Open main menu



Jonson's often-quoted eulogy on Shakespeare, "He was not of an age, but for all time," is in one sense true of all great tragedy, which is assured of permanence, because it springs from universal human nature. But tragedy is also the birth of a particular time. It is a plant that seldom flowers, and requires the concurrence of many causes for its full development. Many races have had the rudiments of the drama, and in several these have reached a certain maturity. But the great tragedies of the world are very few, and the nations which have produced them have done so only at one stage of their career.

I. Before describing the ethical antecedents of the work of Sophocles, it may be permissible here to interpose a few general remarks upon a point which is liable to misconception—the aim of tragedy.

1. The primary aim of tragedy is to excite universal sympathy for an ideal sorrow, and to give expression and relief to human emotion. In a great community there is a mass of grief and care which in the common daylight of the market-place and the assembly is conveniently ignored. Thus each heart is left to a knowledge of its own bitterness, and pines in isolation. But when men are drawn together to a spectacle of imagined woe, placed vividly before the faithful witness of the eye, the fountain of tears within them is unlocked, and society of grief is gained without confession. Feeling is at once consoled by communion, and sheltered in the privacy of a crowd. For all who have any depth in them, however habitually light-hearted, such an occasional overflow is tranqullising, while those whose burden presses heavily are eased and comforted. They are rapt from the narrow contemplation of their own destiny into a world where all private trouble is annihilated, and yet is typified so as to give an excuse for tears.

Considered so far, the want to which tragedy ministers is not the craving for excitement but the need for expression.

2. A direct result of tragic representation is the enlargement of sympathy. The poet sets before the spectators a life different from and yet akin to theirs, which, however strange to them, powerfully stirs their hearts. Consider the effect of this, not on an individual reader, but on a dense assemblage of spectators. Will not each of them experience a fulness and refinement of sympathy with every other, for which their ordinary work and striving gives little room? The hero of the piece may be their own countryman. Then their individual interests are lost in patriotism. Or he may be not their countryman. Then they are lifted into a wider region of Pan-Hellenic or of purely human feeling.

3. But it must not be forgotten that besides the pathetic and ethical, tragedy has also an intellectual motive. This is well expressed by Milton in his Common-place Book. It was, indeed, the aspect of this form of poetry which most clearly presented itself to him. His words are:—"Quid enim in totâ philosophiâ aut gravius aut sanctius aut sublimius tragediâ rectè constitutâ, quid utilius ad humanæ vitæ casus et conversiones uno intuitu spectandos?" "Is there in all philosophy a thing more dignified, more holy, or more lofty, than well-ordered tragedy;—more effective for the concentrated contemplation of the catastrophes and revolutions of human life?"

Tragedy is here viewed as the representation of the whole of life in a typical example, and the tragic artist as one who can sum up the lessons of human vicissitude through the delineation of a particular crisis. And this, although hardly involved in the primary motive of tragedy, has certainly proved inseparable from the art in its most perfect realisations. The greatest tragic artists have been those "who saw life steadily and saw it whole," and the finest tragedies are those in which the interest is most comprehensive and universal.

We are thus led to expand the definition with which we began, and to say that the "aim of tragedy" is to express and call forth a collective sympathy with ideal sorrow, and thus, while relieving and enlarging the heart, and refining and elevating its emotions, to infix and deepen the truths of human experience. We are also led to observe that the emotion called forth by tragedy is not adequately described, as in the old formula, by the words "pity" and "fear." There is another class of feelings, more nearly allied to intellect, which are not less appealed to. These may be roughly indicated as "wonder and awe," and are awakened in those who are led to the brink of some great mystery.

4. The definition thus modified may be too narrow to include all that deserves the name of tragedy, but it is also widened so as to apply to pieces like the Eumenides, Philoctetes, Alcestis, and others that in the common phrase "end happily." For while no work can typify the whole of life that does not include the struggle with evil, the mind that enters fully into the depths of sorrow is alone competent to test the reality of joy.

5. The question has been debated, sometimes with acrimony, whether the tragic poet is necessarily a moral teacher. In answering this question in the affirmative, it is by no means meant that the author is to be judged by the maxims, wise or unwise, which in the mouths of his dramatis personæ serve to point the contrasts of character, and to bring the imaginary action into relation with the habitual thoughts of the spectators. It is not meant that Euripides is immoral because Hippolytus says, "The tongue hath sworn to this, not so the mind," or Sophocles moral, because Antigone says, "Love and not hatred is the guide for me." Wholly apart from such trifling there is a true sense in which tragedy must teach a moral lesson. For otherwise it could not stir the heart or satisfy the imagination of a multitude. It presupposes both in author and spectator an intense interest in the life and destiny of man. It seeks to exhibit these in a condensed example, not partially or superficially, but as they are seriously regarded in some one of their most important aspects. This is what the Greeks meant by saying that tragedy is "serious representation," σπουδαία μίμησις.

Mere blind, unreflecting passion can never by itself be an adequate subject for tragic treatment before rational men. The unconsciousness of tragic persons has the effect of pathos only when our imagination contemplates it by the light of reason. The poet in displaying the situation must somehow make felt what he conceives to be its true nature. This may be done either, as in the Medea and Macbeth, by exhibiting flashes of the higher spirit in the person who is enthralled to the lower, or by means of contrasts (like that between Macbeth and Banquo), or through an ideal spectator (such as Ross and Lennox), or by some other means. But it must be done. Unless the tragic poet is in earnest in his representation of life he must fail of the highest success; and if he is in earnest, he will, with more or less of consciousness, impress on his audience his own general view of life; in other words, his moral ideal. And this will not be lastingly impressive unless it is true. He will make the action appear to the spectators, as it would have appeared in reality to a considerate observer, who, while profoundly sympathising with the difficulties and weaknesses of noble human beings, could also meditate on the causes and results of action. Indeed these cannot be altogether hidden from the persons on the stage. It is in moments of struggle and difficulty that moral reflection becomes most active, and moral principles acquire supreme importance. And that can hardly be a satisfying work of art, or fitted to command wide interest, which represents persons who are to seem worthy of sympathy as at such moments totally indifferent to morality. Still less can the poet or the spectator be carried out of the sphere of right. For tragedy is at once individual and universal: individual, because the persons act from motives resulting from their characters and situations, and believed as real: universal, because their lives are regarded as typifying the whole of human destiny.

Tragedy is sure to reflect the deepest morality of the age in which it lives. And this, in regard to ethical reflection, is most likely to be an age of growth or transition. A rude or frivolous period can have no tragedy; a "reasoned" philosophy of life, perhaps, would leave no room for it. It seems to flourish most when the collective interest in life is greatest, and reflection at the same time most ardent, but not yet mature. The inexhaustible moral wisdom that combined with the art of Shakespeare in creating Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, and Othello, affords the more astonishing proof of what has been said, because these plays were produced, not for solemn exhibition at an annual religious festival, but simply to please an audience who came night after night to "see away their shilling."

It is possible to hold this truth, and yet to affirm the distinction between two kinds of tragic artist, one possessed, like Æschylus, with the consciousness of a moral and religious mission, and inspired with principles which directly inform his work; the other before all else an artist, who, notwithstanding, conveys deep lessons; because, without doing so, he must come short of the legitimate effect of his art.

II. The ethical ideas of the age which preceded Sophocles are mirrored for us in the pages of Herodotus. The deep moral feeling which prompts such warnings as that of the oracle to Glaucus, when tempted to commit perjury—"The Oath has a nameless child that wreaks destruction"—appears there side by side with a strong vein of fatalism and pessimism.

1. No man can escape his destiny. The course of every life is predetermined; and though a god may sometimes obtain a boon of the Fates (as the Delphic Oracle professed that Phœbus had done in the case of Crœsus), their decrees, even if thus delayed, are not less ultimately sure.

2. Malignity is an essential attribute of the divine nature. God is envious of human prosperity, and uplifts men only to cast them down. This doctrine was at first intended as a corrective of the natural presumption of the fortunate man; but was also the expression of profound bitterness and disappointment, as the story of Mycerinus shows.

3. The same spirit of sadness is expressed in the words of Artabanus to Xerxes, who had wept over the mortality of his great army: "Not one of these whom thou beholdest but will often think it better for himself to die than to live. The sweetness of life once tasted, the cruel hand of God is presently felt."

A sense of the misery and ephemeral shortness of human life had been growing up in Ionia for centuries with the growth of luxury under the impending shadow of Eastern despotisms. It finds utterance even in Homer, and is the characteristic note of the pleasure-loving Mimnermus. The last word of the earlier Ionian philosophy was the sad word "Change."

The same dark view of life had been expressed in other parts of Hellas. Thus Theognis of Megara had sung:—

"Far best is never to be born; next best by far, to die."

It is obvious that in all this there is a strain of thought and sentiment that prepares a fitting soil for tragedy. And the reader of Sophocles will often be reminded that the "Greek serenity" did not exclude the indulgence of this melancholy humour. But tragedy is neither the product nor the cause of moral languor, nor of the spirit that questions whether life be after all worth living. The pessimist definition of the art as one whose purpose is to detach the spectator from the will to live, however applicable to the Hercules Furens or to Hernani, bears no relation to the Prometheus or the Antigone. These works are the expressions of an age of hopeful energy, and have the effect of deepening the conviction that liberty, affection, truth, are realities that make life, indeed, "worth living." Tragedy did not spring up in Ionia, but in Attica. Its authors were not "great souls despising the affairs of little states," but children of a queenly city in whose destiny their own was merged. It was the fulness of the life surrounding them, the imminent birth of a transcendent future, the unfamiliar vision of an ampler world, that roused them to probe the mystery of human existence, which thus assumed new aspects, and to recast the wild imaginings of former ages. The dark tradition of an inevitable fate, of a curse pursuing many generations, of the caprice and envy of the gods, were received by them, but in no unquestioning spirit. Not that they state questions; for their business was not to make men think but feel. But while repeating ancient saws about fatality and envy, they do not leave them unmodified. And largely as these traditional notions enter into the works of Æschylus and Sophocles, inseparable as they were from the legends which they handled, they have not the chief emphasis: we are not made to feel that they had the first place in the poet's thoughts. In Æschylus they are met by another set of ideas, at once more original and more inspiring, such as the supremacy of Justice, and the evolution of Order out of Disorder.

1. In Herodotus, as we have seen, the belief in righteousness appears in the crude form of Nemesis, and of the certainty of retribution, especially when wrong is accompanied with perjury. But this falls infinitely short of the Æschylean vision of equity and moral purity. The views of Æschylus are still simple, and still encrusted with traditions that are inconsistent with them. But like the Hebrew prophets, whom he resembles more than any other Greek, his inconsequent and rugged speech has inexhaustible meaning: while society exists, his profound feeling of the sacredness of the family hearth, his delineations of manliness, tenderness, and purity, of firm integrity and priceless self-devotion, must retain their value.

2. Not less interesting, and equally his own, is his view of these high things as a goal not yet attained, a progress not consummated. The righting of wrong is with him an eternal process rather than the revelation of the eternal fact. The divine justice in which he believes is the outcome of a never-ending struggle. Even the will of Zeus, which he regards as now identical with justice, is not believed by him to have been always at one with benevolence and wisdom. The moral cosmos is preceded by a moral chaos, out of which it grows.

This mental attitude is already typical of the place held by tragedy in the development of ethical reflection: a position intermediate between the dicta of early experience dashed with superstition, and the speculations of philosophy; and significant of a struggle of the human spirit at once with traditional shadows and with the more substantial problems of life.

III. Ethical ideas of Sophocles.—In Sophocles also the sense of divine justice is one of the inspiring notes of tragedy. With him it is already a tradition, but a tradition that has a living power. His manner of regarding the divine order is, however, different from that which characterised Æschylus. According to him, Right is all the while supreme, only men are unconscious of it, whence comes the sadness of their lives. And Fate, which still provides the framework and background of his tragedies, is to him but another word for the unknown incalculable . element of "our little life." Yet amidst the darkness which surrounds the human lot, Sophocles is possessed by the conviction that obedience to the "eternal laws" of equity, piety, and mercy contains the assurance of blessedness, and that no lasting harm can happen to the noble soul that holds fast its integrity.

The ethical worth of Sophocles is well summed up in Mr. Matthew Arnold's description of him as the man "who saw life steadily and saw it whole." He is not, like Æschylus, a prophet possessed with visions of high truths, which he sets forth in acted parables adapted to an almost childlike imagination, but a poet expressing to an audience of considerate men what he and they alike recognise as truths that

"in manhood darkly join,
Deep-seated in our mystic frame."

He accepts with unqualified reverence the traditionary religious basis as handed down to him. The sovereignty of Zeus, the omniscience of Apollo, the continuance of life in Hades, the blessedness of the initiated; and again, the dreadful power of Fate and of the doom that has once gone forth,—all these are objects of his sincere belief and reverence, and enter as living elements into the fabric of his art, for they were constituent elements of the life that he knew. But that which dominates all else, the vital force which gives character and harmony to his work, is his intense interest in human life as such; his contemplation and portrayal of man as man.

1. In the Periclean age, reflecting persons for the first time formed a clear conception of Human Nature. It is his firm grasp of this idea from the intellectual side that above all else gives permanent value to the work of Thucydides. The same thought is not less clearly apprehended by Sophocles in the form of feeling, although in his mind it is never dissociated from the recognition of powers above humanity, of "a divinity that shapes our ends." Less speculative than Æschylus, less sceptical than Euripides, he acknowledges in each event a revelation of the divine will, which he regards as just even when inscrutable. But his strongest lights are thrown upon the human figures themselves, which appear out of the darkness and go into darkness again. So far as this can be achieved by art, the predestined catastrophe is brought about by the natural effect of circumstances on character, according to the saying of Heraclitus in the previous century, "Man's character is his destiny." The gods are for the most part withdrawn to their unseen Olympus, whilst their will is done on earth by seemingly accidental means. The tradition of a fore-determined doom is used by the poet as an instrument for evoking fear and pity; the blindness of the agents makes us feel doubly for their fate, and gives a deeper impression of the feebleness and nothingness of man. And yet this Man, who is nothing, a shadow passing away, is the central object of our sympathies, and this life of his, so feeble in the sight of heaven, yet seems with every drama of Sophocles that is seen or read, more rich in noble possibilities.

2. For there was another conception, besides that of human nature to which the age of Pericles was giving shape and currency, and which appears for the first time in Sophocles and Thucydides. This was the notion of an Unwritten Law, to which Pericles himself refers in his funeral oration, and which Sophocles had previously expressed in his Antigone. Not only will the same passions have their course while man is man, but to the dispassionate observer the same principles of action will have similar issues. The persistent tendency of things is one that "makes for righteousness," and that vindicates the pure and pious soul, however deeply it may suffer. This thought is always present with Sophocles when in his highest mood, but it is not to be assumed that, like his sympathy with humanity, it has been everywhere combined with his dramatic motive. In the Ajax, the Antigone, and the two Œdipus plays, it is manifestly apparent. In the Electra, the conception of justice is more traditional; the motive of the Trachiniæ is almost purely dramatic; that of the Philoctetes is largely ethical, but the poet has here passed from the general notion of an "unwritten law," to the more psychological conception of a principle of honourable feeling, which the ingenuous soul finds it impossible to violate.