The Plays of Euripides (Coleridge)/Memoir

The Plays of Euripides  (1910)  translated by Edward Philip Coleridge
Memoir of Euripides


AS with so many other authors of classical antiquity, considerable obscurity veils the details of Euripides' life; nor is it easy in the case of a dramatist, to gather from chance utterances, spoken in character, the real sentiments of the writer on any particular subject.

It is true that, apart from the numerous unfounded scandals and legends which invariably surround any person of eminence, certain broad facts regarding his life stand out with tolerable clearness; but, for the rest, we are thrown back upon conjecture based upon the weak evidence of later writers or the gossip and undisguised malice of contemporary opponents.

Taking, first, the few details which are regarded as tolerably certain, we are informed that he was born in B.C. 480, on the very day of the battle of Salamis, and in the island itself, though others place his birth five years earlier. His parents must have been wealthy people, and not improbably of some rank, for their son was not only able to attend the expensive lectures of Prodicus, Anaxagoras, and other famous sophists and teachers of the day, but also held in his youth certain offices, for which none but the nobly born seem to have been eligible. As for the scandalous attacks and ribald jests of the comic poets of the period regarding his mother and her antecedents, the evidence of their having any foundation in fact is so very slight that we may dismiss them without serious consideration. The legend, for instance, which makes the poet's mother a seller of herbs and not a very honest women either, no doubt served Aristophanes for many a good joke at his enemy's expense; but it should be borne in mind that this brilliant caricaturist's avowed object was to depreciate Euripides, and he certainly was not very careful what use he made of current scandal and perverted truth, so long as he could raise a laugh and amuse his audience. Similarly, too, the stories which make Euripides a man of dissolute habits, given up to vice and pursuing it throughout his life till it led him to a violent end, will be found, on examination, to rest on the flimsiest evidence, and probably originated in the prurient imagination of his numerous enemies or of readers who either misunderstood their author or too rashly inferred that they had found a key to his character in some isolated passage, considered without reference to its context.

Passing to better authenticated facts, it is recorded that the poet's father had him trained with extreme care to contend in the footrace at Olympia, but that after winning two prizes at less important games, he was rejected at Olympia on account of some technical difficulty connected with his age. From his own bitter remarks on the subject of athletes and their habits in some interesting fragments of a play, entitled "Autolycus," we may fairly infer that he carried away no very pleasant memories of that epoch in his life. Further, we learn that he applied himself to painting and sculpture, in the first of which arts he must have attained considerable proficiency, for pictures of his were exhibited at Megara many years after his death, and there are frequent allusions in his plays pointing to an intimate and appreciative acquaintance with this subject.

He was twice married, each time, it is said, unhappily; some indeed have gone so far as to refer the constant diatribes and sneers in his plays against women to his own personal experiences, forgetting perhaps, in their eagerness to advance this theory, that the poet has quite as frequently drawn female characters of almost ideal tenderness, devotion, and beauty. Of the three sons born to him, the youngest, called after his father, produced his last plays, and was himself also a dramatist by profession.

Late in life Euripides retired from Athens to Magnesia, and finally accepted the invitation of Archelaus, King of Macedon, to his court, then a home for men of letters and savants of all kinds. Here his genius speedily advanced him to royal favour, and it is even said that he was called in to give his advice at the monarch's council-table. Possibly the distinction, with which he was treated, excited the jealousy of rival court poets, for there is a story current that he met his death from the bites of dogs set upon him by his enemies as he was going to keep an assignation. This wild story no doubt may have arisen from a confusion between the poet and the plot of his last play, "The Bacchæ," in which Pentheus is torn to pieces by infuriated women. But it is interesting both as showing the sort of calumny with which vulgar scandal will assail the great, and also as pointing to the state of feeling which must have existed for such an idle tale to originate at all. On his death in B.C. 406, he was buried with great pomp at Pella, the Macedonian capital, in spite of the request of his countrymen that his remains might be sent to Athens.

Such are the few meagre details we are able to collect from reliable authorities of the poet's life. From his own writings and from somewhat doubtful sources a little more has been conjecturally assumed. Thus we are told, with great probability, that he was the friend of Pericles, of Socrates, and Alcibiades, and that his friendship with the two latter caused him to leave his native city rather than risk the chance of incurring the odium and unpopularity which eventually brought them to their deaths. Legend, busy on this point as on others, has set down his retirement into Magnesia to the irritation caused him by the merciless satire of Aristophanes on the poet's unhappy experiences of married life, and it is unfortunately only too likely that one who could make capital out of the death of the man he disliked, would not hesitate to pour out his venomous abuse on domestic scenes which modern decency prefers to regard as sacred.

Born, as Euripides was, some time between B.C. 490 and 480, and dying in B.C. 406, his life comprised the whole brilliant period of Athenian supremacy. Thus he would have witnessed the successive steps by which Athens attained in a short time a pinnacle of material prosperity and artistic glory never reached before or after by any other state in Hellas; he would have admired the masterly organization of the Delian Confederacy, have shared in the varied splendours and triumphs of the age of Pericles, rejoiced at the victories of Cimon, watched the successful schemes of Athenian colonization, and followed with attentive eye the many phases of that long and disastrous war, which brought such suffering on his countrymen, and finally left his city ruined and humbled at the feet of Sparta. Amongst the circle of his acquaintance he might have counted poets, painters, sculptors, historians, and philosophers, whose productions are still the wonder of the world and the despair of modern imitators.

Indeed, to know any one character of that great period thoroughly it is necessary to know something of them all, and only in this way can one hope to find the right starting-point for a proper appreciation of this many-sided poet, and to see how far he influenced and how far he was influenced by his environment.

Euripides produced his first play, the "Peliades," in B.C. 455, a year after the death of Æschylus; it obtained the third prize, but considering the poet's age and the rivals he probably had to meet, this is no evidence of inferior work. Having once started it is probable that he brought out tetralogies at regular intervals, till in B.C. 441 he attained the coveted distinction and won the first prize, but the names of his plays on this occasion have not been identified. Thrice again was he proclaimed victor, on the last occasion with plays that appeared after his death. This small measure of immediate success may at first sight appear strange, for we know that he was a prolific writer, some seventy-five or even ninety-two plays being attributed to him.

But the reason is not really far to seek. He was not the advocate of any party; for though he was inclined towards a war-like policy, and entertained a lively hatred of Sparta and things Spartan, yet he was equally ready to point out to Athens her mistakes and the inevitable consequences of her follies. Such a man was not likely to please the judges of his day, who almost inevitably must have been influenced by party considerations; and so others, who abstained from politics altogether in their compositions, or consistently supported one side, stepped in to carry off the prize which "the great outsider," as Mahaffy so aptly calls him, must often on his merits and in accordance with the judgment of posterity have better deserved. Nor, again, was Euripides, strictly speaking, a public man, that is, in the sense of keeping himself before the people; doubtless he was well versed in all that went on around him, as indeed is abundantly proved by his writings; but he did not mix much with his fellows in the way, for example, that his friend Socrates did; his mind was more purely speculative; the quiet of his study was therefore more congenial to him than the noise of the market-place, and the silent perusal of his books than the wordy warfare of the law-courts.

In all the great social problems of the day he took a deep interest, and passages abound in his plays proving how thoroughly he had mastered some of them and how far in advance of his age he had gone in his efforts to arrive at the solution of others. The treatment of slaves, the relations of women towards the other sex, the popular theology, new discoveries in science,—these are only a few of the questions which occupied his thoughts and attracted his cosmopolitan sympathies.

Living, as he did, in the age of the Sophists, an age of daring speculation and unbounded scepticism, when old beliefs were giving way to new theories, it is not strange that Euripides was affected by the movement, and that the influence of sophistic teaching is everywhere discernible in his pages. In no writer of the period is the spirit of this new learning more clearly mirrored; never before were conventional methods treated with such scant respect; and this it is which roused the apprehensions of the more conservative Aristophanes, and threw him into such violent opposition to this new-fangled poet opposition, which, after all, was doomed to fall powerless before overmastering genius.

A certain melancholy pervades all the poetry of Euripides. Whether, as some say, he was naturally morose, or whether his experiences soured his disposition, we have no means of deciding now. The ceaseless rancour of malevolent foes, the despair that at length drags down a man who is persistently and purposely misunderstood, the fate of his best friends, the sad contrast of the closing years of the Peloponnesian War to its early promise, his own domestic troubles—all these causes may well have succeeded in inspiring him with that gloomy view of life which is reflected so deeply in his writings.

To enter into any examination of the exaggerated attacks made on the poet by his detractors, ancient and modern, would be too long a subject in so brief a memoir, even had it not been already most ably treated by Professor Mahaffy in his little volume on "Euripides"; two remarks from which I take the liberty of quoting. Speaking of the atheism laid to Euripides' charge, he says:

"The only declared atheist in his extant plays is the brutal and ignorant Cyclops, whose coarse and sensual unbelief is surely intended for a keen satire on such vulgarity in speculation."

In another passage, after discussing the rival views that have prevailed about our poet, and the anomalies and contradictions of his character which make it so easy to blame, so hard to understand his many-sidedness, he concludes:

"We must combine all these portraits with their contradictions to obtain an adequate idea of that infinitely various, unequal, suggestive mind, which was at the same time practically shrewd and mystically vague, clear in expression but doubtful in thought, morose in intercourse and yet a profound lover of mankind, drawing ideal women and yet perpetually sneering at the sex, doubting the gods and yet reverencing their providence, above his age and yet not above it, stooping to the interests of the moment and yet missing the reward of momentary fame, despairing of future life and yet revolving problems which owe all their interest to the very fact that they are perpetual."

Euripides is the last of the Greek tragedians properly so called. "The sure sign of the general decline of an art," says Macaulay, "is the frequent occurrence, not of deformity, but of misplaced beauty." How hard this criticism hits Euripides must be obvious to all who are familiar with his choral odes. Many of the most beautiful of these have no direct connection with the plot of the play in which they occur; they might be introduced with equal propriety elsewhere; they are exquisite hymns, and, as such, often recommend a poor play; but they are irrelevant and out of place.

In spite, however, of all that was said and written against him, the great fact remains that he was by far the most popular of all the tragedians. He appealed directly to men's hearts; as Aristotle said of him, he represented men as they are, not as they ought to be; and if he thereby lost in dignity, he yet gained by being able to extend a wider sympathy to the sufferings of his fellow-men. And this no doubt will explain much that has been most bitterly blamed in his method; it is said that he vulgarized tragedy, bringing it down to the level of melodrama with his excessive love of pathos, his reliance on striking scenery and novelties in music to create an effect, his rhetorical subtlety and exaggerated patriotism; but an unerring insight had taught how he could best reach his audience, and this was enough for him. The sentiment expressed by Terence many years later might very well have issued from the lips of Euripides: "Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto."