Sophocles (Classical Writers)/Chapter 3

Sophocles by Lewis Campbell
Chapter III. Antecedents: National and Political.



Athens and the drama.—By a coincidence fruitful in results, the worship of the Theban Dionysus had been carried from Eleutheræ to Athens, and had taken firm root in the affections of the people, before the grand awakening of national life which had its triumph in the Persian War. Without the reforms of Cleisthenes, without Marathon, Attic tragedy would have existed, but could never have attained perfection. The same causes which made the Parthenon excel the temple of Theseus, wrought still more powerfully in giving undying significance to the works of Æschylus and Sophocles. The art in which a nation takes delight and pride at the moment when its own life is culminating, has a supreme chance of reaching its own highest form; and the drama, being a thing dependent upon "public means" (χορηγίας δεόμενον) could not have grown at all, had not this service been willingly undertaken as a public burden (λειτουργία). The Pisistratidæ, indeed, might have undertaken this for their own glory. But in the succeeding age this liberality on the part of wealthier men was but the outward sign of the spontaneous universal interest. The audience of Æschylus and Sophocles were in fact the Athenian citizens en masse, assembled in the spirit of Dionysus at moments of high solemnity, and finding in his observance an outlet for profound emotions which stirred them individually and socially. They were a people who had lately learned that political freedom is an excellent thing, but knew not yet all that it meant, or into what struggles and dangers it might hereafter carry them; a people who had learned and had taught mankind that national independence is a thing worth fighting for, but had too weak a hold of the other lesson which they had also taught by their example, that the federation of free peoples is nobler than any form of tyranny; a people with glorious memories and boundless possibilities, but surrounded with unknown dangers. This people gave their whole attention to tragic performances for days together, year after year. Was there ever such an opportunity? And never was great opportunity more grandly met.

True relation of the drama to national life.—We are not to suppose, however, that it could be the business of tragedy to become the direct exponent of the national consciousness, and to teach or preach political and social truth. That would be to misconceive the relation in which art stands to the events of history. The Tragic Muse gave a passing tribute to the mighty movements that were lifting her to higher levels and into a wider sphere; as when Phrynichus in his Phœnissæ, or Æschylus in the Persæ, chose to celebrate the repulse of Xerxes. But, as Phrynichus found upon another occasion, when he made a drama of the taking of Miletus, the people did not want to be reminded of their own recent joys or sorrows, but to forget the present in the contemplation of things imaginary or remote. The true home of tragedy was the ideal; or rather was to be sought in those early legends where primitive experience was mirrored in traditional belief. In moulding these to his purpose the tragedian fused them with what he felt to be most precious in the spirit of his own age, whether he regarded the old heroic tale as the record of a struggle towards principles which now ruled mankind, or as typifying the eternal laws which in all ages equally must be the light of men. If, in treating the legend of Orestes, Æschylus made particular reference to the Court of the Areopagus; or if, in the Œdipus Coloneus, Sophocles glanced at the relations of Athens to Thebes, and perhaps also at home politics, these were exceptional divergences from the main direction of their art. And yet, indirectly, it is conceivable that the Antigone reflects the feeling of a time when there seemed to be a danger of the "rule of the first citizen" becoming too despotic, and that the pathos of the Œdipus Tyrannus may have been deepened for some of those who saw it by the remembrance of the popular ruler, whose meridian glory was eclipsed by family troubles, who was of the accursed family, whose children had been declared illegitimate under the law which he himself had made, and who was cut off by the plague.[1]

The true national significance of Greek tragedy, however,—a chief cause of that vital reality in which it is pre-eminent—lies not in contemporary allusions, but in the broad fact that it is instinct with the beliefs, the memories, the aspirations, the moral convictions of the Athenian people, when in the full tide of their career; and also that its greatest works were produced while the pride of Athens was still consistent with the hope of Hellenic unity—a hope to which the dramatist, both as poet and as votary of Dionysus, still clung, even when its knell had been sounded in the triumph of Sparta. For it is to be observed that the worshippers of Zeus, of Apollo, of Hera and Artemis, of Dionysus and Demeter, were members of a communion that extended far beyond their party or their city; and this, in Athens at least, must have combined with other humanising influences, to cherish Pan-Hellenic sentiment. Religion helped to counteract the narrowing effects of national and political bias.

  1. These statements about Pericles are taken from Plutarch's Life.