tells him that such action will earn him the hatred of the Greeks, Philoctetes promises him the succour of his unerring shafts in a conflict.
The action has thus reached a deadlock. The problem is solved by the sudden appearance of the deified Heracles. He commands his old friend to go to Troy which he is to sack, and return home in peace. His lot is inseparably connected with that of Neoptolemus and a cure is promised him at the hands of Asclepius. This assurance overcomes his obstinacy; he leaves Lemnos in obedience to the will of Heaven.
Such is the work of an old dramatist well over eighty years old. It is exciting, vigorous, pathetic and everywhere dignified. The characters of the old hero and the young warrior are masterly. The Chorus takes an integral part in the action—its whisperings to Neoptolemus remind the reader of the evil suggestions of which Satan breathed into Eve's equally guileless ears in Paradise Lost. But the most remarkable feature of the piece is its close resemblance to the new type of drama which Euripides had popularised. The miserable life of Philoctetes, his rags, destitution and sickness are a parallel to the Euripidean Telephus; most of all, the appearance of a god at the end to untie the knot is genuine Euripides. But there is a great difference; of the disjointed actions which disfigure later tragedy and are not absent from Sophocles' own earlier work there is not a trace. The odes are relevant, the Chorus is indispensable; in short, Sophocles has shown Euripides that he can beat him even on his own terms. Melodramatic the play may be, but it wins for its author our affection by the sheer beauty of a boyish nature as noble as Deianeira's; the return of Neoptolemus upon his own baseness is one of the many compliments Sophocles has paid to our human kind.
Many years previously Sophocles had written his masterpiece, the Oedipus Tyrannus. It cannot easily be treated separately from its sequel. A mysterious plague had broken out in Thebes; Creon had been sent to Delphi by Oedipus to learn the cause of the disaster. Apollo bade the Thebans cast out the murderer of the last King Laius, who was still lurking in Theban territory. Oedipus on inquiry learns that there are several murderers, but only one of Laius' attendants escaped alive. In discovering the culprit Oedipus promises the sternest vengeance on his nearest friends, nay, on his own kin, if necessary. After a prayer from the Chorus of elders he repeats his determination even more emphatically, invoking a curse on the assassin in language of a terrible double meaning, for in every word he utters he unconsciously pronounces his own doom. With commendable foresight he had summoned the old seer Teiresias, but the seer for some reason is unwilling to appear. When at last he confronts the King, he craves permission to depart with his secret unsaid. Oedipus at once flies into a towering passion, finally accusing him without any justification of accepting bribes from Creon. With equal heat Teiresias more and more clearly indicates in every speech the real murderer, though his words are dark to him who could read the Sphinx's riddle.
The Chorus break out into an ode full of uneasy surmises as to the identity of the culprit. When Creon enters, Oedipus flies at him in headlong passion accusing him of bribery, disloyalty and eventually of murder. With great dignity he clears himself, warning the King of the pains which hasty temper brings upon itself. Their quarrel brings out Jocasta, the Queen and sister of Creon, who succeeds in settling the unseemly strife. She bids Oedipus take no notice of oracles; one such had declared that Laius would be slain by his own son, who would marry her, his mother. The oracle was false, for Laius had died at the hands of robbers in a place where three roads met. Aghast at hearing this, Oedipus inquires the exact scene of the murder, the time when it was committed, the actual appearance of Laius. Jocasta supplies the details, adding that the one survivor had implored her after Oedipus became King to live as far away as possible from the city. Oedipus commands him to be sent for and tells his life story. He was the reputed son of Polybus and Merope, rulers of Corinth. One day at a wine-party a man insinuated that he was not really the son of the royal pair. Stung by the taunt he went to Delphi, where he was warned that he should kill his father and marry his mother. He therefore fled away from Corinth towards Thebes. On the road he was insulted by an old man in a chariot who thrust him rudely from his path; in anger he smote the man at the place where three ways met. If then this man was Laius, he had imprecated a curse on himself; his one hope is the solitary survivor whom he had sent for; perhaps more than one man had killed Laius after all.
An ominous ode about destiny and its workings is followed by the entry of the Queen who describes the mad terrors of Oedipus. She is come to pray to Apollo to solve their troubles. At that moment a messenger enters from Corinth with the tidings that Polybus is dead. In eager joy Jocasta summons Oedipus, sneering at the truth of oracles. The King on his appearance echoes her words after hearing the tidings-only to sink back again into gloomy despondency. What of Merope, is she also dead? The messenger assures him that his anxiety about her is groundless, for there is no relationship between them. Little by little he tells Oedipus his true history. The messenger himself found him on Cithaeron in his infancy, his feet pierced through. He had him from a shepherd, a servant of Laius, the very man whom Oedipus had summoned. Suddenly turning to Jocasta, the King asks her if she knows the man. Appalled at the horror of the truth which she knows cannot be concealed much longer she affects indifference and beseeches him search no further. When he obstinately refuses, bidding the man be brought at once, she leaves the stage with the cry:
“Alack, thou unhappy one; that is all I may call thee and never
address thee again.”
Oedipus by a masterstroke of art is made to imagine that she has departed in shame, fearing he may be proved the son of a slave.
“But I account myself the son of Fortune, who will never bring me
to dishonour; my brethren are the months, who marked me out for
lowliness and for power. Such being my birth, I shall never prove
false to it and faint in finding out who I am.”
The awful power of this astonishing scene is manifest.
The bright joyousness of the King's impulsive speech prepares the way for the coming horror. When the shepherd appears, the messenger faces him claiming his acquaintance. The shepherd doggedly attempts to deny all knowledge of him, cursing him for his mad talkativeness. Oedipus threatens torture to open his lips. Line by line the truth is dragged from him; the abandoned child came from another—from a creature of Laius—was said to be his son—was given him by Jocasta—to be destroyed because of an oracle—why then passed over to the Corinthian messenger?—“through pity, and he saved the child alive, for a mighty misery. If thou art that child, know that thou art born a hapless man”.
When the King rushes madly into the palace, the Chorus sings of his departed glory. The horrors increase with the appearance of a messenger from within, who tells how Oedipus dashed into Jocasta's apartment to find her hanging in suicide; then he blinded himself on that day of mourning, ruin, death and shame. He comes out a little later, an object of utter compassion. How can he have rest on earth? How face his murdered father in death? The memories of Polybus and Merope come upon him, then the years of unnatural wedlock. Creon, whom he has wantonly insulted, comes not to mock at him, but to take him into the palace where neither land nor rain nor light may know him. Oedipus begs him to let him live on Cithaeron, beseeching him to look after his two daughters whose birth is so stained that no man can ever wed them. Creon gently takes him within, to be kept there till the will of the gods is known. The end is a sob of pity for the tragic downfall of the famous man who solved the Sphinx' enigma.
No man can ever do justice to this masterpiece. It is so constructed that every detail leads up inevitably to the climax. Slowly, and playing upon all the deepest human emotions, anxiety, hope, gloom, terror and horror, Sophocles works on us as no man had ever done before. It is a sin against him to be content with a mere outline of the play; the words he has chosen are significant beyond description. Again and again they fascinate the reader and always leave him with the feeling that there are still depths of thought left unsounded. The casual mention of the shepherd at the beginning of the play is the first stroke of perfect art; Jocasta's disbelief in oracles is the next; then follows the contrast between the Queen's real motive for leaving and the reason assigned to it by her son; finally, the shepherd in torture is forced to tell the secret which plunges the torturer to his ruin. Where is the like of this in literature? To us it is heart-searching enough. What was it to the Greeks who were familiar with the plot before they entered the theatre? When they who knew the inevitable end watched the King trace out his own ruin in utter ignorance, their feelings cannot have remained silent; they must have found relief in sobbing or crying aloud.
The fault in Oedipus is his ungovernable temper. It is firmly drawn in the play; he is equally unrestrained in anger, despair and hope. He is the typical instance of the lack of good counsel which we have seen was to Sophocles the prime source of a tragedy. Indeed, only a headlong man would hastily marry a widowed queen after he had committed a murder which fulfilled one half of a terrible oracle. He should have first inquired into the history of the Theban royal house. Imagining that the further he was fleeing from Corinth the more certain he was to make his doom impossible of fulfilment, he inevitably drew nearer to it. This is our human lot; we cannot see and we misinterpret warnings; how shall not weaker men tremble for themselves when Oedipus' wisdom could not save him from evil counsel?
In 405 Sophocles showed in his last play how Oedipus passed from earth in the poet's own birthplace, Colonus. Oedipus enters with Antigone, and on inquiry from a stranger finds that he is on the demesne of the Eumenides. At once he sends to Theseus, King of Athens, and refuses to move from the spot, for there he is fated to find his rest. A Chorus from Colonus comes to find out who the suppliant is. When they hear the name of Oedipus they are horror-struck and wish to thrust him out. After much persuasion they consent to wait till Theseus arrives. Presently Ismene comes with the news that Eteocles has dispossessed his elder brother Polyneices; further, an oracle from Delphi declares that Oedipus is all-important to Thebes in life and after death. His sons know this oracle and Creon is coming to force him back. Declaring he will do nothing for the sons who abandoned him, Oedipus obstinately refuses his city any blessing. He sends Ismene to offer a sacrifice to the Eumenides; in her absence Theseus enters, offers him protection and asks why he has come. Oedipus replies that he has a secret to reveal which is of great importance to Athens; at present there is peace between her and Thebes:
“but in the gods alone is no age or death; all else Time confounds,
mastering everything. Strength of the Earth and of the body wastes,
trust dies, disloyalty grows, the same spirit never stands firm
among friends or allies. To some men early, to others late,
pleasures become bitter and then again sweet.”
The secret Oedipus will impart at the proper time. The need for protection soon comes. Creon attempts to persuade Oedipus to return to Thebes but is met by a curse, whereupon the Theban guards lay hold of Antigone—they had already seized Ismene—and menace Oedipus himself. Theseus hearing the alarm rushes back, reproaches Creon for his insolence and quickly returns with the two girls. He has strange news to tell; another Theban is a suppliant at the altar of Poseidon close by, craving speech with Oedipus. It is Polyneices, whom Antigone persuades her father to interview. The youth enters, ashamed of his neglect of his father, and begs a blessing on the army he has mustered against Thebes. He is met by a terrible curse which Oedipus invokes on both his sons. In despair Polyneices goes away to his doom.
“For me, my path shall be one of care, disaster and sorrows sent me
by my sire and his guardian angels; but, my sisters, be yours a
happy road, and when I am dead fulfil my heart's desire, for while
I live you may never perform it.”
A thunderstorm is heard approaching; the Chorus are terrified at its intensity, but Oedipus eagerly dispatches a messenger for Theseus. When the King arrives he hears the secret; Oedipus' grave would be the eternal protection of Attica, but no man must know its site save Theseus who has to tell it to his heir alone, and he to his son, and so onwards for ever. The proof of Oedipus' word would be a miracle which soon would transform him back to his full strength. Presently he arises, endued with a mysterious sight, beckoning the others to follow him. The play concludes with a magnificent description of his translation. A voice from Heaven called him, chiding him for tarrying; commending his daughters to the care of Theseus, he greeted the earth and heaven in prayer and then without pain or sorrow passed away. On reappearing Theseus promised to convey the sisters back to Thebes and to stop the threatened fratricidal strife.
The Oedipus Coloneus, like the Philoctetes, the other play of Sophocles' old age, closes in peace. The old fiery passions still burn fiercely in Oedipus, as they did in Lear; yet both were “every inch a king” and “more sinned against than sinning”. Oedipus' miraculous return to strength before he departs is curiously like the famous end of Colonel Newcome. There are subtle but unmistakable marks of the Euripidean influence on this drama; such are the belief that Theban worthies would protect Athens, the Theseus tradition, and the recovery of worn-out strength. These features will meet us in the next chapter. But it is again noteworthy that Sophocles has added those touches which distinguish his own firm and delicate handiwork. There is nothing of melodrama, nothing inconsequent, nothing exaggerated. It is the dramatist's preparation for his own end. Shakespeare put his valediction into the mouth of Prospero; Sophocles entrusted his to his greatest creation Oedipus. Like him, he was fain to depart, for the gods called. Our last sight of him is of one beckoning us to follow him to the place where calm is to be found; to find it we must use not the eyes of the body, but the inward illumination vouchsafed by Heaven.
To the Athenians of the Periclean age Sophocles was the incarnation of their dramatic ideal. His language is a delight and a despair. It tantalises; it suggests other meanings besides its plain and surface significance. This riddling quality is the daemonic element which he possessed in common with Plato; because of it these two are the masters of a refined and subtle irony, a source of the keenest pleasure. His plots reveal a vivid sense of the exact moment which will yield the intensest tragic effects—only on one particular day could Ajax die or Electra be saved. Accordingly, Sophocles very often begins his play with early dawn, in order to fill the few all-important hours with the greatest possible amount of action. He has put the maximum of movement into his work, only the presence ofthe Chorus and the conventional messengers (two features imposed on him by the law of the Attic theatre) making the action halt.
But it is in the sum-total of his art that his greatness lies; the sense of a whole is its controlling factor; details are important, indeed, he took the utmost pains to see that they were necessary and convincing—yet they were details, subordinate, closely related, not irrelevant nor disproportionate. This instinct for a definite plan first is the essence of the classical spirit; exuberance is rigorously repressed, symmetry and balance are the first, last and only aim. To some judges Sophocles is like a Greek temple, splendid but a little chilly; they miss the soaring ambition of Aeschylus or the more direct emotional appeal of Euripides. Yet it is a cardinal error to imagine that Sophocles is passionless; his life was not, neither are his characters. Like the lava of a recent eruption, they may seem ashen on the surface, but there is fire underneath; it betrays itself through the cracks which appear when their substance is violently disturbed.
They, much enforced, show a hasty spark
And straight are cold again.
Repression, avoidance of extremes, dignity under provocation are the marks of the gentle Sophoclean type and it is a very high type indeed.
For we have in him the very fountain of the whole classical tradition in drama. Sophocles is something far more important than a mere influence; he is an ideal, and as such is indestructible. To ask the names of writers who came most under his “influence” is as sensible as to ask the names of the sculptors who most faithfully followed the Greek tradition of statuary. He is Classical tragedy. The main body of Spanish and English drama is romantic, the Sophoclean ideal is that of the small but powerful body of University men in Elizabeth's time headed by Ben Jonson, of the typically French school of dramatists, of Moratin, Lessing, Goethe, of the exponents of the Greek creed in nineteenth-century England, notably Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater, and of Robert Bridges. To this school the cultivation of emotional expression is suspicious, if not dangerous; it leads to eccentricity, to the revelation of feelings which frequently are not worth experiencing, to sentimental flabbiness, to riot and extravagance. Perhaps in dread of the ridiculous the Classical school represses itself too far, creating characters of marble instead of flesh. These creations are at least worth looking at and bring no shame; they are better than the spectral psychological studies which many dramatists, now dead or dying, have bidden us believe are real men and women.
Jebb (Cambridge). This is by far the best; it renders with success the delicacy of the original.
Storr (Loeb Series).
Verse translations by Whitelaw and Campbell.
See Symonds' Greek Poets, and Norwood Greek Tragedy, as above.