A History of Ancient Greek Literature/Chapter 12
Euripides, son of Mnesarchides or Mnesarchus,
from Phlya (ca. 480–406 B.C.)
We possess eighteen plays from the hand of Euripides, as against seven each from the other two tragedians; and we have more material for knowledge about him than about any other Greek poet, yet he remains, perhaps, the most problematic figure in ancient literature. He was essentially representative of his age, yet apparently in hostility to it; almost a failure on the stage—he won only four first prizes in fifty years of production—yet far the most celebrated poet in Greece. His contemporary public denounced him as dull, because he tortured them with personal problems; as malignant, because he made them see truths they wished not to see; as blasphemous and foul-minded, because he made demands on their religious and spiritual natures which they could neither satisfy nor overlook. They did not know whether he was too wildly imaginative or too realistic, too romantic or too prosaic, too childishly simple or too philosophical—Aristophanes says he was all these things at once. They only knew that he made them angry and that they could not help listening to him. Doubtless they realised that he had little sense of humour and made a good butt; and perhaps, on the other hand, they felt that he really was what they called him in mockery, 'wise.' At any rate, after the great disaster of Syracuse he was the man they came to, to write the epitaph on the hopes of Athens.
The tradition, so gentle to Sophocles, raves against Euripides. "He was a morose cynic, privately vicious for all his severe exterior." "He did not write his plays; they were done by his slaves and casual acquaintances." "His father was a fraudulent bankrupt; his mother a greengroceress, and her greens bad. His wife was called Choirilê ('Sow'), and acted up to her name; he divorced her, and his second wife was no better." It delights in passages between the two tragedians in which the poverty-stricken misanthrope is crushed by the good Sophocles, who took to his cups and their bearers like a man, and did not profess to be better than his neighbours.
A few of these stories can be disproved ; some are grossly improbable; most are merely unsupported by evidence. It can be made out that the poet's father, Mnesarchides, was of an old middle-class family owning land and holding an hereditary office in the local Apollo-worship at Phlya. His mother, Kleito the 'greengroceress,' was of noble family. Our evidence suggests that her relation towards her son was one of exceptional intimacy and influence; and motherly love, certainly forms a strong element in his dramas. Of Euripides's wife we only know that her name was not Choirilê, but Melitê, and that Aristophanes in 411 could find no ill to say of her. Of his three sons, we hear that Mnesarchus was a merchant, Mnesilochus an actor, Euripides apparently a professional playwright; he brought out the Iphigenîa, Bacchæ, and Alcmeon* after his father's death. The poet lived, so Philochorus says, on his own estate at Salamis, and worked in a cave facing the sea, which was shown to tourists down to Pliny's time. He avoided society and public life—as much, that is, as an Athenian of that day could avoid them. He served in the army. He had at least once to perform a 'liturgy' of some sort, perhaps fitting out a trireme; he was a 'Proxenus' of Magnesia, an office which resembled that of a modern consul, and involved some real political work. These expensive posts must have come to him early in his life; he was reduced to poverty, like all the landed proprietors, towards the end of the war. For the rest, he was the first Greek who collected a library, the writer and thinker, not the man of affairs.
At one time, indeed, we find him taking at least an indirect part in politics. About 420, at the end of the Ten Years' War, he wrote a play with a definite 'tendency.' The Suppliants not only advocates peace with Sparta—that was the case with the Cresphontes* and the Erechtheus* as well—it also advocates alliance with Argos, and proclaims the need in Athens of "a general young and noble." "A general young and noble" was at that moment coming to the front, and especially pressing forward the Argive alliance—Alcibiades. Next year he was appearing at Olympia with that train of four-horse chariots which made such a noise in Greece, and winning the Olympian victory for which Euripides wrote a Pindaric ode. This lets us see that the philosophic poet, like Socrates and most other people, had his period of Alcibiades-worship. We do not know how long it lasted. Euripides was for peace, and Alcibiades for war; and by the time of the Sicilian Expedition, it would seem, Euripides had lost faith in the 'dæmonic' leader. The Trôiades (415 B.C. ?) starts by describing a great fleet sailing triumphantly to sea, unconscious of the shadow of blood-guiltiness that rests upon it, and the gods who plot its destruction as it goes.
The plays from this time on, all through the last agony of the war, are written in fever, and throw a strong though distorting light on the character of the man behind them. His innermost impulses betray themselves at the expense of his art, and he seems to be bent on lacerating his own ideals. Patriotism, for instance, had always been a strong feeling in Euripides. In 427 we had the joyous self-confident patriotism of the Heracleidæ, the spirit of a younger Pericles. Earlier still there had been the mere sentimental patriotism of the Hippolytus (428 B.C.) Later came the Erechtheus,* Theseus,* Suppliants (421 B.C.). But in the last plays the spirit has changed. Dying Athens is not mentioned, but her death-struggle and her sins are constantly haunting us; the joy of battle is mostly gone, the horror of war is left. Well might old Æschylus pray, "God grant I may sack no city!" if the reality of conquest is what it appears in the later plays of Euripides. The conquerors there are as miserable as the conquered; only more cunning, and perhaps more wicked.
Another motive which was always present in him, and now becomes predominant, is a certain mistrust of the state and all its ways—the doctrine explicitly preached to the present generation by Tolstoi. The curse of life is its political and social complication. The free individual may do great wrongs, but he has a heart somewhere; it is only the servant of his country, the tool of the 'compact majority,' who cannot afford one. Odysseus in the Trôiades and Palamêdes* (415 B.C.) has got beyond even the Odysseus of the Hecuba (424 ?), where the type is first sketched clearly. He is not personally blood-thirsty, but he is obliged to put the interest of the Achaioi before everything. The most disagreeable consequences are to be apprehended if he does not lie, murder, and betray! It is the same with Menelaus in the Orestes, and, above all, with Agamemnon in the Iphigenîa in Aulis. They are so placed that ordinary social considerations seem to make justice and honour impossible.
Another note which marks the last years of the war is a tendency to dwell on the extreme possibilities of revenge. It was an old theme of Euripides—the Medea had taught it in 431—but he now saw all about him instances of the rule that by wronging people beyond a certain point you make them into devils. It is this motive which gives unity to the Hecuba, the gradual absorption of the queen's whole nature into one infinite thirst for vengeance; which answers the scholiast's complaint about the Orestes, that "everybody in it is bad." Another deepening sentiment in Euripides is his aversion to the old tales that call themselves heroic. His Electra was enough to degrade for ever the blood-feud of the Atridæ. Read after it what any other poet says on the subject, Sophocles or Æschylus or Homer, and the conviction forces itself upon you: "It was not like this; it was just what Euripides says it was. And a δολοφονία, a 'craft-murder,' is not a beautiful thing after all."
It is at this last period of his life at Athens that we really have in some part the Euripides of the legend—the man at variance with his kind, utterly sceptical, but opposed to most of the philosophers, contemptuous of the rich, furious against the extreme democracy, hating all the ways of men, commanding attention by sheer force of brain-power. He was baited incessantly by a rabble of comic writers, and of course by the great pack of the orthodox and the vulgar. He was beaten. After producing the Orestes in 408, he left Athens for the court of Archelaus of Macedon. We hear that he went "because of the malicious exultation of almost everybody," though we have no knowledge of what the exultation was grounded on. In Macedon he found peace, and probably some congenial society. Agathon the tragedian and Timotheus the musician were there, both old friends of his, and the painter Zeuxis, and probably Thucydides. Doubtless the barbarism underneath the smooth surface of the Macedonian court, must sometimes have let itself appear. The story of Euripides being killed by the king's hounds is disproved by the silence of Aristophanes; but it must have produced a curious effect on the Athenian when one of the courtiers, who had addressed him rudely, was promptly delivered up to him to be scourged! He died about eighteen months after reaching Macedon; but the peace and comfort of his new surroundings had already left their mark upon his work. There is a singular freshness and beauty in the two plays, Bacchcæ and Iphigenîa in Aulis, which he left unfinished at his death; and the former at any rate has traces of Macedonian scenery (565 ff.). Of the Archelaus,* which he wrote in his host's honour, but few fragments survive.
Not that in the last period of Euripides's work at Athens his gloom is unmixed. There is nothing that better illustrates the man's character than the bright patches in these latest plays, and the particular forms taken by his still-surviving ideals. In his contempt for society and statecraft, his iconoclastic spirit towards the all-admired Homeric demi-gods, his sympathy with the dumb and uninterpreted generally, he finds his heroism in quiet beings uncontaminated by the world. The hero of the Electra is the Working Peasant, true-hearted, honourable, tactful, and of course as humbly conscious of his inferiority to all the savage chieftains about him as they are confident of their superiority to him. But, above all, Euripides retains his old belief in the infinite possibilities of the untried girl. To take only the complete plays, we have a virgin-martyr for heroine in the Heracleidæ, Hecuba, Iphigenîa in Aulis; we have echoes of her in the Trôiades and the Suppliants. She is always a real character and always different. One pole perhaps is in the Trôiades, where the power to see something beyond this coil of trouble, the second sight of a pure spirit, gets its climax in Cassandra. The other, the more human side, comes out in the Iphigenîa. The young girl, when she first finds that she has been trapped to her death, breaks down, and pleads helplessly, like a child, not to be hurt; then when the first blinding shock is past, when she has communed with herself, when she finds that Achilles is ready to fight and die for her, she rises to the height of glad martyrdom for Hellas' sake. The life of one Achilles is worth that of a thousand mere women, such as she! That is her feeling at the moment when she has risen incomparably beyond every one in the play and made even her own vain young hero humble. Aristotle—such are the pitfalls in the way of human critics—takes her as a type of inconsistency!
An element of brightness comes also in the purely romantic plays of the last years, the Helena and Andromeda.* One is reminded of the Birds (p. 286). Euripides can be happy if he turns entirely away from πράγματα, from affaires, from the things that weighed on all Athens. The Helena is a light play with a clear atmosphere and beautiful songs; Helen and Menelaus are both innocent. The Andromeda* was apparently the one simple unclouded love-story that Euripides wrote. It was very celebrated. Lucian has a pleasant story of the tragedy-fever which fell upon the people of Abdêra: how they went about declaiming iambics, "and especially sang the solos in the Andromeda and went through the great speech of Perseus, one after another, till the city was full of seven-day-old tragedians, pale and haggard, crying aloud, 'O Love, high monarch over gods and men,' and so on." The Andromeda* opened (without a prologue?) giving the heroine chained on the cliff, and watching for the first glimmer of dawn with the words, "O holy Night, how long is the wheeling of thy chariot!" Some little fragments help us to see the romantic beauty of the play as a whole: the appeal of the chorus to the echo of the sea-cliffs "by Aidôs that dwelleth in caves"; and the words of Andromeda to her lover and deliverer:
"Take me, O stranger, for thine handmaiden,
Or wife or slave."
The love-note in this pure and happy sense Euripides had never struck before; and the note of superhuman mystery, of sea-cliff and monsters and magic, not since the Phaëthon.*
This, of course, is the Euripides of the end of the war, when his antagonisms had become more pronounced. But from his first appearance in 455 with the Daughters of Pelias,* the man must have impressed people as unlike anything they had known before. He showed himself at once as the poet of the Sophistic Movement, of the Enlightenment; as the apostle of clearness of expression, who states everything that he has to say explicitly and without bombast. His language was so much admired in the generations after his death that it is spoilt for us. It strikes us as hackneyed and undistinguished, because we are familiar with all the commonplace fellows who imitated it, from Isocrates to Theodore Prodromus. He probably showed even in the Daughters of Pelias* his power to see poetry everywhere. His philosophical bent was certainly foreshadowed in lines like "in God there is no injustice" (frag. 606); his quick sympathy with passion of every sort, in the choice of the woman Medea for his chief figure.
But the most typical of the early plays, and the one which most impressed his contemporaries, was the Têlephus* (438 B.C.). It has a great number of the late characteristics in a half-developed state, overlaid with a certain externality and youthfulness. It is worth while to keep the Têlephus* constantly in view in tracing the gradual progress of Euripides's character and method. The wounded king of Mysia knows that nothing but the spear of Achilles, which wounded him, can cure him; the Greeks are all his enemies; he travels through Greece, lame from his wound, and disguised as a beggar; speaks in the gathering of hostile generals, is struck for his insolence, but carries his point; finally, he is admitted as a suppliant by Clytæmestra, snatches up the baby Orestes, reveals himself, threatens to dash out the baby's brains if any of the enemies who surround him move a step, makes his terms, and is healed. The extraordinarily cool and resourceful hero—he recalls those whom we meet in Hugo and Dumas—was new to the stage, and fascinating. There was originality, too, in his treatment of 'anagnôrisis ' or 'recognition' as a dramatic climax—the overturning of a situation by the discovery who some person really is—the revelation, in this case, that the lame beggar is Têlephus. This favourite Euripidean effect had become by Aristotle's time a common and even normal way of bringing on the catastrophe. Of our extant plays, the Ion, Electra, Helena, Iphigenîa in Tauris contain 'recognitions.' A celebrated instance among the lost plays was in the Cresphontes.* That hero, son of the murdered king of Messenia, had escaped from the usurper Polyphontes, and was being reared in secret. His mother, Meropê, was in the tyrant's power. He comes back to save her, gains access to Polyphontes by pretending that he has slain Cresphontes, and asks for a reward. Meropê hears that a stranger is in the house claiming a reward for having murdered her son. She sends quickly to her son's refuge and finds that he has disappeared. In despair she takes an axe and goes to where the boy sleeps. At the last instant, while she is just speaking the words, "Infernal Hades, this is mine offering to thee," her husband's old slave, who holds the light for her, recognises the youth, and rushes in to intercept the blow. Even in Plutarch's time this stage effect had not lost its power.
Apart from the technical 'recognition,' the Têlephus* gave the first sign of a movement towards melodramatic situations, the tendency which culminates in the Orestes. That play opens some days after the slaying of Clytæmestra and Aigisthus. Orestes and Electra are besieged in the castle by the populace, and the Assembly is at the moment discussing their doom. Orestes is ill and mad; Electra wasted with watching and nursing. If she saves him, the two will probably be stoned. News comes of safety. Menelaus, their father's brother, has sailed into the harbour with Helen. Helen comes to the castle, and Menelaus's veterans guard the entrances. Orestes gradually recovers his mind; it seems as if he and his sister were saved. But Menelaus is the natural heir to the kingdom after Orestes; and he has always disapproved of deeds of violence; he will not thwart the will of the people; and cannot offend his father-in-law Tyndareus, who claims vengeance for Clytæmestra. In short, he means to let the brother and sister be stoned. Scenes of vivid contrast and strain succeed one another, till the two see that all is lost. The blood-madness comes on Orestes. He gets possession of his sword and turns upon Helen and Hermione. To take one touch from many: to escape stoning, Electra and Orestes are resolved to die. She begs him to kill her. He turns from her: "My mother's blood is enough. I will not kill thee. Die as best thou mayest."
The Têlephus* was in these several respects the typical play of Euripides's early period, but it strikes one as a young play. The realism, for instance, was probably not of the subtle type we find in the Electra. The great mark of it was the disguised beggar's costume, which threw stage convention to the winds. In the Acharnians of Aristophanes the hero has to make a speech for his life, and applies to Euripides for some 'tragic rags' which will move the compassion of his hearers. He knows just the rags that will suit him, but cannot remember the name of the man who wore them. "The old unhappy Oineus appeared in rags," says Euripides. "It was not Oineus; some one much wretcheder." "The blind Phœnix perhaps?" "Oh, much, much wretcheder than Phœnix!" "Possibly you mean Philoctêtes the beggarman?" "No, a far worse beggar than Philoctêtes." "The cripple Bellerophon?" "No, not Bellerophon; though my man was a cripple too, and a beggar and a great speaker." "I know; Têlephus of Mysia!—Boy, fetch Têlephus's beggar-clothes; they are just above Thyestes's rags, between them and Ino's."
It is difficult, too, to make out any subtlety or delicacy of situation in the Têlephus,* such as we have ten years after, for instance, in the Hippolytus (ll. 900–1100), when Hippolytus returns to find his father standing over Phædra's body, and reading the tablet which contains her accusation against him. He does not know the contents of the tablet, but he can guess well enough why Phædra died. He is inevitably unnatural in manner, and his constraint inevitably looks like guilt. That is one subtlety; and there is another a moment afterwards, where Hippolytus is on his defence, and has sworn not to tell the one thing that will save him. His speeches get lamer and more difficult. At least twice it seems as if he is at the point of giving way—why should he not? The oath was forced from him by a trick, and he had rejected it at the time: "My tongue hath sworn; there is no bond upon my heart." Nevertheless he keeps silence, as he promised; appeals desperately to the gods, and goes forth convicted.
There is another subtlety of Euripidean technique in the Hippolytus, and one which is generally misunderstood. The main difficulty to the playwright is to carry the audience with Phædra on the wave of passion which leads to her murderous slander. It can only be done at the expense of Hippolytus, and it is hard to make a true and generous man do right and be odious for doing so. The long speech of Hippolytus (ll. 616 ff.) manages it. At his exit the spectator is for the moment furious, and goes whole-heartedly with Phædra.
It was in 431, before the Hippolytus, but seven years after the Têlephus,* that Euripides first dealt with the motive of baffled or tragic love, which he afterwards made peculiarly his own. The Medea is, perhaps, the most artistically flawless of his plays; though, oddly enough, it was a failure when first acted. The barbarian princess has been brought from her home by Jason, and then deserted, that he may marry the daughter of the king of Corinth. She feigns resignation; sends to the bride "a gift more beautiful than any now among men, which has come from the fiery palaces of her ancestor the sun." It is really a robe of burning poison. The bride dies in torture. Medea murders her children for the sake of the pain it will be to their father, and flies.
This is the beginning of the wonderful women-studies by which Euripides dazzled and aggrieved his contemporaries. They called him a hater of women; and Aristophanes makes the women of Athens conspire for revenge against him (see p. 288). Of course he was really the reverse. He loved and studied and expressed the women whom the Socratics ignored and Pericles advised to stay in their rooms. Crime, however, is always more striking and palpable than virtue. Heroines like Medea, Phædra, Stheneboia, Aërope, Clytæmestra, perhaps fill the imagination more than those of the angelic or devoted type—Alcestis, who died to save her husband, Evadne and Laodamia, who could not survive theirs, and all the great list of virgin-martyrs. But the significant fact is that, like Ibsen, Euripides refuses to idealise any man, and does idealise women. There is one youth-martyr, Menoikeus in the Phœnissæ, but his martyrdom is a masculine business-like performance—he gets rid of his prosaic father by a pretext about travelling-money (ll. 990 ff.)—without that shimmer of loveliness that hangs over the virgins. And again, Euripides will not allow us to dislike even his worst women. No one can help siding with Medea; and many of us love Phædra—even when she has lied an innocent man's life away.
It is a step from this championship of women to the other thing that roused fury against Euripides—his interest in the sex question in all its forms. There are plays based on questions of marriage-breaking, like the Hippolytus and Stheneboia*—in which the heroine acted to Bellerophon as Potiphar's wife to Joseph. There was one, the Chrysippus,* in condemnation of that relation between men and boys which the age regarded as a peccadillo, and which Euripides only allowed to the Cyclops. There was another, the Æolus,* which made a problem out of the old innocent myth of the Wind-god with his twelve sons and twelve daughters married together and living in the isle of the Winds. It is Macareus in this play who makes the famous plea: "What thing is shameful if a man's heart feels it no shame?" But more important than the special dramas is the constant endeavour of this poet to bring his experiences into relation with those of people whom he is trying to understand, especially those of the two silent classes, women and slaves. In the sweat of battle, perhaps when he was wounded, he had said to himself, "This must be like child-bearing, but not half so bad!" No wonder the general public did not know what to do with him! And how were they to stand the man who was so severe on the pleasures of the world, and yet did not mind his heroes being bastards? Nay, he made the priestess Augê, whose vow of virginity had been violated, and who was addressed in terms of appropriate horror by the virgin goddess Athena, answer her blasphemously:
"Arms black with rotted blood
And dead men's wreckage are not foul to thee—
Nay, these thou lovest: only Augê's babe
Frights thee with shame!"
And so with slavery: quite apart from such plays as the Archelaus* and Alexander,* which seem to have dealt specially with it, one feels that Euripides's thought was constantly occupied with the fact that certain people serve and belong to certain others, and are by no means always inferior to them.
Towards religion his attitude is hard to define. Dr. Verrall entitles his keen-sighted study of this subject, Euripides the Rationalist; and it is clear that the plays abound in marks of hostility towards the authoritative polytheism of Delphi, and even to the beliefs of the average Athenian. And further, it is quite true that in the generation which condemned Protagoras and Socrates, and went mad about the Hermæ, the open expression of freethinking views was not quite safe for a private individual in the market-place; very much less so for the poet of an officially accepted drama of Dionysus, on the feast-day and in the sacred precinct. Any view of Euripides which implies that he had a serious artistic faith in his "gods from the mêchanê"—a form of superstition too gross even for the ordinary public—is practically out of court. His age held him for a notorious freethinker, and his stage gods are almost confessedly fictitious. Yet it is a curious fact that Euripides is constantly denouncing the inadequacy of mere rationalism. There is no contrast more common in his plays than that between real wisdom and mere knowledge or cleverness; and the context generally suggests that the cleverness in question includes what people now call 'shallow atheism.' He speaks more against the σόφοι than with them. It seems, in fact, that here, as in the rest of his mental attitude, he is a solitary rebel.
He is seldom frankly and outspokenly sceptical; when he is so, it is always on moral grounds. No stress can be laid on mere dramatic expressions like the famous "They are not, are not!" of Bellerophon (frag. 286), or the blasphemies of Ixion, or the comic atheism of the Cyclops. There is more real character in the passages which imply a kind of antitheism. In the Bellerophon,* for instance (frag. 311), the hero, bewildered at the unjust ordering of things, attempts to reach Zeus and have his doubts set at rest, whereupon Zeus blasts him with a thunderbolt. He sees that he is θεοῖς ἐχθρὸς and condemned, yet he cannot seriously condemn himself. He speaks to his heart:
"Reverent thou wast to God, had he but known;
Thy door oped to the stranger, and thine help
For them that loved thee knew no weariness."
One cannot take these for the poet's actual sentiments, but the fact that such thoughts were in his mind has its significance. One of the rare instances of a plain personal statement is in the Heracles (ll. 1341 ff.):
"Say not there be adulterers in heaven,
Nor prisoner gods and gaolers:—long ago
My heart hath named it vile and shall not alter!—
Nor one god master and another thrall.
God, if he be God, lacketh naught. All these
Are dead unhappy tales of minstrelsy."
These words seem clearly to represent the poet himself, not the quite unphilosophic hero who utters them. They read like the firm self-justification of a man attacked for freethinking. That was written about 422, before the time of bitterness. For the most part, Euripides is far from frank on these subjects. The majority of the plays draw no conclusions, but only suggest premisses. They state the religious traditions very plainly, and leave the audience to judge if it believes in them or approves of them. His work left on his contemporaries, and, if intelligently read, leaves on us, an impression of uneasy, half-disguised hostility to the supernatural element which plays so large a part in it. It is a tendency which makes havoc in his art. Plays like the Ion, the Electra, the Iphigenîa in Tauris, the Orestes, have something jarring and incomprehensible about them, which we cannot dispose of by lightly calling Euripides a 'botcher,' or by saying, what is known to be untrue in history, that he was the poet of the 'ochlocracy' and played to the mob.
For one thing, we must start by recognising and trying to understand two pieces of technique which are specially the invention or characteristic of Euripides, the Prologue and the Deus ex machinâ. The Prologue is easily explained. There were no playbills, and it was well to let the audience know what saga the play was to treat. The need was the more pressing if a poet was apt, like Euripides, to choose little-known legends or unusual versions of those that were well known. The Prologue was invented to meet this need. But, once there, it suggested further advantages. It practically took the place of an explanatory first act. Euripides uses it to state the exact situation in which he means to pick up his characters; the Orestes and the Medea, for instance, gain greatly from their prologues. They are able to begin straight at the centre of interest. It must, of course, be fully recognised that our existing prologues have been interpolated and tampered with. Euripides held the stage all over the Hellenistic world for centuries after his death, and was often played to barbarian audiences who wanted everything explained from the beginning. Thus the prologue of the Electra, to take a striking example, narrates things that every Athenian knew from his infancy. But the Prologue in itself is a genuine Euripidean instrument.
If we overcome our dislike for the Prologue, we are still offended by the way in which Euripides ends his plays. Of his seventeen genuine extant tragedies, ten close with the appearance of a god in the clouds, commanding, explaining, prophesying. The seven which do not end with a god, end with a prophecy or something equivalent—some scene which directs attention away from the present action to the future results. That is, the subject of the play is really a long chain of events; the poet fixes on some portion of it—the action of one day, generally speaking—and treats it as a piece of vivid concrete life, led up to by a merely narrative introduction, and melting away into a merely narrative close. The method is to our taste quite undramatic, but it is explicable enough: it falls in with the tendency of Greek art to finish, not with a climax, but with a lessening of strain.
There is a growth visible in this method of ending. In the earliest group of our extant plays, there is, with the merely apparent exception of the Hippolytus (see p. 270), no deus ex machinâ. From about 420 to 414 the god appears, prophesies, or pronounces judgment, but does not disturb the action; in the 'troubled period' he produces what is technically called a 'peripeteia,' a violent reversal of the course of events. Now, if Pindar had done this, we might have said that his superstition was rather gross, but we could have accepted it. When it is done by a man notorious for his bold religious speculation, a reputed atheist, and no seeker of popularity, then it becomes a problem. Let any one who does not feel the difficulty, read the Orestes. Is it credible that Euripides believed that the story ended or could end as he makes it; that he did not see that his deus makes the whole grand tragedy into nonsense? Dr. Verrall finds the solution of this knot in a bold theory that Euripides, writing habitually as a freethinker, under circumstances in which outspokenness was impossible, deliberately disguised his meaning by adding to his real play a sham prologue and epilogue, suitable for popular consumption, but known by those in the poet's confidence to have no bearing on his real intent. The difficulties in this view are obvious. It is safer to confine ourselves to admitting that, as a thinker, Euripides was from the outset out of sympathy with the material in which he had to work. He did not believe the saga, he did not quite admire or like it; but he had to make his plays out of it. In his happier moods this dissonance does not appear—as in the Medea or Hippolytus; sometimes it appears and leaves us troubled, but is overcome by the general beauty of treatment. That is the case with the Alcestis, where the heroine's devotion suggests at once to Euripides, as it does to us, the extreme selfishness of the husband who let her die for him. Sophocles would have slurred or explained away this unpleasantness. Euripides introduces a long and exquisitely hard-hitting scene merely for the purpose of rubbing it in (Alc. 614 f.). In a third stage the dissonance runs riot: he builds up his drama only to demolish it. What can one make of the Ion? "A patriotic play celebrating Ion, the Attic hero, the semi-divine son of Creusa and Apollo." That is so. But is it really a celebration or an exposure? The old story of the divine lover, the exposed child, the god saving his offspring—the thing Pindar can treat with such reverence and purity—is turned naked to the light. "If the thing happened," says Euripides—"and you all insist that it did—it was like this." He gives us the brutal selfishness of Phœbus, the self-contempt of the injured girl, and at last the goading of her to the verge of a horrible murder. If that were all the play has to say, it would be better; but it is not all. It is inextricably and marringly mixed with a great deal of ordinary poetic beauty, and the play ends in a perfunctory and unreal justification of Apollo, in which the culprit does not present himself, and his representative, Athena, does not seem to be telling the exact truth! In this point, as in others, the over-comprehensiveness of Euripides's mind led him into artistic sins, and made much of his work a great and fascinating failure.
There are two plays, one early and one late, in which the divine element is treated with more consistency, and, it would seem, with some real expression of the poet's thought—the Hippolytus and the Bacchæ. The Love-goddess in the former (428 B.C.) is a Fact of Nature personified; her action is destructive, not (l. 20) personally vindictive; her bodily presence in the strangely-terrible speech which forms the prologue, is evidently mere symbolism, representing thoughts that are as much at home in a modern mind as in an ancient. Hippolytus is a saint in his rejection of the Cyprian and his cleaving to the virgin Artemis; it is absurd to talk of his 'impiety.' Yet it is one of the poet's rooted convictions that an absolute devotion to some one principle—the 'All or nothing' of Brand, the 'Truth' of Gregers Werle—leads to havoc. The havoc may be, on the whole, the best thing: it is clear that Hippolytus 'lived well,' that his action was καλόν; but it did, as a matter of fact, produce malediction and suicide and murder. Very similar is the unseen Artemis of the end, so beautiful and so superhumanly heartless. The fresh virginity in nature, the spirit of wild meadows and waters and sunrise, is not to be disturbed because martyrs choose to die for it.
The Bacchæ is a play difficult to interpret. For excitement, for mere thrill, there is absolutely nothing like it in ancient literature. The plot is as simple as it is daring. The god Dionysus is disowned by his own kindred, and punishes them. There comes to Thebes a 'Bacchos'—an incarnation, it would seem, of the god himself—preaching the new worship. The daughters of Cadmus refuse to accept his spirit; he exerts it upon them in strength amounting to madness, and they range the hills glorifying him. The old Cadmus and the prophet Teiresias recognise him at once as God; the unearthly joy fills them, and they feel themselves young again. The king Pentheus is the great obstacle. He takes his stand on reason and order: he will not recognise the 'mad' divinity. But Pentheus is the wrong man for such a protest; possibly he had himself once been mad—at least that seems to be the meaning of l. 359, and is natural in a Bacchic legend—and he acts not calmly, but with fury. He insults and imprisons the god, who bears all gently and fearlessly, with the magic of latent power. The prison walls fall, and Dionysus comes straight to the king to convince him again. Miracles have been done by the Mænads on Cithæron, and Dionysus is ready to show more; will Pentheus wait and see? Pentheus refuses, and threatens the 'Bacchos' with death; the god changes his tone (l. 810). In a scene of weird power and audacity, he slowly controls—one would fain say 'hypnotises'—Pentheus: makes him consent to don the dress of a Mænad, to carry the thyrsus, to perform all the acts of worship. The doomed man is led forth to Cithæron to watch from ambush the secret worship of the Bacchanals, and is torn to pieces by them. The mad daughters of Cadmus enter. Agavê bearing in triumph her son's head, which she takes for a lion's head, and singing a joy-song which seems like the very essence of Dionysiac madness expressed in music. The story is well known how this play was acted at the Parthian capital after the defeat of Crassus at Carrhæ. The actor who represented Agavê, entered bearing the actual head of Crassus; and the soldier who had really slain Crassus broke out in the audience, clamouring for the ghastly trophy. That was what semi-Hellenised savages made out of the Bacchæ!
What does it all mean? To say that it is a reactionary manifesto in favour of orthodoxy, is a view which hardly merits refutation. If Dionysus is a personal god at all, he is a devil. Yet the point of the play is clearly to make us understand him. He and his Mænads are made beautiful; they are generally allowed the last word (except l. 1348); and the swift Ionic-a-minore songs have, apart from their mere beauty, a certain spiritual loftiness. Pentheus is not a 'sympathetic' martyr. And there is even a certain tone of polemic against 'mere rationalism' which has every appearance of coming from the poet himself. The play seems to represent no volte-face on the part of the old free-lance in thought, but rather a summing up of his position. He had always denounced common superstition; he had always been averse to dogmatic rationalism. The lesson of the Bacchæ is that of the Hippolytus in a stronger form. Reason is great, but it is not everything. There are in the world things not of reason, but both below and above it; causes of emotion, which we cannot express, which we tend to worship, which we feel, perhaps, to be the precious elements in life. These things are Gods or forms of God: not fabulous immortal men, but 'Things which Are,' things utterly non-human and non-moral, which bring man bliss or tear his life to shreds without a break in their own serenity. It is a religion that most people have to set themselves in some relation to; the religion that Tolstoi preaches against, that people like Paley and Bentham tried to abolish, that Plato denounced and followed. Euripides has got to it in this form through his own peculiar character, through the mixture in him of unshrinking realism with unshrinking imaginativeness; but one must remember that he wrote much about Orphism in its ascetic and mystic side, and devoted to it one complete play, the Cretans.
In the end, perhaps, this two-sidedness remains as the cardinal fact about Euripides: he is a merciless realist; he is the greatest master of imaginative music ever born in Attica. He analyses, probes, discusses, and shrinks from no sordidness; then he turns right away from the world and escapes "to the caverns that the Sun's feet tread," or similar places, where things are all beautiful and interesting, melancholy perhaps, like the tears of the sisters of Phaëthon, but not squalid or unhappy. Some mysticism was always in him from the time of the Hippolytus (l. 192): "Whatever far-off state there may be that is dearer to man than life, Darkness has it in her arms and hides it in cloud. We are love-sick for this nameless thing that glitters here on the earth, because no man has tasted another life, because the things under us are unrevealed, and we float upon a stream of legend." There is not one play of Euripides in which a critic cannot find serious flaws and offences; though it is true, perhaps, that the worse the critic, the more he will find. Euripides was not essentially an artist. He was a man of extraordinary brain-power, dramatic craft, subtlety, sympathy, courage, imagination; he saw too deep into the world and took things too rebelliously to produce calm and successful poetry. Yet many will feel as Philêmon did: "If I were certain that the dead had consciousness, I would hang myself to see Euripides."
- The fifth was after his death.
- Or. 870–930.
- Ach. 418 f.
- There was a similar scene in Melanippe the Wise,* where Melanippe has to plead for the life of her own secretly-born children, saying everything but the truth; even hinting that 'some damsel' may have borne them and hidden them from shame.
- Med. 250.
- (1) No deus ex machinâ: Alcestis (438), Cyclops, Medea (431), Heracleidæ (427), Heracles (422), and Hecuba (424?); also Trôiades (415) and Phœnissæ (410). (2) Deus with mere prophecy or the like: Andromache (424), Supplices (421), Ion, Electra (414?). (3) Deus with 'peripeteia': Iphigenîa in Tauris (413), Helena (412), Orestes (408). Iphigenîa in Aulis and Bacchæ doubtful; probably 'peripeteia' in each.
- See, e.g., Bruhn's Introduction.
- Hip. 733. The cavern in question was in the moon. Cf. Apollonius, Arg. iii. 1212, and Plutarch On the Face in the Moon, § 29, Hym. Dem. 25.