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Tragedies of Euripides (Way)/Euripides and His Work

 

EURIPIDES AND HIS WORK.


The position of Euripides in literature may fairly be called unique. Other great writers, not only of antiquity, but of modern times, have, when once immediate posterity has countersigned the verdict of their contemporaries which allotted them a place amongst the immortals, thereafter held it as by unassailable right. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, are but examples of a multitude whose crowns have not only never been challenged, but have gathered lustre with the lapse of ages. The eighteenth-century eclipse of Shakspeare is, in our own literature, the one striking exception to the rule. Yet this phenomenon, due to a transient foreign literary influence, was but the temporary reversal of a verdict which had not been as yet confirmed by long prescription. But it has been the singular fate of Euripides, after more than two thousand years of intellectual sovereignty, to find himself within the last hundred years assailed as thinker, as poet, as moralist, as dramatic artist, by a sturdy phalanx of very positive scholar-critics, who seem for some time to have carried with them at least the tacit acquiescence of the Universities. The vituperative phase of their opposition has indeed passed by; but the note of judicial condemnation is still heard from some whose learning invests their judgment with a certain authority which makes it no light matter to differ from them.

That with Sophocles the dramatic art of Greece reached its culminating point of perfection, and that Euripides led, if he did not precipitate, its decadence, that he banished the ideal from his stage, that he was sensational, sophistical, sceptical, that he tried to compensate for poverty of construction by florid elaboration of detail—these are still almost the commonplaces, the preliminary axioms, of comparative dramatic criticism with certain Greek scholars. It is no part of my intention here to combat these views in detail. The translator who introduces an author to the English reader thereby invites him to judge for himself, but at the same time to bear in mind that the original is everywhere noble, felicitous, and musical to a degree to which no translator can hope to attain. The reader who has heard that Schlegel called the Electra "of all Euripides' plays the very vilest," may examine for himself the work, a few lines of which paralysed the hands uplifted to destroy conquered Athens. When Donaldson stigmatizes him as "a bad citizen and an unprincipled man, a dramatist who degraded the moral and religious dignity of his own sacred profession," it is sufficient to ask the reader to find, if he can, in the poet's own pages a justification for such a diatribe.

But, as the general reader can hardly be aware how very modern a thing is this revised estimate of Euripides, to how large an extent it is coeval with this age of emendation and philological study of classical texts, it seems not out of place, while giving a brief account of his life and work, to dwell a little on the view taken of him in times when spectators and readers had far more complete data for forming a correct judgment than we can ever hope to have, to show how widely this view extended and how long it prevailed, and to suggest some explanation of this latter-day tendency to reverse the verdict of the ages.

Birth and Childhood.The traditional day of Euripides' birth was of all days that which should have most appropriately given light to a Greek patriot-poet's eyes, the day whereon, in 480 B.C., the great sea-fight of Salamis rolled away for ever the nightmare-dread of enslavement to Asian despotism, and assured to Greece the right to live thenceforth her own life, and to achieve her high intelledtual destiny. The child's first cry mingled with the triumphant cheers of the victorious crews and the rapturous thanksgivings of those in whose defence they had fought—of the old fathers, the helpless women and children, huddled together in the little rugged isle of Salamis.

His father was named Mnesarchus (or Mnesarchides), his mother Kleito. They must have been wealthy, for their son possessed not only considerable property, which no man could have made by literature, but also, what was especially rare then, a valuable library. They must have been well-born, for it is on record that Euripides took a prominent part as a boy in certain festivals of Apollo for which anyone of mean birth would have been ineligible. But because, as it would seem, some of the surplus produce from their country property occasionally appeared in the Athenian market, what may have been a light jest at the time was by the malice of Aristophanes perverted (some forty or fifty years later) into a persistent allegation that Euripides' mother was a vegetable-hawker.

The poet's childhood was passed amid scenes which were in themselves an inspiration. He watched while, day by day, from the ruins of that Athens which the Persians had made a heap of ashes, there rose a new city, greater, stronger, and more beautiful by far than that for which the men of Marathon and Salamis had fought. Athens had by her warlike enterprise become the head of the confederacy which the Ionian seaboard states and islands formed for mutual defence against the Persians. When Euripides was eight years old, the common treasury of the allies was transferred from Delos to Athens, and, as some of them found it more convenient to make their contributions in money than in men and ships, the imperial city found herself with vast sums at her disposal. Her obligation to keep the fleet and army of the confederacy in efficiency discharged, she did not hesitate to apply the surplus of the revenue and of the spoils of Persia to her own strengthening and adorning, So the boy's earliest memories were of the construction of magnificent harbours and docks, of the rising of the Long Walls which linked Athens with her ports, of the new-born splendour of the temple-crowded Acropolis, of colonnades whose walls flushed bright with pictures of battles by land and sea, of gleaming statues that day by day were multiplied, till the Gods and heroes seemed to outnumber the men of the city, of spacious gymnasia, of humming law-courts, and—of more interest than all, had he known it, to himself—the vast sweep of the hewn-stone seats and the gigantic stage of the Great Theatre of Dionysus. He beheld the creation of all these; he was an eye-witness of the transformation of Athens into something that far transcended Homer's fairest visions of "goodly-builded towns."

With the growth of the city came a stir of life, a quickening of commercial enterprise, an awakening of thought, which were also new. Merchants from Egypt, from Spain, from the Black Sea, and from all islands and lands that lie between these, artificers from Tyre, artists, poets, and philosophers from wherever Greek was spoken, all these brought their wealth, their cunning, their wisdom, to the feet of Athens. As though this were not enough to stimulate the mind and to make the pulses leap, through all the years of his boyhood the Dionysiac Theatre resounded with immortal verse and rang with glorious song. He was eight years old when the vast audience thrilled with triumph and shouted for rapture as Aeschylus' Persians renewed for them the great day of Salamis. He was twelve when the victorious generals of Athens, appointed judges of a contest between giants, awarded to Sophocles the victory over Aeschylus.

A mistaken vocationAll these influences were silently moulding his genius, and fostering powers as yet uncomprehended by himself, certainly unsuspected by his parents, save, perhaps, that they may have come to regard him as not an ordinary lad who would follow unquestioningly his father's vocation. Some tokens of a restless ambition may have moved them to consult oracle or soothsayer touching their son's future. This was the answer they received:—

"A son shalt thou have, O son of Mnesarchus, whom all shall acclaim
With honour, a son who shall win the renown of a glorious name,
Who shall bind on his brows the grace of the wreaths of hallowed fame."

Hallowed wreaths suggested inevitably to a Greek the wreath of wild-olive won at the festival of Zeus in the Olympic Games. The parents could imagine no prouder ambition, especially if effort were sweetened by such a divine assurance of success; and the youth was promptly placed in the hands of the trainers. Of course nothing came of it, except a local victory or two: he was indeed entered for the Olympic Games, but was disqualified on some technical grounds by the board of managers at their preliminary scrutiny. But those two or three years of probation remained for him no pleasant memory. His experience of the life of athletes, of their absorption in the body, of their brutality, empty-headedness, and vanity, filled him with a lasting aversion for the class, which breaks out now and again into scornful expression in his plays.

First Essays.His father resigned himself to the inevitable, and for a while the son hovered unsettled between literature and art. He painted, and would seem to have painted well, since a picture by him was long exhibited at Megara.[1] He attended the lectures of the philosophers. Anaxagoras introduced him to physical, and Protagoras to moral science; he heard Prodicus discourse on rhetoric; and under the guidance of these teachers collected a library, one of the best of his day. So the years passed over the scholar-poet: spring after spring found him witnessing the grandeurs of Aeschylus, the splendours of Sophocles, and the ephemeral brilliance of those rivals whose dramas, utterly forgotten now, were sometimes esteemed by judges and spectators worthy to be preferred to theirs. How early he tried the wings of his inspiration we cannot tell; but we do know that the first play of his that obtained the honour of being represented in the great theatre at the spring festival of Dionysus appeared in the year 455 B.C., when Euripides was twenty-five years old. It is interesting to note that Aeschylus and Sophocles commenced their dramatic career, the former at twenty-six, the latter at twenty-eight years of age.

Dramatic Competitions.It seems advisable at this point to give, for the information of the general reader, some explanation of the circumstances attending the representation of a drama in Athens, so wholly different as they were from anything in our own experience.[2] There was but one theatre; but it was Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/17 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/18 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/19 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/20 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/21 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/22 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/23 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/24 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/25 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/26 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/27 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/28 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/29 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/30 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/31 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/32 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/33 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/34 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/35 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/36 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/37 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/38 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/39 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/40 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/41 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/42 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/43 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/44 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/45 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/46 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/47 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/48 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/49 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/50 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/51 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/52 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/53 Page:Tragedies of Euripides (Way 1896) v2.djvu/54 than in the words of Professor Moulton, in his Ancient Classical Drama (p. 160):—

"Next to Shakespeare, Euripides has been the best abused poet in the history of literature. And the reason is the same in both cases: each has been associated prominently with a dramatic revolution vast enough to draw out the fundamental difference between two classes of minds—those that incline to a simple ideal perfectly attained, and those that sympathize rather with a more complex purpose which can be reached only through conflict. The changes in ancient drama promoted by this third of the three great masters are all in the direction of modern variety and human power: from the confined standpoint of Attic Tragedy they may represent decay; in the evolution of the universal drama they are advance and development, Euripides laid the foundation for an edifice of which the coping-stone is Shakespeare."



  1. His plays contain many allusions to painting and sculpture, such as could come only from one who possessed the taste and technical knowledge of an artist.
  2. The minor performances at the Lenæa and Country Dionysia, of which little is known, are, for the purposes of this description, left out of account.