Page:Euripides the Rationalist.djvu/60

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.



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[1] lays down that the funeral

  1. p. 959.