'Cela vous apprendra', dit d'Artagnan, 'à traiter d'une façon plus
courtoise les hôtes que Dieu vous envoie'.
Apology, if I am not mistaken, is no longer due from an enquirer, who in approaching the study of Euripides, will start, as he has done before, from the assumption that in this region no high road of authority has yet been laid out. It is still a case of exploration; we are not bound, and shall scarcely be wise, to follow religiously in tracks of which one thing only can be said with certainty, that they do not lead to the goal. "Nothing is more certain", as I read with satisfaction in the Preface to the welcome Euripides in English Verse, of which the first volume has just now, opportunely for me, been issued by Mr Way, "nothing is more certain than that the old fashion of disparaging his genius (in which Schlegel led the way, giving all the weight of his authority to a sentence which others were too uncritical or too timorous to revise) is now utterly discredited, and that we have ceased to regard the generations of Greeks and Romans, who loved and reverenced him, as degenerate fools and blind. and are at last making some humble efforts to understand them and to recover their point of view". Whether Mr Way is justified or not in his expectation of general sympathy, he has at least himself the credit of setting a good example. The right view of Euripides, the capacity of understanding him, is a thing which we moderns have yet to recover; and our only way is to begin with recognizing that somewhere in our notions about the poet there must be something fundamentally wrong. It should not be possible, as it was not long ago (and notwithstanding the assurance of Mr Way the thing is conceivable still), for an English poet, bound to the poets of Greece by mutual obligations, to pronounce Euripides no peer of his peers, a dramatist not to be ranked as the equal of those with whom he was actually ranked by the judgment of Athens and all the ancient world, without perceiving that he condemns, not the object of his criticism, but simply his own comprehension. Even to apologize for Euripides, or to patronize him, is to show that we mistake our position. Until we can admire him heartily and wholly, the "humble effort" recommended by Mr Way is our only rational course.
It is indeed not a bad attitude to be taken by the student in all cases; and for myself at any rate I am ready to adopt it in dealing with the criticism of Mr Swinburne. Making a humble effort, and with no affected humility, to understand the grounds of his judgment, I have found instruction in a term of contempt, which, after his trenchant manner, he has thrown out by way of summary. Euripides, he has told us, was a 'botcher'. Deserved or not by the poet, the phrase is apt enough to indicate the nature of modern objections. It appropriately describes the sort of dissatisfaction, which we feel after reading, with the modern expositions, some of Euripides' best known and best appreciated works. There is plenty of excellent material; single scenes, or it may be all the scenes, are wrought with undeniable and astonishing power. The murmurs begin when we contemplate the work as a whole: and then the 'botcher' can no longer be kept out of our minds. After all, it would seem, the thing is a patch-work. The excellences of the parts do not seem to subserve any common design, nay, even are mutually repugnant. The author is doubtless a master of his tools, but still, to speak familiarly, he 'does not know what he is driving at'. Or at all events we do not know, and are left with a sense of puzzle, which is of all things the most fatal to the pleasures of art. If, as I have heard said with too much vigour but also too much truth, 'Euripides has ceased to count', here, where Mr Swinburne places it, is the cause or a frequent cause of the common disappointment. And we may illustrate it by the case of the Alcestis.
Excepting perhaps the Andromache, the Alcestis of all the plays has provoked most frequently and thoroughly this contradictory judgment of parts and whole, which in modern times has been the dominant note of criticism. These two belong neither to that very small list of which we are able to say that, with no reservations or insignificant reservations, we comprehend and admire the whole work, nor to that very large list, where comprehension is so much at fault that, to say the plain truth, they have ceased to have any general importance, being relegated to the school-room and lecture-room. In the Medea we have scarcely any fault to find; the faults, whatever they may be, of the Ion and the Madness of Heracles, can be left to be disputed by scholars. But the Alcestis cannot so be dismissed. We love Alcestis well enough to be jealous for her. The play of Euripides, so far as it is concerned with her wifely devotion, has told enough on our hearts to make us warmly sensible of what we find in it to offend us; and the complaints, which otherwise might simmer in obscurity, are stirred by this interest to vigour and fulness of expression. The more closely and impartially these complaints are examined, the more clearly it will appear that either the author of the play is, or we ourselves are, singularly unfortunate in the view we take of the subject. If modern criticism has not mistaken the matter, Euripides in the Alcestis shows himself at once master and tiro, master in the execution of details, tiro, or something less, in the lack of taste and judgment, by which the elements are so incongruously and inharmoniously combined.
The history of Alcestis, like many other legends whose origin is doubtful or lost, had been drawn before recorded times into the great circle of religious belief whose centre was the oracle of Delphi. It is possible that Heracles, who as a semi-divine agent retains in the version known to us an important though subordinate part, once figured as an independent deity, and that with his worship, not that of Apollo, the story was associated at some earlier stage. But in its existing shape it belongs to the deity of Pytho. In its general outline it is almost too familiar for repetition. Apollo, being condemned by Zeus to serve for a time among the herdsmen of a mortal man, and having found in Admetus, prince of Pherae in Thessaly, a kind and gentle master, not only rewarded the house with vast increase of riches, but when Admetus, yet young, was doomed by the Fates to die, obtained their consent to accept a substitute. Alcestis, the wife of Admetus, undertook to redeem his life by the sacrifice of her own, and died accordingly on the day predicted. But the favour of heaven was not to be thus frustrated of its completeness; for Heracles, as Apollo willed and foresaw, rescued the heroic wife from the grave and the arms of death, and restored her alive again to her husband. If the roots of the legend are obscure, and descend into a stratum of thought and feeling which can hardly now be penetrated, the religious instincts to which it appeals as a whole are plain and universal. Accepted in the simplicity of faith, it offers, in the first place, a comforting answer to that question of questions, with which the mind of mortality is for ever occupied, an assurance that the spirits of the just are in the hand of God. The form is foreign to us, but the substance familiar and intelligible, so much so that to believe, even for one imaginative instant, in the truth of the history is to feel, for that instant, its profound religious importance. The virtues by which this manifestation of divine goodness is earned,—in the husband humanity towards the unhappy and helpless, in the wife the utmost unselfishness of love,—are virtues to some extent of all ages and pre-eminently of the Christian ages. If the modern attempts to deal with the subject in dramatic and other forms have not been highly successful, this is explained sufficiently by the absence of one indispensable condition, a genuine or at least, if I may so put it, a practically efficient faith on the part of the spectator and reader. The theme is too solemn for play; but if (to make a bold hypothesis) it were possible for a modern audience to retain for the space of two hours a belief in the miracle, there would be no remaining difficulty in the way of an impressive representation. At Athens in the fifth century before Christ this one impediment did not exist. The belief was a part of public religion; and even those who had ceased to share it by personal conviction could have no difficulty in re-assuming it temporarily for the purpose of artistic enjoyment. In one respect the subject was peculiarly fitted for the newly-founded stage of tragedy. Aeschylus, from whose mind the new art had taken its stamp, is nowhere more profound or more attractive than when he touches such problems of life and death, such mysterious links of union between the seen and the unseen, as are involved in the history of Alcestis. If a poet of that day mis-handled the theme, it was not for want of a model. Even now with the help of Aeschylus it would not, I conceive, be impossible for Mr Swinburne to compose in English, or for Professor Jebb to compose in Greek, a drama in which the spirit of the legend should be fairly preserved and reflected. What is not easy to conceive is that now or then any man should suppose himself to have tolerably executed the design by a piece so cast and constructed as the Alcestis of Euripides. A brief sketch will suffice to remind the reader what the construction is, and to account for the general dissatisfaction. In order to clear the framework of the piece, we will disregard for the moment the prologue or introduction, which has its own personages and separate action; and in the play proper we will attend only to the strictly dramatic portion, the scenes in dialogue. Of these the topics and proportions are as follows:
Sc. i. It being the day on which Alcestis is to die, some friends of Admetus come to make enquiries of her condition. A servant describes to them her preparations for death; she is now sinking, and desires to be brought into the open air, which is accordingly done (vv. 77—242: number of verses, 166).
Sc. ii. Alcestis bids farewell to her husband and children, and receives from her husband assurances of fidelity to her memory. She dies. The corpse is carried into the house, and Admetus retires to complete the preparations for burying it (vv. 243—434: 192).
Sc. iii. While he is within, his friend Heracles, travelling through Pherae, arrives at the house in the expectation of rest and refreshment. Admetus, who appears now in mourning, contrives by a false account to conceal from him the identity of the person whose funeral is about to be performed. He is thus persuaded to enter, and some of the servants are ordered to entertain him (vv. 475—567: 93).
Sc. iv. The funeral is about to proceed, when Pheres, the father of Admetus, presents himself as if to take part in it. Admetus repels him, with a fierce invective against both him and his wife, Admetus' mother, for their cowardice in having refused, though advanced in years, to redeem the life of their only son, and having left the sacrifice to be made by a woman in her prime. Pheres retorts the charge; it is Admetus who, by shirking his proper destiny, has been in fact the murderer of his too devoted victim. The theme, notwithstanding the interference of the friends, is pursued on both sides in a duel of taunts, after which Pheres retires, and the funeral procession sets forth (vv. 606—740: 135).
Sc. v. A man-servant, coming from the house, describes with indignation the behaviour of Heracles at his meal, his indifference to the decencies of a house in mourning, unseasonable exactions, noise, and drunkenness. Heracles follows; he lectures the servant on the certainty of death, and presses him to drink; the servant is provoked into disclosing the deception practised by Admetus; Heracles, shocked and horrified, declares his intention of rescuing the deceased from death, and is directed by the servant to the grave (747—860: 114).
Sc. vi. Admetus returns accompanied by his friends. His despair, repentance, and self-reproach (871—961: 91).
Sc. vii. Heracles returns, leading Alcestis veiled. He pretends that she is a slave, won by him as a prize in an athletic contest, which fell in his way as he was setting out. He proposes that Admetus shall keep her for him till he returns from his journey. Admetus reluctantly consents, and Alcestis is unveiled. Tableau and conclusion (1006—1158: 153).
Such is the play which was offered (we are to understand) by Euripides as the best he could do by way of presenting in the forms of the stage the death and resurrection of Alcestis. It would be strange indeed if, while praising him for the dramatic skill displayed in the separate scenes, his critics could have refrained from murmuring at the discord between theme and treatment, which characterizes the whole conception. If my object were to make out a case, it would be easy to quote respectable authorities, who have expressed this objection with acrimony; but it will be safer to cite the gentle and apologetic complaint of Paley, whose merits and even defects as a commentator made him an excellent reflector of average opinion:
As for the characters in the play, that of Alcestis must be acknowledged to be pre-eminently beautiful. . . .But, if we except the heroine of the piece, the rest are hardly well-drawn, or, at least, pleasingly portrayed. The selfish Pheres, the unfilial Admetus, the boisterous Hercules, are not in themselves proper characters for tragedy; but then they serve to set off and bring out in relief the beauties which the poet has laboured to concentrate upon one person. . . .The dispute between Admetus and Pheres is calculated, as Hermann observes, and as was very probably designed, to please a contentious and law-loving audience. The poet might perhaps, had he pleased, have represented Admetus in a more amiable point of view. But he preferred to take the legend as he found it; and we must in fairness admit that the faults are those inherent in the subject itself rather than in the poet's manner of treating it.
It should be noted that when Paley describes Admetus, Pheres, and Heracles as 'not well-drawn', he means, as appears by the correction 'not pleasingly portrayed', that they are not drawn well for the general effect of the picture. Regarded merely as studies from life they are drawn only too well. And when he says that they are 'not proper characters for tragedy', he must be taken to mean that they are not proper for this tragedy, for a play on this particular subject, since no one could dispute that characters equally unpleasing in themselves, equally 'selfish', 'unfilial', and 'boisterous', are to be found in dramas and even in tragedies, of which the total effect is nevertheless both pleasing and consistent. And if we ask, why then these traits are objectionable here, the answer is first, that they are useless to the conduct of the story, and secondly that, according to an instinct which not without reason we assume to be universal, they are repugnant to the solemnity of the topic. You cannot make a good play, nor anything fit to be called a play, out of incidents which have no moral or necessary connexion, no other connexion in short than that they might succeed one another in the way represented: and you ought not to make a trifle out of a theme so full of tenderness and awe as the death and resurrection of Alcestis. We will consider the scheme for a moment in these two points of view, and will confine our attention for convenience to the scenes numbered fourth and fifth, upon which the objections may be concentrated. It should be noted that these two scenes form between them a full fourth part of the action, and that a survey of the whole work would only confirm our impressions.
Of these two scenes then in particular we have to say, in obedience to the general verdict, that they are mechanically useless and aesthetically repulsive. It will be seen that these charges, though separable, are in reality two sides of the same. An incident not agreeable in itself becomes pardonable and even acceptable, if it contributes essentially to the progress of the story. But in the two examples before us, the altercation with Pheres, and the intoxication of Heracles, it is not the least curious part of the author's offence, though it is commonly the less insisted on, that they contribute nothing to the movement of the drama. The progress of events towards the proposed conclusion is not forwarded, arrested, or in any way explained by the fact that Admetus and his father regard one another with a contempt which they succeed in making not altogether incomprehensible, and that neither of them has decency enough to refrain from waging a battle of taunts over the corpse of the wife and daughter, and in the presence of vainly expostulating friends. The altercation leaves us, so far as the story is concerned, exactly where we were. Of the next scene indeed this cannot be said, for here the story does take a step; Heracles discovers the deception practised upon him with regard to the identity of the corpse. But to make this discovery it was not requisite that he should get very drunk, in circumstances which make such behaviour not merely contemptible but grossly offensive, and thus expose himself to the scorn and indignation, the merited scorn and merited indignation, as most people have thought and will continue to think, of the servant who waits at his table. To produce the disclosure was not a difficulty needing to be cut in this heroic fashion. On the contrary the difficulty, if any, was to keep Heracles so long in ignorance of the truth; but neither on this side nor on the other is there anything in the dramatic requirements of the situation to account for the manners which he is made to exhibit.
Mechanically therefore these scenes are useless; and, considered aesthetically, as exhibitions of character, they are worse. The finale of the play consists entirely of a dialogue between Heracles and Admetus, and must depend therefore largely for its effect upon the impression of these two personages which in the course of the piece has been stamped on the mind of the spectator or reader. Admetus is there to figure as a man who for his virtue receives from heaven a miraculous boon, perhaps the most astonishing and affecting which human imagination can conceive. Heracles is to figure as the chosen agent, himself something more than man, by whom the divine purpose is carried into effect. As the examination of the finale itself will fall more fitly in another place, we will for the moment assume, what the reader who may have the scene in mind will not be inclined to dispute, that the interlocutors in it do little to clear themselves of any untoward association which they may have previously contracted. What then, we have to ask, is contributed to the final effect by the reflected light of the episodes which we are now considering? That Admetus is not more but less likely to obtain sympathy after his encounter with Pheres, Heracles not more but less likely to appear a worthy deputy of divine power after his interview with the manservant, are propositions which may be defended when they have been denied: and I do not think that the apologists for either, to whom we will come in due course, have gone so far. In the case of Heracles the point is particularly important, because it is only in the fifth scene that we are permitted to make acquaintance with him, before he appears finally as the conqueror of Death. In the third scene, which exhibits his first arrival, his part is secondary and reveals little of him. The benefit of the fifth scene is entirely his own.
How strong and inevitable is the persuasion that to compromise the moral dignity of Admetus and Heracles is to strike at the heart of the story, and that by these powerful scenes, as well as by much else in the play, their dignity is compromised to a degree which, as the author should have seen, is incompatible with the purpose that he professes, appears in nothing more plainly than in the efforts which have been frequently made to defend the character of one or the other, laudable efforts, as proceeding on the assumption that what is patent to us is not likely to have been invisible to Euripides, but, as appears to me with the standing majority, desperate nevertheless. In saying that these defences are unsupported by the majority, I must make an exception of one plea put forward for Admetus, which among modern critics has had nearly if not quite universal support. Admetus (it is said), though we may give up as insufficiently 'amiable' his attitude as a husband and as a son, is redeemed by his generosity as a host. The hospitality, which in the midst of his grief he extends to Heracles, must be set off against his demerits, and leaves an adequate balance in his favour. We will postpone for the present this plea of 'confession and avoidance' and consider those answers which directly traverse the indictment.
I mention only to put aside as here irrelevant all excuses offered not for the dramatis personae but for the author, as for instance that since the play, it appears, stood last among the four exhibited together in the same year, it was designed to replace the ordinary 'satyric drama', which accounts for the prevalence of elements unsuitable to tragedy. Manifestly this is only the accusation itself in another form. If the author wanted something in a light style, it was his business to select a theme suitable for it. Or again (this appears in Paley as above cited), that the unamiable characters are foils for Alcestis. In that case, since Alcestis takes part in only one scene, the work is composed mainly of 'foil'; and indeed we are forbidden by the author himself, as we shall see hereafter, to suppose that the character of 'the heroine' is meant to be the dominant interest. Nor again would it affect our present question, if we were to admit, what according to Paley we must in fairness admit, "that the faults are those inherent in the subject itself rather than in the poet's manner of treating it". Admit it however we neither must nor can; for it is refuted by Paley himself when he says (after Hermann) that "the dispute between Admetus and Pheres was very probably designed to please a contentious and law-loving audience". Whatever be the value of this excuse (if it is meant for an excuse and not an aggravation, for this is not very clear), it assumes, what is surely certain, that the dramatist himself invented the scene in question. Neither this, nor the intoxication of Heracles, is "inherent in the subject". Both incidents must have been chosen, if not engrafted, by the poet, and he is directly responsible for the effect. At any rate all these are defences for the author, not for the personae, and therefore are not now in view.
Coming then directly to the point, and taking first the case of Admetus—is it the fact that the son of Pheres and husband of Alcestis, as presented by Euripides, appears as a selfish, unattractive, and rather contemptible person; and may we assume—for this of course is material—that such would be the view of the Athenians in the time of the author? The first part of the question, about which there has been little dispute, has perhaps been set at rest by Browning in Balaustion's Adventure. Browning, for reasons which will present themselves later, was or conceived himself more free than most readers have felt to express, without abating his respect for the play or the author, the sentiments excited in modern minds by the behaviour of Admetus, not only in the encounter with Pheres but also at the death-bed of Alcestis. To us at least it appears 'childish' (the word is Browning's) in a man, who has deliberately accepted the sacrifice of another life for his own, to spend the moments of parting in beseeching his substitute 'not to abandon him' and 'asking for impossibilities'. And it is worth notice, as bearing on the probable opinion of the Greeks, that this shrewd comment, 'asking for impossibilities', is furnished by Euripides himself. To us it appears that one who in such a position blusters about the inconceivable things that he 'would have done, had they been possible', to rescue his substitute from death, must be stupefied by 'passionate egoism' (the phrase is George Eliot's), if he cannot perceive that he is making the worst of his delicate case, like the coward who pretends to dignify retreat by muttering about 'another time'. And as between him and his father we hold that, whatever might be said in decent privacy for the view that the elder man 'has had his time' and ought, for the greatest happiness of the greatest number, to have accepted death in the place of his son, the son must be wanting in sense, stupefied as before by passionate egoism, not to apprehend without the humiliation of experiment that to argue in this sense with his father is to make himself ridiculous, and to attack his father upon this ground is logical suicide. Moreover we think that, apart from such particular breaches of taste and sense, the act of Admetus, in accepting, much more in soliciting, the sacrifice of his wife, could be dignified and justified only if it were his duty to live, if his life were important to others, and much more important than hers, which nevertheless Euripides does not show us, or indeed give us reason to suppose. To all this, as representing the modern view, the reader will probably assent or, if he should doubt, may fix his sentiments by the perusal of Balaustion's Adventure. But it may still be maintained that such were not the sentiments with which Euripides had to count; and such is the contention recently developed, much more fully and positively than by previous critics, by Mr Way, who is on every ground entitled to respectful consideration.
According to Mr Way "it is certain that the modern view is diametrically opposed to that of the Athenian audience. In their eyes (1) Admetus was a noble character: (2) he was in the right in respect to the motif and incidents of the play: (3) he reaped the just reward of the good man". Now if it is certain that such would be the view of the Athenian audience, the opinion of Athens, that is to say, in the time of Euripides, upon what society, we must ask, did the poet model the public opinion of his imaginary Pherae and his imaginary Iolcus? For, strangely enough, it is certain that in these places the prevalent view was again diametrically opposite, differing not perceptibly from the modern. As to what would be thought in Iolcus, the original home of Alcestis, we have the undisputed assertion of Pheres:
I go: her murderer will bury her.
Thou shalt yet answer for it to her kin.
Surely Akastos is no more a man,
If he of thee claim not his sister's blood.
Pheres is not an admirable old man; he has, as Browning puts it, a truly paternal resemblance to Admetus, he is Admetus aged into cynicism; but he is not a fool. If it be true that in those days, "failing the substitute who shirked his duty", that is to say, Pheres, "Alcestis would be regarded as simply fulfilling hers in yielding her life", how is it that this very Pheres can threaten Admetus with the vengeance of her friends, whose anger must on that hypothesis have been directed altogether against himself? How does Admetus miss this obvious retort, and answer only with irrelevant reiteration of his own implacable hatred? And if it be said that Pheres is blinded by selfishness, and the family of Alcestis not impartial—though as between father and son they may, it would seem, judge as fairly as any one else—we may turn from Iolcus to Pherae and hear, in a cooler moment, the testimony and confession of Admetus.
All this within: but from the world without
Shall bridals of Thessalians chase me: throngs
Where women gossip; and I shall not bear
On those companions of my wife to look.
And, if a foe I have,—
We pause to note that this tone of emphatic hypothesis is introduced, unconsciously and instinctively, by the translator: "whoever happens to be hostile to me" says the Greek:—
thus shall he scoff:
"Lo, there who basely liveth—dared not die,
"But whom he wedded gave, a coward's ransom,
"And 'scaped from Hades. Count ye him a man?
"He hates his parents, though himself was loth
"To die!" Such ill report, besides my griefs,
Shall mine be. Ah, what profit is to live,
O friends, in evil fame, in evil plight?
Such is the reception which Admetus expects from his world; and his own particular friends, who are present for the very purpose of consoling him, dare not, or at least do not, say a word to relieve his fears. But his fears are idle, if to the average Pheraean Admetus would still be "a noble character". The tongue of malice is impotent against public opinion. Pherae therefore held the modern view, not a view diametrically opposite; and if Pherae, why not Athens?
Very clear indeed should be the testimony which is to overbalance such passages as these. The evidence adduced is the old evidence in favour of Admetus' hospitality, "the highest social virtue recognized by a Greek".
The hospitable man embodied for them the virtues, not only of the modern philanthropist, but also of the enlightened diplomatist: he established and maintained friendly relations with other states, gaining for his city allies, and for her people friends and protectors in foreign lands, and that in days when without such, not only was travel perilous, but, even commerce was difficult and precarious. . .Conjugal affection shrank into insignificance beside such a trait. . . .It was his duty to his country to neglect no means of prolonging his usefulness.
The nature and merit of Admetus' hospitality, as actually exercised towards Heracles in the play, will be considered hereafter. Here we will only remark that the public benefit of his function as host would have been more clearly perceived, and the sympathy of the audience on this ground better secured, if it had obtained some notice upon the stage, if for example the gratitude of Pherae had been alleged by his friends as likely to protect him from the obloquy which he anticipates. The statements of Mr Way's paragraph have much truth as generalities about Greek life, but when we ask whether the action and character of Admetus were such as to bring him within the benefit of the doctrine, nothing explicit can be produced, nothing but "considerations which presuppose" the paramount value of his life. Surely this is unsatisfactory.
But although Mr Way, so far as I can judge, has by no means proved that an Athenian jury would have acquitted his client, he does not leave the matter where it was. In the first place he has pointed out with desirable precision what the Admetus of Euripides lacks. The paragraph above cited indicates excellently the sort of beneficence by which an Admetus might have been justified in the eyes of a Greek audience, and which Aeschylus or Sophocles would, we may presume, have made prominent. That Euripides omits to notice or provide such a trait is among the things which show either that he has ill-executed his design, or that we misconceive it. And further, as against Browning, who is cited as representing the enemies of Admetus, Mr Way assuredly has a case, though not perhaps exactly on the issue which he puts foremost. Balaustion's Adventure involves two propositions about the Euripidean Admetus; first, that he is not exhibited for our admiration, and secondly, that Euripides deserves no censure for not making him admirable. Mr Way contends formally against the first, not, as I think, with success; but his statement implies a hypothetical decision, that if Euripides has not made Admetus admirable, Euripides must be excused, if at all, by some other method than that of Browning. And here I am entirely with Mr Way. If in reading Balaustion's Adventure we are able to forget that, according to the legend and according to Euripides, as Mr Way properly reminds us, Admetus was a favourite of the gods, specially chosen to receive the reward of virtue, if his want of what is commonly thought virtue comes at last to seem no drawback but rather an advantage to the total effect, that is because in the joint production of Euripides and Balaustion Admetus becomes a mere foil, and his whole story scarcely more than an opportunity, for displaying the grandeur of the fair collaborator's hero, Heracles. Here therefore we will abandon the husband as apparently indefensible, and consider the case offered by Browning on behalf of the other incriminated personage, the semi-divine deliverer.
It is, if I may say so without impertinence, very much to the credit of Browning's poetical and dramatic instinct, that he should have fixed so decisively upon Heracles as the true nodus of the literary problem presented by the Alcestis: and Balaustion's Adventure is a striking proof how instructive may be the criticism of artist by artist, even when it results, as it is not unlikely to do, in a thorough-going recomposition of the subject. Browning, it is needless to say, was no more likely than Goethe to repose complacently in such a theory of Euripides as satisfied the vigorous but narrow and unimaginative mind of Schlegel, and has infected too many who were capable of knowing better. The conclusion at which Balaustion arrives is the assumption from which Browning started, that the Alcestis is the work of a true artist and a man of sense, justifiable as a whole upon ordinary principles, like the work of Sophocles or another. It must have then some general ruling purpose. From the tradition of commentaries he borrowed the further assumption that this general purpose is to illustrate the religious legend. And he saw, or rather felt—for I do not of course mean that he said such a thing to himself or put it consciously as a step in an argument—he acted, let us say rather, on the truth which he perceived instinctively, that, given these premisses, a noble, beautiful, and thoroughly admirable Heracles is an indispensable necessity. With a selfish, unmanly, unwise, and half-contemptible Admetus it would just be possible—Browning has shown this—to present the legend of Alcestis so as still to preserve the religious hypothesis. The gods, it might be said, though the theology is not very Hellenic, are merciful to the repentant: and the Euripidean Admetus repents, if it be repentance to perceive your folly, as heartily as could be desired. On the whole he might do. But that Heracles should be exposed to any just contempt, Heracles the son of the highest god, the minister of life, privileged to wrestle victoriously with the power of darkness and corruption, to bring quick out of the grave a body upon which the mortal change had actually been accomplished, that Heracles should be semi-comic, or comic at all in the least degree—this seemed, as it is, intolerable, a thing as repugnant to the organic laws of art as a centaur or a chimaera to those of nature. Accordingly since the Heracles of Euripides, as the expositors agree, is in fact semi-comic and liable to much just contempt, Browning simply made another, enveloping and dressing, literally as well as figuratively, the original man in robes, trappings, and appurtenances, material and moral, of which in the Greek play there is not the least suggestion, until once at least, so complete is the transformation, he has to be unwrapped again as it were, before the words of Euripides can find their way to his mouth.
The thing is done (with what perfect unconsciousness and good faith is proved by the audacity of it) by means of copious stage-directions and interpolated remarks. The form of Browning's poem, as will be remembered, is a recitation of the play, with occasional comments by the reciter. The comments are largely pictorial, explaining how the personages looked and moved, replacing in short the action. It is noticeable that at one time Browning seems to have felt, or come near to feeling, the peril of such a form, and the temptation of the poet-commentator to abound in his own sense, instead of following his author. There is an unpleasant, suspicious tartness in the reply of Balaustion to a certain "critic and whippersnapper", who at a previous recitation seems to have objected to her use of such phrases as "Then a fear flitted o'er the wife's white face" on the ground that no fear could be seen to flit over a mask. So silly a pedant was really not worth quoting, and had better have been answered, if at all, without needless quibbling upon the true import of the word poetry, as signifying "a power that makes". If the whippersnapper had rejoined to this that Euripides and Balaustion are not one "maker" but two, two of a trade, and liable to disagree, he would have said something much to the purpose: and possibly it was a hint of this kind, lurking in his ill-stated objection, which caused Balaustion to note and resent it.
However it must be confessed that Balaustion not only makes very well, but also in general remembers her office and fairly makes to order. Now and then she paraphrases in narrative instead of reproducing, and when she does, it may be taken for a note that the original here contains something worth particular attention: but such changes are rare. Her chief activity is in additions, and here she mainly goes by her text. Not only the visible accessories, such as the bow of Apollo, the black robe of Admetus in mourning, and the wreath of Heracles after his feast, are warranted by the dramatist, but in things less directly perceptible by a reader Balaustion is found right upon reference. For instance
that hard dry pressure to the point,
Word slow pursuing word in monotone,
does really appear in the language of the dying Alcestis, and merits, if it does not demand, Balaustion's sympathetic explanation. Or again, the leap of Pheres out of decorum into nature under the unexpected attack of Admetus is lawfully prefaced by this admirable simile:
He came content, the ignoble word, for him
Should lurk still in the blackness of each breast,
As sleeps the water-serpent half surmised:
Not brought up to the surface at a bound,
By one touch of the idly-probing spear.
The vivid, coloured, Miltonic image, though not found in the scene as spoken, fits the words like a glove, and properly compensates for the loss of appropriate action. But when the reciter comes to Heracles, and wherever she has him in view, her invention soars regardless. Without a hint from Euripides, and even against his command, masses of mythology and theology, scenery and portraiture, are rolled in; motives are imputed, facts bluffed, and the whole business of exposition carried on with the fascinating iniquity of a feminine partizan.
Immediately upon his entrance, and before he has said anything but "Pheraean friends", Balaustion stops the action to assure us that in his tone, bearing, and appearance you perceived 'the friend of man', 'the Helper', 'the God', as her style is:
Himself, o' the threshold, sent his voice on first
To herald all that human and divine
I' the weary happy face of him,—half God
Half man, which made the god-part God the more.
And as soon as he has asked whether Admetus is within, she stops again to point out
all the mightiness
At labour in the limbs that for man's sake
Laboured and meant to labour their life long.
In both places her worship flows over the page, and many other eloquent pages are given to repeating and re-enforcing this first impression; so that as long as we keep to the Adventure, it scarcely matters what exactly is said or done in the brief scenes by a personage so stupendous. Like Pindar's Hiero, 'whatsoever he lets drop, falls great because from him'. But if the enchanted reader seeks Euripides, for the pleasure of seeing how his making has made all this, he finds with dismay that it is pure Balaustion, every word of it; the 'God' and 'the half-God', the 'great voice', 'weary happy face', 'happy weary laugh', 'love of men', 'many grandnesses', 'arm which had slain the snake', 'lion's hide', 'interval 'twixt fight and fight again', 'snatched repose', 'dust o' the last encounter', 'breathing space for man's sake', 'unimaginable shaft', 'plate-mail of a monster', 'pest o' the marish', 'world-weary God', 'solemn draught of true religious wine', 'grand benevolence', 'the God surmounting the man', 'tree-like growth through pain to joy', and all the rest of it; every thing put in which Euripides might have attached to the conception of Heracles, but has in fact resolutely and consistently left out.
The labours, for example, the unflinching incessant labours on behalf of humanity! Balaustion recalls them to us incessantly; they are Heracles; he personifies the great love, 'careless of self where others may be helped', which reproves by its mere presence the littleness of Admetus, his counsellors, servants, and the rest of the crew. In Heracles everything must be praised, anything forgiven. If he says, 'Is Admetus at home?', you must revere him: think of his labours! If he drinks till he 'howls discordance', you must not call him a sot, nor let any one do so unrebuked. Poor man, he wanted it; think of his labours! Well then, if we are to think so much of them, why do we get no help from Euripides? Certainly the myths of Heracles offer abundant material for presenting him as the friend of humanity and reliever of the distressed. Many of them, such as the slaying of the lion in Nemea or the serpent in Lerna, were adapted if not designed for the very purpose: and Euripides, like Balaustion here, can find and use them, when he wants them. Why did he pass them over in the Alcestis? The 'labours of Heracles', in the sense put upon the phrase by Balaustion here and by Euripides elsewhere, his services to humanity, are in this play ignored completely; and nothing is said by any one to show that for his previous career he enjoys or deserves gratitude any more than an ordinary man. The enterprise upon which he is bound at the time of the action is to seize, on behalf of Eurystheus king of Tiryns, a famous team of four horses belonging to Diomede the Thracian. He expects a fight, and is ready to kill Diomede, if necessary. No benefit is intended or can accrue from the achievement to anyone except Eurystheus; nor is it pretended that Eurystheus is prosecuting a right. The matter lies altogether between two fierce chieftains, one of whom covets the property of the other; and the aggressor has the advantage of commanding the services of Heracles. Courage and gallantry he certainly shows, but as 'a friend of humanity' he must be ranked with Hawkins or Sforza. The visitors of Admetus, who know his name and presumably his history, treat him without distinguishing particularity; and from Admetus we learn only that Heracles upon various occasions has received him hospitably at Argos, which is satisfactory but scarcely sublime. What impression of his character an unflattering and uninterested observer might derive from his present employment, as he describes it, and from previous performances (of the same kind so far as appears) to which he alludes, we hear from the servant commissioned by Admetus to make him comfortable:
And so here am I, helping make at home
A guest, some fellow ripe for wickedness,
Robber or pirate!
It is curious that Balaustion, so prompt in observing the superhuman way in which Heracles says 'Yes', 'No', and 'How do you do?', should have heard this pointed remark without any reflexion more precise than broadly to label the speaker a 'creature' and condescendingly dismiss him as one who 'had been right if not so wrong '.
As it is with the 'labours', so it is with all the divine attributes accumulated upon the hero in Browning's enlarged and amended version. They are not to be found in the Alcestis of Euripides. And to prove this absence not accidental we have only to compare the author's Madness of Heracles, where the moral nobility of the hero as the friend of man really is a part of the hypothesis, and all the flowers of Balaustion's ornamentation, labours and trophies, generous toil and grateful world, can be illustrated ad libitum. In fact what Browning has done is just to take the Heracles of the one play and put him, to make a figure of suitable height, on the top of his namesake in the other, 'the God surmounting the man' (as Balaustion says), with what stifling compression of the unlucky 'man' we will see in a moment. To set out the whole detail would be tedious; but the reader with the three poems before him can easily satisfy himself.
Down to his very dress the Heracles of Balaustion is not the personage of the Alcestis but of the Madness. It is she, not Euripides, who tells us that, when he goes forth to encounter Death, he picks up his lion-skin and leaves behind his club; she who by other allusions takes care to keep before our eyes these consecrated symbols of beneficent power. The arrows too, the 'unimaginable shaft', she manages to get in by a side-glance; and it seems a mere accident that these also are not brought upon the stage. Now of course from the nature of the case it cannot be proved directly that Heracles in the Alcestis does not wear the spoil of Nemea, does not carry the club which smote the giants, or the bow which put an end to the outrages of Nessus. No one notes their absence; it were impossible, except in a burlesque, that any one should. But neither is there any trace of their presence; which of itself proves that the author on this occasion attached no importance to them, and when taken in connexion with the corresponding omission of all the mythical and doctrinal matter associated with them, goes far to prove that he did not allow them to be used. In the Madness all are mentioned, and not only mentioned but brought tragically into play. In the Alcestis the skin of the lion would be as irrelevant as the lion itself. If worn on the stage (which I do not believe) it must have been merely as a conventional mark of the person; and the author, who wrote, we must remember, for a public of readers as well as of spectators, has done his best to protect a reader at all events from the intrusion.
How hopeless is the well-meant effort to deify a swashbuckler appears when Balaustion ceases to describe and begins to quote. She indeed, like a good girl, having given her heart sticks at nothing: and since Browning—with a poet poetizing it could not be otherwise—has given his heart to her, we, so long as we keep in their company, can perhaps believe what they tell us. But go to Euripides, and the charm is lost. Here is the behaviour of the hero at table, as described by Euripides—Mr Way, not Balaustion, shall recite, as it will save the trouble of noting a few little coquetries of hers:
He first, albeit he saw my master mourning
Entered and passed the threshold unashamed;
Then nowise courteously received the fare
Found with us, though our woeful plight he knew,
But what we brought not, hectoring bade us bring.
The ivy-cup uplifts he in his hands,
And swills the darkling mother's fiery blood,
Till the wine's flame enwrapped him, heating him.
Then did he wreathe his head with myrtle-spray.
and so on. It seems scarcely credible, when we are not under Browning's control, that what Balaustion infers from this description is the peevishness of the servant (whom without warrant she talks of as 'old') and the magnanimity of the guest. She is indeed a little hard-pushed by the tone which his 'grand benevolence' adopts when he presently appears; and she feels the need of a fresh make-up:
Then smiled the mighty presence, all one smile,
And no touch more of the world-weary god,
Through the brief respite.
No touch indeed! 'The Helper' has recovered so thoroughly that he 'helps' the poor servitor (whom he knows and sees to be deeply afflicted by the recent bereavement) with a sort of maudlin sermon, asking him 'whether he is aware' that all men are mortal, and leading to the moral that one should drink and kiss the girls. This, thinks Balaustion, is the way to 'soften surliness' and 'bridle bad humours'. Such idolatrous devotion is beyond the reach of argument.
The truth is that the Heracles of the Alcestis, though he has his good qualities, is as far from moral sublimity as he well could be. Nor is he by any means strong in religion, presenting in this respect an instructive contrast to his friend Admetus, whose piety is his forte. Their diversity produces an awkward clash of opinion, and puts the politeness of Admetus to a trial, when Heracles will not see that a person doomed to death by prophetic fiat is as good as dead already. The tone he takes would be simply cruel, unless intended to imply doubts about the weight of the prediction; and it is clear that if he had known (which he does not) that an actual day had been named for Alcestis to die on, he would still not have shared the absolute assurance of Admetus and his household, that on that day she would inevitably die. Much in the same way the old Pheraean, the leader of the Chorus, makes no impression on Heracles whatever by telling him (what he has never heard) that the horses of Diomede, the horses which he proposes to steal, eat human flesh. Heracles derides the story, and when the other persists, parries him with the sneering question, 'And whose son does the breeder brag himself?''Son of Ares'.'Still my hard fate! I have fought two sons of Ares already!' The attitude is intelligible and intelligent; but it certainly suggests a suspicion that, however he might feel in moments of peculiar mental and physical stimulus, this cool-headed fighter must often have known misgivings about the superhuman parentage attributed to himself.
But perhaps the most striking revelation of Heracles is given us in the story told by and about himself to account for his possession of the disguised Alcestis and his return with her to the house of Admetus. Here it is—Mr Way is more exact, for Balaustion as usual drags in the 'labours', but somehow a little too weighty—in the version of Browning:
Take and keep for me
This woman, till I come thy way again,
Driving before me, having killed the king
O' the Bistones, that drove of Thrakian steeds:
In such case, give the woman back to me!
But should I fall—as fall I fain would not,
Seeing I hope to prosper and return—
Then I bequeath her as thy household slave.
She came into my hands with good hard toil!
For what find I, when started on my course,
But certain people, a whole country-side,
Holding a wrestling-bout? as good to me
As a new labour:
—for which read simply 'worth exertion'—
whence I took, and here
Come keeping with me this, the victor's prize.
For such as conquered in the easy work
Gained horses which they drove away: and such
As conquered in the harder,—those who boxed
And wrestled,—cattle; and to crown the prize
A woman followed. Chancing as I did,
Base were it to forego this fame and gain!
Well, as I said, I trust her to thy care:
No woman I have kidnapped, understand!
But good hard toil has done it: here I come!
Some day, who knows? even thou wilt praise the feat.
Such is Heracles as he paints himself, delineating the part from his knowledge of himself and of other people's opinion about him. It should be remembered that Admetus, as Heracles now knows, is in the first agony of a widower, and that Heracles has many other friends in Pherae. Further comment seems superfluous: and if, dismissing the question how Euripides came to make him such, we ask simply what he is, we need not after this passage hesitate about the answer. He is drawn from a type well known in the age of the poet, the athlete-adventurer, the class of which a specially brilliant specimen was his supposed descendant the Heracleid Dorieus of Rhodes, the high-born ill-starred enemy whom the Athenians, having taken him prisoner, spared and liberated for his personal beauty and Olympian renown. The story of Dorieus presents the romance of such a career; the portrait of Heracles in the Alcestis, omitting for the moment his encounter with Death, offers the prose of it. Such persons, the less well-endowed or less fortunate members of the aristocracies formerly hymned by Pindar, were driven, by an education which fitted them for nothing else, to pick up what they could in a life of shifty wandering service, sometimes rising as in the case of Dorieus to the level of the condottiere, more often probably sinking, like our Heracles, to something nearer the bravo. The Athenians, notwithstanding their generosity to the Rhodian, whose singularly splendid misfortunes marked him as a proper object for a theatrical act of generosity, were by no means in the latter part of the fifth century indiscriminating cultivators of the athlete in general, and Euripides in particular had no great love for them. What he has given us in his Heracles is a portrait drawn, as it would seem, without flattery and without caricature—a high-born athlete-soldier of Argos, engaged in the service of the 'despot' Eurystheus. All that he does, still excepting his miraculous achievement in the case of Alcestis, fits perfectly together and exhibits the man. The virtues of his breeding, or at least some, of them, he has and retains; he is brave, warm-hearted, sensitive in that sort of honour or pride which dislikes to have made a blunder, to lie under an obligation, or in any way to cut a poor figure. When master of himself, and so long as he is under the eye of those whom he respects, he can behave like the 'gentilhomme' that he is. He is shrewd, but not quick-witted. In the pursuit of his calling he is as free from scruple as from fear, perfectly ready to rob and to murder without any other reason than the interest of his master for the time being; and if occasion offered, he would rob for his own appetite (we have his own word for it) with as little remorse. Living irregularly and by shifts, he is greedy of gain, though not poor, and ready to stoop for it. In his personal tastes he is jovial, sensual, and coarse; and when he feels himself at liberty, he is liable to degrade himself by rudeness and even gross indecency. He will be sorry for it afterwards. Such in brief is the semi-divine deliverer.
To palliate the ruin which this bull-headed apostle makes among the Delphian porcelain of the legend, by clapping on him the mask of an angel, and then crying to us, whenever he plunges into the pots, 'But look at his face!', is an expedient practicable only for an expositor like Browning, who incorporates the work of his author in original poetry of his own. What Browning really shows us, with regard to Heracles, is not that the Euripidean personage is fit for the story, but that we ought to be more moved, than some would seem to be, by his extreme and incredible unfitness. 'He cannot', says Browning virtually, 'be such as you suppose!' He is nevertheless just that; but to say so is to give Browning only half an answer. 'I meant of course', he might rejoin, 'that if he is such, you, before you pretend to understand Euripides, are bound to say why'. And to that no answer is at present offered. It does not help to call him a 'comic element'; let him be comic or tragic; that does not matter; the question is, 'Is he relevant?'
So far as I am aware, no one has yet essayed in this case the suggestion of a difference between ancient and modern sentiment. It has not been contended that though, from the modern English point of view, to get very drunk in the house of a gentleman who has treated you with marked courtesy seems an odd preparation for wrestling victoriously with the Angel of Death, an ancient Athenian would not have been displeased, For the satisfaction however of possible doubts, it may be said that beyond all question the ancient Athenians must have been far more displeased. Even to us, among whom (to our shame be it said) it is still widely held that drunkenness is in itself highly amusing, and always excusable (considering the temptation) unless very gross, even to us the behaviour of Heracles seems not easily pardonable. But the abuse of wine was not a popular vice among the Greeks; and they were not disposed to make light of it. They reserved the main benefit of their indulgence, as we ours, for the excesses to which they were addicted. A comic tale like Pickwick, in which the male characters, good and bad alike, are sopping and swilling daily and hourly throughout, would probably have been read by Aristophanes with the same sense of 'allowance for the ethics of the age', which we make in the case of the Lysistrata. An Athenian could of course, under suitable circumstances, enjoy the grotesqueness of a drunkard as well as of a glutton. For example, the figure of Heracles himself, in his character of 'strong man' and huge feeder, was familiarly so exhibited on the comic stage; but then he was exhibited as a grotesque, intentionally contemptible. But that will not help the Alcestis, where the question that arises is this, 'Can a man make himself tipsy, and this at a time and place specially unfit, without deserving contempt?' It is certain that an Athenian would have been not more but less likely than an Englishman to answer this question in the affirmative.
Before we part finally with Balaustion's encomiums upon Heracles, we should perhaps give a separate word to one of her ex parte judgments, which proceeds on an assumption not peculiar to Browning, but mistaken nevertheless and injurious to the play. We are invited by Balaustion more than once to contrast the bravery of Heracles, who 'held his life out in his hand for any man to take', with the cowardice of other persons, the Chorus and the servants, who did not save the much-praised Alcestis by taking her place as victim of the Fates, and thus redeeming the king at less expense. The old men of Pherae, says she, are ashamed to tell Heracles on his arrival that the queen is dead, for fear of his scornful 'Why did you let her die?' Now as between Heracles and the others this distinction (saving her respect) is plainly untenable, acceptable only to the blindness of her partiality. If the Pheraean friends of Admetus were really admissible as substitutes, then so was Heracles. He knew the stipulation of the Fates, and knew that Alcestis had undertaken to fulfil it; he did not know before his visit that a date had been fixed for the fulfilment; but why did he wait for this? Here was just the occasion, if ever, for 'holding his life out in his hand', and bestowing on his friend Admetus both life and wife at once. So far Balaustion's error is personal and easily disposed of. But her charge against the friends of Admetus generally is a separable point, and deserves attention. If, for instance, any one of the Chorus could have redeemed Admetus, there is, as Browning felt, something tasteless in their laudation of Alcestis for consenting, and downright fatuity in their denunciation of his parents for refusing. And the case of the household is worse; for if Admetus had a claim upon anyone, it was surely on the serfs whom, as Apollo experienced, he treated with such remarkable kindness. But in truth the whole charge rests on a misconception. According to Euripides, who presumably follows tradition, the bargain of the Fates was not, as is often stated or assumed, to take instead of Admetus anyone who consented to die. Upon such terms a Greek gentleman of wealth and rank would have got off easily. It would have been strange if not one could have been found, among the many families of human beings absolutely dependent on him, to purchase his good-will for those they left behind them by giving the life which he could take. But Euripides expressly says that Admetus, "having tried all his loved ones, that is to say his father and aged mother, found none willing to die, except his wife". The Greek will not bear the sense, which we should expect if every substitute was admissible, "having tried all his loved ones, including even his father and aged mother"; and this is so clear, that corrections have been proposed to get rid of the difficulty. But the truth is that according to the bargain none was admissible except the family of Admetus. What the Fates promised was, in the words of Euripides, that Admetus should escape "if he gave another corpse instead of his own to those below". This does not mean "if another person would die instead", but something much more precise. The language used refers to that simple conception of 'the other life' according to which the dead were not ghosts at large in another world but persons 'living' together in the burial-place where they were put. Antigone in Sophocles uses similar language, and assumes the same conception, when she says, as a reason for giving funeral rites to her dead brother even at the cost of offence against the living, "I shall rest a loved one with him whom I have loved, sinless in my crime; for it will be longer needful for me to please those below than those here: there I shall lie for ever". The persons described as those below, to whom Admetus is to give another corpse instead of his own, are those who, his hour being come, are entitled to his company, that is to say, the dead of his family. The death of a person of another family, who would be buried with his 'loved ones', in a different burying-place, and worshipped with other and alien rites, would be no compensation at all. Now it happened that at the time Admetus' whole family (excluding his young children, who of course could not consent, nor be sacrificed) consisted of his father, mother, and wife. He applied to all of them, "all his loved ones" as Euripides says, and only his wife would consent. Thus, and thus only, can we understand the freedom with which the Chorus, as well as Admetus, assail the selfishness of the father and mother. No one else had refused, because no one else was admissible. The modern misconception has arisen from the brevity with which the story, being familiar, is told in the prologue, and from our want of acquaintance with the religious beliefs and formularies presupposed. However this is a small matter and a side-matter. Let us return to the main issue.
The moment is convenient for looking round us and considering where we are arrived. We set out from the observation that, with individual varieties of tone, the expositors of the Alcestis all agree in expressing surprise and dissatisfaction at the incongruity between the nature of the supposed story and the characters of Admetus and Heracles. The depth of this dissatisfaction, we said, might be measured, even better than by the outspoken scoffs of malevolent critics, by the efforts of benevolent critics to explain the incongruity away. We have now considered the allegations of two benevolent critics, Mr Way and Browning. They, if they do not stand alone in their respective classes, may be taken as typical of those who, seeing that for the purpose designed the defence of the impeached characters, or of one at least, must be complete and thorough-going, have tried to make it so. Mr Way says that the Admetus of the play is altogether noble from a Greek point of view. Browning says that the Heracles of the play is altogether noble, because he is Heracles, and Euripides has shown how sublime Heracles is. But when we go back to the text we find in the case of Admetus an express statement that Greeks would not take the favourable view attributed to them, and in the case of Heracles none of those traits, actions, and symbols which Euripides (as we see in another play) thought proper to show his sublimity, but instead of them other lineaments which are manifestly ignoble and noted as such by the author. In such circumstances the thorough-going style of defence is impracticable for the average composer of continuous commentary, bound or safeguarded by the necessity of weighing all that the author has said, and the impossibility of putting anything in.
But the instinct, which Browning and Mr Way by their several methods attempt to satisfy, is imperious and universal. If the play, and especially the conclusion of it, is to harmonize at all with the supposed design, then something of heroic dignity, something above the commonplace, must be attached, if not both to Heracles and to Admetus, at least to one of them, and to Admetus rather, since, though the part of Heracles is more important to the religious legend, that of Admetus bulks larger in Euripides. An expedient, which avoids the impracticable extreme of a thorough-going admiration, has been found for making a tolerable hero out of the Euripidean Admetus, and has been adopted, I think, universally. Having said this, I naturally feel some reluctance and embarrassment in saying, what nevertheless after long consideration I must say, deliberately and respectfully, that this expedient exhibits the most extraordinary proof conceivable of our human capacity for ignoring what we do not wish to see, and believing not what we know but what we like.
It has been said in book after book, that the character of Admetus as presented by Euripides, however unattractive and undignified in other respects, is redeemed by one trait of true nobility, the ideal of friendship and hospitality which he exhibits, at the expense of his tenderest feelings, in the reception and entertainment of his guest. As a husband he is perhaps not up to the standard, but then what a host! How worthy of the prince, whose prosperity was founded upon his kind treatment of Apollo as a servant in his house, is the suppression of self, which enables him, by concealing the truth, to open his door to the traveller in the very instant of his bereavement! Here lies the unity of the whole play, the moral of which "undoubtedly is, that disinterested hospitality never fails of its reward". So, and with such emphasis of type, says Paley; and so say the rest in a chorus. Let us then contemplate for a little the act of virtue, to which our reverence is thus powerfully invited.
The case, it will be remembered, is this. Heracles, on his way from Argos to the north, is passing through Pherae, in which town he has many friends, Admetus being one of the number. He is on an errand imposed by authority, and so pressing as not to admit of more than a few hours' delay. With the purpose of requesting this temporary entertainment he selects the house of Admetus, who tells us that he has been very well entertained himself by Heracles on the occasion of visits to Argos. It happens that he arrives at the palace just when the master of it is on the point of carrying his wife to the tomb. Admetus, to account for his emotion and mourning garb, declares that he is about to perform the funeral of a girl who had been entrusted to him by her deceased parents and has died in his house. Heracles expresses his regret at having arrived so inopportunely, and is about to go elsewhere; but Admetus protests that there is no reason for this; 'the dead are. . .dead; his guest will be put in a part of the house quite separate from that in which the funeral preparations are proceeding'; and finally cuts short his objections by handing him over to a servant, who receives orders to take care that the provision is ample, and to keep the doors shut between the respective apartments, while Admetus himself retires to continue the obsequies of the supposed orphan.
And this is hospitality! This is the ideal of friendship! This is the act, which not only redeems a man from the imputation of selfishness, but by its high nobility explains and recommends a story designed to show us how heaven rewarded it with a benevolent miracle! I venture to say on the contrary that the behaviour of Admetus to Heracles is just of a piece with the rest of his proceedings, inconsiderate, indelicate, and unkind; that no one in his own case, and no one in any case, unless compelled by some supposed necessity, would esteem it otherwise; and that this view, if it were not provable by the common sense and sentiments of mankind, would still have to be accepted as the view of Euripides, inasmuch as the act is condemned by every one of his mouth-pieces, the personages of the drama, not excepting Admetus himself.
Be it observed in the first place that, if the entertainment thus bestowed upon Heracles is to be reckoned a proof of kindness, this must be on some other ground than the mere material benefit of shelter and food, for these he did not lack. We are told repeatedly, whenever in fact Admetus refers to the subject, that Heracles had other friends at hand, from whom, if allowed to depart, he could and would have obtained refreshment. And it is evident that, unless it were in the quality of the viands, almost any entertainment must have been more comfortable than that which is forced upon him by Admetus, a solitary meal consumed under the eyes of unwilling servants, while the so-called host is engaged in conducting a funeral. Indeed, to do Admetus justice, he never does pretend that his motive in the matter is solicitude for his friend. The ground on which he defends himself against objections is that, if Heracles had gone elsewhere, his own character for hospitality would have suffered;
So adding to my ills this other ill
That mine were styled a house inhospitable.
From whom under the circumstances this reproach was to be apprehended, and why any one should take a view of the case so different from that of Heracles himself and of the protesting Chorus, Admetus does not explain; but we will assume for the moment that the apprehension is real and not groundless. In that case the conduct of Admetus, though not in the least noble or even disinterested, is prudent and so far justifiable; he protects himself against possible censure, which any man has a right to do, provided that he can do it without wronging another.
But how can Admetus be brought within the limits of this proviso? And does then Heracles sustain no wrong? What of the deceit which is practised upon his confidence in Admetus' loyalty? What of the false position in which he is thus led to place himself, what of the mortification and self-reproach which he thereby incurs? The deceit in itself would have been sufficiently offensive, even if it had led to no worse consequence than the unpleasantness of recollection, when sooner or later he made the inevitable discovery. When one friend demands and another renders a trivial service of little intrinsic value, the pledge of friendship is not in the thing bestowed, as in this case the victuals and drink, but in the mutual confidence and goodwill, which makes it seem natural to each that he should thus ask or be asked. Common free consent is the essence of the matter, and the only estimable part of it. But if there is on one side no consent, or if, which is the same thing, the consent of one party is only secured by the fraud of the other, so that he asks and accepts on a misrepresentation what, not needing it, he would not ask or accept if he knew the truth, the substance of friendship is sacrificed to the mere appearance and form of it. The friendship of Admetus and Heracles is so strong that Admetus cannot possibly allow Heracles to take a meal in another house instead of in his own; and yet this same friendship is so slight, that Heracles has no claim to share the sorrow of Admetus when his wife is lying dead in the house! Admetus insists that Heracles, if he had been told the truth, would have gone elsewhere. Whether this would in fact have been so, we have no means of judging. It would depend on the real relations between the two men, or rather on Heracles' opinion of those relations: he might have been moved to go, and he might have been moved to remain. But one thing surely is manifest, that if Admetus conjectures truly, he thereby condemns his trick. So much for the deceit in itself, for the mere offence against loyalty. But the offence goes deeper than this. Being thus admitted or rather entrapped into the house, Heracles behaves there in such a way, that on learning the truth from a servant he is overwhelmed with horror and self-disgust. For the full extent of this misadventure Admetus is not solely responsible. He could not perhaps be expected to guess that his excellent friend would console himself for the want of society by getting drunk, especially as the circumstances, even as pretended, would have sufficed to restrain most men from this extremity. But neither is Admetus excusable. The actual sequel does but emphasize the predictable risk to which he exposes his unsuspecting guest, who, without going as far as he does, might have done many things unsuitable to the awful situation in which the household is found. What right or approvable reason has Admetus for thrusting another upon this danger, merely because it consists with his opinion of his own interests that his bread should be eaten and not the bread of his neighbours; and where is the nobility of this economical purchase? I say nothing about the quality, in regard to the dead wife, of the particular lies by which the noble result is achieved.
Such, as it seems to me, would be the judgment on the case, if argued from the sentiments of mankind in general. But what we are concerned with after all is the sentiment of the Greeks as conceived by Euripides. Let us see how he represents it. The first to pronounce an opinion are the Chorus, from whom, as the especial friends of Admetus, accustomed by long respect and affection to regard him with uncommon indulgence, we may expect the best that can be said for his conduct. But they expostulate vehemently:
Admetus! what, with such a sorrow here
Hast heart for entertainment? Why so mad?
And when Admetus pleads the importance of sustaining his reputation, and the high claims of Heracles as a friend, they reply:
If he be e'en so dear, how was it then
That thou didst not impart thy present case?
It will be seen that they put simply and sharply the precise dilemma which we have already expounded in the foregoing remarks. Either Heracles is very near and dear to Admetus, or he is not. If he is not, it is needless and improper to admit him at such a moment; if he is, it is needless and improper to deceive him. That Euripides thought this dilemma, as I think it, unanswerable, I infer from his making Admetus not solve it but silence the discussion:
He never would have willed to cross my door
Had he known aught of my calamities.
And probably to some of you I seem
Unwise enough in doing what I do;
Such will scarce praise me: but these halls of mine
Know not to drive away or slight a guest.
And thereupon he retires. Since he has added nothing to his case as he put it before, except the assumption, both gratuitous and damaging, that Heracles, if treated frankly, would not have come in, he naturally supposes the others to maintain their unanswered objections; and if they were nevertheless represented by Euripides as convinced, that would affect not the truth but our estimate of their intelligence. But in fact they retract nothing. Since their admired prince will not hear them, they set themselves, like loyal courtiers, to make the best of what he chooses to do. They remind themselves that the house always was, as Admetus has said, a most liberal and hospitable house. Had not Apollo consented to live in it, graced it with miracles, and rewarded it with immense increase of substance and land? Upon this encouraging theme they are made to dilate with a fulness, which has been noted as exceeding the occasion, and justly so noted, were it not that irrelevance is the only way of escape for those who desire to applaud what they have rationally condemned. Between the treatment of Apollo and the treatment of Heracles there is neither analogy nor connexion: but the speakers assume that, strange though it seems to them, from the glory and blessing thus earned must be traced the sensitiveness of Admetus towards possible injury to the reputation of his house as a place of reception. "It is a part of high breeding" they say "to tend exceedingly to the point of honour"; and they add with generous breadth of allowance that "upon the noble all the virtues rest", or in other words, the actions of princes are presumably right because theirs. "It is amazing: but we have a settled confidence that the god-worshipping man will fare well and do well", a double inference which Greek enables them to express in a single term of convenient ambiguity. With this pious petitio principii they conclude and the king re-enters. How they might have reviewed their doctrine in the light of subsequent events we do not learn; for, as we shall see, at the close of the play it is not found convenient by the author that they should explain their sentiments; but it will be consistent with their attitude throughout, if we suppose them to acquiesce, as before, in the final pronouncement of Admetus.
It is curious and instructive to note that Browning, who, having discovered (as he supposed) a satisfactory hero for the play in Heracles, was little concerned for the honour of Admetus, and could judge without prejudice what Euripides really says of him, has a comment here on the inadequacy of the language put in the mouth of the Chorus to express what (ex hypothesi) the situation requires. It is, I think, the only occasion on which Balaustion goes so far as to suggest a correction.
And on each soul this boldness settled now,
she says, citing in indirect form the terms of the original,
That one, who reverenced the Gods so much,
Would prosper yet: (or—I could wish it ran—
Who venerates the Gods, i' the main will still
Practise things honest though obscure to judge).
Exactly so : if Euripides expects us to admire the behaviour of Admetus as a host, and has founded his play upon this expectation, the Chorus, whose first judgment is unfavourable, should have been made to disprove and retract their opinion, or at least to acknowledge in unequivocal terms that, however the thing may look, they must be mistaken. It is strange (ex hypothesi) and unsatisfactory, that all their inspiriting reminiscences should bring them no nearer to the point than this, that with a man so pious all will assuredly. . .be right.
It appears then that at this point the sentence upon Admetus' action remains in suspense: and there it is left, till we come to the concluding dialogue between the prince and the traveller. For as to the ejaculations and speeches of Heracles in the moment when he discovers the fact concealed from him, and resolves to recover Alcestis from the grasp of Death, they are from the circumstances inadmissible as matter of judgment. He is then speaking under the double excitement of wine and remorse. He is filled, as any man would be, when his eyes are thus suddenly opened, with the sense of his own misbehaviour and loss of respect. His one impulse is to put himself right forthwith and recover his dignity, "to approve himself" as he says, "for a son of Zeus" by a signal service rendered to those whose hospitality he had claimed and certainly, as he perceives, has abused. He is thus in no condition to estimate or to consider the behaviour of his friend to himself: and in fact his exclamations, so far as they touch this side of the matter, betray by their inconsistency that he has not yet reflected on it. At the first moment of suspecting a deceit he cries out against it as an incredible injury:
Have I been outraged by my friend and host?
And in the same spirit he reproaches the slave, in language broken with indignation, for having complied with Admetus' order that he should be kept in the dark. On the other hand in the course of the wild and startling tirade which precedes his exit, he works himself up to the opposite point of view, and expresses it with an energy and assurance far exceeding that of Admetus. As the speech is for many reasons important, as it contains the only unequivocal commendation bestowed in the drama upon the act which we have to consider, and as Browning, cheered, we may well suppose, by finding here, for the first and last time, something like the tone of religious confidence which the Heracles of Balaustion's Adventure might be expected to use, has discarded for the moment the somewhat stumbling style of his average dialogue, and has produced a version of excellent spirit, I should like to quote the whole of it.
O much-enduring heart and hand of mine
Now show what sort of son she bore to Zeus,
That daughter of Electruon, Tiruns' child,
Alkmené! for that son must needs save now
The just-dead lady: ay, establish here
I' the house again Alkestis, bring about
Comfort and succour to Admetos so!
I will go lie in wait for Death, black-stoled
King of the corpses! I shall find him, sure,
Drinking, beside the tomb, o' the sacrifice:
And if I lie in ambuscade, and leap
Out of my lair, and seize—encircle him
Till one hand join the other round about—
There lives not who shall pull him out from me,
Rib-mauled, before he let the woman go!
But even say I miss the booty,—say,
Death comes not to the boltered blood,—why then,
Down go I, to the unsunned dwelling-place
Of Koré and the king there,—make demand
Confident I shall bring Alkestis back,
So as to put her in the hands of him
My host, that housed me, never drove me off:
Though stricken with sore sorrow, hid the stroke,
Being a noble heart and honouring me!
Who of Thessalians, more than this man, loves
The stranger? Who, that now inhabits Greece?
Wherefore he shall not say the man was vile
Whom he befriended—native noble heart!
A fine declamation, amazingly fine—and not the less so, or less suited to the state of the speaker, that it cannot possibly be reconciled with his indignant condemnation of the same 'noble host', pronounced but a few minutes before. But if we want his fixed and deliberate opinion, we shall plainly do well to consult him at some hour when he is. . .more himself. And this Euripides permits us to do. For when Heracles comes back from the tomb with the disguised Alcestis, and faces Admetus for the first time since the discovery of the deception, he goes to that subject forthwith, and treats it in a manner as sober as we could possibly desire.
The tone indeed of his opening so little satisfies Balaustion, that before she begins to quote she puts in, as her fashion is at such places, a more than commonly eloquent description of her own. This, though excellent as original poetry, suffers as an exposition of Euripides from the unlucky fact that it does not accord with the speech which it introduces, as Balaustion herself ingenuously confesses by directing us to put the description out of sight again before we come to the speech itself. The whole passage is so interesting an example of Browning's method, that, though his version is here not so good as in the last citation and wants altogether the polish of the original, we will cite it nevertheless together with his preamble. The version is substantially faithful, and free at any rate from the suspicion of serving unduly any purpose of mine.
Ay, he it was advancing! In he strode
And took his stand before Admetos—turned
Now by despair to such a quietude,
He neither raised his voice nor spoke, this time,
The while his friend surveyed him steadily.
That friend looked rough with fighting: had he strained
Worst brute to breast was ever strangled yet?
Some how, a victory—for there stood the strength
Happy, as always; something grave perhaps;
The great vein-cordage on the fret-worked front
Black-swollen, beaded yet with battle-dew
The yellow hair of the hero!—his big frame
A-quiver with each muscle sinking back
Into the sleepy smooth it leaped from late.
Under the great guard of one arm, there leant
A shrouded something, live and woman-like,
Propped by the heart-beats 'neath the lion-coat.
When he had finished his survey, it seemed,
The heavings of the heart began subside,
The helpful breath returned, and last the smile
Shone out, all Herakles was back again,
As the words followed the saluting hand.
"To friendly man behoves we freely speak,
Admetos!—nor keep buried, deep in breast
Blame we leave silent. I assuredly
Judged myself proper, if I should approach
By accident calamities of thine,
To be demonstrably thy friend: but thou
Told'st me not of the corpse then claiming care,
That was thy wife's, but didst instal me guest
I' the house here, as though busied with a grief
Indeed, but then, were grief beyond thy gate:
And so, I crowned my head, and to the Gods
Poured my libations in thy dwelling-place,
With such misfortune round me. And I blame—
Certainly blame thee, having suffered thus!
But still I would not pain thee, pained enough:
So let it pass!"
Here by way of parenthesis I would ask the reader to compare carefully this speech with the foregoing picture; to remark the device by which the one is linked to the other; to note that Euripides has nothing anywhere to warrant one stroke of the picture, and nothing in this place but a remark from the Chorus that the person approaching the house appears to be Heracles; to consider how easy it could have been to suggest such a picture by common dramatic means—and then to believe, if he can, that Browning and Euripides have here the same conception and purpose. To proceed however with our immediate subject. The reply of Admetus, so far as it relates to the present matter, runs in Browning's version as follows:
Nowise dishonouring, nor amid my foes
Ranking thee, did I hide my wife's ill fate;
But it were grief superimposed on grief,
Shouldst thou have hastened to another home.
My own woe was enough for me to weep!
Now it is evident that these two speeches, allowing for the difference of speaker, decide the main question, whether the behaviour of Admetus to Heracles was right or wrong, kind or unkind, in the same sense, and that is, against Admetus. The language of Heracles is frankly that of reproach, tempered but not substantially modified by compassion. He had a claim, he says—and surely this is the pith and sense of the whole affair—having come as a friend, to be treated and allowed as a friend, by receiving confidence and returning sympathy; instead of this, he was betrayed by deceit into behaviour which it is painful to remember. And Admetus frankly apologises, defending not his act, but his intentions; he did not mean a slight, he had no ill-will to Heracles. In explaining what then his motives were, he is lamer and weaker than ever; but one thing at least is clear, that he no longer pretends to have done right. And as this is the last word which we hear on the subject, we may and must conclude that it is the verdict not only of Heracles, and Admetus, and his friends, and his servants, but of the poet himself, and that whatever the object of his play may have been, it was certainly not to recommend, as an example of supreme and divinely rewarded kindness, an act for which he finds nothing more to be said than that it was not designed as an injury.
In saying that we hear no more on the subject, I should not and do not forget a passing allusion, which occurs a little later, almost at the end of the play, and upon which the reader, if he depended on the interpretation of Browning and some others, might certainly found some remarkable inferences. It is the farewell of Heracles to Admetus, and is rendered by Browning thus:
Lead her in meanwhile; good and true thou art,
Good, true remain thou! Practise piety
To stranger-guests the old way!
If Heracles did indeed say this, we should be driven to suppose that, in spite of all the contrary evidence, Euripides meant us somehow to conclude in favour of the hospitality which Admetus has just exhibited. But in fact he says nothing of the sort. In Browning's version the words good and true thou art are a mistranslation, while the words good, true remain thou, and the still more important words the old way, are additions for which the original has nothing at all. The error is not originally Browning's, but has crept into commentaries because of the very prejudice which it serves to sustain. The true English is: "Now lead her in; and as thou art bound, henceforth, Admetus, behave duly to guests". That Admetus, after his present experience and the generosity of Heracles, is under a particular obligation to observe the duties of friendship and hospitality in future, is true; and so he is plainly told: but so far from commending his recent conduct for an example, Heracles would seem rather, by this very injunction, to regard it as a warning, and in the light of his previous reproof, he cannot be otherwise understood. And so Admetus does understand him; for his final declaration is not that he will persevere in his virtue, but that "from this time forward his life is transformed for the better", a transformation which among other things would include, it is to be hoped, a better theory and practice in the way of dealing with persons who accept his friendship.
Before quitting the subject of Admetus' 'hospitality', we may observe that this unanimity of condemnation among the dramatis personae must determine our opinion, so far at least as concerns the play, not only with regard to the act in itself, but also as to the pretext for it which is pleaded by Admetus. When he says—and it is all that he has to say—that if Heracles had gone away from his door it would have affected injuriously the reputation of his house, we must understand that this excuse is not only (as it is) irrelevant, for reasons which, if not apparent before, become so at any rate after the rebuke of Heracles, but is also untrue. We must view this "excess of susceptibility" with the wonder, and something more than the wonder, which it excites at the moment in the indulgent minds of the Chorus. If Euripides had thought it possible that any one in Pherae or in Athens should seriously maintain the opinion of social obligation which Admetus pretends to fear, he would have shown us at least some one person actually so maintaining it. But in fact he assumes and implies that every one then would think what in a case unprejudiced every one now would think. The obvious, natural, and only permissible course for the master of the house was to acquaint his friend and visitor with the facts as they really were; and whether after that the visitor stayed or went, whether he took his meal in that house or the next, was a thing indifferent, to be settled between the parties according to their mutual feelings, but not touching the duty or affecting the character of either in the slightest degree. And indeed we see that even Admetus, when he has to face not his obsequious inferiors but Heracles, does not venture to make this plea a part of his apology, but says merely that to let the visitor go elsewhere would have been painful to himself, a needless addition to the grief of his bereavement. I will not waste the time of the reader, by explaining what he doubtless perceives, that in this altered form the excuse is still as vain as ever, or worse, involving the same false assumption about the facts, the same evasion of the issue, and adding fresh absurdity at which we have full liberty to laugh. Only fancy the widower 'weeping' as he pictures himself 'not only' because his wife was dead 'but also' because the cup and plate of his friend were being filled by the slaves of some other Pheraean!
The common attempt therefore, to educe a unity and moral for the play from the nobleness of Admetus as a host, can as little be approved or allowed as the attempt of Browning to introduce a unity and moral by ennobling the conception of Heracles. The 'hospitality' of Admetus is an offence, which he is compelled to confess, and for which his real motives, since those which he chooses to allege are neither credible nor intelligible, must be supposed such as he does not care to avow. But although he does not avow them, they may nevertheless be discoverable or even obvious: and so we shall find that they are, if, putting aside all presumptions about what Euripides must have meant and therefore should or should not have said, we will but attend to what he does say, and allow ourselves to learn what he did mean. But for this purpose we must quit for the present this particular topic of 'hospitality': we must widen the scope of our consideration to take in the action of the play as a whole, and must observe a certain element in the facts presented, of which if we take no heed, we ourselves are responsible for the oversight, and not the author, who has omitted no available means of keeping it steadily before us.
The modern reader, having arrived at ancient Greek drama, as he commonly must, through a course of modern commentary and criticism, approaches it as a rule under a general prepossession, that among the things which he must not expect from the dramatist is a regard for the relation of events to one another in the article of time. Time (it is understood and occasionally asserted) is an element of reality which the Greek dramatist, in his imitation, did not pretend to account for. It was covered, obliterated, ignored by a general agreement between artist and audience. Time in a Greek tragedy is 'ideal', or to speak more plainly, insignificant. Whether the scenes of the story are supposed to pass slowly or rapidly, or by how long an interval one incident is separated from another, are questions which the Greek dramatist never entertained, nor the Greek audience either. By a convention (it is said) the incidents of a Greek tragedy were supposed, whether this were in fact possible or not, to occupy a day or thereabouts, and within this 'ideal' day they may be distributed as you please. If, ignoring this conventional treatment, you try to translate the story into terms of real time, you will become aware of your error by finding yourself involved in contradictions, compelled (for example) to suppose that one and the same interlude represents for one purpose an interval of a few hours but for another purpose an interval of as many weeks. This 'systolé and diastolé', with many other remarkable things, is a natural effect of the convention. Now I do not propose here to investigate this theory, as it does not directly concern us. Its development is a curious chapter in the history of opinion, and I have tried to relate it elsewhere. Under the name of 'the unity of time', a term now happily, if slowly, going out of use, it has had in its day an immense influence both on dramatic composition and on the archaeology of the drama. So that although it is utterly untrue, the traceable product of mere blunders committed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and although these errors, or part of them, are now widely recognized and the theory decadent, some of the parasitic errors, to which in the nature of things it gave rise, are still flourishing or alive: and the study of Greek tragedy is still influenced by vague but efficient presumptions which have no higher or better credited origin.
To some such cause I should attribute the fact that, so far as I am aware, in none of our commentaries or studies on the Alcestis is any note taken of an element in the story presented, which, if the play were treated as liable to the ordinary judgment of our senses, would certainly strike a reader at the first view as one of the most startling in the whole remarkable narrative. I refer to the haste and precipitancy, irregular and indecent in any case, and in this particular case nothing less than outrageous, with which the corpse of the noble heroine is conveyed to the grave.
Strange enough in itself, even if this were all, and sufficiently offensive to the customs imposed by nature and necessity upon mankind, would be the performance of the funeral on the day of the death. It is perhaps needless to say that this was no more the practice in Athens, and therefore no more likely there to seem probable to the inventor of a fiction or to pass with an audience for satisfactory, than it is or would be among ourselves at the present time. Indeed it is inconceivable, for obvious and imperative reasons, that such a custom should prevail anywhere or at any time. In ancient Athens, as a matter of fact, the general sentiment, so far as it differed from ours, differed rather in the other direction. The primitive doctrine, which associated the personality of a dead man as much or more with the visible body than with an unseen spirit, had by no means, in the time of Euripides or even later, yielded the field to the more refined and spiritual doctrine which places personality altogether in a soul; and there was still therefore a disposition to extend the observance bestowed upon the corpse, in respect of time, magnificence, and otherwise, much beyond the limit which enlightened and practical regulators would have liked to establish. Plato in a curious passage of the Laws lays down that the funeral may safely take place, and therefore should take place, on the next day but one after that of the decease, and that a statute to this effect should be accompanied by public instruction in the true doctrine of personality, calculated to appease the sentimental opposition which he evidently anticipates. There were indeed, or perhaps rather had been, some who, by a more crude application of what we may call the corporeal doctrine of the dead, arrived at the conclusion that a corpse should be buried as soon as conveniently might be, so that the dead might pass entire into the other world. The doctrine appears in Homer. The actual practice in historical times seems to have been much the same as our own, except that the performances in the house and about the dead body were much more elaborate and indispensable, as indeed in most countries they still are. As to the mere question of time there is little range for choice, so far as the mass of mankind are concerned: within narrow limits it is settled, without regard to sentiments or doctrines, by the laws of physical fact.
It is to be presumed then that an Athenian, if told that a certain corpse was buried on the day of the death, would have felt exactly the same shock of surprise, suspicion, and displeasure as an Englishman in the like circumstances; and that the same effect would be produced by the representation of such a proceeding on the stage. Why should the dramatist make his personages do an outrageous thing, except in order that its impropriety might be observed? There was no compulsion on him. It is true that there were practical reasons, arising from the arrangements of the Greek theatre and company, why the action of a play should not, if it could be avoided, be such as to occupy more than a day or thereabouts And it could be avoided in most cases by a little ingenuity. For example, it would have been perfectly easy to present a story like that of Alcestis, a story of death and revival, without introducing any funeral at all, and so that a day or a few hours should naturally cover events from first to last. But the dramatist, if he chose, might sacrifice theatrical convenience to some other consideration, and make his action as long as he pleased. Euripides himself, for instance, in his Suppliants presents an action which would occupy from first to last something like a month, and he does so without any disguise, leaving the imagination of the audience to leap the necessary interval at the proper time. And similarly if he or any playwright had presented within one action a death and burial, and had meant the proceedings to appear natural and regular, he could and must have allowed a time sufficient for them; he would have shown us where we should suppose the lapse of that interval which could not be denied without affronting the reason and feelings of humanity. There are of course exceptional cases, in which prompt and hasty burial is a sign not of negligence but of love, inasmuch as the rite, if delayed, is likely to be prevented. We have an instance in the Ajax of Sophocles: but such is not our present affair. The Seven against Thebes of Aeschylus is something nearer, though even there the circumstances are highly peculiar, the dead having been slain in the assault and defence of a beleaguered fortress, from whose walls the enemy have just fallen back. It is not improbable that in such a situation no time would be lost. However the dramatist does not demand the supposition, but leaves us to settle the procedure for ourselves, providing us by the regular means of a choric ode with an opportunity for interpolating as much time as we think necessary. Such a fortiori would have been the natural representation of an ordinary case.
And what of the actual case, the case of Alcestis? If the omission of these universal dues would be noticeable in itself, what is it, when the dead is an Alcestis? That we should forget her surpassing claim to every possible sign of love and respect is certainly not the intention of the poet. From first to last the subject of the honours, which ought to be and must be paid to her, is prominent in the minds of the speakers. Twice in beautiful songs the Chorus dilate on the worship which she will receive; how as the noblest of womankind she will be celebrated in the religious feasts of Hellas, and her heroism will be annually sung at Sparta or at Athens; how when travellers pass her tomb, they will pray to her spirit (which doubtless they did) as to a guardian angel. All Pherae is filled with admiration of her; and as to the household, the men-servants and maid-servants, their reverence and affection is altogether inexpressible. The slaves who wait upon Heracles are almost ready to rebel because they thus miss the chance of saying a ceremonious farewell to the corpse. But none is more eloquent upon this theme, as indeed none has more cause, than the husband for whom she dies, Admetus himself. In the promise of mourning observances he is inexhaustible; the utmost efforts of imagination seem, as we note with sympathy, insufficient to answer his intentions. No common widower's year of black, he says while still the ears of his wife are open to his assurances, will content his grief. His whole life will be spent not merely in cherishing but in acting his regret. Never an entertainment any more in the house, which has been so hospitable. No garlands, no music ever again; where would be the pleasure of them? The very bed of the wife will be occupied only by a graven imitation of her, upon which the husband will bestow his embraces, as if it were indeed herself. Nor when she has ceased to hear him does he cease to promise; rather his anticipations take a wider range. It is his command that the public celebration, like the private, shall be on a scale almost incredible. All his subjects are to put into mourning their persons, their households, and (if they have them) their carriages; nor is this injunction limited to any period of time. Even the severe ordinance that 'neither flute nor lyre shall be heard,' an ordinance which in a Greek town would have had an effect something like that of a papal interdict in the middle ages, curtailing or suspending every office of social and religious life and practically closing the schools, even this refinement of severity is expressly extended to 'twelve full months'. No burial, as he justly adds, could better deserve such recognition than that of his queen deserves it from the king of Thessaly.
But all this predicted, prospective, and promissory magnificence, this more than liberal estimate of what shall be, must be done by himself and his people in the future to show forth by outward signs their eternal memory and worship of the heroic dead, does not in the least affect, except so far as to illuminate by the light of contrast, the visible fact that Alcestis is actually buried not like a heroine, not like a queen, not even with the commonest offices of love, nor the barest observances of humane precaution, but with just such perfunctory haste as might be thought permissible in the case of a corpse infected with the plague: and that this arrangement of her obsequies is due to the express prevision and persistence of the king her husband. What he ought to have done, what he feels and knows that he ought to have done, we are perpetually reminded by the eloquent outpourings of his uneasy conscience. But what he does, we see; and strange is the comparison.
For if it would be surprising and unsatisfactory that without grave cause a body should be entombed on the day of the death, what shall be said of a funeral, which is commenced not merely within the same hour, but at the very minute of the death itself, while the corpse is yet as warm as in life, and almost before the departed voice has ceased to vibrate upon the ear; a funeral, which from that moment to its completion is pushed forward in spite of hindrance with all the speed that forethought and ingenuity can secure? Such is the funeral of Alcestis. The extraordinary scene which ensues upon her death would prove of itself, even if we had not had previous intimations to the same effect, that nothing is or has been more near to her husband's thoughts than the importance of performing her obsequies without the smallest delay. Scarce a minute has passed since her last 'Farewell!' was spoken, the wail of her frightened child has scarcely sunk into sobbing, and the friend who stands by has barely proffered his first word of condolence, when Admetus, dismissing these commonplaces with the remark, on this occasion uniquely appropriate, that the subject has been long the burden of his thoughts, runs on, as it were in one sentence, to invite the immediate assistance of his visitors in conveying 'this corpse' to the cemetery. That this amazing suggestion is not a birth of the moment, but prearranged with their complicity, is evident not only from the way in which it is launched, but from their own behaviour in acting upon it without so much as the form of an acceptance; and in fact the audience also has already been made privy to their expectations.
The first scene of the action proper (first after the prologue) consists of a curious conversation which passes between these visitors upon their arrival at the door. Although they come in the fore-part of the day (as appears shortly afterwards from the account of what has passed in the house, and would in any case have been assumed by Greek spectators from the habitual and almost inevitable practice of the choric dramatists) they are so possessed by the unwonted sensation of fore-knowledge and by the prophetic announcement of the date, that their first feeling is surprise at not perceiving about the house the signs which according to custom would have marked that the decease had actually taken place; they are surprised at not seeing before the entrance the holy water and stationary servant, nor hearing from within the shrieks and beaten hands of women performing the ceremonial lamentation over the corpse. (We may observe in passing that, although the whole action proceeds before this same gate, we find no indication in dialogue or ode that any of these regular things are afterwards done; the servant, if she takes her station, does so in silence and unheeded, the cries, if any are heard, excite no remark or echo; nay more, at the time when such demonstrations would naturally appear, we have, in the conversation of Heracles who happens just then to arrive, a positive proof that nothing of the sort was exhibited. It is from the entrance of Admetus, and the marks on his person, that he receives the first intimation of anything amiss.) However in the midst of their conjectures the Chorus agree, though not without a significant doubt, that at least 'the corpse cannot have left the house', and the reason is startling. 'Why so?' says some one, 'I dare not say. What makes you sure?''Oh, because surely Admetus could not have performed the funeral of such a wife without attendance!' Manifestly this remark is intelligible only on the supposition that, to the knowledge of the speakers, the funeral, if performed before their arrival, could have had no attendance, or in other words, that they are themselves the invited mourners, and are alone apprised of the intention, which certainly no uninformed person was likely to anticipate, that the ceremony shall proceed as soon as ever there is a body to bury. Noticeable moreover is their conviction of the king's determined haste. It does not seem inconceivable to some of them, that, if the death has occurred before their arrival, Admetus may have dispensed with a convoy altogether; for instead of accepting the contrary suggestion as conclusive, they continue their inferences from the state of the house—'no holy water, no lock of hair' and so on—inferences which, as appears from the sequel, do less than justice to the king's unity of purpose and indifference to needless detail.
They suppose him therefore ready to commit, if necessary, what to Greek minds was more repugnant than a crime. Even among ourselves and with the 'psychical' doctrines now prevailing, a prince, who conveyed the corpse of his wife to the grave with no other attendant than himself, would be censured severely. What Greeks with their 'corporeal' doctrines would think of him, we may see in Aeschylus. Even the guilt of a Clytaemnestra, murderess of her lord, can take a blacker shade from the fact that she buried him 'without the lament of a husband or the train of a king': and this it is which, more than anything else in the story, arouses the frenzy of the avenger.
But Admetus is not driven to this extremity. The queen's procession, such as it is, happily arrives at the palace before she is actually dead. From the report of a maid-servant, who presently comes out of doors to weep, we learn among other things both why these few persons have been selected for invitation and why others would not have been welcome. 'I will go', she says, 'and say that you are here. It is not by any means all, who feel for my lord so kindly as to bring to his griefs a sympathetic presence. But you have been from of old the master's friend'. That Admetus just at this time is not popular, in his realm any more than in his household, we hear without surprise. By requesting and accepting the sacrifice of his more amiable lady, he would have somewhat dimmed in the general eye the glory of his liberal housekeeping, religious habits, and other unquestioned virtues. Indeed he is himself obliged to acknowledge, when all is over and his choice apparently irrevocable, that this disadvantageous impression is only too likely to be permanent. We can therefore well understand his wish that the persons before whom he was to exhibit himself in the position of chief mourner for the victim (as the less 'kindly' might put it) of his own cowardice, should be those whose loyal attachment had been proved by long experience.
The mourning-train then is provided, and so also, as far as circumstances permit, is the rest of the funeral. It was the Greek custom that a corpse should be adorned not only with elaborate wreaths and other such decorations, but also, when the condition of the family permitted, with jewellery and the like, which was buried or burnt with it and thus appropriated to the use of the dead. In reply to a question from the friends—or should we not rather say, the accomplices?—of Admetus, the maid-servant informs them and us that this matter has not escaped his prevision; the articles are selected and prepared; 'Yes, the tiring, which her lord intends to bury with her, is in readiness'. Something, much indeed, Alcestis herself contributes to preparation; for knowing that 'the appointed day' has dawned for her, she performs upon herself, with pathetic patience and forethought, the needful washing and robing, and happens even to conceive the desire of looking once more upon the open sky, for which purpose she is carried out, apparently on a litter, to the front of the palace. Nor does she, living or dead, ever re-enter her own chamber until after she has lain in the grave. After her death the body is carried into the house; at least it seems so, though in the absence of stage-directions we cannot be sure of this; but it remains, in the brief interval before the departure, at the entrance, ready for bearing out, as appears in the indignant and sneering allusion of the servant who waits on Heracles. 'But the corpse', says Heracles, 'was only that of a stranger to the family!''O yes', replies the man, playing upon an ambiguous word, 'O yes, it was out of the family and out of the door, too much so!' This man has no love for the pious Admetus, and does not conceal his sentiments.
That Alcestis is apprised of the plan to precipitate her burial, or acts under suggestion from those who are, is neither indicated nor likely; it is conceivable that, had she known it, she would have seen her self-sacrifice in a new light. Rather it is an enhancement of our pity, that without any suspicion she is furthering by all that she does the plan of a husband who, in the midst of professing eternal gratitude, is preparing so promptly to insult her memory. However that may be, it is the joint result of his proceedings and hers that, when she lies inanimate at the portal, there is literally nothing left to be done before the funeral starts, except to shave her husband and slip on his black; and this is the whole programme of the pomp, as it is actually carried out. In no way perhaps can the monstrosity of the performance be more clearly realized, than by asking ourselves what is the proper costume for the Chorus. It is certain that they follow the corpse in the same which they wear when first they come as visitors. They have no chance of changing. Admetus does change and, as was the custom of the Greek dramatists for practical reasons, matters are so arranged that verbal as well as visible intimation should be given of the significant alteration. But what of his friends? When they come to the house ostensibly to enquire of the queen's condition, do they come with close-cut hair and sable vest? We are informed of the contrary—'Must we change to black? Is the time already come?' exclaims one of them oddly, as an expression of despair; and we should presume it without information. What could be more repugnant to humanity and decency, than to surround with anticipatory emblems the couch of the dying heroine? Or what more offensive to the public, than to parade the street clad in mourning for a benefactress, for whom it was still possible to hope and to pray, and whose death, however it might appear to Admetus and other such devotees, would be thought by at least five persons in ten, as it is by Heracles, not at all necessarily imminent, because it had been predicted by a prophet? But on the other hand, since the Chorus are not in mourning, what sort of figure must they make in the character of a funeral procession?
It has been already said that the action of Admetus, in thus abridging the honours of the deceased, is emphasized and made conspicuous by the largeness of his promises; and this we see by the manner in which these promises are introduced. Browning notes, and we all note with him, the 'childishness', to use the most charitable expression, of the redeemed husband, when he assures the redeeming wife how courageously, if he had been an Orpheus, he would have fronted Cerberus, Charon, and all the terrors of the underworld, in order to bring back her soul. How much more simple, as Balaustion observes, to say
what would seem so pertinent,
'To keep this pact, I find surpass my power.
Rescind it, Moirai! Give me back her life,
And take the life I kept by base exchange!'
And just the same futility, by comparison with what we know to be planned and doing, appears in those other assurances which make the rest of his speech:
And I shall bear for thee no year-long grief,
But grief that lasts while my own days last, love!. . . . . .
For I will end the feastings—social flow
O' the wine friends flock for, garlands and the Muse
That graced my dwelling. Never now for me
To touch the lyre, to lift my soul in song
At summons of the Lydian flute; since thou
From out my life hast emptied all the joy,
and so on, with invented observances even more extravagant. How much more simple to begin observance with the present day, to let the corpse lie its fair time in the hall, bewailed with a fair lament, and go forth, when it must, with a fair and proportionate train! And when later he reverts to the same subject, the self-contradiction is stronger still, rises almost to the grotesque, and like much else in the play is distinguished from sheer comedy only by painfulness. His wife (be it remembered) has been dead something less than five minutes.
You have to stay, you friends,
Because the next need is to carry forth
The corpse here: you must stay and do your part,
Chant proper paean to the God below;
Drink-sacrifice he likes not. I decree
That all Thessalians over whom I rule
Hold grief in common with me; let them shear
Their locks, and be the peplos black they show!. . .
And through my city, nor of flute nor lyre
Be there a sound till twelve full moons succeed.
For I shall never bury any corpse
Dearer than this to me, nor better friend:
One worthy of all honour from me, since
Me she has died for, she and she alone.
With what feelings would this proclamation have been received by the people of Pherae and the neighbourhood, when it reached them together with the intelligence that the beloved queen was not only dead but already entombed, buried within an hour of her death, and with a ceremony which, excepting a few private friends who 'happened' to present themselves, no single person, far or near, had been asked or allowed to attend? It seems to me that in the resurrection of Alcestis Admetus was not so much 'supremely blest'—that way of putting it is Balaustion's—but rather, in all the simplicity of Euripides, 'fortunate'. It seems to me that, if she had not come back, he would have run some risk of being pelted out of his palace.
But if in the earlier scenes of the play, up to and including the death of the victim, the considerate speed of the plans for her burying is a feature not to be overlooked, it is made more prominent still by the scene which next follows, and brings us now back again to our previous topic, the arrival and reception of Heracles. What, we have asked, was the king's real motive for an act, which he himself, whether he boasts of it as he does at first, or excuses it as he does at last, is alike and always unwilling or unable to explain? Why, instead of frankly communicating his sorrow to his sympathetic visitor, does he force upon him a graceless entertainment by means of a deception, which sooner or later must needs be discovered and resented? Why does he do it? The situation itself presents the wretched reason. It is because by his own devices he has put himself in such a position that he dares not, cannot tell the truth. The arrival of Heracles at this instant is an embarrassment for him at once ludicrous and horrible. The Chorus, waiting before the door, at once perceive the difficulty and stand on reserve. 'Is Admetus within?''Yes', they reply, 'he is within; but. . . .' But what? Why do they not say plainly and naturally 'But you cannot have heard, and we have to tell you, that he is in mourning for his wife, who died a few minutes ago?' Instead of this they engage him in conversation about himself and his journey, which continues till Admetus comes out and they resign the lead to him. Now what is Admetus to do? In the dialogue which ensues, his wriggling, quibbling, and lying are those of a criminal on the point of detection; for such and no better he feels himself to be. It would have been humiliating enough, had there been nothing more in the circumstances, to say to this gallant friend, who is so far from believing that Alcestis is really to be sacrificed by and for her husband, that he prefers rather to make light of the anxiety which the prediction of her fate has raised in more impressionable minds,—to meet him with the words 'But it is certainly true. It has come to pass. I have accepted her self-immolation, and with my consent she has actually died in my stead'. This, for a man 'excessive', as we are told, 'on the point of honour', would have been bad enough. But that would not have been the end nor the worst, for the next word must have touched on the funeral, and whatever it was, must have abased him further. Should he confess to the noble Argive, 'descendant of Perseus and son of Zeus', that the company before him, a few old friends of the house, are engaged as a minimum to make a following for the queen of Thessaly, who is dead indeed, just dead, and for certain reasons (what reasons?) is to be buried forthwith? Or on the other hand should he turn to the Pheraeans and confess to them, in the presence of the new- comer, that since the intended celebration must now be deferred, or else disclosed to this respectable personage so inaptly arrived, —it had best be deferred? The position of Admetus is such that he is driven to lie, not for hospitality, but for shame. Nor does he dare to let Heracles go, as he proposes, elsewhere. Partly he is afraid lest after all it should be suspected by Heracles that the bereavement is something graver than he has represented, and this should somehow lead to an exposure aggravated by the deceit. Partly he has, it may be supposed, a vague hope that Heracles, if he can be kept at the house, may be got out of Pherae without yet knowing what has occurred, and weakness loves postponement. But above all it is clear that, if the visitor repairs to another host, there will be no more privacy for what is done and doing at the palace. Now Admetus is resolved as ever—it is the only point on which he is consistent—that the clandestine funeral shall proceed, and proceed immediately. This is the cause of his crowning blunder, in remitting his guest to the uncontrolled charge of the servants, thus making it practically certain that he will be undeceived in some such scandalous and distressing fashion as he presently is. The brief visit of Heracles might perhaps have been got through tolerably, if the funeral had been put off even till the evening. But no; Heracles must stay and Admetus must go; an upshot reasonless and senseless, except so far as it explains and is explained by the pre-occupation, which this scene and those which precede it are contrived to exhibit.
Meanwhile we have naturally been asking ourselves, and not without receiving from the dramatist the means of anticipating the answer, what is the motive which induces a man like Admetus, hitherto known as generous, kindly, honourable, and particularly pious, to persist in this union of meanness with falsehood for the purpose of impoverishing, obscuring, degrading the solemnities of religion and love. To complete the answer is the object of the next ensuing scene, which shows us as it were by a specimen, in case we could not for ourselves imagine it, what sort of torture it is that Admetus, by these premature and surreptitious obsequies, is scheming to avoid, and what it would have been for him to go through the only alternative. No man of sensibility, who had acted as he has done, could fail to be aware that, however he might gloze or bluster, to all impartial eyes he must make a sorry figure. Admetus is perfectly aware of it. After the burial, in the cold forlornness of his return to the house, he vividly depicts the advantage which malice would take of him, and the effect that it would produce. I have cited the passage before, but I will cite it again (it is worth while), this time in the version of Browning:
And then, whoever is a foe of mine,
And lights on me—why, this will be his word—
'See there! alive ignobly, there he skulks
That played the dastard when it came to die,
And giving her he wedded, in exchange,
Kept himself out of Hades safe and sound,
The coward! Do you call that creature—man?
He hates his parents for declining death,
Just as if he himself would gladly die!'
This sort of reputation shall I have.
'That', subjoins Balaustion aptly, 'was the truth'. Perhaps in supposing that such hostility would be quite and for ever invincible, he is carried by remorse somewhat beyond the truth. It is, I fear, conceivable that a year or so later his banquets might, by the favour of the gods, have been as well attended as ever. But while the affair was fresh, the opinion of the world would undoubtedly have been such as he describes. And this truth, though Balaustion may not be wrong in saying that it is fully realised only when it is confessed, is felt, palpably felt as a determining motive, by his instincts all along. It is impossible that Admetus should not shrink, as one would shrink from flaying, even although one had never been flayed before, from the thought of walking after the bier of Alcestis, first of a noble train, before the assembled townsfolk of Pherae, in the presence of the parents whom he so preposterously maligns, of the kin of his wife (Euripides does not forget them), and of all the curious who could manage to reach the place, knowing that all were saying, to themselves if not audibly,
See there! alive ignobly, there he skulks!
His plan is, and all his actions up to the burial have no other object, to escape this horror in the only possible way, by interring his wife, with such ceremony or lack of ceremony as the case might admit, but anyhow instantly, before any one except his household and his chosen associates could know that she was dead. Whether even in the circumstances this was a wise thing to do, Euripides does not ask us to decide. We may think if we like, as I do, that it was rather a leap into the fire, and that, if things had not taken an unexpected turn, Admetus would soon have realised a little more 'truth'. Euripides only says and shows, that for a man such as the husband of Alcestis must have been, quicker to grasp relief than to imagine consequences, this was a natural thing to do. In showing this he has done all, as we shall find, that is required for his ultimate purpose.
The execution of the plan is for the moment almost perfectly successful, but not quite. If the procession had started, as it might have done but for the arrival of Heracles, at the time when Admetus, coming out ready dressed from the house, finds that innocent intervener at the door, it would have got comfortably away, and the king's sensibility would have escaped irritation. When Heracles is installed, he comes out again, and gives the word for setting forth. It is still impossible that his proceedings should be generally known. But unhappily there is one of his neighbours who can readily divine his feelings, inasmuch as in his own breast there is a faint reflexion of them, who has reason to anticipate his design, and even to approve it strongly, on the condition that he himself be not excluded from participation. At the first news that Alcestis is dead and her burial fixed for the present hour, Pheres the father hurries to the palace with his offering. Except Admetus, he is the only person who, having been in a position to save Alcestis if he had chosen, and being also liable to follow her corpse, has cause to think that on the whole the ceremony may as well be private, that is to say, speedy. His conscience is indeed much quieter than his son's, not only, as Browning says truly but with perhaps too exclusive an emphasis, from the more hardened selfishness of old age, but also because his share of reproach would be so much the lighter. It is Admetus, not Pheres, who has devolved upon another his own proper fate; and whatever may be said by the satellites of the son, for the general eye his disgrace would completely outshade his father's. Pheres arrives then calm and decorous, resolved, as we see, to show that he at least has no reason to avoid the ceremony, and well-pleased, as we may imagine, that he can do this with so little discomfort. That his son will make a scene he naturally cannot suppose. But Admetus is too sore and too undisciplined to reason. The unreason of his self-refuting invective measures for us how intensely his conscience hates and fears an unfriendly eye; or, as Browning excellently puts it,
So in old Pheres young Admetus showed
Pushed to completion: and a shudder ran,
And his repugnance soon had vent in speech:
Glad to escape outside, nor, pent within,
Find itself there fit food for exercise.
"Neither to this interment called by me
Comest thou, nor thy presence I account
Among the covetable proofs of love. . . ."
You see what all this poor pretentious talk
Tried at—how weakness strove to hide itself
In bluster against weakness—the loud word
To hide the little whisper, not so low
Already in that heart beneath those lips!
Ha, could it be, who hated cowardice
Stood confessed craven, and who lauded so
Self-immolating love, himself had pushed
The loved one to the altar in his place?
The exposition of this scene is indeed the best part of Balaustion's Adventure regarded as a commentary, and so far as the scene itself is concerned leaves nothing to add. But beyond the mere situation, and not less essential for a complete understanding, is the bearing of it on the action of the play as a whole: and this is, that when we have heard the retorts of Pheres, turning as they do insistently upon the disgrace and contempt attaching to the appearance of Admetus in the character of mourner, we understand, if we did not before, why he has schemed to elude, even at the cost of an offence against humanity, a performance in which he must have borne, without even the consolation of reply, to read such things on the eyes and the lips of a thousand malign spectators.
So good words, henceforth! If thou speak us ill,
Many and true an ill thing shalt thou hear!. . .
And dost not thou too, all for love of life
Carry out now, in place of thine, this corpse?. . .
Meanwhile woo many wives—the more will die!. . .
Die when thou wilt, thou wilt die infamous!
Thou buriest her whom thou didst murder first.
Such would have been the missiles which, worded or not, must have gone to the heart of Admetus with every flower flung by assembled Thessaly upon the bier of Alcestis. And that is why, at the very instant when she is declared to be dead, "the next need is to carry forth this corpse".
Here, at the pause in the action which follows the retirement of Pheres and departure of the convoy, it will be convenient to review our road. We set out to investigate certain detractions, on the face of them serious, which are commonly made from the praise of Euripides, and notably from that of the Alcestis. These detractions, we find, are not ill summed up in the epigrammatic phrase, pronouncing the poet a 'botcher', and meaning that in his works the single pieces, however smart or well-wrought, are merely tagged together; the scenes do not grow out of one another in the way of progress towards a common end, and do not contribute to any one sentiment which may be regarded as the outcome of the whole; sometimes on the contrary, as is the case of the Alcestis, there is between parts and whole a marked repugnance; a vital defect, as it is rightly thought, and killing to the merits which might be allowed in the details, if only they had belonged to another scheme. Now as regards the scenes which we have been considering, we have got some way, though at present only part of the way, towards disproving this charge. The first half of our play is at all events coherent within itself. The altercation between Admetus and Pheres is not dragged in 'to please a contentious and law-loving audience'; it was not written because the dramatist saw his way to play the pair smartly against one another, and was blind or indifferent to the effect which his damaged puppets might make when it came to the finale. The reception of Heracles does not stand upon the hollow and artificial plea that it is an occasion for redeeming the character of Admetus, otherwise so unsuitably ignoble, by exhibiting his sublime hospitality. These scenes, taken in their place and with what we can see at present, are proper exponents of the main action, the theme of which up to this point is the death and burial of the heroine, and the purport of it to show how, for reasons deducible from the data of the legend, the latter event succeeds the former with a strange and unexampled rapidity. We have next to consider how, if at all, this bears upon the sequel and particularly upon the conclusion, where we expect to find reflected the general aspect of the whole.
Of the two next scenes, that in which Heracles, under the effects of his too copious feast, discovers the real bereavement and declares his resolve to wrestle for Alcestis with Death, and that in which Admetus, returning with his friends, bewails the situation to which he has brought himself and confesses the error of his choice, we have already had occasion to speak, and may now pass over them. Each is separated from what precedes by a supposed interval of time, expressed probably, since the Chorus are absent, simply by the emptiness of the stage. These two intervals are, we may say, the only breaks in the action; for in this play the choric odes stand, as appears from the adjoining scenes, for spaces of time scarcely longer than they might well represent without assistance from the imagination of the spectators. During the first interruption, Heracles is occupied with his eating and drinking, for which we are to allow whatever time is indicated by the fact that he does not overtake the procession, the corpse having been left in the tomb, and the mourners having gone away, before he arrives there. Considering his habits, and that the tomb is near, and that the performers of the ceremony have strong reasons for expedition, all this fits together naturally enough. The second interval, which must be something longer, is loosely defined by the story of Heracles, who arrives before the palace soon after Admetus and his friends. He is able to pretend without detection that the disguised Alcestis is a slave, won by him as a prize in a gymnastic competition which he found going on in the neighbourhood. As to this imaginary incident, which to our notions comes in rather oddly, it was to the Greeks an obvious sequence, particularly in a story supposed to imitate, however vaguely and inexactly, poetic antiquity. As the news spread that the queen was gone, the first thing that the Pheraeans would be expected to do was to 'keep holiday' and to improvise 'games', by way of showing honour to the occasion. We moderns, regarding the play as an antiquarian document, would have been glad to hear how the interval has been spent by Admetus and his party; but for the original audience, who knew the customs presumed, this was unnecessary. It is manifest that the mourners, on this occasion at least, do not come straight back from the tomb to the house; this is excluded not only by the lapse of time, but also by other facts implied, such as that they and Heracles have not met, that the Chorus have now changed their dress for black, and that the approach of the company to the palace painfully reminds Admetus of that escorting 'home to bed', which ended the antique wedding-day, a picture not likely to be associated with the fore-noon. It should be noticed however, if we were now concerned with the antiquarian view of the matter, that the husband is in a condition of mind which, even for a widower on the day of his loss, and even among the demonstrative Greeks, can scarcely be figured as normal. The sight of his house inspires him with such horror that he cannot advance, and his companions struggle in vain against his reluctance to enter. It is possible therefore that the delay of his return is to be explained not by customary occupation elsewhere, but as part of the natural extravagance which belongs to his singular and singularly distressing situation.
Be that as it may, in this way Heracles, returning with the wife disguised, is brought again face to face with Admetus before the door, and we enter upon the finale, commonly regarded as one of the most unsatisfactory parts of the play. Speaking broadly, its most noticeable quality is negative. It is the absence of solemnity; the absence, not only of those particular phrases adapted to the creed of the age, which from the piety attributed to some of the personages we should have expected to hear in the circumstances, but also of all attempt to pourtray or suggest that kind of instinctive emotion which any mortal creatures, as such, might be expected to feel at the return of a fellow-mortal from the dead. Nothing is done, nothing conceded, by way of satisfaction to the feeling of awe, or even to the vulgar love of the ghostly and 'eerie' as a means of imaginative pleasure. Excepting a few lines of bald ex officio statement, just sufficient to make the slight perceptible, nothing passes in the long dialogue which would not have been equally appropriate if Alcestis, instead of dying and being buried, had been lost in a mist or had drifted out to sea, and Heracles had been the shepherd who found her or the boatman who picked her up, and had now brought her back to friends who had ceased to hope. It is true, and it is not the least remarkable feature of the case, that scarcely anything at all is allowed to pass, when the queen's identity has been revealed; but even in the earlier and longer part of the scene, while she is yet unrecognized, the incongruity of treatment is sufficiently apparent. What it would be like to encounter a living man fresh from a wrestle with Death, and bringing with him as prize of the contest a human being restored to earthly state after body and soul had passed through the mortal crisis, none of us, I suppose, are qualified by experience to judge. But this is certain, that not one man in ten thousand would shape such a scene in imagination after the fashion chosen by Euripides. Certainly we should not suppose, and for reasons presently to be noticed the audience at an Athenian drama would be even less likely to suppose, that the victor and the rescued could walk in like any two people from the street, and without suggesting by appearance, tone, or otherwise the suspicion of anything transcending the habits of everyday life. We have already remarked the striking contrast between this entrance as it appears in the original, and as it appears when modified by the fine but unwarranted interpolations of Browning, and the almost laughable difficulty, which he has betrayed as it were involuntarily, of adjusting the demand of his feelings to the obstinate refusal of the poet. That 'shrouded something, live and womanlike', which Balaustion saw leaning 'under the great guard' of Heracles' arm, is so far from receiving such notice from those who are compelled to speak only the language of Euripides, that until she is actually put forward by Heracles (and he is in no hurry to do it) they do not seem to see her. She stands to all appearance unremarked, like the slave she is said to be, among the unnamed attendants by whom Heracles, as a traveller, was presumably accompanied. If in his aspect the hero showed, as Balaustion informs us, the signs of his appalling contest, Euripides has been curiously negligent of impressing any such marks upon his speech. Here we find, to quote once more Balaustion's true conclusion, 'all Heracles back again', that is to say, if we keep to the veritable lines of the dramatist, a hearty fellow, generous in his way but coarse, the high-born athlete-bravo, who combines the pride of a prince with the grossness of a man-at-arms.
We may question whether in itself, however it had been treated in detail, the common theatrical trick, by which the recognition of Alcestis is deferred, could have been made acceptable to such feelings as the supposed situation would naturally excite in a serious mind. A certain value it has, as Browning points out. It enables Heracles to extract from Admetus, for the benefit of his wife before she is restored to him, assurance of the genuine impression which has been made upon him, at least for the time, by the lesson which he has received. Nevertheless I cannot believe that Aeschylus, for example, or Sophocles, or Shakespeare, or Browning himself, would have thought it tolerable in the ostensible circumstances; and certainly one of these four, the only man perhaps who could have dramatized a resurrection with success, would have done his utmost, if he had allowed the prank to be played at all, to lift it by every art of solemnity in the treatment above the nature of such a thing and into something near the level of the stupendous theme. It is worth while just to imagine for a moment the finale of an Alcestis as it might have been presented by the author of the Choephori, if only to remind ourselves that the Athenian audience were not without the means of estimating by comparison what it was that Euripides had done. For if the trick was perilous in itself, what is it when Euripides, availing himself of the traits with which he has chosen to invest the 'Helper' and 'Saviour', has lowered it instead of elevating, until one of the feelings, and not the weakest, which it would inspire in a sensitive spectator, is a feeling of thankfulness that the heroine is veiled?
In the opening sentences of Heracles, and before the subject of the woman is touched, all chance of solemnity is deliberately thrown away. I have quoted already the rebuke which he addresses to Admetus, exactly as if nothing of importance had occurred since they parted, upon the subject of his treachery as a host. It is a very proper rebuke, and deserves more attention than it commonly gets. 'But O good gods!'—such must have been the thought of sundry honest auditors, who shared the prejudices but not the acuteness of Aristophanes—'what, in the name of Persephone, is this to the purpose? Here at the man's back is a woman risen from the dead, pulled by his own hands out of the hands of Death. And he reads a lecture on manners!' When in this way the strings of our thoughts, tuned perhaps by the previous meditations of the Chorus to the pitch not indeed of piety but at least of pensiveness, have been slacked again and flattened to the common tone, Heracles introduces the matter which has caused his return. Will his friend take charge of this woman, till he comes back from his adventure in the north? He has picked up some cattle as a prize, and the woman into the bargain. Admetus makes objections, objections which come practically to this, that by obliging Heracles he may possibly incur some annoyance. After all he is not so much altered but that he still thinks first of 'number one'. He even reproduces in this new connexion, by one of those exquisite turns in which Euripides is unsurpassed, his important point that Heracles 'has many other friends in Pherae'. The grand difficulty is how and where to give the woman a suitable room in the palace. If he places her within his own protection, may it not be said that the widower consoles himself? If elsewhere, may not the consequences be injurious to the rights of her owner? A charming argument for a man to expound, with antique plainness of speech, in the presence of the noble lady who furnishes the matter of it, and she an Alcestis! The truth is that in this scene, admirable as comedy but comedy pure, Heracles is Heracles still, Admetus still Admetus, the one indelicate and the other selfish; and between them they make it impossible to contemplate the situation, whatever elements of pathos it may contain, as anything out of the common, and impossible to believe that the author, if he knew what he was doing, is preparing us to accept it as an answer to the deepest of human questionings.
After a final altercation, ingenious and striking as a stage-device, but not otherwise affecting the posture and colour of the facts, Admetus consents to give his hand to his future inmate, and is persuaded to look her in the face. At last then the truth is out, the awful, thrilling, soul-penetrating truth. The king and his friends know now, that they have before them a mortal who has passed from death into life, and the heaven-born saviour who has brought her through. Here then, if faith or hope in the author's sympathy with his subject has survived in us under the shocks which he has given, we wait for our satisfaction; we wait to hear from Heracles the account of his tremendous experience, and from the others the outpouring of their belief and thankfulness. I will give in words of my own, as exactly as I can, the whole of what is said from this point to the end.
|Admetus.||Gods, what is this? Oh marvel passing hope!|
Is it my wife that I behold indeed,
Or mocks me heaven with a madding joy?
|Heracles.||Nay, not so. What thou seest is thy queen.|
|Adm.||Perchance an apparition from below.|
|Her.||Hold'st thou thy friend for conjurer of ghosts?|
|Adm.||She whom I buried...visible...here...my queen?|
|Her.||Aye; 'tis no marvel that belief is hard.|
|Adm.||May I touch her...speak to her as alive...my queen?|
|Her.||Aye, speak to her; for all thy will thou hast.|
|Adm.||Ah, dearest, face and form of thee, that ne'er|
I thought to see! Oh wonder! Art thou mine?
|Her.||Aye. Jealous heaven, forgive this happiness!|
|Adm.||O son of Zeus Supreme, his noble son,|
Blest be thou: may the father that begat
Protect: for thou hast raised me, thou alone!...
How didst thou bring her from beneath to day?
|Her.||By wrestling with the power that rules herein.|
|Adm.||A bout with Death! Where didst thou close with him?|
|Her.||At the tomb. I lay in wait, rushed out, and gripped....|
|Adm.||Why stands, oh why, the woman speechless thus?|
|Her.||To hear her salutation is not yet|
Permitted thee. First to the nether gods
She must acquit her, and the third day dawn.
Now lead her in; and deal, as thou art bound,
Henceforth, Admetus, piously with thy guests.
Farewell! For me, I go to execute
For King Eurystheus the appointed task.
|Adm.||Remain with us, a partner of the feast.|
|Her.||Another time; the present bids me speed.|
|Adm.||Good fortune then be thine, and safe return.[Exit Heracles.|
In Pherae and in all the Marches Four
For this good hap be dances set afoot
And worshipped altars steam with sacrifice.
This hour transforms us to a better life,
Being fortunate, as I shall not deny.[Exeunt.
|Chorus.||Many a guise hath deity,|
Doth surprises oft decree,
Cunning for the expected end
Unexpected close to send,
By such way as this doth wend.[Exeunt.
'Quite unexpected! And is that all?, must have been the comment of those in the Athenian audience (and there were probably not a few) who had followed the play so far with the desire to see in it a bona fide version of the sacred legend. 'If it is unexpected, why then it is all!' might have been the reply of those (and even as early as the date of the Alcestis they must have been a large majority) who understood the attitude of Euripides, and sympathized with him sufficiently to desire that he should be allowed, so far as might be, the means of public expression. The conclusion of the piece, from the moment when Heracles is asked for a narrative of his enterprise, is on the face of it a mere ironical mystification, representing no conceivable reality, felt to be incredible even by readers who have not been tempted to enquire further, and signifying nothing, except that the dramatist and his dramatis personae have agreed to drop the subject. Strange and inexplicable, to begin with, is the behaviour of Heracles in evading without cause alleged the natural and blameless desire of Admetus to learn the manner of this astounding achievement. Why—to put the point in a practical way—should so admirable a narrator as Euripides defraud himself and the audience of this fine opportunity? What is his motive, and what is that of his hero? 'Heracles', thinks Balaustion, 'said little but enough'. Little it is; but enough it apparently is not, when it leaves so many readers to exclaim, with Dr Munk, "That the poet should expect us to accept things so obscure and improbable to the imagination is too much!" Surely it is, if he does expect us to accept them; surely it was his especial business, in that case, to make them probable to the imagination by his skill in the telling, which, we may add, none, if he had chosen, could have done better. But Heracles, instead of relating what has happened, or explaining why he should not relate it, gives a reply which is not so much mysterious as unintelligible. 'How didst thou bring her from beneath to this light?''By fighting the power with whom the matter lay'. But who is this power or deity? Admetus guesses Death, and the interpretation is coldly accepted. But what has become of Heracles' tongue, which before the enterprise was so eloquent and assured?
I will go lie in wait for Death, black-stoled
King of the corpses! I shall find him, sure,
Drinking beside the tomb o' the sacrifice; . . . .
and so on. Why cannot he speak so now, and what does he mean?
Strange in itself is the reticence of Heracles, and stranger the acquiescence of the rest.
'A bout with Death! Where didst thou close with him?'
'At the tomb. I lay in wait, rushed forth, and gripped.'
And no one has anything more to ask! Admetus indeed, by noticing at this moment the silence of Alcestis, suggests the thought that she perhaps may explain. But no; she is not to speak till the day after to-morrow; and this for a mystic reason which, stated baldly and in such a connexion, produces an effect like that of burlesque. In expounding the play it is now regular at this point to bid the reader observe (with Elmsley) that, if there was a religious reason why Alcestis should not speak, there was also a practical reason; inasmuch as, if she had, the play, which by means of changing masks could now be performed with two main actors capable of elocution, would in this scene have required three. And up to a certain point we must go with this observation. Undoubtedly the way in which her silence and the cause of it are treated by Euripides, the abruptness with which the subject is raised and dropped, and especially the coolness with which the mysterious precept is given and received, just as if it were some trivial apothecary's prescription about diet or exercise, are exactly calculated to prompt, in minds acquainted with the history of Athenian drama, the reflexion of Elmsley. But the inference is that the author intended to prompt it, or in other words, to give to the situation a touch of awkwardness and absurdity; for that his embarrassment was involuntary we really cannot believe. Long before the production of the Alcestis, and all through the career of Euripides, three-part scenes had been in regular use. Even if we suppose, what is sufficiently improbable, that all the three other plays which the author, as we know, exhibited with this, consisted wholly of two-part scenes, the Alcestis itself would show that he had no difficulty in obtaining such 'extras' as he wanted. He does not hesitate, because two actors are already on the stage, to introduce the effective but needless part of the orphan child, a part surely much harder to fill than it would have been to procure some one capable of delivering a verse or two, all that would here be needed or admissible, in the character of Alcestis. In the conditions of Greek performance it would have been possible, if necessary, to 'double' the parts of the son and the mother. But really it is not conceivable that there should be any difficulty about the matter. Besides, if difficulty there were, why exhibit it? Alcestis, after the disclosure, has scarcely time to speak before the play is over. Twenty ways, better theatrically than that selected, could have been taken to explain her silence, the best and obvious way being to let those who might notice it explain it for themselves. But Euripides chose here to do what he has done elsewhere, notably, as will be remembered, in his Electra; he satirises, in a manner all the more telling from its decorous gravity, the practice of his elders. In the religious tragedy of Aeschylus, silent personages played a great part. We know that their silence, though sometimes effective, was not always voluntary, but imposed by the narrow limitations of the cast; and we also know, through Aristophanes, that the topic was, as it naturally would be, a favourite butt for the witticisms of the 'modern' and opposite school. Such a sly shaft Euripides here discharges; and that he thinks the occasion suitable is proof by itself that he neither feels nor invites respect for the momentous doctrine which nevertheless this finale pretends to set forth. It is even something more than likely that he aims at a particular scene or passage, which we should recognize, if, as in the case of the Choephori and Euripidean Electra, it had been spared to us by time. But however this be, the spirit and tone of his reference are (to my mind) manifest; and they are incompatible with the belief that he 'means seriously with' the supposed resurrection.
And for further confirmation be it observed that the sarcasm has yet another edge. Alcestis, says Heracles, must not yet speak because 'she will not have discharged her ceremonial obligations to the nether gods until the day after to-morrow.' Now obligations of this sort, contracted by the passage from death to life, are so seldom incurred within the limits of our human experience, that they are not much known or thought of. But the contrary passage from life to death is the commonest thing in the world, and no rules more familiar than those which relate to it. It is interesting therefore to learn, on the respectable authority of a demi-god, that there is between the two cases so close a resemblance. When a man comes from the nether world to the upper, there is, it seems, a certain interval of transition, during which the claim of the nether powers is not entirely extinguished, but requires to be satisfied by proper observances. Just so, as we all know, when he goes the other way: the transition, in point of form, is not completed in a moment or in an hour. There is a time when he is, as it were, between the worlds, with us and yet with us no more, the time between our first perception of his death and the moment when we part with his body. By universal custom this interval should have a certain extension, and should be observed with careful ceremonies; nor could it be cut short without our feeling, for grave, manifest, and imperative reasons, that the rights of the upper gods were being infringed. And the analogy extends even to the length of prescription. On the third day from that of his resurrection inclusive, but not before, a man may be surrendered altogether to this life. Exactly the same minimum, verbally the same, is fixed by Plato in the contrary case, and commends itself by our common experience. Most remarkable of all, both in the nether world and in the upper, the reciprocal obligation was denoted by the same Greek word, hagnismos, which was applied, it appears, as it was familiarly among the living to the formalities of a funeral, so among the ghosts to those of a resurrection. In short the precept of Heracles is plainly so shaped as to rebuke (and to punish) the wrong lately committed by Admetus against ordinances less shadowy, if not more important, than those of Pluto and Persephoné: and that he means it so, he shows by following it up with a final caution about 'hospitality', another piety which the king has also neglected through the entangling consequences of his trespass against the dead. But in the midst of these witticisms, what are we to think of the miracle?
And so the heroes part, with adieux the briefest possible. Admetus in dismissing himself and the rest is equally brief, and exhibits in his proclamation of festivities the same disinclination to particularity about the cause of them, which we have already observed in Heracles. It is a 'good hap', and he himself is 'fortunate, as he will not deny'. A handsome concession, but who wants it, and why should it be supposed that he has anything to 'deny'? Lastly we are left with the Chorus, whose behaviour is an appropriate climax. Which now will they give us, we naturally ask, of the many reflexions that must be suggested to them, in the light of their previous utterances, by the resurrection of Alcestis? They had expressed a hope that in some way or other Admetus would be further rewarded for his piety towards the gods, and particularly towards Apollo. Here is a miracle which more than fulfils their anticipation; and though they do not know, as we do having heard the prologue, that the Pythian deity had himself foreseen and foretold the precise event, Apollo, whom neither Heracles nor Admetus has found time to mention, will now perhaps come in for the tribute of a stanza. Whoever may be 'compelled to haste', the Chorus have leisure enough, for the play is still short. Or again there is the casuistry of hospitality, on which in the first instance they show so loyal a disposition to give up their own opinion for that of their master. Now that every one, as it would seem, agrees in their original view, it would not be unbecoming if they were to re-adopt it. But among the many topics on which we should like to hear them, there is one on which surely they are bound to be full and explicit. Within the last five minutes, if in the general hurry we rightly apprehend what has happened, the Chorus must have changed their belief on the most vital of problems, on nothing less than the whole nature and condition of humanity. At the very moment before Heracles enters with his prize, the poet has put in their mouths a creed, which by its solemnity (it is perhaps the only passage in the play to which this word can well be applied) and by its strong personal emphasis arrests the attention of every reader. "For my part, after searching deep and long, I find that nothing, no charm, no spell, no prayer, can prevail against that Necessity, that fixed Order of things, by which our world from lowest to highest is bound. Of this invincible order I see one fresh example in him who here helplessly mourns for his wife, helplessly, for no weeping will raise up them that have perished. Even the noblest perish in death. Even of an Alcestis there remains only the love of her and the praise of her virtues." To such effect Euripides—with every mark of sincerity and earnestness—has just before addressed the audience by the voice of the Chorus. And now therefore, if this very Alcestis, who could not possibly rise, has actually risen before the eyes of the Chorus and ours, if the irreversible order of things has in its most impressive manifestation been signally reversed, if in short it has been proved, as all, if they saw such a thing happen, would understand and confess, that the bond of 'Necessity' does not bind, but itself is breakable by superior and, as we say, miraculous power,—what has become of that creed? Was it put forward only that the contrasted sequel might the more conspicuously exhibit its falsity? Has the poet refuted himself, and are his spokesmen convinced? This is the question, to which, when the chief actors are gone, we are still awaiting an answer. Heracles is curt and evasive; Alcestis must not yet speak; Admetus says nothing to the purpose. No one—if the reader doubts this, I will ask him to glance again over the dialogue—has yet said the one thing, so simple and so essential to be said, 'This woman was dead and is alive again.' The Chorus only are left, and what have they to say? 'How often' say the Chorus 'things end otherwise than was expected! So does this story.' And away they go.
Now what is the meaning of all this? What is the purpose of this lame, impotent, and abrupt conclusion? How does it serve to harmonize the discordant elements of the drama and fix for us the impression which we are intended to carry away? How does it explain the author's motives in treating a story, which, except in the single point of the heroine's character, he handles, as it would seem, only to injure it? By common consent the true answer to this question is that the finale does not satisfy any such demand, but is on the contrary altogether unsatisfactory. Even the Byzantine critics, who were not easily surprised, were surprised and displeased at the conclusion of the Alcestis: "the conclusion of the play" says the second and most substantial of the three Greek introductory notes "is too comic". If a modern poet, a Browning let us say, should take the Alcestis in hand to remodel it freely and bring it more into accord with the author's assumed intentions, one thing which he would certainly do, besides such transformations of the dramatis personae as Balaustion makes in the case of Heracles, would be to re-write the finale completely, making Heracles say not 'little' but truly 'enough', as Balaustion would fain have done had she dared, and generally elevating and expanding the treatment to the measure of the ostensible occasion. Why did not Euripides? This—if we shrink from the answer 'because he was a botcher, and did not know what he was about'—is the question, which we are left to consider. Let us assume that Euripides was a man of sense, and that his purpose was as serious, as he would seem to imply by the choice of his subject and by the sober, persuasive realism of his portraiture; and let us gravely ask ourselves what that purpose can have been.
It is sometimes a helpful and, with proper caution, a legitimate way of judging the transactions of other times, to put a parallel case, real or fictitious, arising in our own times and among those circumstances to which we are accustomed. Remembering carefully that Euripides addressed an audience, of whom a considerable portion regarded the resurrection of Alcestis as sacred truth, and all of whom, except open rebels against the religion of the state, were in the habit of assisting at rites implying this belief or other beliefs warranted by the same authority—carefully remembering this, let us ask what we ourselves should think, if we read a newly-published historical fiction, in which a general outline, resembling mutatis mutandis that which Euripides gives to the death, burial, and resurrection of Alcestis, were given to the death, burial, and resurrection of Lazarus. Read first—I am anxious to convince the reader that in my opinion this is no matter for levity—read first the second chapter of the Gospel of St John; and then suppose a story, in which it should be represented that, for reasons special to the case and traceable, according to the novelist, in the Bible itself, Lazarus was really conveyed to the tomb within an hour of his death, and was restored in the course of the day. Or read the fourth chapter of the Second Book of Kings; and then suppose a version of the story, in which Gehazi, on reaching the home of the Shunnamite, found that the child had revived immediately after the mother's departure, and Elisha, instead of actually restoring him in the way described, merely announced his intention to do so, an intention forestalled by the recovery. Then go back to the Alcestis, and consider whether, if the characters are ill-matched with the miraculous hypothesis ostensibly propounded in the conclusion, the facts of the story are not equally ill-devised to sustain this hypothesis; and whether it is not fair, reasonable, and necessary to suppose the author aware of this; and then whether—seeing that everything in the drama from the 77th verse to the 1135th, characters and facts alike, is repugnant to the theological interpretation given ostensibly in the prologue and conclusion, so that, to save the author's reputation for sense, we must suppose him not serious either with the mass of his work or with the fringes—whether we ought not to set 1059 verses above 104, and look for serious meaning in the 1059, and for signs of a presumable mockery in the 104.
'The resurrection of Alcestis' is represented by Euripides as it could be only by a man who did not believe that it was a resurrection, and wished to convey this to others. Suppose that, when Admetus asks 'How did you bring her from below to this light?', Heracles instead of meeting the question, as Euripides makes him do, with a reply which is no reply, evasive and unintelligible, had answered frankly 'How did I do it? I went to the monument, and after waiting a fair while till my head was cool, I went in. As soon as I saw your wife I was sure she was alive, and I had not been there long before she came to. When she felt fit to move, I cloaked her (for I thought you deserved a trick) and we walked back. There is no mystery about it. What I cannot understand is why she was carried there with such haste as it seems she was, and how you could fancy that she was dead.' If Heracles had so replied, who, unless it were Admetus, could have felt any astonishment, and how could Admetus himself have disputed the simplicity of the explanation? The facts, as given by Euripides, are these. The death of a certain woman has been predicted for a certain day. She and her family are convinced that on that day she will certainly die. This expectation (be it observed) is grounded solely on the prophecy. Up to the morning of the day itself, and even on that morning, she is so far from showing signs of danger, that those who see her can even speak of her 'unchanged complexion'. Nevertheless, acting upon the absolute certainty of her approaching end, she rises at dawn, bathes, robes herself elaborately as for burial, and goes the round of the palace in which she is queen, paying her devotion 'at every altar which it contains '. She then takes a long and passionate farewell of her chamber, then of her children, and then of all the household (a royal household) 'down to the very meanest'. From this time in fact till her 'death' she is occupied incessantly in adieux. She lies in her husband's arms, expecting the end, surrounded by the whole weeping assembly, servants and children, and still, so long as she can, repeating her farewells. Her case is treated from the first and throughout as hopeless. No attempt is made to sustain her, either by herself or the rest, except 'beseeching her not to depart'. In such scenes the hours go by until she has become very weak; with more adieux she becomes weaker; and at last it is plain that she is sinking. Carried into the air, she rallies sufficiently for yet one prolonged farewell, after which she sinks again, sinks rapidly, and becomes unconscious. Being already prepared for burial, except for the addition of certain ornaments, which are also ready, the body, just as it lies, is carried to a neighbouring monument, laid there and left. Later in the day the woman is brought back from the tomb to her house.
Where is the miracle? There is no one now, and assuredly there was no one at Athens in the days of Protagoras, who assuming these facts would dream of a miraculous explanation, instead of the obvious explanation, that the woman and her friends were mistaken, that she was not in such danger as she and they too credulously supposed, that she wanted nothing but a little rest from their killing importunities, and would have revived, not in a tomb but in her house, if the 'survivors' had given her time to do so. And in fact this is the conviction of all the dramatis personae in Euripides, of Heracles, Admetus, and the Chorus alike; only (as in the theatre of Dionysus one cannot exactly say so) instead of the natural and proper conclusion, the conclusion which might be expected from the course of the story, we have the miraculous explanation appended in a form transparently unreal. From the moment when it is understood that Alcestis has certainly come back, from the moment of the question 'How was the thing accomplished?', the actors cease to act in character; they cease to be conceivable as persons in the situation supposed, and show neither opinion nor emotion, except a general agreement to wind up the business as quickly as possible, joined in the case of Heracles with a strong disposition to sneer. 'The gods' as the author says with typical irony 'have found the way to an ending unexpected, instead of that for which we looked.' Such is the resurrection as related by Euripides, and such is the aspect in which alone the scheme, tone, and cast of the play are intelligible as a whole. But to make the matter fully comprehensible, I must ask the reader's patience for a larger historical survey.
The Alcestis in its general character, and in the relation between outward pretence and inward suggestion, is by no means exceptional among the works of the poet. Most of them show something of the same character, and one example at least, the Ion, corresponds to the type almost as perfectly as the Alcestis. It could not now possibly exist, at least in Western Europe, for many reasons and some highly satisfactory, nor perhaps could ever have been fully developed in any society except just at Athens in the fifth century before Christ. But there and then the conditions were such as to produce this type inevitably, a type of dramatic work, whose meaning lies entirely in innuendo. The purpose of the Alcestis as a whole, and that which alone connects into a whole its otherwise inharmonious and repugnant elements, is neither to solemnize the legend, as would have been the purpose of Aeschylus, nor to embellish it, as might have been the purpose of Sophocles, but to criticize it, to expose it as fundamentally untrue and immoral, before an audience who were well acquainted with the general opinions of the author, well aware that from the circumstances of the case innuendo was the only way in which those opinions could be dramatically expressed, well accustomed to apprehend them in this form, and predisposed by mental and moral temper not merely to be content with such a mode of expression, but to regard it as the best possible condition for intellectual art and intellectual pleasure.
At Athens in the age of Euripides the relations of the drama, and of tragedy in particular, to other functions of society were so different from those in our experience, indeed so contrary to our experience, that although the facts are familiar, it is not easy to bear them always effectively in mind. In our own country particularly the theatre is not, rarely has been, and never has been since many generations, of general importance as an organ of public opinion or public instruction. Such are our habits and traditions that even now, when liberty of expression in almost all forms is established as a panacea and has perhaps produced some disease, a drama, which was designed to set forth and recommend a particular opinion on some topic agitating the public mind at the moment, would probably not be popular; and whether it were likely to be popular or not, it would not obtain a license. And in particular with regard to one class of subject, the most widely and deeply interesting of all, there is and long has been in England a rule, sanctioned by sentiment as much as by law, that it may be discussed everywhere and almost without limit, except on the stage, from which it is rigidly excluded: and this is the subject of religion. Nor do these restrictions excite impatience even in the most determined agitators. When methods of publication, more efficient in the present conditions of life than a play could be though it were performed by order of Parliament at the public expense in every theatre of London, are open to any man whose opinions and style are intrinsically capable of attracting attention; and when religion, orthodox and unorthodox, is propagated without restraint in ways devised by itself for its own ends; it is not very likely that any one would offer to the Lyceum a Marriage in Cana or Jairus' Daughter, even if there were a chance that it would be accepted. But it is notorious, although easily forgotten in practice, that in Athens at the time of which we are speaking the conditions, positive and negative, were exactly the reverse of these. Drama was essentially the vehicle, not of pleasure, though this was part of its purpose and one of its necessary instruments, but of instruction and controversy on the most exciting themes of the day. Comedy dealt mainly with politics, tragedy always directly or indirectly with religion, and with morals as related to religion. When Aristophanes in the Frogs presents the personages of Aeschylus and Euripides, each defending himself as an artist and assailing the other, he assumes as a matter of course that the rivals must be judged as public preachers, as aiming deliberately at the spread of certain opinions and the production of a certain character in their auditors. Upon this comparison he throws all the weight of the discussion, and gives to other matters, such matters as we should call literary, a treatment altogether subordinate and scarcely serious. In the fore-front of the argument he places a pair of contrasted prayers, both tragedians coming forward as representatives of religion, of two opposed religions. Aeschylus, representing the class of which he had in fact been the greatest prophet, the class who desired to deepen and spiritualize the legendary traditions without breaking with them, prays in sacramental form to Demeter of Eleusis 'who feedest my soul', and asks to be found worthy of her mysteries. Euripides, rejecting the gods of tradition for 'a mintage of his own', asks of 'Air and the turn of the Tongue, Intelligence and the nostril of Perception' to make him 'a true critic of every subject presented to his sense'; nor does this petition deviate beyond the reasonable limits of professed parody from some which the tragedian himself finds occasion to put in the mouth of his characters. The creed of Euripides was that of nascent philosophy, science, and rationalism; between which and the worship of the popular gods there was a war to which modern religious controversies offer no parallel. It was not merely that the current legends assumed as possible and true things which science rejected as incredible; but the whole character of pagan tradition, loose, fluctuating, unsystematic, varying between city and city, shrine and shrine, and ready even to accommodate itself by arbitrary modifications to different moods of the same mind, was fundamentally incompatible with regular and consistent theory of any kind. The religious creeds of modern Europe are themselves to a large extent made up of science and philosophy. If they come into collision with 'science' in a more limited sense, this is not because their supporters do not hold as strongly as their opponents the necessity of system and regularity in thought. But the religion or rather the religious atmosphere of paganism was not a creed at all, nor able to take any such form without self-destruction. The duty preached by the philosophers, and by Euripides as a public teacher known to be in sympathy with philosophers, was the duty of thinking on system, of not adopting, without evidence or investigation, contradictory hypotheses on different days of the month or at different stages of a journey; a duty which, as was seen with ever increasing clearness, would if pursued make it impossible to use at all such conceptions as 'Apollo', or 'Artemis', or 'Demeter', and reduce even 'Zeus' to the position of an inconvenient and misleading name.
That these were the views of Euripides, and that he desired to impress them upon others, would have been manifest to his fellow-citizens, if they had had no evidence but what he himself put forth. And in such a community as that of Athens, where the doings even of people inconspicuous and unimportant were better known than London knows her 'celebrities', where it was worth the while of a comedian to bring up before the assembled state such little personal jests as now would scarcely catch in a parish-meeting, much that was not meant for publication must nevertheless have been widely known about any man who had won his way to the privilege, confined by necessity to few, of being an exhibitor in the great dramatic festival. As to Euripides, that it was the purpose and effect of his plays to destroy the old religious beliefs, is repeatedly taken by Aristophanes for notorious. To dwell upon the evidence is unnecessary, as if not quite undisputed it is not really open to reasonable dispute; and the whole subject has recently been re-stated, with knowledge and skill upon which I at least cannot improve, in the second chapter of Euripide et l'esprit de son théâtre by Professor Paul Decharme, the best treatise on the poet with which I am acquainted. There is scarcely one of the extant plays which would not prove him a determined enemy of the popular theology: and even in the unintelligent and uncritical summaries, which are all that remain to us of ancient biography respecting him, one of the few traits which has an air of genuine history is, that he was drawn to the stage only or mainly because it provided him with armour as well as weapons for this contest.
It might be matter for surprise, if without making allowance for differences of condition we estimated the proceedings of distant ages upon the principles of our own, that such an author should have taken or have been permitted to take such a way of publication; that the plays of Euripides, abounding in sarcasms upon the traditional gods, should have been selected against powerful competitors for performance in a place dedicated to traditional religion. If we wanted to find any sort of parallel in our own life, it must be by supposing that some eminent Positivist or Agnostic were appointed for one Sunday in every month, upon certain terms of reticence and discretion, to preach the sermon in Westminster Abbey. But this or something like it could actually be enforced by public opinion, if the pulpit at Westminster were as uniquely important among the means of intellectual influence as was the stage of Dionysus at Athens, and if religious parties in their shades of distinction were so related as they were then. The Athenians under Pericles, though passionately intelligent and curious, were not in general collectors of books. It is not till the last quarter of the fifth century, not that is to say till the career of Euripides was drawing to a close, that we find in the rapid growth of prose literature the sign of a public accustomed to the amusement of solitary reading As for the echoing repetition by which in these days a new thought upon any subject of pressing interest is rapidly bandied about in volume, article and paragraph, nothing of the sort, it is needless to say, had been dreamed of. Nor was the stage available as a daily expedient; for theatrical exhibitions were commonly confined to the rare and solemn performance of the regular festivals. Under these circumstances the colossal advertisement obtained by exhibiting at these festivals before the assembled folk was an overpowering advantage in circulation. Everything goes to show that next to that ancient epic literature which the city of Athens had in the preceding century taken under her particular patronage, that 'Homer' which was recited on holidays and taught in the schools, no literature was half so well or so widely known as the favourite bits from the dramatists. It was not therefore likely to be tolerated, that out of respect for a local and temporal association between tragedy and the traditional theology, which was only a historic accident, due in great part to the personal inclinations of one creative genius, this unique advantage should be appropriated entirely by a section of the community, the sincere supporters of traditional theology, who throughout the century, in spite of their legal superiority, were continually losing ground. Although tragedy had been founded or re-founded by Aeschylus, yet a generation, of whom (we have it from the Aeschylean Aristophanes) only a small minority were Aeschyleans, would scarcely condemn themselves for this reason to hear nothing but Aeschylism from the orchestra which he had magnified; and this especially when, by another historic accident, it happened that the man who of all living Athenians was perhaps the most richly endowed with the talents required for dramatic composition had espoused the contrary opinions with the zeal of a missionary.
For more reasons than one it was not in comedy, as comedy was practised at Athens in that age, that the new spirit, the spirit of philosophical criticism, could effectively make itself heard. To our habitual feelings it is somewhat odd to see Aristophanes, while in the very act of exhibiting in postures of farce or harlequinade the patron-god of the sacred theatre, idol and leader of the deepest and tenderest mysteries, turn round to vilify the innovators who dared to depreciate the accepted deities in comparison with their own inventions. But it is constantly assumed by the comedian, that no confusion was possible between his attitude in this relation and that of such a man as Euripides; it is assumed that his own ridicule was in the popular sense religious, and that of Euripides in the like sense irreligious, the two forms not merely different but antagonistic. Nor is it difficult to appreciate the distinction. In the first place the whole cast of comedy, its extravagance of imagination, was a sufficient safeguard against a severe interpretation of anything which the author might advance by way of helping a jest. The spectator would no more be embarrassed in his religious exercises by having seen a Dionysus take a flogging in competition with a slave upon the toughness of their respective skins, than he would be embarrassed in his politics by having seen the birds conspire to build a city in the air. But this license of imagination would in itself have rendered the comic stage an unsuitable instrument for serious attack upon beliefs transcending common experience. No form of art could be further removed from Aristophanic comedy than the realistic cast of Euripides' tragedy. As he is made to say in the Frogs, doubtless because he did habitually say so in conversation, his whole aim is to put his audience 'among the things which we handle and live with', in the world as it visibly is, and this, as he goes on to note, for the purpose of enabling them to criticize what is said and done there. The departing spectator took with him the pictures presented by the poet as things which could no more be supposed away than the streets through which he went home, and among these realities were the reflexions, grave or gay in form but alike serious in meaning, which were made in the drama, as on convenient occasions they were made in actual society, upon the current theology. But the difference goes even deeper than this. Taken with the proviso, which Aristophanes is careful to repeat, that in practice you will do well to worship according to the wont of your city, parish, and family, it was positively good for Zeus and Apollo to be supposed indulgent as to the way in which they were depicted, and lax in general as to intellectual belief. The local varieties of cult and legend could stand together on no other supposition. To make a jest for the moment of the almighty father and his offspring was an excellent means to keep men in that flaccid, wavering habit of mind by which Zeus this, Apollo that, and Artemis the other, could be accepted according to the ritual of the place or shrine where the worshipper happened to be. It was another thing to indict these personages in the name of intelligence, and with constant incitements to clarify your thoughts and arrange your propositions.
Thus the conditions of the time and his own talents combined to obtain for Euripides the permission to speak from the stage of tragedy, and to speak there in his own sense. But it did not therefore follow that he could speak there without disguise, nor that he would choose to do so, if he could. As things stood in Athens, a certain disguise or semblance of disguise was desirable alike for safety and for effect. It was necessary that the veil should be transparent for all who cared to look through it; and this it was sure to be from the nature of the case. Take the Alcestis as an example. The legend commemorates a miracle wrought on behalf of a man specially beloved and favoured by the Pythian Apollo. Now there cannot have been a man in Athens interested in literature, not any one to whom the tragic festival was more than an amusement for the eye, who was unaware that Euripides laughed at the miracles of legend and regarded the pretensions of Delphi with scorn. It is possible indeed, or probable, that when the Alcestis was exhibited, he had not yet delivered himself on the stage so frankly as he does in some of the extant plays. He had perhaps not yet denounced the Pythian deity as the accomplice and instigator of murders, which he does in the Electra, the Orestes, and the Andromache, or as a lying, shuffling, cheating ravisher, which he does in the Ion. Probably he became bolder as the new speculations spread wider and were more widely avowed. But we have remains enough of his work at all periods to see that its tendency had been the same throughout; nor to his fellow-citizens, as we have already said, was the stage the only or the most authentic source of information about him, Now when it was announced that this man intended to present in the theatre the story of Alcestis, what did the Athenians expect? Suppose a parallel case among ourselves. It must needs be inexactly parallel, but we can make the resemblance sufficient. Suppose that once a year that part of the inhabitants of London, which frequents the clubs and reads the magazines, were accustomed to assemble for the purpose of witnessing plays in which the stories of the Bible were presented after the manner of Samson Agonistes, with variations according to the taste of the composer, but in the same general spirit of acceptation and reverence. And suppose it then given out that the management had decided to exhibit a play entitled (let us say) The Herdsmen of Gadara or The Shunammite, and written by Professor T..... H..... What sort of a piece would the audience anticipate, and what motive could they attribute to the author? It was a thing incredible in itself that Euripides intended to send his Athenian hearers, with devotion warmed and faith exalted, to the next celebration of those Apolline rites in which, as he tells us, this miraculous legend was a familiar theme. It was certain beforehand that his object must be precisely the contrary; and the only question open would be, what means he would find of conveying his known sentiments, and how far he would venture to go. His methods of attack are many. It would not for example have been easy to deal with the legend of Alcestis after the fashion of the Heraclidae, in which, though the chief personages are all of them 'gods', that is to say objects of existing cults, the story, which is in effect a satire on the barbarity of ancient religion and ancient manners, is rigorously stripped of every supernatural incident except one. This incident is reported by a speaker, who pointedly distinguishes it from the rest of his narrative as 'hearsay' and not guaranteed by his own observation! There is this way, and there are many others. What way the poet would take in his Alcestis could not be known; but the point from which he started was known and given, unless it were to be imagined that he had suddenly changed his mind, an imagination which, as we shall see hereafter, a few lines of the actual commencement would be enough to correct.
The use of disguise was therefore artistically safe, safe, that is, to be penetrated by any one who chose to give himself that satisfaction. But it was also, in a very different sense, safe and essential to safety for the person of the author. It is a common incident in the development of society that between effectual prohibition and formal permission there intervenes a stage, in which an act legally forbidden and punishable is nevertheless protected by the predominance of favourable opinion, and practicable therefore, so long as adverse opinion is propitiated by a show of deference; when (in simpler terms) you may do the thing, provided only that you make a decent pretence of not doing it. Every one must have observed and be observing examples of this phenomenon; and it is wonderful to see how long the pretence may be used and even imposed, when it has become so thin that only a historical explanation will account for its existence. The whole character of Euripidean drama fits in with the history of the time to show that to this point had come, in the times of Pericles, Cleon, and Alcibiades, the public expression of dissent from that moribund theology upon which the established cults reposed. 'Impiety' was at Athens a legal crime, and there was more than one way of visiting it with penalties practically unlimited except by the discretion of the adjudicating body. As to definition of the offence, Athenian law was throughout, as would be thought by the heirs of Roman jurisprudence, in this respect objectionably lax; and indeed this particular offence does in fact belong to that most important class which, whatever the law may say, will in any society, where 'the masses' have weight, refuse to be limited otherwise than by the circumstances of the case. Libel and slander for instance, among ourselves, notwithstanding disquisition and decision, might still be defined without much practical error to be such offensive speech or writing as a jury will in the circumstances find to be criminal or (as the case may be) will visit with damages. 'Impiety' at Athens stood in the same position, or to speak more properly, hung in the same suspension. There is abundant evidence that the law could be set in motion, and that fine, banishment, even death might be incurred for offences against religion—if a jury could be found so disposed. Once at least as we know Euripides was the object of such proceedings; and it is a fair supposition, in the meagreness and fragmentary state of our information, that the instance ras not unique. It is certain that his life must have been passed in much anxiety, and probable, that neither the privacy and almost concealment in which, contrary to the habits of the place and people, his proceedings other than theatrical were carried on, nor his retirement at an advanced age from the land where he must have hoped to repose, was altogether voluntary. There is scarcely one of his plays in which an adversary might not find passages sufficient, without any forcing, to support a sentence of irreligion,—if only the court would consent to say so. But on the other hand we can easily account for his long career of impunity and success. For what would have been the use of taking the Alcestis (let us say) into court? That the publication of the play was an act of 'impiety' is as certain as that many sheep-stealers and clippers of the coin, who were acquitted in England when the law on these subjects was out of adjustment with public opinion, were nevertheless guilty of the charges, and that the juries knew it. But how could an accuser expect a conviction? An Athenian jury was a body of five hundred men, brought together by proceedings carefully designed to make it reflect, so far as might be without any modification, the feelings of that general assembly, which it was supposed for the nonce to represent. In such a jury there would have been doubtless a certain number of persons, earnestly devoted to the traditional worships, who thought it scandalous that such a writer as Euripides should 'obtain a chorus' and be allowed to exhibit; and some also who, without going as far as this, thought him impertinent, mischievous, and deserving a snub. Aristophanes, for example would have been in this latter class; but he would have been influenced by mixed motives, and his vote, I should imagine, could not have been counted on when it came to the point. But if these classes had formed a majority among the citizens, or anything near a majority, the plays of Euripides would never have been selected for the national festival. Who made the majority? A few no doubt, who thought it scandalous that Euripides, speaking 'reason' and 'common sense', should be obliged to any measures of caution; not a few worthy people who took no interest either in literature or speculation and knew nothing about the matter; and a large mass, larger probably than all the rest put together, who knew all about the matter, who took their religion, so far as practical observance went, in the acquiescent way to which the majority is everywhere inclined, and had no desire to break with it, but who, being Athenians and having Athenian wits, found in the works of Euripides, just as they were, the greatest intellectual enjoyment which they had known, and would have been alike unwilling either to prohibit him altogether or to dispense with his delightful artifices. In such a jury the willing votes were impotent, and how were the unwilling to be forced? The Alcestis impious! Why so? The reluctant had only to take the plausible objection—and they would be saved the trouble of raising it by the worthy people who knew nothing about the matter—that it lay with the accuser to make out his case. A man is not to be punished upon an ambiguous construction The defence could put up plenty of witnesses, not only dishonest witnesses, quieting their consciences with such reasonings about the necessity of the case and the iniquity of the inquisition itself as have always been found available in similar circumstances, but simple and honest witnesses, ready to swear that they saw no harm in the piece, but found it fairly edifying. I shall be surprised if such witnesses do not come forward on the present occasion, gravely assuring me that Euripides meant no such malice as I say, and lamenting, as they have done before, that I should insist on understanding him, instead of dismissing him as a dullard.
It is a highly significant fact, that one of the chief accusations, indeed almost the only accusation grounded on solid considerations of morality, which is alleged by Aristophanes against Euripides in such a way that we can suppose it seriously meant, is that his influence tended to impair the obligation of veracity, even in the most solemn and binding form. It is advanced with singular emphasis in the Frogs, where Dionysus, having to choose between Aeschylus and Euripides, and choosing at last Aeschylus in spite of a promise, as Euripides asserts, to the contrary, flings in the face of the disappointed claimant his own famous saying from the Hippolytus, The tongue hath sworn but the mind remains unbound. It has often been remarked, and could not escape an Athenian of average intelligence, to say nothing of Aristophanes, that this saying, taken with the facts to which Euripides has applied it, cannot with fairness or sense be cited in favour of perjury. This being so, Aristophanes may claim from us the equity of supposing that he had other reasons, not grounded upon the Hippolytus, for converting the verse into a general reproach against its author; and for my own part I find no difficulty in believing it. The constant practice of dexterous ambiguity, and the habit of witnessing such dexterity with enjoyment, would not lose their tendency to weaken the springs of truth merely because the temptations, the justifications even, were strong, and the pleasure not only innocent in itself, but deserving to be classed for its intellectual quality among the highest of which humanity is capable. An Athenian notorious as an admirer of Euripides must frequently have had occasion to consider, not only in the law-courts but in various social relations, just how far he might go safely, or with a safe conscience, in pretending a convenient ignorance. It is likely enough that the enemies of such men would call them habitual liars, and not unlikely that they did something to deserve the appellation. Where in such cases the blame should rest, or how it should be distributed between those who practise deception and those who do their utmost to make it attractive or inevitable, is a problem which may be left to the student of politics and ethics, who will be frequently forced to consider it.
But to say the truth, in the particular case of Euripides, though the forms of concealment must have had their use and at times their necessity, we are not bound to suppose that practical security was the sole or the chief reason for maintaining them. From the Athenian point of view (and no man of candour, whatever his personal tastes, ought to have any difficulty in comprehending that point of view) Euripides as an artist had motive enough without the pressure of danger for 'keeping up the game', so to speak, when once it was fairly started. It enabled him to gratify, as he was by nature endowed almost beyond human limits with the talents required for gratifying, what if not the strongest passion was at all events the most characteristic passion of his race and age. The love of the Athenians for esprit, for wit in the old and proper sense of the word, that is to say, the delicate and subtle manipulation of words and meanings, was their most remarkable gift for good and for evil, the national glory and the national vice. Irony, innuendo, insinuation, the whole class of mental and linguistic faculties which lie on the side of lying, were ingrained in them and in all that they produced. Their very language, their favourite tropes, are of this colour; 'Attic understatement' figures even in the grammars. No people would have perceived more clearly, as no people perhaps is less adapted to perceive than we English are, the element of necessary truth contained in the Frenchman's epigram that 'language is given us to conceal our thoughts', or could more clearly distinguish between the duty of saying what you mean and the equally important but not always compatible duty of saying what you mean to say. In season and out of season they practised their favourite art. They carried it to the bench of justice and to the seats of political debate. The philosophical observer of their assemblies has recorded in vivid and well-known terms the intense apprehension and preternatural quickness of the audience, their eagerness 'to applaud a subtlety before it was out, to catch the sense before it was spoken'. It may easily be imagined with what enthusiastic delight a people, who could not be kept from indulging this temper even where, as many were wise enough to see, it was fraught, at least in its excess, with danger to their interests, would have turned in their hours of relaxation to such art as that of Euripides, to literary works of which it is the very basis and well-understood condition, that there is to be no blurting; that the author, happily for the pleasure of intelligent and cultivated persons, must not be plain if he would, and would not if he might; that the simpler and clearer he seems, the closer you have to watch him, sure that at last his truest and gravest meaning will be found in a corner, or round a corner, so that (thank the gods!) it is worth a man's while to look for it. Every man, who can read the language of Swift and of Mr George Meredith, may qualify himself to understand this point of view, if he thinks it worth study. It is true that, comparatively speaking, there is not very much in our literature which will help him, whereas among French authors of the first rank there are few indeed who will not.
There is perhaps no one among the great writers of Athens who does not prove himself on occasion a master in the art of hinting. Aeschylus, a man sincere if ever man was, was so exercised in ambiguity that scarcely a modern comes near him, and wields it, as in the person of Clytemnestra, literally like a fiend. The irony of Sophocles, of Plato, of Demosthenes and many others is famous. The simplicity of Lysias, Athenian by breeding though not by birth, is not simple by any means. The reticences of Thucydides are often not less suggestive than his remarks. In every mind of Athenian texture some threads of the national quality are woven in. But in Euripides it was the base of the fabric. He had a mind in which a set of secondary faculties, extraordinary in number and singly not contemptible in quality, eloquence and pathos, the gift of fancy and the gift of song, were subject, as perhaps they never were in any other, to an unsurpassed and, it may be, unsurpassable wit. It so happened that the circumstances of the time supplied to him in perfection the conditions essential for the exercise of this colossal wit, grand and grave solemnities, where it was his accepted part to find language for truths or, to speak more modestly and humanly, for a part of truth, which there and then was admissible only under reserve. To overcome difficulties of expression, to put a thought better and more effectively than your hearers could expect in the given conditions, is the essence of wit. Euripides was so placed that he must speak wittily, if he was to speak his mind at all. As it happened that he had wit enough for anything, and that his countrymen had wit enough for him, nothing could have suited him better. It is the boast of the Aristophanic Euripides, as it doubtless was of the real man, that the effect of his writings was to apply an incessant stimulus to the intelligence, to keep perception alert, 'habitually suspecting malice and everywhere seeing beyond'. The Aristophanic Aeschylus subscribes to the boast as a reproach ; 'That is just what I say'. Whether we approve with the one or condemn with the other, or more wisely decline to be partizans in a needless quarrel, it is in the spirit, which Aristophanes by both voices declares to be Euripidean, that we must approach the works of Euripides, if even in such limited measure as is now possible we expect to interpret them truly.
And it is worth the trouble. To any one with a taste for esprit the Alcestis alone offers reward enough for the effort of realizing and fixing in his mind the presupposed relations between author and audience. It is not merely in single passages or expressions, in particular hits, that we are delighted, although the play bristles with them, and the student at each successive reading may go on finding them as long as he has the inclination. More admirable than any such stroke, more astonishing as an exhibition of intellectual skill, is the adaptation of the whole structure to its purpose, its exquisite poise and delicate preponderation. Without the use of a single plain blasphemy, without giving one single proof of 'impiety' at which an indulgent conformist could not comfortably wink or which a confessed unbeliever could not speciously disallow, the author contrives in scene after scene, each in itself a brilliant piece of portraiture, to impress with accumulating emphasis his own conception of the story, until we arrive at a catastrophe 'too deep' for any emotion except the pure intellectual thrill of thought uniting with thought, just only the joy of understanding. As to the touches of detail, it would require a complete commentary to bring out even those which with our manifestly inadequate means can now be detected; nor am I sure that it would be a service to the reader, who ought not to lose the pleasure of observation. One or two only of the most obvious shall here be noticed. None is perhaps more simply neat than the doubly double-edged reply of Admetus to Heracles, when questioned as to the identity of the woman for whom he is in mourning. The parodies of Aristophanes apprise us that it became famous, as well it might. 'It cannot sure' says Heracles 'be your wife who is gone'. 'Of her' replies the husband, who placed as he is dares not confess his belief, and like a well-bred man prefers evasion to lying so long as he sees his way, 'of her I may speak in a double sense'. 'Do you mean', says the other with pardonable bluntness, 'that she is dead or that she is alive?' She is…alive, and yet she is not: I feel it keenly' is the equivocator's answer, explained, under further pressure, to mean that even a living person is as good as dead, when she lies under an inevitable sentence of death. The dramatic merit of these quibbles, as an exhibition of character and as points in the scene, makes but a small part of the pleasure derived by the accustomed auditor, who has long before this been assured, as he might indeed have guessed before the play began, that Alcestis is no more dead than she is likely to die, and now perceives that Admetus in his embarrassment has been forced to say so in so many words.
But Euripides can do much better than a turn like this, of which, as Aristophanes not unjustly implies, the type is too formal for frequency. Such are for ears that need pricking, and are employed sparingly. Far above these, and touching surely the high-water mark of ingenuity, is the passage already signalized, in which a maid-servant relates to the Chorus the proceedings of Alcestis upon the 'fatal' morning. Here we have first to notice the skill with which this important narrative is introduced. In the mechanism of the piece, as conceived by the author, the cardinal fact is the precipitation of the funeral. As soon as we know that Alcestis will be buried without delay, whenever her husband believes her dead, we have the key to the situation, and are ready to appreciate the treatment. Now it is just before the narrative of the maid-servant begins that this intention on the part of Admetus, hinted in the opening dialogue of the Chorus, is fully disclosed; 'There is, I suppose, no hope of saving her life.—No; it is the day of fate, irresistible.—Then…with regard to her person…they are doing, are they not…what is required?—The adornment, yes, it is ready, to be buried by her husband along with her'. Here, when the reader has received his cue and fixed his attention, at a word of admiration from the Chorus the maid-servant breaks out into a full description of what has passed. Now the facts which she relates have two distinct bearings, both in the conception of Euripides equally important, though only one side is applicable to the primitive and miraculous legend. First they exhibit the patience and resolution of the victim, whose self-sacrifice remains of course as complete and heroic upon the Euripidean hypothesis as upon the other. But secondly this narrative makes equally plain, to minds not wholly prepossessed with the conviction that 'Apollo' cannot err, nor his devotees conceivably be deluded, the fact that, except the prophecy, there is not the smallest reason to fear for Alcestis on this day rather than another; that humanly speaking her life cannot possibly be in danger; and that if, as is clear enough, she is already suffering cruelly, if her strength is failing and threatens a grave collapse, this is simply because from the night onwards she herself with her family and household, in the simplicity of their faith, have been doing their utmost, as they are doing still and will persist in doing so long as she remains conscious, to torture beyond human endurance a delicate frame already shaken by expectation. Who but a fanatic could imagine a woman to be approaching inevitable death, to be already beyond the reach of aid, when not only, as we are told, is her appearance unaltered, but she is able without assistance to perambulate a palace, and to go through a prolonged series of fatiguing devotions and harrowing farewells? Who but a fanatic could see the work of a special providence, could see anything but the regularity of self-revenging nature, when these exercises, continued without remission till the effect is produced, lead from weakness to exhaustion, and finally to hallucination, fainting, coma, and all the appearance of death? Astonishment the rational auditor will undoubtedly feel, when he is told of the preparations for this predicted and foreseen decease, a double astonishment, both of admiration for the courage with which such horrors are borne, and of anger, like that of Lucretius, against the superstition which prompts them:—
What kind of creature should the woman prove
That has surpassed Alkestis?—surelier shown
Preference for her husband to herself
Than by determining to die for him?
But so much all our city knows indeed:
Hear what she did indoors—and wonder then.
There are some minds, and the literature of Athens in the classical age unites in proving that then and there such minds were a prevalent type, to which no art of language, no art of any sort, could give pleasure more intense in its kind than they will derive from the triumphant duplicity of this single word. There is no better point in The Egoist.
One more touch only of this fashion I will ask leave to point out, because I find it myself so signally delightful. If the visitors to whom the maid-servant addresses her story had been capable of reasoning, of calculation, of reflecting (like honest Heracles) that to weep for a bare prediction, as things go in this world, is somewhat premature, if they had not in short been the slaves of oracular dictum, their simple course would have been to rescue the lady at once from the bigots who are abetting her suicide, to scatter the servants, amuse the children, silence the 'imploring' husband, and tell the queen herself, that if she will only think it possible to live, if she will only take food and keep quiet, 'the fatal day' will bring no further harm whatever, and to-morrow she will find herself, as she was this morning, perfectly well. Instead of this these 'particular friends' of Admetus, being on this side blind as himself, begin desperately to pray, 'O Zeus, deliver us! O Paean, help us! No hope but in heaven!' and so on. Great indeed must be the relief and thankfulness of the judicious spectator, when after a few minutes of this folly they innocently exclaim. Is not this enough to make a man cut his throat, yes, more than enough to make a man hang himself? His dear, his dearest wife will perish within this day, and he will see her die!
It is not however in any such gems of cleverness, thick-set and brilliant as they are, that the power of the piece is mainly placed. It is in the design of the whole, by which the fabulous legend is so skilfully translated into facts of 'this common life in which we live', that minds prepared could not escape the reflexion 'Thus indeed, or in some such way, the thing may have taken place, and the story may have arisen!' As for the preparation of mind, it was given by the notoriety of the author's aims and sentiments, re-inforced for the occasion by the subtle and characteristic travesty which serves as a prologue. Of this we have hitherto not spoken, or had occasion to speak, since the play proper stands independent of it in plot, persons, and otherwise, pursuing its course exactly as if no such conversation as the prologue presents had taken place, nor any such personages as the two 'deities', between whom that conversation is held, had ever existed. The speakers are Apollo and Death. Apollo in the opening speech informs us that he has been revisiting the house of Admetus; Death in his closing speech, informs us that he is about to cut from the head of Alcestis, with the sword which he holds, the 'hair of consecration', and thus devote her to the underworld. But when in the sequel we are reintroduced to the familiar world, when the departed 'gods' are replaced by men and women such as we know, these human beings are found not to be aware either that Apollo has just been among them, or that Death, in the shape at least of a gentleman with a sword, is among them now, nor are the deities any longer visible to us. The supernatural personages are neither mixed with the others on the same plane of action, nor indicated as moving on a line of their own which intersects, as it were, the line of humanity at certain points, so that perception is then mutual between the two classes of being. The divine action of the prologue and the human action of the play take place in spheres mutually exclusive; so that, if instead of the existing preface, we were supplied with a paper stating that such and such is 'the legend of Alcestis, as taught at Delphi and in places of religion generally', we should be placed, so far as the sequel is concerned, precisely where the dramatic introduction does actually leave us. To the purpose of Euripides as an 'atheist' this separation is of course not universally necessary. It was open to him, and he has taken this line elsewhere, as in the Hippolytus and the Madness of Heracles, to exhibit scenes in which, for the sake of argument, he supposes and presents interaction between man and the creatures of anthropomorphic fancy, saying the while to his audience, by all sorts of signs and whispers, 'Such are the creatures which they would have us believe in, which they would have us adore. What kind of a figure do you think they make?' But when the object of the dramatist is to present a 'sacred' story in a version from which the gods are left out, it is desirable to draw the line more sharply between what is proposed for belief and what is proposed for disbelief. Such is the method pursued by Euripides practically in the Ion, the Orestes, and elsewhere, but nowhere perhaps so perfectly and with so firm a demarcation as in the Alcestis.
It is in reading the prologue to this play, more than in any other part of it, that we may be moved to feel surprise at the prevalent misunderstanding of the poet's intention. In general neither the existence nor the duration of this misunderstanding is matter for wonder; for the explanation is ready. The modern expositors (and the same applies to those Christian scholars of the 'Lower Empire' who composed the chief part and transmitted the whole of the Greek scholia and hypotheses) approach the Alcestis and other works of Euripides with a fixed prepossession, one of those habitual assumptions which rule the mind all the more absolutely because never stated in words, that the story which the poet handles is by every one known for a fable. It is always hard to suppose effectively, in such a way, I mean, that our thoughts are controlled by the supposition as they would be controlled by the reality, the contrary of constant experience. Nothing is easier than to make such a supposition in words, nothing more difficult than to make it effectively. Now it is a constant experience, fortified by the European literature of twenty centuries at least, that those who speak of Zeus, Apollo, and the like recognize these personages for imaginary types, accepted material of art, in relation to which the question of literal truth or falsehood is idle and irrelevant. Less than two hundred years after the death of Euripides the use of the Greek legends after this fashion was brought into general vogue by the accomplished Hellenists of Alexandria; from that time to this it has never entirely ceased; and on the whole we may say with substantial correctness that it has flourished vigorously in proportion to the general vigour of literature. It results that every lover and student of literature imbibes this habit of mind inevitably as the air which he breathes. Of contrary experience the amount is infinitesimal, too small to affect appreciably the habitual tone of our feelings. Of writers who now have readers or, speaking broadly with reference to the world as a whole, have ever had readers enough to affect the balance, how many are there in whose productions it is an active and indispensable factor that they believed, really, heartily, passionately believed, in the theology of Delphi? I can think of only two, Pindar and Aeschylus. The epic poets, it is true, were no Alexandrians, neither was Sophocles. But it is possible without serious loss, or at least without loss perceived, to read both Homer and Sophocles in a purely Alexandrian spirit; it is not only possible but habitually done. At any rate, let the list of believers be enlarged to the utmost, what is it, when set against the host of persuasive tongues, from Theocritus down to the poets of yesterday, who have helped to engrain in our minds, as a presumption of thought like the laws of arithmetic, that 'Apollo' is a beautiful and convenient fiction, universally accepted and universally disbelieved? Now it is plain that wherever and whenever this view, this 'Alexandrian' view, prevailed, it would be absurd and inconceivable that a story should be composed with the purpose of leading the reader to desist from regarding a given Apolline legend as literally and historically true; it would be to butt the air. In the Augustan age of Roman literature, for instance, in the circle of Maecenas, such an attitude would have been ridiculous and incomprehensible, inasmuch as, notwithstanding the symbolic splendours of the Palatine temple, the educated classes of the Empire were scarcely more in danger of mental injury from this quarter than Pope or Keats. But in the fifth century before Christ—and let it be understood that this is a proposition not one whit the less hard to believe effectively, because it is formally a truism—in the fifth century before Christ the Alexandrian type of mind did not yet exist. No one, or only a negligeable quantity of persons, in the days of Euripides, regarded a legend about Heracles from the point of view which has ruled, with various subordinate modifications, in almost every European society where literature of high value and influence has been created. In the society addressed by Euripides when he started on his career, to have realized the difference between a legend and a historical fact was the latest and highest effort of intelligence, and to increase the number of persons capable of this effort was a noble enterprise, an invaluable service. And to make 'tragedy' serve this purpose was a feat especially useful and especially attractive, because the art of Aeschylus was the most powerful intellectual weapon which had been employed on the other side. The very purpose of Aeschylean drama is, as Aristophanes puts it to make gods and heroes think, speak, and look 'as they naturally would', in other words, to aid people, just conscious of a difficulty about the matter, in continuing to feel that the Heracles who raised Alcestis was a person as real and well certified as Darius, and the ghost of Darius a thing which, in suitable circumstances, you might as naturally expect to see as the living Darius himself. When things were so, it was neither useless nor tasteless to compose a drama with the contrary purpose, with the purpose of diffusing the conviction, or at least the suspicion, that the exploits of Heracles, whatever they were, did not include the raising of the dead, and that the appearance of Darius after death ought not to be as readily supposed as the construction of the bridge over the Hellespont. But that things were so in the time of Euripides is one of those facts which, according to the true distinction of the philosopher, 'we know but do not believe'. It is not hard to ignore a proposition, however manifest, which we cannot really take into our minds without first hypothetically annihilating and 'thinking away' the intellectual atmosphere which has been inhaled by ourselves and our predecessors for a hundred generations.
Accordingly it is not in general surprising that modern readers should have failed to find, or even to seek, the clue to such a piece as the Alcestis. It is true that without the clue we have been unable, as we loudly proclaim, to make sense of it. Nevertheless the author's point of departure lies so remote from our habits, and he on the other hand was necessarily so far from anticipating such readers as us, that there is little wonder if we remain blind to signals, which he must have thought almost too grossly legible for the intended effect. But the prologue is really too much. Almost every one stumbles over it (as witness the annotations); and we can scarcely believe that even Balaustion, though Browning does not betray her, sat through it without a smile. Among the devices of Euripides for discrediting the inhabitants of Olympus, none were more effective or better understood, than that of painting them in his own colours; 'by representing the gods he persuades men that they do not exist'; and of this the best example extant is the prologue to the Alcestis. His Death and Apollo, considered as super-human creatures, as deities, are self-refuting. The question whether Alcestis shall die, or whether Death shall take instead of her one of the old people, is discussed between them exactly as two well-bred landlords, neighbours in the country and living on bad terms, might discuss a question of encroachment or ancient lights. Both are men of cultivated intelligence, quick of apprehension and tenacious of their point. Both in short are pure Athenians, and neither of them has about him a scrap of such divinity as could seem divine to other men as well educated as themselves. What was the tone, the bearing, the style which could pass for Olympian in the city of Pericles, we may see in the Athena of Aeschylus, or in the Athena of Sophocles, or even (for Euripides himself could echo this tone when it suited his purpose) in the Artemis who takes part in the closing scene of his Hippolytus, or in the Dionysus of his Bacchae. In the Apollo of the Aeschylean Eumenides, and in the Furies themselves, there is majesty and terror; nor even when they dispute do they cease to be terrible and majestic. But look at this:
Apollo.Go take her! For I doubt persuading thee…
Death.To kill the doomed one? What my function else?
Apollo.No, rather to despatch the true mature.
Death.Truly I take thy meaning, see thy drift.
Apollo.Is there a way then she may reach old age?
Death.No way! I glad me in my honours too!
Apollo.But young or old, thou tak'st one life, no more.
Death.Younger they die, greater my praise redounds!
Apollo.If she die old—the sumptuous funeral!
Death.Thou layest down a law the rich would like.
A very legitimate translation, though wanting a little, as it needs must want, of the facility which is the signet of Euripides. But who is awed? Who feels any thrill of fear, any movement of respect? Who can fancy that he is listening to the King of Terrors, or that there is any affinity between this punctilious usurer and the demon described by Balaustion?
Like some dread heapy blackness, ruffled wing,
Convulsed and cowering head that is all eye,
Which proves a ruined eagle, who, too blind
Swooping in quest o' the quarry, fawn or kid,
Descried deep down the chasm 'twixt rock and rock,
Has wedged and mortised, into either wall
O' the mountain, the pent earthquake of his power.
Thus to the eye of Browning appeared the god of death confronted by the superior god of life; so, or in some such figure, Aeschylus would have seen him; and if Euripides suggested any such picture, then indeed we should have known that we were bidden to be grave and humble, as men should be in the presence of that which is greater than they. As it is we are commanded and compelled by Euripides to smile as he smiles himself. But no man could smile, or encourage his audience to smile, over a debate on such a theme and between such interlocutors, if he proposed in real earnest or in earnest imagination to relate how a human being was raised from the dead.
Doubtless there were many in the theatre, yokels, boys, visitors from Acarnania, and the like, who listened to the quips of Apollo without a suspicion that the faith of the poet was not as naïve as their own; doubtless there were many, as there are in all theatres, who did not hear, with the true literary sense, at all, and could have given no closer account of the scene than that it was 'the usual sort of thing'. But the class to whom Euripides wanted to speak, the growing class whom study made quick of thought, must have been assured by the prologue, if they were not already assured by the title, that the poet proposed to treat the legend of Alcestis in the only way which could be expected of him, as a groundless fiction; that he thought of Apollo and Apolline miracles as he always had, and would express himself to the attentive in the fashion permitted and approved. Nor were they kept long waiting for a sufficient signal. The god has not spoken a score of verses before he is provided with words, which never could have been put in his mouth by an intelligent writer, unless with the purpose of provoking an infidel sneer. The touch is so characteristic that though not important it deserves particular notice. Having related how leave was obtained for Admetus to redeem himself from fate, if he could find a substitute within the limits prescribed, Apollo continues thus:
But trying all in turn, the friendly list,
Why he found no one, none who loved so much,
Nor father, nor the aged mother's self
That bore him, no, not any save his wife
Willing to die instead of him.
In the words which are emphasized Browning has reproduced closely the colour of the original, which he sees to be laughable and has even derided himself. Browning (it must be remembered) frankly gives up Admetus, fortifying himself with the 'half-deity' which he has discovered or rather created in Heracles. But I appeal to the reader's impartial consideration. Is not this notion of Admetus seeking a substitute, and going the round to find one, just the very thing which you, as an intelligent man, if you had accepted the legend, either as an inspired truth or as an inspiring fiction, and desired to present it sympathetically, would not on any account allow yourself to entertain or suggest? Of course it is possible, it is even almost inevitable, if we come to think of it, that, given the supposed circumstances, something of the kind should occur. This it is which gives 'the atheist' his opportunity, the kind of opportunity which none would be quicker to see and use than the sharp-witted Euripides. But a believer in the legend, or one who desired to evoke an imaginary belief, would not see it, would resolutely refuse to see it, if his glance fell that way. An Admetus ridiculous kills the legend; and to see him begging is to see him, if only for that moment, ridiculous. If Euripides perceived this, then he began his play with the intention of killing the legend. If he did not perceive it, then he was a man inconceivably dull. Such are the alternatives presented to us at the outset of the piece, and repeated in every scene.
Altogether, with what the Athenian audience knew beforehand about the author, what they or many of them probably knew beforehand about the play itself, with the suggestions conveyed by the spoken parts, and other suggestions, corroborating the spoken, in which the dramatist, being also stage-manager, would naturally instruct the persons (friends of his, such as Cephisophon) by whom the play was performed,—altogether it may be assumed that even at the festival most people, if intellectually qualified to understand or care for his meaning, were not left in doubt of it. But for those who were, there was still abundant opportunity. The effect produced by a play at the state-performance (and in the case of Euripides more especially) was neither the whole nor the chief part of what the author might hope to achieve. As was said before, we know that Euripides at least was widely read, and this at a time when habitual reading was a new force. And what was even more important in a society so constituted as Athens, we know by direct testimony, and it is manifest from the nature of Athenians, that plays which received what we have ventured to call the 'advertisement' of the Dionysia, were copiously talked about. Here again we are perhaps liable not perfectly to realize a condition of things so different from our own. For a play of these days, the stage-effect is not only the first thing but almost the last. Our reading body is so scattered, so disparate, so distracted, and it has so many ways of obtaining imaginative amusement without the intervention of the theatre, that even with the help of printed criticism a dramatist would not be well-advised in counting upon any sustained and harmonious impression from the interchange of ideas among the members of his fluctuating audiences. But the audience of Euripides was always assembled. All the year round the few thousand men and few score women—'one among many, not alien from the muse'—who made Euripides' world, were going in and out of the same narrow streets and markets, gardens and colonnades, courts and quays, sitting-rooms and supper-rooms, crossing and conversing incessantly. And whenever the group in contact for the instant had a mind to talk literature, which, it is plain, they often did, no topic was so obvious, so surely dominant as the plays of the Dionysia, positively the only writings, except the school Homer, with which this people of talkers were generally familiar. It is this state of things, this unique opportunity of mutual comment and elucidation, which alone, to my mind, makes intelligible the existence of such works as those of the Attic tragedians. Speaking for myself, I cannot imagine a man, much less a people, who without such help could appreciate their subtle, compressed, and elaborate art; and it is certain that in those times such help, if obtained at all, was obtained not by way of reading but by way of talk.
With regard to Euripides in particular we have express evidence to show how strong was the stimulus applied by his writings to literary and critical conversation as a means of mutual teaching, with what eager zest, all the stronger doubtless for the flavour of 'impiety' and rebellion, the younger men especially scrutinized and analysed his 'lessons in chatter', and spent in measuring his phrases 'with rule and square' the hours when, as people past learning would remark with a snarl, 'they ought to have been in the gymnasium'. Nor should we omit to notice, what even our unfriendly witness has the fairness to add, that these circles then proved themselves—as where such exist they do still—the most efficient of intellectual schools, shaping sometimes, out of the rudest material which that extraordinary sea-port could furnish, debaters so sure and so ready that, to the horror of men bred in a different discipline, they were not unwilling to 'answer an official speaker'! While thinkers of graver complexion and more catholic taste, men upon whose minds had dawned the notion of what is now called 'liberal scholarship', were forming parties, such as those ascribed to Socrates by the writer of his memoirs, for the study of 'the old wits', it was over the productions of the day, and of that author above all who most exactly answered to the taste of the day, that the mass of ambitious youths enchanted themselves in the exchange of notions. Aided by the lively picture of Aristophanes we may even now ourselves be present for a moment in such a circle, while copies (as we may suppose) of the master's latest deliverance, imperfect probably and pieced out with recollections, are passing from hand to hand, and the excited disputants are displaying their ingenuity in extracting the moral lesson from the intricacies of the dialogue. We may hear their queries and challenges, 'What is the meaning of this?…And pray where is that?…Now who took this?' and so on. We may hear also the growl of the impatient senior—Aristophanes himself had probably played the part on occasion —mocking the enquirers with such a parody as the comedian puts into the mouth of Dionysus: "Where is that? Who took that? Where's that kettle? Who took that fish? It is like a housekeeper scolding in the pantry!" And we may also witness the self-complacency of the young person who felt able to declare that he 'saw through the whole thing in an instant', so well had he profited by the schooling of the great improver, who 'had brought into his art the practice of reasoning and reflexion'.
It is impossible to overestimate the significance of these facile and perpetual discussions, if we would understand the method of Euripidean art. As truly as a song is written to be sung, the plays of Euripides were written to be talked about, and only in this stage of their working were expected to produce their final and complete effect. Of course this is not to say that the broad theatrical impression of them conveyed by the public (and only important) performance was not highly valued by the poet and carefully studied. This it must have been, not merely for its own sake, but for its influence in increasing or diminishing the vogue of the piece as matter of criticism. But not any one, however acute and practised, could carry away from one performance, much less from a performance under the conditions of the Athenian theatre, an exhaustive comprehension of such a play as the Alcestis; nor, I am convinced, did any one hope to do so. On the contrary it would have been to Euripidean circles a disappointment, if when they came to compare notes on a new piece, it had seemed that there was nothing in particular to find out. They would have said simply that the master was getting dull. It was by conversation that the sympathetic auditors, who each in his measure and fashion had understood, combined their items into a whole; and it was by conversation that fresh sympathisers were gained, fresh understandings prepared, and the 'latest opinions' preached with far more effect and attraction, Athenians being what they were, than if it had been permissible to proclaim them openly in the orchestra.
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- Aug. 1894. Most of this first essay had been written; but I have remodelled some parts.
- Alc. 452.
- Such as the legend of Death and Sisyphus, on which a 'satyric drama' was composed by Aeschylus, and which seems to have been exactly suited for treatment as a grotesque. Whether the legend of Alcestis could be so treated satisfactorily appears to me more than doubtful, nor does it matter, since Euripides at all events has made no attempt to treat it so. His picture is purely realistic (to the utmost extent which the Greek stage permitted) and must be defensible as realism or not at all.
- v. 202: cf. 250, 388 etc.
- Translation of Euripides, Vol. 1. App. A.
- v. 730. The translations here are Mr Way's.
- v. 950.
- p. 110, ed. 1889.
- p. 17.
- p. 49.
- v. 523.
- v. 494.
- v. 839.
- More exactly 'nimble work', i.e. running.
- vv. 15–17πάντας δ᾽ ἐλέγξας καὶ διεξελθὼν φίλοις,
πατέρα γεραιάν θ᾽ ἥ σφ᾽ ἔτικτε μητέρα,
οὐχ ηὗρε πλὴν γυραικὸς κ.τ.λ.
Nauck proposed καὶ πατέρα γραῖάν θ᾽ in v. 16. Others omit the verse.
- v. 14 ἄλλον διαλλάξαντα τοῖς κάτω νεκρόν.
- v. 73.
- On v. 1147.
- v. 1152
- e.g. vv. 538, 1044.
- v. 212, and passim.
- Prof. Paul Decharme, Euripide et l'esprit de son théâtre, p. 436. I shall have occasion to refer again to this excellent book.
- vv. 600–605.
τὸ γὰρ εὐγενὲς ἐκφέρεται πρὸς αἰδῳ,
ἐν τοῖς ἀγαθοῖσι δὲ πάντ᾽ ἔνεστιν σοφίας.
ἄγαμαι· πρὸς δ᾽ ἐμᾷ ψυχᾷ θάρσος ἧσται
θεοσεβῆ φῶτα κεδνὰ πράξειν.
- v. 816.
- That 'twas would better express the meaning. Is was perhaps a misprint or slip of the pen?
- v. 1147.ἀλλ᾽ εἴσαγ᾽ εἴσω τήνδε· καὶ δίκαιος ὢν,
τὸ λοιπὸν, Ἄδμητ᾽, εὐσέβει περὶ ξένους.
Mr Way writes:
But lead her in, and, just man as thou art,
Henceforth, Admetus, reverence still the guest.
This is not so loose as Browning's, but betrays the same misconception by inserting still, which is not in the Greek and makes all the difference. Nor does it, though this is of less importance, rightly represent δίκαιος ὢν, which, to be connected with the rest of the sentence, must have the meaning assigned by others δίκαιος ὢν (ποιεῖν τοῦτο), i.e. εὐσεβεῖν περὶ ξένους.
- v. 1039.
- In the Introduction (Essay III.) to the edition and translation of Euripides' Ion.
- p. 959.
- Il. 23. 71. See Smith's Dict. Ant. "Funus".
- See the essay on 'The Unity of Time', cited above.
- See v. 1040, and the finale from this point.
- v. 435, v. 991.
- v. 767.
- v. 336.
- v. 425.
- v. 422.
- v. 77 foll.
- v. 158 foll. See 'The Unity of Time', already cited.
- v. 105.
- vv. 476–512.
- Cho. 429.
- v. 210. The Greek has the plural, but only, according to frequent usage, as a term of respect. Admetus plainly, and Admetus only, is meant. Towards Alcestis there could be no feeling but admiration and respect.
- v. 954.
- v. 149.
- v. 811 (refer to v. 532 and v. 828, and also to v. 771).
ΗΡ. οὐ χρῆν μ᾽ ὀθνείου γ᾽ οὔνεκ᾽ εὗ πάσχειν νεκροῦ;
ΘΕ. ἧ κάρτα μέντοι καὶ λίαν θυραῖος ἦν.
The reading λίαν θυραῖος is clearly right: λίαν οἰκεῖος, the facile but pointless variant, is merely an unintelligent guess.
- v. 512.
- v. 215.
- 'Mourning' would be a more exact rendering. The word refers to outward manifestations, not mere feeling; 'grief' somewhat changes the colour, and impairs the point of the sequel. See v. 336 foll.
- v. 1158, οὐ γὰρ εὐτυχῶν ἀρνήσομαι
- That the Chorus are unwilling to tell Heracles the truth is well brought out by Browning. But he does not see why, and has to find a reason by mis-stating the facts. See above, p. 27.
- vv. 835–836.
- v. 923; see above, p. 52.
- vv. 911–925.
- vv. 861–872.
- See p. 39.
- προσεῖπ᾽· ἔχεις γὰρ πᾶν ὅσονπερ ἤθελες. The point of this line is lost in English, because the phrase speak to, address (προσειπεῖν) has not with us the secondary limited sense of saying farewell, especially to the dead, the πρόσρησις or farewell being a regular part of the burial-office (Alc. 609–610). The Greek hints that Admetus is to have just what he chose to have (by consenting to her death) and no more, that he may speak but Alcestis will refuse to answer. It thus anticipates the sequel and the sarcasms of vv. 1144–1146, on which see below.
- συνέστιος: see Eur. El. 784. As this example shows, partner of the hearth, though literally right, implies in English far too much, and the remarks of Browning are unfounded. What Admetus gives is simply an invitation to the feast (see v. 1156) which would naturally follow.
- μάχην ξυνάψας δαιμόνων τῷ κυρίῳ, the certain reading. The variant κοιράνῳ is a mere guess made (like οἰκεῖος in v. 811) to get rid of a difficulty. The guesser probably meant his δαιμόνων τῷ κοιράνῳ to signify the lord of spirits, which measures his competence to emend Euripides. Modern scholars, while hazarding this version, do not omit (see Paley) to point out that it will not pass: δαιμόνων κοίρανῳ would mean, if any one, Zeus; and δαιμόνων τῷ κοιράνῳ is not good Euripidean Greek for anything here admissible.
- v. 393.
- e.g. in the Prometheus.
- Frogs, 911.
- See the Laws, as above cited.
- v. 962.
- This remark or some other to the like effect has been apparently understood by the writer of the third note (ἡ σκηνὴ…ἐχόμενα) to mean that a tragedy ought not to end happily, on which ground, he says, "both the Orestes and the Alcestis are ejected from the list of tragedies". The words of the second writer do not imply this proposition; and it would not be fair to put it upon him. In 'ending happily' the two plays mentioned do not differ from many 'tragedies' both of Euripides and his brother dramatists. Reasonable grounds might be given for associating the two, but what they are, this writer did not know.
- See the narrative beginning at v. 157.
- I was mistaken when (in my first edition of the Medea, 1881) I said that this famous conclusion was 'quite inappropriate' to that play. It is quite appropriate; it calls attention to the contrast between the realism of the drama as a whole and the purely conventional 'supernaturalism' of the dénouement. The 'dragon-chariot' of Medea is entirely out of keeping with the tone and spirit of the work, a mere theatrical concession, and the 'tag' signifies this. The other examples are all interesting and similar, but cannot be discussed here.
- Paris, Garnier Frères.
- ἐπὶ τραγῳδίαν δὲ ἐτράπη τὸν Ἀναξαγόραν ἰδὼν ὑποστάντα κινδύνους δι᾽ ἅπερ εἰσῆξε δόγματα. Suidas, Euripides. The remark is meaningless except on the assumption that in tragedy he could express the opinions of Anaxagoras with more security.
- The earliest Greek author who, so far as I know, can be proved to have been familiarly read in private by ordinary persons is Euripides himself (Frogs 57), where reading to oneself (ἀναγιγνώσκειν πρὸς ἑαυτόν) marks the exceptional practice, as we now speak of 'reading aloud'.
- v. 959.
- B.C. 438.
- Alc. 445–452.
- Heraclidae, 817.
- Aristotle, Rhet. iii. 15.
- Hipp., 612, see Paley's note. This verse played a conspicuous part in the accusation of 'impiety' above mentioned, though Aristotle does not say, as is sometimes said, that the accusation was founded on it. Probably the indictment took a much wider range; the verse itself would come in most naturally in the impeachment of evidence.
- The imaginary Cleon in Thucydides 3. 38.
- Frogs 958, κάχ᾽ ὑποτοπεῖσθαι περινοεῖν ἅπαντα.
- v. 521.
- vv. 152 foll.
- vv. 152–157, Browning's version.
- v. 526.
- vv. 213–232.
- Frogs, 1060.
- Aristoph. Thesm. 450.
- Browning's version: Mr Way's will equally serve the purpose.
- p. 78,When King Admetos went his rounds, poor soul,
A-begging somebody to be so brave
As die for one afraid to die himself.
- Medea, 1084.
- Aristoph. Frogs, 954 foll., 1079 foll.
- Xen. Mem. 1. 6. 14
- Aristoph. Frogs, 971–991: λογισμὸν ἐνθεὶς τῇ τέχνῃ καὶ σκέψιν ὥστ᾽ ἤδη νοεῖν ἄπαντα καὶ διειδέναι.