Euripides and His Age, by Gilbert Murray, , at sacred-texts.com
Critics have used various words to describe the change of mood which followed the Trojan Women. They speak of a period of despair, pessimism, progressive bitterness, Verzweiflung and Weltschmerz. But such phrases seem to me misleading. In the first place I do not think they describe quite truly even the particular plays they are meant to describe; in the second, they do not allow for the great variety which subsists in the plays of this period. The mood of the Trojan Women is not exactly pessimism or despair; and whatever it is, it does not colour all the subsequent plays.
The plays after 415 fall into two main divisions. First the works of pure fancy or romance, in which the poet seems to turn intentionally away from reality. Such are the Iphigenîa in Tauris, the Helena and the Andromeda; they move among far seas and
strange adventures and they have happy endings. Next there are the true tragedies, close to life, ruthlessly probing the depths of human nature; not more acutely bitter than such earlier works as the Medea and Hecuba, but with a bitterness more profound because it is comparatively free from indignation. The glory has fallen away and the burning anger with it. The poor miserable heroes and heroines … what else can you expect of them? Rage is no good; punishment worse than useless. The road to healing lies elsewhere.
A good key to the first of these types of play is to be seen in Aristophanes’ comedy, The Birds. The gayest, sweetest and most irresponsible of all his plays, it was written just after the news of the final disaster in Sicily, when ruin stared Athens in the face. And the two heroes of it, disgusted with the ways of man, depart to live among the birds and build, with their help, a splendid Cloud City. In much the same spirit Euripides must have written his Andromeda. He produced it in 412, the same year in which he was invited by the anti-war government which came into power after the news of the great disaster to write the national epitaph on the soldiers slain in Sicily. He wrote the
epitaph in the old severe untranslatable style of Simonides: "These men won eight victories over the Syracusans when the hand of God lay even between both." In English it seems cold; it seems hardly poetry. But in Greek it is like carved marble. Then, one must imagine, he turned right away from the present and spent his days with Andromeda. Only a few fragments of the Andromeda remain, but they are curiously beautiful; and the play as a whole seems to have been the one unclouded love-romance that Euripides ever wrote. It was fantastic, remote from life, with its heroine chained to a cliff over the blue sea awaiting the approach of the sea-monster, and its hero, Perseus, on winged sandals, appearing through the air to save her. Yet the fragments have a wistful ring: "O holy Night, how long is the path of thy chariot!" "By the Mercy that dwelleth in the sea caves, cease, O Echo; let me weep my fill in peace." Or the strange lines (fr. 135):
[paragraph continues] There was a story told, in later times, of a tragedy-fever that fell on the folk of Abdêra,
in Thrace, through this play, till in every street you could see young men walking as though in a dream, and murmuring to themselves the speech beginning, "O Love, high monarch over gods and men. …" The Andromeda was five hundred years old when people told that story.
The Iphigenîa in Tauris came one year earlier. It is one of the most beautiful of the extant plays, not really a tragedy in our sense nor yet merely a romance. It begins in gloom and rises to a sense of peril, to swift and dangerous adventure, to joyful escape. So far it is like romance. But it is tragic in the sincerity of the character-drawing. Iphigenîa, especially, with her mixed longings for revenge and for affection, her hatred of the Greece that wronged her and her love of the Greece that is her only home, her possibilities of stony cruelty and her realities of swift self-sacrifice, is a true child of her great and accursed house. The plot is as follows:—Iphigenîa, daughter of Agamemnon, who was supposed to have been sacrificed by her father at Aulis, was really saved by Artemis and is now priestess to that goddess in the land of the Taurians at the extremity of the Friendless Sea. The Taurians are savages who kill all strangers,
and if ever a Greek shall land in the wild place it will be her task to prepare him for sacrifice. She lives with this terror hanging over her, and the first Greek that comes is her unknown brother, Orestes. Their recognition of one another is, perhaps, the finest recognition-scene in all Tragedy; and with its sequels of stratagem and escape forms a thrilling play, haunted not, like a tragedy, by the shadow of death but rather by the shadow of homesickness. The characters are Greeks in a far barbarian land, longing for home or even for the Greek sea. The lyrics are particularly fine, and most of them full of sea-light and the clash of waters.
In the same year as the Andromeda came another romantic play, the Helena. It is a good deal like the Iphigenîa in structure, but it is lighter, harder, and more artificial. The romance of Euripides is never quite the easy dreaming of lighter-hearted writers. And the Helena, in which he seems to have attempted a work of mere fancy, is, if we understand it rightly, a rather brilliant failure. Some critics—quite mistakenly in my judgment—have even argued that it is a parody. The plot is based on a variant of the canonical legend about Helen, a variant generally
associated with the ancient lyric poet, Stesichorus. Story tells that Stesichorus at one time lost his eyesight and took it into his head that this was a punishment laid on him by the goddess Helen, because he had told the story of her flight with Paris from her husband's house. He wrote a recantation, based on another form of the Helen-legend, in which Helen was borne away by the God Hermes to Egypt and there lived like a true wife till Menelaus came and found her. The being that went with Paris to Troy was only a phantom image of Helen, contrived by the gods in order to bring about the war, and so reduce the wickedness and multitude of mankind. In Euripides’ play there is a wicked king of Egypt, who seeks to marry Helen against her will and kills all Greeks who land in his country. The war at Troy is over, and Menelaus, beaten by storms out of his way, is shipwrecked on the coast of Egypt. He and Helen meet, recognize one another, and by the help of the king's sister, who has second sight, contrive to escape. It is hard to say what exactly is wrong with the Helena; and it may only be that we moderns do not know in what spirit to take it. But the illusion is difficult to keep up and the work seems cold. Reality has gone out of it. For
one thing, Helen, in her thorough process of rehabilitation, has emerged that most insipid of fancies, a perfectly beautiful and blameless heroine with no character except love of her husband, whom, by the way, she has not seen for seventeen years.
Another large experiment of this time is the Phoenissae, or Tyrian Women (410?). It is the longest Greek tragedy in existence, and covers the greatest stretch of story. Aeschylus, we remember, had the habit of writing true "trilogies"—three continuous dramas, carrying on the same history. The Phoenissae seems like an attempt to run the matter of a whole trilogy into one play. It does not fall into either of the divisions which I have sketched above: it is neither a play of fancy nor yet a realistic tragedy. But even if we had no external tradition of its date we could tell to what part of the author's life it belongs. It is written, as it is conceived, in the large and heroic style; but it shows in the regular manner of this period a general clash of hatreds and frantic ambitions and revenges and cruel statesmanship standing out against the light of a young man's heroism and a mother's and a sister's love. It is like Euripides, too, that this beautiful mother should be Jocasta,
whose unknowing incest had made her an abomination in the eyes of orthodox Greece.
The play tells the story of Thebes. The sin of Oedipus and Jocasta is a thing of the past; Oedipus has blinded himself and cursed his children, and they have in course of time imprisoned him in the vaults of the palace. Jocasta still lives. The sons Polyneices and Eteocles have agreed to reign by turns; Polyneices, the elder, has reigned his year and gone abroad to Argos; Eteocles having once got the crown has refused to yield it up. Polyneices comes with an Argive army to lay siege to Thebes and win his rights by war. The drama is developed in a series of great pictures. We have first the Princess Antigone with an old slave looking from the wall out towards the enemy's camp, seeking for a glimpse of her brother. Next comes a man with face hidden and sword drawn stealing through the gates, seeking for Jocasta. It is Polyneices. The mother has induced her sons to have one meeting before they fight. The meeting reveals nothing but ambition and mutual hatred. They agree to look for one another on the field, and Polyneices goes. There are consultations in the beleaguered
city. Creon, who is Jocasta's brother and a sort of Prime Minister, advises the rash Eteocles; but the prophets must be consulted too, that the gods may be favorable. The prophet Tiresias—blind and old and jealous, as so often in Greek tragedy—proclaims that the only medicine to save the state is for Creon's son, Menoikeus, to be slain as a sin-offering in the lair of the ancient Dragon whom Cadmus slew. Creon quickly refuses; he dismisses the prophet and arranges for his son to escape from Thebes and fly to the ends of Greece. The boy feigns consent to the plan of escape, but, as soon as his father has left him, rushes enthusiastically up to a tower of the city and flings himself over into the Dragon's den. A messenger comes to Jocasta with news of the battle. "Are her sons slain?" No; both are alive and unhurt. He tells his story of the Argive attack and its repulse from every gate.—"But what of the two brothers?"—He must go now and will bring more news later.—Jocasta sees he is concealing something and compels him to speak. The truth comes out; the brothers are preparing a single combat. With a shriek the mother calls Antigone; and the two women, young and old, make their way through the
army to try to separate the blood-mad men. We learn from a second messenger how the brothers have slain each other "in a meadow of wild lotus," and Jocasta has killed herself with one of their swords. Antigone returns and to bring the news to her only friend, the blind Oedipus. Creon by Eteocles’ charge takes over the government, he, too, a broken-hearted man, but none the less ruthless; he proclaims that Polyneices' body shall lie unburied and that Oedipus, the source of pollution, shall be cast out of the land; Antigone meantime shall marry Creon's son, Haemon. Antigone defies him. She will not wed Haemon nor any of Creon's kin: her father shall not be cast out to die, for she will go with him and protect him. Polyneices shall not lie unburied, for she herself will return by stealth and bury him. There is still one human love that Oedipus yearns for most; that of the sin-stained wife and mother who is lying dead in the meadow of wild lotus. But meantime he takes the hand of his daughter. Old man and young maiden they go forth together, away from the brutalities of human kind, to the high mountains, to the holy inviolate places on Kithairon where only the wild White Women of Dionysus dance their mystic dances.
The Phoenissae stands half way between the pure Romances and the tragedies of the last period. Of these latter the clearest type is the Electra (probably 413), a play which before it was understood used to receive the unstinted abuse of Critics, as "the meanest of Greek tragedies," "the very worst of all Euripides’ plays." It deals with the moral problem of the Blood-Feud, stated in its sharpest terms.
Now the blood-feud, we must realize, in any society where there is no public law and no police, is a high moral duty. A man commits an abominable crime and revels in comfort on the proceeds; his victim is dead, and there is no law which will act automatically. It becomes the duty of some one—normally the heir or representative of the dead man—to devote himself to the work of justice, to forsake all business and pleasure in life till the wrong has been righted and the dead man avenged. A man who would let his kinsman be murdered and then live on at his ease rather than pursue the murderer, would obviously be a poor false creature. Now comes the problem. The strongest possible claim is that of a father murdered; the most horrible act a Greek could conceive was for a man to slay his mother. Suppose a wife
murdered her husband, ought her son to slay her? The law of the blood-feud, as traditionally preached from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, answered, in spite of all repugnances, Yes.
The story had been treated before Euripides by many poets, including Homer, Stesichorus, Pindar, Aeschylus and possibly—though the dates are not certain—Sophocles. Clytemnestra had with the help of her lover Aegisthus murdered her husband Agamemnon; her son Orestes slays her in obedience to Apollo's command, and his sister Electra aids him. Aeschylus in his Libation-Bearers had dealt with this theme on broad lines and with gorgeous intensity of imagination. His Orestes is carried to the deed on a great wave of religious passion and goes mad as soon as it is done. The deed as commanded by God is right, but it is too much for human nature to endure. In an ensuing play Orestes, after long sufferings, is tried for the matricide and, when the human judges are evenly divided, acquitted by the divine voice of Athena. Sophocles treats the subject very differently. He makes a most brilliant play with extraordinary clashes of emotion and moments of tragic beauty. But, evidently of set purpose, he makes the whole treatment
hard and archaic. There is no shrinking back, no question of conscience at all. Clytemnestra is a furious tyrant; she beats Electra with her fists, and Aegisthus does worse (1196, 517). The climax of the play is not the mother-murder but the killing of Aegisthus, which was presumably the harder and more exciting job. When Orestes and his friend Pylades come out of the palace streaming with Clytemnestra's blood their nerves are unshaken and the Chorus is careful to say that they are not to be in any way blamed (1423).
The spirit of Euripides is exactly the opposite; so much so indeed that most critics feel clear that the two Electra plays are closely related, and related in opposition. The one is a deliberate protest against the other; unfortunately the play of Sophocles cannot be dated and it is not clear from internal evidence which play was written first.
In the Electra of Euripides we find two main qualities. First, there is psychological realism of the subtlest kind. Secondly, there is a new moral atmosphere. With a power of sympathy and analysis unrivalled in ancient drama he has imagined just what kind of people these children must have been, who would thus through long years nurse the seeds
of hatred and at the end kill their mother. He studies them all; Electra, a mixture of heroism and broken nerves; a poisoned and haunted woman, eating her heart in ceaseless broodings of hate and love, both alike unsatisfied; for he suggests, somewhat cruelly, that she might have lived contentedly enough, had she only had a normal married life. The name in its original Doric form suggested the meaning, "Unmated." Orestes is a youth bred in the unwholesome dreams of exile, and now swept away by his sister's stronger will; subject also, as Orestes always is in Greek tragedy, to delusions and melancholy madness. The mother herself is not forgotten, and a most piteous figure she shows, "this sad, middle-aged woman, whose first words are an apology; controlling quickly her old fires, anxious to be as little hated as possible; ready even to atone for her crime, if only there were some safe way of atonement." Thus, in the first place, Euripides has stripped the old bloody deed of the heroic glamour that surrounded it. His actors are not clear-minded heroes moving straight to their purpose. They are human creatures, erring, broken by passion, mastered by their own inhibitions and doubts and regrets. In the second place he has no doubt at all about the
ethics of the mother-murder. It was an abomination, and the god who ordained it—if any did—was a power of darkness.
After the deed the two murderers come forth as in Sophocles. But this time they are not triumphant and the Chorus does not hail them as having done right. They reel from the door, "red-garmented and ghastly" and break into a long agony of remorse. The Chorus share their horror. Electra's guilt is the greater since she drove her brother to the deed against his will; even while they love her, they can not quite forget that, though they feel that now at last, by this anguish, her heart may be "made clean within." The play ends with an appearance of the gods. The Heavenly Horsemen, Castor and Polydeuces, who were kinsmen of the dead, appear on a cloud, and speak in judgment and comfort. With a definiteness rare in Euripides they pronounce the deed of vengeance to be evil:
Another note is also struck, that of pity for the suffering of humanity. Orestes and
[paragraph continues] Electra, condemned to part, break, as they bid one another farewell, into a great cry, and the gods, hearing it, are shaken:
[paragraph continues] They speak such words of comfort and groping wisdom as they can find—no one has ever claimed that they are omniscient—and depart upon their own eternal task, which is not to punish but to save.
The appearance of the gods in the Electra is so beautiful that no critics have yet tried to explain it away as nonsense; and the lesson of it so clear that its meaning is seldom denied. But I find just the same lesson in the final scene of the Orestes, which is commonly taken as the very worst instance of Euripides’ habit of closing with a "God from the machine."
The Orestes (408 B.C.) deals with the fate of Orestes some days after his mother's murder. He is mad and sick; his sister is nursing
him with devotion. The people have risen against them and they are held prisoners in the palace till an assembly shall try them for murder and pronounce their fate. Meantime Menelaus—Orestes’ uncle and king of Sparta—has arrived at the harbour with his wife Helen and their daughter Hermione. He has sent on his wife and daughter to the palace and is expected hourly himself. He is Agamemnon's brother; he has with him an army of Trojan veterans; he can surely be counted on to cow the Argive populace and save his dead brother's son. All our hopes hang on Menelaus, and when at last he comes he proves false. He would like to help; but it would be wrong for him, a foreigner, to dictate to the Argives; and he has only a very small force with him. However, he will reason with Orestes’ enemies. One does not forget that, if Argos is left without a king, Menelaus will normally inherit. The sick man blazes into rage against him and Menelaus becomes an open enemy. Exasperation follows on exasperation: Orestes’ friend Pylades breaks through the guards and enters the palace to share the prisoners’ fate. The assembly hears and at length condemns them. They are given a day in which to die as they best please. Like scorpions surrounded by
fire, the three, Orestes, Electra and Pylades, begin to strike blindly. A brilliant idea! They can kill Helen: that will punish Menelaus, and Helen deserves many deaths. Better still, kill Helen and then capture Hermione! Hold a dagger at her throat and then bargain with Menelaus for help even at the last hour! Murder his wife and then force him to help! Splendid! The madness of Orestes infects the whole play. Helen escapes, being half-divine; but they catch Hermione, who, as a matter of fact, has always been kind to them. Menelaus, who has heard news from an escaping slave, rushes up to save Helen, but he finds no sign of her; he finds only the palace barred and the madman on the roof, shrieking derision and holding the knife at his daughter's throat. There is a brief wild attempt at bargaining; then hate in Menelaus overcomes fear. He rejects all terms. Orestes’ party sets fire to the palace; and Menelaus at the head of his soldiers beats blindly at the barred gate. "The fire of Hell," to use Dr. Verrall's phrase, has been let loose; rage, hatred, revenge, all blazing to the point of madness; what more can befall?
What does befall is strange and daring. An entry of a god not in gentleness, not with
any preparation or introduction, but sudden and terrific, striking all beholders into a trance from which they awaken changed men. The point has not been generally observed, though it is, I think, clear.
At Apollo's first sudden cry "Menelaus, be still!" (line 1625) we know that Orestes is supporting Hermione in one arm while with the other hand he is holding the knife at her throat. He is in exactly the same position at line 1653; he only moves from it at 1671. That is the conduct of a man in a trance, suddenly, as it were, struck rigid. And we shall find that the words spoken by both Menelaus and Orestes when Apollo has finished his charge, are like nothing but the words of men emerging from a trance; a trance, too, of some supernatural kind, like that for instance which falls on the raging world in Mr. Wells's book, In the Days of the Comet. Here, too, a raging world wakes to find itself at peace and its past hatreds unintelligible. And the first thought that comes to the surface is, in each case, the great guiding preoccupation of each man's life; with Menelaus it is Helen; with Orestes the oracle that made him sin. Nay more; when Orestes wakens, half-conscious, to find Hermione lying in his arms, his natural movement, as
experiments on hypnotized persons have shown, is to accept the suggestion and draw her to him in love. Greek legend knew well that, as a matter of history, Hermione became Orestes’ bride. There is daring, perhaps excessive daring, in making it occur this way; but the psychology of something like hypnotism had a fascination for both Aeschylus and Euripides. For the rest, Apollo has spoken the word of forgiveness and reconciliation. He concludes:
Men. I obey.
Or. I too; mine heart is as a wine of peace
Poured with the past and thy dark mysteries.
Apollo Go now your ways: and without cease
Give honour in your hearts to one,
Of spirits all beneath the sun
Most beautiful; her name is Peace.
I rise with Helen Zeus-ward, past
The orb of many a shining star;
Where Heracles and Hebe are
And Hera, she shall reign at last,
A goddess in men's prayers to be
For ever, with her Brethren twain
Enthronèd, a great help in pain
And queen of the eternal sea.
[paragraph continues] "Helen a goddess!" say some critics; "the notion is impossible. We have seen her in
this same play, a heartless ordinary woman." Yet I think Euripides was serious enough. I do not say he believed either this or any other particular bit of the mythology. But he was writing seriously and aiming at beauty, not at satire. All legend said that Helen was made a goddess; and Euripides was always curiously haunted by the thought of Helen and by the mysterious and deadly power of mere superlative beauty. As Apollo had said to Menelaus (1638):
The superlative beauty may probably enough be found in company with heartlessness and treachery; but cannot these things be purged away, like the hates of Menelaus and Orestes, and the pure beauty remain a thing to pray to and be helped by, much as the old sagas pretend? There is here again the touch of mysticism.
But however it be about Helen, or even about the above explanation in detail of the last scene of the Orestes, it is clear that both the most characteristic plays of the so-called
period of gloom end with a strong, almost a mystically strong, note of peace and reconciliation. This note occurs, though with less intensity, at the end of other late plays, such as the Iphigenîa in Tauris and the Helena; and, though without a god, in the Phoenissae. It does not occur at all in the early plays. The Medea and Hecuba end in pure hate; the Hippolytus ends in wonderful beauty and a reconciliation between the hero and his father, who are natural friends, but it keeps up the feud of Aphrodite and Artemis and contains a strange threat of vengeance (v. 1420 ff.). The lovely Thetis of the Andromache brings comfort and rest but preaches no forgiveness; on the contrary the body of Pyrrhus is to be buried at Delphi as an eternal reproach. Euripides all through his life was occupied with the study of revenge. It was a time, as Thucydides tells us, when "men tried to surpass all the record of previous times in the ingenuity of their enterprises and the enormity of their revenges." Euripides seems first to have been almost fascinated by the enormous revenges, at least when they were the work of people who had suffered enormous wrong. He seems, in plays like the Medea, to be saying: "If you goad
people beyond endurance, this is the sort of thing you must expect them to do … and serve you right!" In the plays after 415 the emphasis has rather changed: "You must expect to be wronged, and revenge will do good to nobody. Seek peace and forgive one another."