Euripides and His Age/Chapter 7



Thus we come round to the figure from which we started, the old sad man with the long beard, who seldom laughed and was not easy to speak to; who sat for long hours in his seaward cave on Salamis, meditating and perhaps writing one could not tell what, except indeed that it was "something great and high." It was natural that he should be sad. His dreams were overthrown; his City, his Beloved, had turned worse than false. Public life was in every way tenfold more intimate and important to an ancient Greek than it is to us moderns who seldom eat a muttonchop the less when our worst political enemies pass their most detested bills. And Athens had not only been false to her ideals; she had sinned for the sake of success and had then failed. And her failure probably made the daily life of her citizens a thing of anxiety and discomfort. You were never quite sure of your daily food. You were never quite safe from a triumphant raid of the enemy. And the habitual bodily discomfort which is the central fact of old age must have had for Euripides much to aggravate and little to soften it.

It was natural, too, that his people should hate him. Nations at war do not easily forgive those who denounce their wars as unjust; when the war, in spite of all heroism, goes against them, their resentment is all the bitterer. There is, of course, not the ghost of a suggestion in Euripides that he thought the Spartans right or that he wished Athens to be defeated; far from it. But the Athenian public was not in a mood for subtle distinctions, and his air of disapproval was enough. Besides, thought the meaner among them, the man was a known blasphemer. He had been the friend of the sophists; he had denied the gods; worse, he had denounced the doings of the gods as evil. These misfortunes that hurtled round the City's head must surely be sent for some good reason. Very likely just because the City, corrupted by the "charm of words," had allowed such wicked sophists to live? He was at one time prosecuted for impiety; we do not know the date or the details, but he seems to have been acquitted. The day of Socrates had not yet come. But other charges remained. He was a wicked old man: he had preached dreadful things about women; he had defended in his plays adulteresses and perjurers and workers of incest. What must his personal life be, if these were his principles? No wonder that he lived so secretly, he and his wife and that dark-skinned secretary, Cephisophon!

Perhaps he was a miser and had secret stores of wealth? We hear of an action brought against him on these lines. A certain Hygiainon was selected, as a rich man, to perform some "Liturgy" or public service at his own cost, and he claimed that Euripides was richer and should be made to do it instead. We do not know the result of the trial; we only know that the plaintiff attempted to create prejudice against Euripides by quoting the line of the Hippolytus (see above p. 88) which was supposed to defend perjury.

These things were annoyances enough. But there must have been some darker cloud that fell over Euripides' life at this time. For we are not only told in the Lives that "The Athenians bore a grudge against him," and that "he lost patience with the ill-will of his fellow-citizens," but one of our earliest witnesses, Philodemus, says that when he left Athens he did so "in grief, because almost all in Athens were rejoicing over him." The word used means, like the German "Schadenfreude," rejoicing at another's injury. So there must have been some injury for them to rejoice at.

The old Satyrus tradition, with its tone of scandal and misunderstanding, says that his wife was false to him, but the story will not bear historical criticism. And it would not be safe to use so rotten a foundation to build any theory upon, however likely it may be in itself that a man of this kind should meet with domestic unhappiness in one or other of its many forms. In thinking of Euripides one is constantly reminded of Tolstoy. And there are many ways of making husbands miserable besides merely betraying them.

Whatever the cause, shortly after the production of the Orestes in 408 the old poet's endurance snapped, and, at the age apparently of seventy-six, he struck off into voluntary exile. It is only one instance among many of his extraordinary vital force. The language of the ancient Life is unfortunately confused just here, but it seems to say that he went first to Magnesia, with which city he had had relations in earlier days. He had been granted some civic honours there, and had acted as Proxenus—a kind of consul or general protector—for Magnesians in Athens. There was more than one town of the name. But the one meant is probably a large town in the Maeander Valley, not far from Ephesus. It lay in Persian territory, but had been granted by Artaxerxes to the great Themistocles as a gift, and was still ruled, subject to the Persian king, by Themistocles' descendants. Doubtless it was to them that the poet went. We know nothing more, except that he did not stay long in Magnesia, but went on to another place where barbarians or semi-barbarians were ruled by a Greek dynasty.

The king of Macedon, Archelaus, an able despot who was now laying the seeds of the great kingdom which, before the lapse of a century, was to produce Philip and Alexander the Great, had always an eye for men of genius who might be attracted to his court. He had invited Euripides before and now renewed his invitation. Other men of "wisdom" were already with Archelaus. Agathon, the tragic poet; Timotheus, the now famous musician whom Euripides had once saved, so the story ran, from suicide; Zeuxis, the greatest painter of the time; and perhaps also Thucydides, the historian. It would not be like living among barbarians or even uncultivated Greeks. And it is likely enough that the old man hankered for the ease and comfort, for the atmosphere of daily "spoiling," which the royal patron was likely to provide for a lion of such special rarity. For it must have been a little before this time that Greece was ringing with a tale of the value set on Euripides in distant and hostile Sicily. Seven thousand Athenians had been made slaves in Syracuse after the failure of the expedition; and the story now came that some of them had been actually granted their freedom because they were able to recite speeches and choruses of Euripides. Apparently there was no book trade between the warring cities; and the Syracusans could only learn the great poems by word of mouth. Sicily and Macedonia were proud to show that they appreciated the highest poetry better than Athens did.

It was a curious haven that Euripides found. In many ways Macedonia must have been like a great fragment of that Homeric or heroic age from which he had drawn most of his stories. The scenery was all on the grand scale. There were greater plains and forests and rivers, wilder and higher mountain ranges than in the rest of Greece. And the people, though ruled by a dynasty of Greek descent and struggling up towards Hellenism, was still tribal, military and barbaric. A century later we hear of the "old" Macedonian customs. A young man might not dine at the men's tables till he had killed his first wild boar. He had to wear a leathern halter round his waist until he had killed his first man. We hear that when some Macedonian at the court made a rude remark to Euripides the King straightway handed him over to the Athenian to be scourged, a well-meant but embarrassing intervention. And the story told of Euripides' own death, if mythical, is very likely faithful in its local colour. There was a village in Macedonia where some Thracians had once settled and their descendants still lived. One of the king's big Molossian hounds once strayed into this place, and the natives promptly killed and ate her. The king fined the village a talent, which was more than it could possibly pay, and some dreadful fate might have overtaken the dog-eaters had not Euripides interceded and begged them off. And not long afterwards, the story continues, Archelaus was preparing a hunt, and the hungry hounds were set loose. And it so happened that Euripides was sitting alone in a wood outside the city, and the hounds fell on him and tore him to pieces. And behold, these hounds proved to be the children of that Molossian who, through the poet's interference, had died unavenged! The story can hardly be true, or we should hear some echo of it in Aristophanes' Frogs; but no doubt it was the kind of fate that a lonely man might well meet in Macedonia when the king's hounds were astir.

How the poet really died we do not know. We know that he left Athens after the spring of 408, and that he was dead some time before the production of the Frogs in January, 405. And there is reason to believe the story given in the Life that when Sophocles in the previous year was introducing his Chorus in the "Proagon," or Preliminary Appearance, he brought them on without the customary garlands in mourning for his great rival's death. The news, therefore, must have reached Athens by the end of March, 406. Euripides had lived only some eighteen months in Macedon.

The time was not long but it was momentous. After his death three plays were found, Iphigenîa in Aulis, Alcmaeon and Bacchae, sufficiently finished to be put on the stage together by his third son, the Younger Euripides. Two of them are still extant, and one, the Bacchae, remains for all time to testify to the extraordinary return of youth which came to the old poet in his last year. A "lightning before death" if ever there was one!

But let us take first the Iphigenîa in Aulis. It is a play full of problems. We can make out that it was seriously incomplete at the poet's death and was finished by another hand, presumably that of its producer. Unfortunately we do not possess even that version in a complete form. For the archetype of our MSS. was at some time mutilated, and the present end of the play is a patent forgery. But if we allow for these defects, the Iphigenîa in Aulis is a unique and most interesting example of a particular moment in the history of Greek drama. It shows the turning-point between the old fifth century tragedy and the so-called New Comedy which, in the hands of Menander, Philemon and others, dominated the stage of the fourth and third centuries.

Euripides had united two tendencies: on the one hand he had moved towards freedom in metre, realism in character-drawing, variety and adventure in the realm of plot; on the other he had strongly maintained the formal and musical character of the old Dionysiac ritual, making full use of such conventions as the Prologue, the Epiphany, the traditional tragic diction, and above all the Chorus. The New Comedy dropped the chorus, brought the diction close to real life, broke up the stiff forms and revelled in romance, variety, and adventure. Its characters ceased to be legendary Kings and Queens; they became fictional characters from ordinary city life.

The Iphigenîa in Aulis shows an unfinished Euripidean tragedy, much in the manner of the Orestes, completed by a man of some genius whose true ideals were those of modernity and the New Comedy. Two openings of the play are preserved. One is the old stiff Euripidean prologue; the other a fine and vigorous scene of lyric dialogue, which must have suited the taste of the time far better, just as it suits our own. We have early in the play a Messenger; but instead of his entrance being formally prepared and announced in the Euripidean manner, he bursts on to the stage interrupting a speaker in the middle of a verse and the middle of a sentence. There are also peculiarities of metre, such as the elision of -ai, which are unheard of in tragic dialogue but regular in the more conversational style of the New-Comedy.

The plot runs thus.—It is night in the Greek camp at Aulis; Agamemnon calls an Old Slave outside his tent and gives him secretly a letter to carry to Clytemnestra. She is at home, and has been directed in previous letters to send her daughter, Iphigenîa, to Aulis to be wedded to Achilles. This letter simply bids her not send the girl.—The Old Slave is bewildered; "What does it mean?" It means that the marriage with Achilles was a blind. Achilles knew nothing of it. It was a plot to get Iphigenîa to the camp and there slaughter her as a sacrifice for the safe passage of the fleet. So Calchas, the priest, had commanded and he was backed by Odysseus and Menelaus. Agamemnon had been forced into compliance, and is now resolved to go back upon his word. The Old Slave goes. Presently comes the entrance of the Chorus, women of Aulis who are dazzled and thrilled by the spectacle of the great army and the men who are prepared to die overseas for the honour of Hellas. But we hear a scuffle outside, and the Old Slave returns pursued by Menelaus, who seizes the letter. He calls for help. Agamemnon comes out and commands Menelaus to give the letter back. A violent scene ensues between the brothers, each telling the other home truths. Menelaus's besotted love for his false wife, his reckless selfishness and cruelty; Agamemnon's consuming ambition, his falseness and weakness, his wish to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds, are all laid bare in a masterly quarrel scene. At last Agamemnon flatly refuses to give his daughter: "Let the army break up, let Menelaus go without his accursed wife, and the barbarians laugh as loudly as they will! Agamemnon will not have his child slain and his own heart broken to please any one." "Is that so?" says Menelaus: "Then I go straight to. . . ." He is interrupted by a Messenger who announces that Iphigenîa has come and her mother, Clytemnestra, is with her. Agamemnon sends them a formal message of welcome; dismisses the Messenger, and then bursts into tears. This shakes Menelaus; he hesitates; then abruptly says, "I cannot force you. Save the girl as best you can." But now it is too late. The army knows that the Queen has come; Calchas and Odysseus know. Agamemnon has lost the power of action. The next scene is between the mother, father and daughter; Clytemnestra, full of questions about the marriage, Iphigenîa full of excitement and shy tenderness, which expresses itself in special affectionateness towards her father. He tries to persuade Clytemnestra to go home and leave the child with him; she is perplexed and flatly refuses to go.

The next scene is close to comedy, though comedy of a poignant kind. Achilles, knowing naught of all these plots and counter-plots, comes to tell the General that his men—the Myrmidons—are impatient and want to sail for Troy at once. At the door of the tent he meets Clytemnestra, who greets him with effusive pleasure and speaks of "the marriage that is about to unite them." The young soldier is shy, horrified, anxious to run away from this strange lady who is so more than friendly, when suddenly a whisper through the half-closed door startles them. "Is the coast clear? Yes?"—then the whisperer will come. It is the Old Slave, who can bear it no more but reveals the whole horrible plot; Iphigenîa is to be slaughtered by the priests; the marriage with Achilles was a bait for deceiving Clytemnestra.—Clytemnestra is thunderstruck, Achilles furious with rage. "He is dishonoured; he is made a fool of. What sort of man do they take him for, to use his name thus without his authority? Why could not they ask his consent? They could sacrifice a dozen girls for all he cares, and he would not have stood in the way. But now they have dishonoured him, and he will forbid the sacrifice. . . ." Clytemnestra, who has watched like a drowning woman to see which way the youth's fierce vanity would leap, throws herself at his feet in gratitude; "Shall her daughter, also, come and embrace his knees?" No; Achilles does not want any woman to kneel to him. Let the women try to change Agamemnon's mind; if they can do it, all is well. If not, Achilles will fight to the last to save the girl.

There follows the inevitable scene in which mother and daughter—the latter inarticulate with tears—convict the father and appeal to him. A fine scene it is, in which each character comes out clear, and through the still young and obedient Clytemnestra one descries the shadow of the great murderess to be. Agamemnon is broken but helpless. It is too late to go back.

The two women are left weeping at the door of the tent, when they hear a sound of tumult. It is Achilles, and men behind stoning him. Iphigenîa's first thought is to fly; she dare not look Achilles in the face. Yet she stays. Achilles enters. The whole truth has come out; the army clamours for the sacrifice and is furious against him. . . . "Will not his own splendid Myrmidons protect him?"—"It is they who were the first to stone him! Nevertheless he will fight. He has his arms. Clytemnestra must fight too; cling to her daughter by main force when they come, as they presently will, to drag her to the altar. . . ." "Stay!" says Iphigenîa: "Achilles must not die for her sake. What is her miserable life compared with his? One man who can fight for Hellas is worth ten thousand women, who can do nothing. Besides, she has been thinking it over; she has seen the great gathered army, ready to fight and die for a cause, and, like the Chorus, has fallen under the spell of it. She realizes that it lies with her, a weak girl, to help them to victory. All great Hellas is looking to her; and she is proud and glad to give her life for Hellas."—It is a beautiful and simple speech. And the pride of Achilles withers up before it. In a new tone he answers; "God would indeed have made him blessed if he had won her for his wife. As it is, Iphigenîa is right. . . ." Yet he offers still to fight for her and save her. She does not know what death is ; and he loves her.—She answers that her mind is made up. "Do not die for me, but leave me to save Hellas, if I can." Achilles yields. Still he will go and stand beside the altar, armed; if at the last moment she calls to him, he is ready. So he goes. The mother and daughter bid one another a last farewell, and with a song of triumph Iphigenîa, escorted by her maidens, goes forth to meet the slaughterers. . . . Here the authentic part of our play begins to give out. There are fragments of a messenger's speech afterwards, and it is likely on the whole that Artemis saved the victim, as is assumed in the other Iphigenîa play.

The Iphigenîa in Aulis, in spite of its good plot, is not really one of Euripides' finest works; yet, if nothing else of his were preserved, it would be enough to mark him out as a tremendous power in the development of Greek literature. Readers who enjoy drama but have never quite accustomed themselves to the stately conventions of fifth century tragedy very often like it better than any other Greek play. It is curiously different from its twin sister the Bacchae.

A reader of the Bacchae who looks back at the ritual sequence described above (p. 64) will be startled to find how close this drama, apparently so wild and imaginative, has kept to the ancient rite. The regular year-sequence is just clothed in sufficient myth to make it a story. The daemon must have his enemy who is like himself; then we must have the Contest, the Tearing Asunder, the Messenger, the Lamentation mixed with Joy-cries, the Discovery of the scattered members—and by a sort of doubling the Discovery of the true God—and the Epiphany of the Daemon in glory. All are there in the Bacchae. The god Dionysus, accompanied by his Wild Women, comes to his own land and is rejected by his kinsman, King Pentheus, and by the women of the royal house. The god sends his divine madness on the women. The wise Elders of the tribe warn the king; but Pentheus first binds and imprisons the god; then yielding gradually to the divine power, agrees to go disguised in woman's garb to watch the secret worship of the Maenads on Mt. Kithairon. He goes, is discovered by the Maenads and torn in fragments. His mother, Agave, returns in triumph dancing with her son's head, which, in her madness, she takes for a lion's. There is Lamentation mixed with mad Rejoicing. The scattered body is recovered; Agave is restored to her right mind and to misery; the god appears in majesty and pronounces doom on all who have rejected him. The mortals go forth to their dooms, still faithful, still loving one another. The ghastly and triumphant god ascends into heaven. The whole scheme of the play is given by the ancient ritual. It is the original subject of Attic tragedy treated once more, as doubtless it had already been treated by all or almost all the other tragedians.

But we can go further. We have enough fragments and quotations from the Aeschylean plays on this subject—especially the Lycurgus trilogy—to see that all kinds of small details which seemed like invention, and rather fantastic invention, on the part of Euripides, are taken straight from Aeschylus or the ritual or both. The timbrels, the fawnskin, the ivy, the sacred pine, the god taking the forms of Bull and Lion and Snake; the dances on the mountain at dawn; the Old Men who are by the power of the god made young again; the god represented as beardless and like a woman; the god imprisoned and escaping; the earthquake that wrecks Pentheus' palace; the victim Pentheus disguised as a woman; all these and more can be shown to be in the ritual and nearly all are in the extant fragments of Aeschylus. Even variants of the story which have been used by previous poets have somehow a place found for them. There was, for instance, a variant which made Pentheus lead an army against the Wild Women; in the Bacchae this plan is not used, but Pentheus is made to think of it and say he will perhaps follow it, and Dionysus is made to say what will happen if he does. (Aesch. Eum. 25 f.; Bac. 50 ff. 809, 845.) There never was a great play so steeped in tradition as the Bacchae.

The Iphigenîa was all invention, construction, brilliant psychology; it was a play of new plot and new characters. The Bacchae takes an old fixed plot, and fixed formal characters: Dionysus, Pentheus, Cadmus, Teiresias, they are characters that hardly need proper names. One might just as well call them—The God, the Young King, the Old King, the Prophet; and as for Agave, our MSS. do as a rule simply call her "Woman." The Iphigenîa is full of informalities, broken metres, interruptions. Its Chorus hardly matters to the plot and has little to sing. The Bacchae is the most formal Greek play known to us; its Chorus is its very soul and its lyric songs are as long as they are magnificent. For the curious thing is that in this extreme of formality and faithfulness to archaic tradition Euripides has found both his greatest originality and his most perfect freedom.

He is re-telling an old story; but he is not merely doing that. In the Bacchae almost every reader feels that there is something more than a story. There is a meaning, or there is at least a riddle. And we must try in some degree to understand it. Now, in order to keep our heads cool, it is first necessary to remember clearly two things. The Bacchae is not free invention; it is tradition. And it is not free personal expression, it is drama. The poet cannot simply and without a veil state his own views; he can only let his own personality shine through the dim curtain in front of which his puppets act their traditional parts and utter their appropriate sentiments Thus it is doubly elusive. And therein no doubt lay its charm to the poet. He had a vehicle into which he could pour many of those "vaguer faiths and aspirations which a man feels haunting him and calling to him, but which he cannot state in plain language or uphold with a full acceptance of responsibility." But our difficulties are even greater than this. The personal meaning of a drama of this sort is not only elusive; it is almost certain to be inconsistent with itself or at least incomplete. For one only feels its presence strongly when in some way it clashes with the smooth flow of the story.

Let us imagine a great free-minded modern poet—say Swinburne or Morris or Victor Hugo, all of whom did such things—making for some local anniversary a rhymed play in the style of the old Mysteries on some legend of a mediaeval saint. The saint, let us suppose, is very meek and is cruelly persecuted by a wicked emperor, whom he threatens with hell fire; and at the end let us have the emperor in the midst of that fire and the saint in glory saying, "What did I tell you?" And let us suppose that the play in its course gives splendid opportunities for solemn Latin hymns, such as Swinburne and Hugo delighted in. We should probably have a result something like the Bacchae.

For one thing, in such a play one would not be troubled by little flaws and anachronisms and inconsistencies. One would not be shocked to hear St. Thomas speaking about Charlemagne, or to find the Mouth of Hell situated in the same street as the emperor's lodging. Just so we need not be shocked in the Bacchae to find that, though the god is supposed to be appearing for the first time in Thebes, his followers appeal to "immemorial custom" as the chief ground for their worship (201, 331, 370: cf. Aesch. fr. 22 ?), nor to observe that the Chorus habitually makes loud professions of faith under the very nose of the tyrant without his ever attending to them (263 f., 328 f., 775 f.). Nor even that the traditional earthquake which destroys the palace causes a good deal of trouble in the thinking out. It had to be there; it was an integral part of the story in Aeschylus (fr. 58), and in all probability before him. One may suppose that the Greek stage carpenter was capable of some symbolic crash which served its purpose. The language used is carefully indefinite. It suggests that the whole palace is destroyed, but leaves a spectator free, if he so chooses, to suppose that it is only the actual prison of Dionysus, which is "off-stage" and unseen. In any case the ruins are not allowed to litter the stage and, once over, the earthquake is never noticed or mentioned again.

Again, such a play would involve a bewildering shift of sympathy, just as the Bacchae does. At first we should be all for the saint and against the tyrant; the persecuted monks with their hymns of faith and endurance would stir our souls. Then, when the tables were turned and the oppressors were seen writhing in Hell, we should feel that, at their worst, they did not quite deserve that: we should even begin to surmise that perhaps, with all their faults, they were not really as horrible as the saint himself, and reflect inwardly what a barbarous thing, after all, this mediaeval religion was.

This bewildering shift of sympathy is common in Euripides. We have had it before in such plays as the Medea and Hecuba: oppression generates revenge, and the revenge becomes more horrible than the original oppression. In these plays the poet offers no solution. He gives us only the bitterness of life and the unspoken "tears that are in things." The first serious attempt at a solution comes in the Electra and Orestes.

In a Mystery-play such as we have imagined, re-told by a great modern poet, the interest and meaning would hardly lie in the main plot. They would lie in something which the poet himself contributed. We might, for instance, find that he had poured all his soul into the Latin hymns, or into the spectacle of the saint, alone and unterrified, defying all the threats and all the temptations which the Emperor can bring to bear upon him. There might thus be a glorification of that mystic rejection of the world which lies at the heart of mediaeval monasticism, without the poet for a moment committing himself to a belief in monasticism or an acceptance of the Catholic Church.

We have in the Bacchae—it seems to me impossible to deny it—a heartfelt glorification of "Dionysus." No doubt it is Dionysus in some private sense of the poet's own; something opposed to "the world"; some spirit of the wild woods and the sunrise, of inspiration and untrammelled life. The presentation is not consistent, however magical the poetry. At one moment we have the Bacchantes raving for revenge, at the next they are uttering the dreams of some gentle and musing philosopher. A deliberate contrast seems to be made in each Chorus between the strophe and the antistrophe. It is not consistent; though it is likely enough that, if one had taxed Euripides with the contradiction, he might have had some answer that would surprise us. His first defence, of course, would be a simple one; it is not the playwright's business to have any views at all; he is only re-telling a traditional story and trying to tell it right. But he might also venture outside his defences and answer more frankly: "This spirit that I call Dionysus, this magic of inspiration and joy, is it not as a matter of fact the great wrecker of men's lives? While life seems a decent grey to you all over, you are safe and likely to be prosperous; when you feel the heavens opening, you may begin to tremble. For the vision you see there, as it is the most beautiful of things, is likely also to be the most destructive." For the poet himself, indeed, the only course is to pursue it across the world to the cold mountain tops (410 ff.):

For there is Grace, and there is the Heart's Desire,
And peace to adore Thee, Thou spirit of guiding fire!

He will clasp it even though it slay him.

The old critics used to assume that the Bacchae marked a sort of repentance. The veteran free-lance of thought, the man who had consistently denounced and ridiculed all the foul old stories of mythology, now saw the error of his ways and was returning to orthodoxy. Such a view strikes us now as almost childish in its incompetence. Yet there is, I think, a gleam of muddled truth somewhere behind it. There was no repentance; there was no return to orthodoxy; nor indeed was there, in the strict sense, any such thing as "orthodoxy" to return to. For Greek religion had no creeds. But there is, I think, a rather different attitude towards the pieties of the common man.

It is well to remember that, for all his lucidity of language, Euripides is not lucid about religion. His general spirit is clear: it is a spirit of liberation, of moral revolt, of much denial; but it also a spirit of search and wonder and surmise. He was not in any sense a "mere" rationalist. We find in his plays the rule of divine justice often asserted, sometimes passionately denied; and one tragedy, the Bellerophontes, is based on the denial. It is in a fragment of this play that we have the outcry of some sufferer:

Doth any feign there is a God in heaven?
There is none, none!

And afterwards the hero, staggered by the injustice of things, questions Zeus himself and is, for answer, blasted by the thunderbolt. A clearer form of this same question, and one which vexed the age a good deal, was to ask whether or no the world is governed by some great Intelligence or Understanding ("Sunesis"), or, more crudely, whether the gods are "sunetoi." Euripides at times "hath deep in his hope a belief in some Understanding," and is represented in the Frogs as actually praying to it by that name; but he sometimes finds the facts against him (Hippolytus, 1105; Frogs, 893; Iph. Aul, 394a; Her., 655; Tro., 884 ff., compared with the sequel of the play). The question between polytheism and monotheism, which has loomed so large to some minds, never troubled him. He uses the singular and plural quite indifferently, and probably his "gods," when used as identical with "God" or "the Divine," would hardly even suggest to him the gods of mythology. If one is to venture a conjecture, his own feeling may, perhaps, be expressed by a line in the Orestes (418):

We are slaves of gods, whatever gods may be.

That is, there are unknown forces which shape or destroy man's life, and which may be conceived as in some sense personal. But morally, it would seem, these forces are not better, but less good, than man, who at least loves and pities and tries to understand. Such is the impression, I think, left on readers of the Bacchae, the Hippolytus or the Trojan Women.

But there is one thought which often recurs in Euripides in plays of all periods, and is specially thrown in his teeth by Aristophanes. That satirist, when piling up Euripides' theatrical iniquities, takes as his comic climax "women who say Life is not Life." The reference is to passages like fr. 833, from the Phrixus:

Who knoweth if the thing that we call death
Be Life, and our Life dying—who knoweth?
Save only that all we beneath the sun
Are sick and suffering, and those foregone
Not sick, nor touched with evil any more.

(Cf. fr. 638, 816; also Helena, 1013; Frogs, 1082, 1477). The idea recurs again and again, as also does the thought that death is "some other shape of life" in the Medea and even in the Ion (Med., 1039; Ion, 1068). Nay, more, death may be the state that we unconsciously long for, and that really fulfils our inmost desires: "There is no rest on this earth," says a speaker in the Hippolytus (191 f.),

And whatever far-off state there be,
Dearer than Life to mortality,
The hand of the Dark hath hold thereof
And mist is under and mist above:

and thus," she continues, "we cling to this strange thing that shines in the sunlight, and are sick with love for it, because we have not seen beyond the veil." A stirring thought this, and much nearer to the heart of mysticism than any mere assertion of human immortality. Thus it is not from any position like what we should call "dogmatic atheism" or "scientific materialism" that the child of the Sophists started his attacks on the current mythology. The Sophists themselves had no orthodoxy.

Euripides was always a rejecter of the Laws of the Herd. He was in protest against its moral standards, its superstitions and follies, its social injustices; in protest also against its worldliness and its indifference to those things which, both as a poet and a philosopher, he felt to be highest. And such he remained throughout his life. But in his later years the direction of his protest did, I think, somewhat change. In the Athens of Melos and the Sicilian expedition there was something that roused his aversion far more than did the mere ignorance of a stupid Greek farmer. It was a deeper "amathia," a more unteachable brutality. The men who spoke in the Melian Dialogue were full of what they considered "Sophia." It is likely enough that they conformed carefully to the popular religious prejudices—such politicians always do: but in practice they thought as little of "the gods" as the most pronounced sceptic could wish. They had quite rejected such unprofitable ideals as "pity and charm of words and the generosity of strength," to which the simple man of the old times had always had the door of his heart open. They were haunters of the market-place, mockers at all simplicity, close pursuers of gain and revenge: rejecters, the poet might feel in his bitterness, both of beauty and of God. And the Herd, as represented by Athens, followed them. Like other ideal democrats he turned away from the actual Demos, which surrounded him and howled him down, to a Demos of his imagination, pure and uncorrupted, in which the heart of the natural man should speak. His later plays break out more than once into praises of the unspoiled countryman, neither rich nor poor, who works with his own arm and whose home is "the solemn mountain" not the city streets (cf. especially Orestes, 917–922, as contrasted with 903 ff.; also the Peasant in the Electra; also Bac., 717). In the Bacchae we have not only several denunciations—not at all relevant to the main plot—of those whom the world calls "wise"; we have the wonderful chorus about the fawn escaped from the hunters, rejoicing in the green and lonely places where no pursuing voice is heard and the "little things of the woodland" live unseen. (866 ff.) That is the poetry of this emotion. The prose of it comes in a sudden cry:

The simple nameless herd of humanity
Have deeds and faith that are truth enough for me;

though even that prose has followed immediately on the more mystical doctrine that man must love the Day and the Night, and that Dionysus has poured the mystic Wine that is Himself for all things that live (421–431, 284). In another passage, which I translate literally, he seems to make his exact position more clear: "As for Knowledge, I bear her no grudge; I take joy in the pursuit of her. But the other things" (i.e., the other elements of existence) "are great and shining. Oh, for Life to flow towards that which is beautiful, till man through both light and darkness should be at peace and reverent, and, casting from him Laws that are outside Justice, give glory to the gods!"[1]

Those "Laws which are outside Justice" would make trouble enough between Euripides and the "simple herd" if ever they reached the point of discussing them. He who most loves the ideal Natural Man seldom agrees with the majority of his neighbours. But for the meantime the poet is wrapped up in another war, in which he and religion and nature and the life of the simple man seem to be standing on one side against a universal enemy.

I am not attempting to expound the whole meaning of the Bacchae. I am only suggesting a clue by which to follow it. Like a live thing it seems to move and show new faces every time that, with imagination fully working, one reads the play. There were many factors at work, doubtless, to produce the Bacchae: the peculiar state of Athens, the poet's ecstasy of escape from an intolerable atmosphere, the simple Homeric life in Macedonian forests and mountains, and perhaps even the sight of real Bacchantes dancing there. But it may be that the chief factor is simply this. When a man is fairly confronted with death and is consciously doing his last work in the world, the chances are that, if his brain is clear and unterrified, the deepest part of his nature will assert itself. Euripides was both a reasoner and a poet. The two sides of his nature sometimes clashed and sometimes blended. But ever since the Heracles he had known which service he really lived for; and in his last work it is the poet who speaks, and reveals, so far as such a thing can be revealed, the secret religion of poetry.

  1. In my verse translation I took a slightly different reading, being then misinformed about the MS., but the general sense is the same. ("Knowledge, we are not foes," etc.)