Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Books, poems, drama…

Lectures on Dramatic Art by August Wilhelm Schlegel trans John Black

Part 3 out of 10

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 1.2 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.


Euripides--His Merits and Defects--Decline of Tragic Poetry through him.

When we consider Euripides by himself, without any comparison with his
predecessors, when we single out some of his better pieces, and particular
passages in others, we cannot refuse to him an extraordinary meed of
praise. But on the other hand, when we take him in his connexion with the
history of art, when we look at each of his pieces as a whole, and again
at the general scope of his labours, as revealed to us in the works which
have come down to us, we are forced to censure him severely on many
accounts. Of few writers can so much good and evil be said with truth. He
was a man of boundless ingenuity and most versatile talents; but he either
wanted the lofty earnestness of purpose, or the severe artistic wisdom,
which we reverence in Aeschylus and Sophocles, to regulate the luxuriance
of his certainly splendid and amiable qualities. His constant aim is to
please, he cares not by what means; hence is he so unequal: frequently he
has passages of overpowering beauty, but at other times he sinks into
downright mediocrity. With all his faults he possesses an admirable ease,
and a certain insinuating charm.

These preliminary observations I have judged necessary, since otherwise,
on account of what follows, it might be objected to me that I am at
variance with myself, having lately, in a short French essay, endeavoured
to show the superiority of a piece of Euripides to Racine's imitation of
it. There I fixed my attention on a single drama, and that one of the
poet's best; but here I consider everything from the most general points
of view, and relatively to the highest requisitions of art; and that my
enthusiasm for ancient tragedy may not appear blind and extravagant, I
must justify it by a keen examination into the traces of its degeneracy
and decline.

We may compare perfection in art and poetry to the summit of a steep
mountain, on which an uprolled load cannot long maintain its position, but
immediately rolls down again the other side irresistibly. It descends
according to the laws of gravity with quickness and ease, and one can
calmly look on while it is descending; for the mass follows its natural
tendency, while the laborious ascent is, in some degree, a painful
spectacle. Hence it is, for example, that the paintings which belong to
the age of declining art are much more pleasing to the unlearned eye, than
those which preceded the period of its perfection. The genuine
connoisseur, on the contrary, will hold the pictures of a Zuccheri and
others, who gave the tone when the great schools of the sixteenth century
were degenerating into empty and superficial mannerism, to be in real and
essential worth, far inferior to the works of a Mantegna, Perugino, and
their contemporaries. Or let us suppose the perfection of art a focus: at
equal distances on either side, the collected rays occupy equal spaces,
but on this side they converge towards a common effect; whereas, on the
other they diverge, till at last they are totally lost.

We have, besides, a particular reason for censuring without reserve the
errors of this poet; the fact, namely, that our own age is infected with
the same faults with those which procured for Euripides so much favour, if
not esteem, among his contemporaries. In our times we have been doomed to
witness a number of plays which, though in matter and form they are far
inferior to those of Euripides, bear yet in so far a resemblance to them,
that while they seduce the feelings and corrupt the judgment, by means of
weakly, and sometimes even tender, emotions, their general tendency is to
produce a downright moral licentiousness.

What I shall say on this subject will not, for the most part, possess even
the attraction of novelty. Although the moderns, attracted either by the
greater affinity of his views with their own sentiments, or led astray by
an ill-understood opinion of Aristotle, have not unfrequently preferred
Euripides to his two predecessors, and have unquestionably read, admired,
and imitated him much more; it admits of being shown, however, that many
of the ancients, and some even of the contemporaries of Euripides, held
the same opinion of him as myself. In _Anacharsis_ we find this mixture of
praise and censure at least alluded to, though the author softens
everything for the sake of his object of showing the productions of the
Greeks, in every department, under the most favourable light.

We possess some cutting sayings of Sophocles respecting Euripides, though
he was so far from being actuated by anything like the jealousy of
authorship, that he mourned his death, and, in a piece which he exhibited
shortly after, he did not allow his actors the usual ornament of the
wreath. The charge which Plato brings against the tragic poets, as tending
to give men entirely up to the dominion of the passions, and to render
them effeminate, by putting extravagant lamentations in the mouths of
their heroes, may, I think, be justly referred to Euripides alone; for,
with respect to his predecessors, the injustice of it would have been
universally apparent. The derisive attacks of Aristophanes are well known,
though not sufficiently understood and appreciated. Aristotle bestows on
him many a severe censure, and when he calls Euripides "the most tragic
poet," he by no means ascribes to him the greatest perfection in the
tragic art in general, but merely alludes to the moving effect which is
produced by unfortunate catastrophes; for he immediately adds, "although
he does not well arrange the rest." Lastly, the Scholiast on Euripides
contains many concise and stringent criticisms on particular pieces, among
which perhaps are preserved the opinions of Alexandrian critics--those
critics who reckoned among them that Aristarchus, who, for the solidity
and acuteness of his critical powers, has had his name transmitted to
posterity as the proverbial designation of a judge of art.

In Euripides we find the essence of the ancient tragedy no longer pure and
unmixed; its characteristical features are already in part defaced. We
have already placed this essence in the prevailing idea of Destiny, in the
Ideality of the composition, and in the significance of the Chorus.

Euripides inherited, it is true, the idea of Destiny from his
predecessors, and the belief of it was inculcated in him by the tragic
usage; but yet in him fate is seldom the invisible spirit of the whole
composition, the fundamental thought of the tragic world. We have seen
that this idea may be exhibited under severer or milder aspects; that the
midnight terrors of destiny may, in the courses of a whole trilogy,
brighten into indications of a wise and beneficent Providence. Euripides,
however, has drawn it down from the region of the infinite; and with him
inevitable necessity not unfrequently degenerates into the caprice of
chance. Accordingly, he can no longer apply it to its proper purpose,
namely, by contrast with it, to heighten the moral liberty of man. How few
of his pieces turn upon a steadfast resistance to the decrees of fate, or
an equally heroic submission to them! His characters generally suffer
because they must, and not because they will.

The mutual subordination, between character and passion and ideal
elevation, which we find observed in the same order in Sophocles, and in
the sculpture of Greece, Euripides has completely reversed. Passion with
him is the first thing; his next care is for character, and when these
endeavours leave him still further scope, he occasionally seeks to lay on
a touch of grandeur and dignity, but more frequently a display of

It has been already admitted that the persons in tragedy ought not to be
all alike faultless, as there would then be no opposition among them, and
consequently no room for a complication of plot. But (as Aristotle
observes) Euripides has, without any necessity, frequently painted his
characters in the blackest colours, as, for example, his Menelaus in
_Orestes_. The traditions indeed, sanctioned by popular belief, warranted
him in attributing great crimes to many of the old heroes, but he has also
palmed upon them many base and paltry traits of his own arbitrary
invention. It was by no means the object of Euripides to represent the
race of heroes as towering in their majestic stature above the men of his
own age; he rather endeavours to fill up, or to build over the chasm that
yawned between his contemporaries and that wondrous olden world, and to
come upon the gods and heroes in their undress, a surprise of which no
greatness, it is said, can stand the test. He introduces his spectators to
a sort of familiar acquaintance with them; he does not draw the
supernatural and fabulous into the circle of humanity (a proceeding
which we praised in Sophocles), but within the limits of the imperfect
individuality. This is the meaning of Sophocles, when he said that "he
drew men such as they ought to be, Euripides such as they are." Not that
his own personages are always represented as irreproachable models; his
expression referred merely to ideal elevation and sweetness of character
and manners. It seems as if Euripides took a pleasure in being able
perpetually to remind his spectators--"See! those beings were men, subject
to the very same weaknesses, acting from the same motives as yourselves,
and even as the meanest among you." Accordingly, he takes delight in
depicting the defects and moral failings of his characters; nay, he often
makes them disclose them for themselves in the most _nave_ confession.
They are frequently not merely undignified, but they even boast of their
imperfections as that which ought to be.

The Chorus with him is for the most part an unessential ornament; its
songs are frequently wholly episodical, without reference to the action,
and more distinguished for brilliancy than for sublimity and true
inspiration. "The Chorus," says Aristotle, "must be considered as one of
the actors, and as a part of the whole; it must co-operate in the action--
not as Euripides, but as Sophocles manages it." The older comedians
enjoyed the privilege of allowing the Chorus occasionally to address the
spectators in its own name; this was called a Parabasis, and, as I shall
afterwards show, was in accordance with the spirit of comedy. Although the
practice is by no means tragical, it was, however, according to Julius
Pollux, frequently adopted by Euripides in his tragedies, who so far
forgot himself on some of these occasions, that in the _Danaidae_, for
instance, the chorus, which consisted of females, made use of grammatical
inflections which belonged only to the male sex.

This poet has thus at once destroyed the internal essence of tragedy, and
sinned against the laws of beauty and proportion in its external
structure. He generally sacrifices the whole to the parts, and in these
again he is more ambitious of foreign attractions, than of genuine poetic

In the accompanying music, he adopted all the innovations invented by
Timotheus, and chose those melodies which were most in unison with the
effeminacy of his own poetry. He proceeded in the same manner with his
metres; his versification is luxuriant, and runs into anomaly. The same
diluted and effeminate character would, on a more profound investigation,
be unquestionably found in the rhythms of his choral songs likewise.

On all occasions he lays on, even to overloading, those merely corporeal
charms which Winkelmann calls a "flattery of the gross external senses;"
whatever is exciting, striking--in a word, all that produces a vivid
effect, though without true worth for the mind and the feelings. He
labours for effect to a degree which cannot be allowed even to the
dramatic poet. For example, he hardly ever omits an opportunity of
throwing his characters into a sudden and useless terror; his old men are
everlastingly bemoaning the infirmities of age, and, in particular, are
made to crawl with trembling limbs, and sighing at the fatigue, up the
ascent from the orchestra to the stage, which frequently represented the
slope of a hill. He is always endeavouring to move, and for the sake of
emotion, he not only violates probability, but even sacrifices the
coherence of the piece. He is strong in his pictures of misfortune; but he
often claims our compassion not for inward agony of the soul, nor for pain
which the sufferer endures with manly fortitude, but for mere bodily
wretchedness. He is fond of reducing his heroes to the condition of
beggars, of making them suffer hunger and want, and bringing them on the
stage with all the outward signs of it, and clad in rags and tatters, for
which Aristophanes, in his _Acharnians_, has so humorously taken him
to task.

Euripides was a frequenter of the schools of the philosophers (he had been
a scholar of Anaxagoras, and not, as many have erroneously stated, of
Socrates, with whom he was only connected by social intercourse): and
accordingly he indulges his vanity in introducing philosophical doctrines
on all occasions; in my opinion, in a very imperfect manner, as we should
not be able to understand these doctrines from his statements of them, if
we were not previously acquainted with them. He thinks it too vulgar a
thing to believe in the gods after the simple manner of the people, and he
therefore seizes every opportunity of interspersing something of the
allegorical interpretation of them, and carefully gives his spectators to
understand that the sincerity of his own belief was very problematical. We
may distinguish in him a twofold character: the _poet_, whose productions
were consecrated to a religious solemnity, who stood under the protection
of religion and who, therefore, on his part, was bound to honour it; and
the _sophist_, with his philosophical _dicta_, who endeavoured to
insinuate his sceptical opinions and doubts into the fabulous marvels of
religion, from which he derived the subjects of his pieces. But while he
is shaking the ground-works of religion, he at the same time acts the
moralist; and, for the sake of popularity, he applies to the heroic life
and the heroic ages maxims which could only apply to the social relations
of his own times. He throws out a multitude of moral apophthegms, many of
which he often repeats, and which are mostly trite, and not seldom
fundamentally false. With all this parade of morality, the aim of his
pieces, the general impression which they are calculated to produce is
sometimes extremely immoral. A pleasant anecdote is told of his having put
into the mouth of Bellerophon a silly eulogium on wealth, in which he
declares it to be preferable to all domestic happiness, and ends with
observing, "If Aphrodite (who bore the epithet _golden_) be indeed
glittering as gold, she well deserves the love of Mortals:" which
so offended the spectators, that they raised a great outcry, and would
have stoned both actor and poet, out Euripides sprang forward, and called
out, "Wait only till the end--he will be requited accordingly!" In like
manner he defended himself against the objection that his Ixion expressed
himself in too disgusting and abominable language, by observing that the
piece concluded with his being broken on the wheel. But even this plea
that the represented villany is requited by the final retribution of
poetical justice, is not available in defence of all his tragedies. In
some the wicked escape altogether untouched. Lying and other infamous
practices are openly protected, especially when he can manage to palm them
upon a supposed noble motive. He has also perfectly at command the
seductive sophistry of the passions, which can lend a plausible appearance
to everything. The following verse in justification of perjury, and in
which the _reservatio mentalis_ of the casuists seems to be substantially
expressed, is well known:

The tongue swore, but the mind was unsworn.

Taken in its context, this verse, on account of which he was so often
ridiculed by Aristophanes, may, indeed, be justified; but the formula is,
nevertheless, bad, on account of the possible abuse of its application.
Another verse of Euripides: "For a kingdom it is worth while to commit
injustice, but in other cases it is well to be just," was frequently in
the mouth of Caesar, with the like intention of making a bad use of it.

Euripides was frequently condemned even by the ancients for his seductive
invitations to the enjoyment of sensual love. Every one must be disgusted
when Hecuba, in order to induce Agamemnon to punish Polymestor, reminds
him of the pleasures which he has enjoyed in the arms of Cassandra, his
captive, and, therefore, by the laws of the heroic ages his concubine: she
would purchase revenge for a murdered son with the acknowledged and
permitted degradation of a living daughter. He was the first to make the
unbridled passion of a Medea, and the unnatural love of a Phaedra, the
main subject of his dramas, whereas from the manners of the ancients, we
may easily conceive why love, which among them was much less dignified by
tender feelings than among ourselves, should hold only a subordinate place
in the older tragedies. With all the importance which he has assigned to
his female characters, he is notorious for his hatred of women; and it is
impossible to deny that he abounds in passages descanting on the frailties
of the female sex, and the superior excellence of the male; together with
many maxims of household wisdom: with all which he was evidently
endeavouring to pay court to the men, who formed, if not the whole,
certainly the most considerable portion of his audience. A cutting saying
and an epigram of Sophocles, on this subject, have been preserved, in
which he accounts for the (pretended) misogyny of Euripides by his
experience of their seductibility in the course of his own illicit amours.
In the manner in which women are painted by Euripides, we may observe,
upon the whole, much sensibility even for the more noble graces of female
modesty, but no genuine esteem.

The substantial freedom in treating the fables, which was one of the
prerogatives of the tragic art, is frequently carried by Euripides to the
extreme of licence. It is well known, that the fables of Hyginus, which
differ so essentially from those generally received, were partly extracted
from his pieces. As he frequently rejected all the incidents which were
generally known, and to which the people were accustomed, Le was reduced
to the necessity of explaining in a prologue the situation of things in
his drama, and the course which they were to take. Lessing, in his
_Dramaturgie_, has hazarded the singular opinion that it is a proof
of an advance in the dramatic art, that Euripides should have trusted
wholly to the effect of situations, without calculating on the excitement
of curiosity. For my part I cannot see why, amidst the impressions which a
dramatic poem produces, the uncertainty of expectation should not be
allowed a legitimate place. The objection that a piece will only please in
this respect for the first time, because on an acquaintance with it we
know the result beforehand, may be easily answered: if the representation
be truly energetic, it will always rivet the attention of the spectator in
such a manner that he will forget what he already knew, and be again
excited to the same stretch of expectation. Moreover, these prologues give
to the openings of Euripides' plays a very uniform and monotonous
appearance: nothing can have a more awkward effect than for a person to
come forward and say, I am so and so; this and that has already happened,
and what is next to come is as follows. It resembles the labels in the
mouths of the figures in old paintings, which nothing but the great
simplicity of style in ancient times can excuse. But then all the rest
ought to correspond, which is by no means the case with Euripides, whose
characters always speak in the newest mode of the day. Both in his
prologues and denouements he is very lavish of unmeaning appearances of
the gods, who are only elevated above men by the machine in which they are
suspended, and who might certainly well be spared.

The practice of the earlier tragedians, to combine all in large masses,
and to exhibit repose and motion in distinctly-marked contrast, was
carried by him to an unwarrantable extreme. If for the sake of giving
animation to the dialogue his predecessors occasionally employed an
alternation of single-line speeches, in which question and answer,
objection and retort, fly about like arrows from side to side, Euripides
makes so immoderate and arbitrary use of this poetical device that very
frequently one-half of his lines might be left out without detriment to
the sense. At another time he pours himself out in endless speeches, where
he sets himself to shew off his rhetorical powers in ingenious arguments,
or in pathetic appeals. Many of his scenes have altogether the appearance
of a lawsuit, where two persons, as the parties in the litigation, (with
sometimes a third for a judge,) do not confine themselves to the matter in
hand, but expatiate in a wide field, accusing their adversaries or
defending themselves with all the adroitness of practised advocates, and
not unfrequently with all the windings and subterfuges of pettifogging
sycophants. In this way the poet endeavoured to make his poetry
entertaining to the Athenians, by its resemblance to their favourite daily
occupation of conducting, deciding, or at least listening to lawsuits. On
this account Quinctilian expressly recommends him to the young orator, and
with great justice, as capable of furnishing him with more instruction
than the older tragedians. But such a recommendation it is evident is
little to his credit; for eloquence may, no doubt, have its place in the
drama when it is consistent with the character and the object of the
supposed speaker, yet to allow rhetoric to usurp the place of the simple
and spontaneous expression of the feelings, is anything but poetical.

The style of Euripides is upon the whole too loose, although he has many
happy images and ingenious turns: he has neither the dignity and energy of
Aeschylus, nor the chaste sweetness of Sophocles. In his expressions he
frequently affects the singular and the uncommon, but presently relapses
into the ordinary; the tone of the discourse often sounds very familiar,
and descends from the elevation of the cothurnus to the level ground. In
this respect, as well as in the attempt (which frequently borders only too
closely on the ludicrous,) to paint certain characteristic peculiarities,
(for instance, the awkward carriage of the Bacchus-stricken Pentheus in
his female attire, the gluttony of Hercules, and his boisterous demands on
the hospitality of Admetus,) Euripides was a precursor of the new comedy,
to which he had an evident inclination, as he frequently paints, under the
names of the heroic ages, the men and manners of his own times. Hence
Menander expressed a most marked admiration for him, and proclaimed
himself his scholar; and we have a fragment of Philemon, which displays
such an extravagant admiration, that it hardly appears to have been
seriously meant. "If the dead," he either himself says, or makes one of
his characters to say, "had indeed any sensation, as some people think
they have, I would hang myself for the sake of seeing Euripides."--With
this adoration of the later comic authors, the opinion of Aristophanes,
his contemporary, forms a striking contrast. Aristophanes persecutes him
bitterly and unceasingly; he seems almost ordained to be his perpetual
scourge, that none of his moral or poetical extravagances might go
unpunished. Although as a comic poet Aristophanes is, generally speaking,
in the relation of a parodist to the tragedians, yet he never attacks
Sophocles, and even where he lays hold of Aeschylus, on that side of his
character which certainly may excite a smile, his reverence for him is
still visible, and he takes every opportunity of contrasting his gigantic
grandeur with the petty refinements of Euripides. With infinite cleverness
and inexhaustible flow of wit, he has exposed the sophistical subtilty,
the rhetorical and philosophical pretensions, the immoral and seductive
effeminacy, and the excitations to undisguised sensuality of Euripides.
As, however, modern critics have generally looked upon Aristophanes as no
better than a writer of extravagant and libellous farces, and had no
notion of eliciting the serious truths which he veiled beneath his merry
disguises, it is no wonder if they have paid but little attention to his

But with all this we must never forget that Euripides was still a Greek,
and the contemporary of many of the greatest names of Greece in politics,
philosophy, history, and the fine arts. If, when compared with his
predecessors, he must rank far below them, he appears in his turn great
when placed by the side of many of the moderns. He has a particular
strength in portraying the aberrations of a soul diseased, misguided, and
franticly abandoned to its passions. He is admirable where the subject
calls chiefly for emotion, and makes no higher requisitions; and he is
still more so where pathos and moral beauty are united. Few of his pieces
are without passages of the most ravishing beauty. It is by no means my
intention to deny him the possession of the most astonishing talents; I
have only stated that these talents were not united with a mind in which
the austerity of moral principles, and the sanctity of religious feelings,
were held in the highest honour.


Comparison between the _Choephorae_ of Aeschylus, the _Electra_ of
Sophocles and that of Euripides.

The relation in which Euripides stood to his two great predecessors, may
be set in the clearest light by a comparison between their three pieces
which we fortunately still possess, on the same subject, namely, the
avenging murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes.

The scene of the _Choephorae of Aeschylus_ is laid in front of the
royal palace; the tomb of Agamemnon appears on the stage. Orestes appears
at the sepulchre, with his faithful Pylades, and opens the play (which is
unfortunately somewhat mutilated at the commencement,) with a prayer to
Mercury, and with an invocation to his father, in which he promises to
avenge him, and to whom he consecrates a lock of his hair. He sees a
female train in mourning weeds issuing from the palace, to bring a
libation to the grave; and, as he thinks he recognises his sister among
them, he steps aside with Pylades in order to observe them unperceived.
The chorus, which consists of captive Trojan virgins, in a speech,
accompanied with mournful gestures, reveals the occasion of their coming,
namely, a fearful dream of Clytemnestra; it adds its own dark forebodings
of an impending retribution of the bloody crime, and bewails its lot in
being obliged to serve unrighteous masters. Electra demands of the chorus
whether she shall fulfil the commission of her hostile mother, or pour out
their offerings in silence; and then, in compliance with their advice, she
also offers up a prayer to the subterranean Mercury and to the soul of her
father, in her own name and that of the absent Orestes, that he may appear
as the avenger. While pouring out the offering she joins the chorus in
lamentations for the departed hero. Presently, finding a lock of hair
resembling her own in colour, and seeing footsteps near the grave she
conjectures that her brother has been there, and when she is almost
frantic with joy at the thought, Orestes steps forward and discovers
himself. He completely overcomes her doubts by exhibiting a garment woven
by her own hand: they give themselves up to their joy; he addresses a
prayer to Jupiter, and makes known how Apollo, under the most dreadful
threats of persecution by his father's Furies, has called on him to
destroy the authors of his death in the same manner as they had destroyed
him, namely, by guile and cunning. Now follow odes of the chorus and
Electra; partly consisting of prayers to her father's shade and the
subterranean divinities, and partly recapitulating all the motives for the
deed, especially those derived from the death of Agamemnon. Orestes
inquires into the vision which induced Clytemnestra to offer the libation,
and is informed that she dreamt that she had given her breast to a dragon
in her son's cradle, and suckled it with her blood. He hereupon resolves
to become this dragon, and announces his intention of stealing into the
house, disguised as a stranger, and attacking both her and Aegisthus by
surprise. With this view he withdraws along with Pylades. The subject of
the next choral hymn is the boundless audacity of mankind in general, and
especially of women in the gratification of their unlawful passions, which
it confirms by terrible examples from mythic story, and descants upon the
avenging justice which is sure to overtake them at last. Orestes, in the
guise of a stranger, returns with Pylades, and desires admission into the
palace. Clytemnestra comes out, and being informed by him of the death of
Orestes, at which tidings Electra assumes a feigned grief, she invites him
to enter and partake of their hospitality. After a short prayer of the
chorus, the nurse comes and mourns for her foster-child; the chorus
inspires her with a hope that he yet lives, and advises her to contrive to
bring Aegisthus, for whom Clytemnestra has sent her, not with, but without
his body guard. As the critical moment draws near, the chorus proffers
prayers to Jupiter and Mercury for the success of the plot. Aegisthus
enters into conversation with the messenger: he can hardly allow himself
to believe the joyful news of the death of Orestes, and hastens into the
house for the purpose of ascertaining the truth, from whence, after a
short prayer of the chorus, we hear the cries of the murdered. A servant
rushes out, and to warn Clytemnestra gives the alarm at the door of the
women's apartment. She hears it, comes forward, and calls for an axe to
defend herself; but as Orestes instantaneously rushes on her with the
bloody sword, her courage fails her, and, most affectingly, she holds up
to him the breast at which she had suckled him. Hesitating in his purpose,
he asks the counsel of Pylades, who in a few lines exhorts him by the most
cogent reasons to persist; after a brief dialogue of accusation and
defence, he pursues her into the house to slay her beside the body of
Aegisthus. In a solemn ode the chorus exults in the consummated
retribution. The doors of the palace are thrown open, and disclose in the
chamber the two dead bodies laid side by side on one bed. Orestes orders
the servants to unfold the garment in whose capacious folds his father was
muffled when he was slain, that it may be seen by all; the chorus
recognise on it the stains of blood, and mourn afresh the murder of
Agamemnon. Orestes, feeling his mind already becoming confused, seizes the
first moment to justify his acts, and having declared his intention of
repairing to Delphi to purify himself from his blood-guiltiness, flies in
terror from the furies of his mother, whom the chorus does not perceive,
but conceives to be a mere phantom of his imagination, but who,
nevertheless, will no longer allow him any repose. The chorus concludes
with a reflection on the scene of murder thrice-repeated in the royal
palace since the repast of Thyestes.

The scene of the _Electra of Sophocles_ is also laid before the palace,
but does not contain the grave of Agamemnon. At break of day Pylades,
Orestes, and the guardian slave who had been his preserver on that bloody
day, enter the stage as just arriving from a foreign country. The keeper
who acts as his guide commences with a description of his native city, and
he is answered by Orestes, who recounts the commission given him by
Apollo, and the manner in which he intends to carry it into execution,
after which the young man puts up a prayer to his domestic gods and to the
house of his fathers. Electra is heard complaining within; Orestes is
desirous of greeting her without delay, but the old man leads him away to
offer a sacrifice at the grave of his father. Electra then appears, and
pours out her sorrow in a pathetic address to heaven, and in a prayer to
the infernal deities her unconquerable desire of revenge. The chorus,
which consists of native virgins, endeavours to console her; and,
interchanging hymn and speech with the chorus, Electra discloses her
unabatable sorrow, the contumely and oppression under which she suffers,
and her hopelessness occasioned by the many delays of Orestes,
notwithstanding her frequent exhortations; and she turns a deaf ear to all
the grounds of consolation which the chorus can suggest. Chrysothemis,
Clytemnestra's younger, more submissive, and favourite daughter,
approaches with an offering which she is to carry to the grave of her
father. Their difference of sentiment leads to an altercation between the
two sisters, during which Chrysothemis informs Electra that Aegisthus, now
absent in the country, has determined to adopt the most severe measures
with her, whom, however, she sets at defiance. She then learns from her
sister that Clytemnestra has had a dream that Agamemnon had come to life
again, and had planted his sceptre in the floor of the house, and it had
grown up into a tree that overshadowed the whole land; that, alarmed at
this vision, she had commissioned Chrysothemis to carry an oblation to his
grave. Electra counsels her not to execute the commands of her wicked
mother, but to put up a prayer for herself and her sister, and for the
return of Orestes as the avenger of his father; she then adds to the
oblation her own girdle and a lock of her hair. Chrysothemis goes off,
promising obedience to her wishes. The chorus augurs from the dream, that
retribution is at hand, and traces back the crimes committed in this house
to the primal sin of Pelops. Clytemnestra rebukes her daughter, with whom,
however, probably under the influence of the dream, she is milder than
usual; she defends her murder of Agamemnon, Electra condemns her for it,
but without violent altercation. Upon this Clytemnestra, standing at the
altar in front of the house, proffers a prayer to Apollo for health and
long life, and a secret one for the death of her son. The guardian of
Orestes arrives, and, in the character of a messenger from a Phocian
friend, announces the death of Orestes, and minutely enumerates all the
circumstances which attended his being killed in a chariot-race at the
Pythian games. Clytemnestra, although visited for a moment with a mother's
feelings, can scarce conceal her triumphant joy, and invites the messenger
to partake of the hospitality of her house. Electra, in touching speeches
and hymns, gives herself up to grief; the chorus in vain endeavours to
console her. Chrysothemis returns from the grave, full of joy in the
assurance that Orestes is near; for she has found his lock of hair, his
drink-offering and wreaths of flowers. This serves but to renew the
despair of Electra, who recounts to her sister the gloomy tidings which
have just arrived, and exhorts her, now that all other hope is at an end,
to join with her in the daring deed of putting Aegisthus to death: a
proposal which Chrysothemis, not possessing the necessary courage, rejects
as foolish, and after a violent altercation she re-enters the house. The
chorus bewails Electra, now left utterly desolate. Orestes returns with
Pylades and several servants bearing an urn with the pretended ashes of
the deceased youth. Electra begs it of them, and laments over it in the
most affecting language, which agitates Orestes to such a degree that he
can no longer conceal himself; after some preparation he discloses himself
to her, and confirms the announcement by producing the seal-ring of their
father. She gives vent in speech and song to her unbounded joy, till the
old attendant of Orestes comes out and reprimands them both for their want
of consideration. Electra with some difficulty recognizes in him the
faithful servant to whom she had entrusted the care of Orestes, and
expresses her gratitude to him. At the suggestion of the old man, Orestes
and Pylades accompany him with all speed into the house, in order to
surprise Clytemnestra while she is still alone. Electra offers up a prayer
to Apollo in their behalf; the choral ode announces the moment of
retribution. From within the house is heard the shrieks of the affrighted
Clytemnestra, her short prayer, her cry of agony under the death-blow.
Electra from without stimulates Orestes to complete the deed, and he comes
out with bloody hands. Warned however by the chorus of the approach of
Aegisthus, he hastily re-enters the house in order to take him by
surprise. Aegisthus inquires into the story of Orestes' death, and from
the ambiguous language of Electra is led to believe that his corpse is in
the palace. He commands all the gates to be thrown open, immediately, for
the purpose of convincing those of the people who yielded reluctant
obedience to his sovereignty, that they had no longer any hopes in
Orestes. The middle entrance opens, and discloses in the interior of the
palace a body lying on the bed, but closely covered over: Orestes stands
beside the body, and invites Aegisthus to uncover it; he suddenly beholds
the bloody corpse of Clytemnestra, and concludes himself lost and without
hope. He requests to be allowed to speak, but this is prevented by
Electra. Orestes constrains him to enter the house, that he may kill him
on the very spot where his own father had been murdered.

The scene of the _Electra of Euripides_ is not in Mycenae, in the
open country, but on the borders of Argolis, and before a solitary and
miserable cottage. The owner, an old peasant, comes out and in a prologue
tells the audience how matters stand in the royal house, with this
addition, however, to the incidents related in the two plays already
considered, that not content to treat Electra with ignominy, and to leave
her in a state of celibacy, they had forced her to marry beneath her rank,
and to accept of himself for a husband: the motives he assigns for this
proceeding are singular enough; he declares, however, that he has too much
respect for her to reduce her to the humiliation of becoming in reality
his wife.--They live therefore in virgin wedlock. Electra comes forth
before it is yet daybreak bearing upon her head, which is close shorn in
servile fashion, a pitcher to fetch water: her husband entreats her not to
trouble herself with such unaccustomed labours, but she will not be
withheld from the discharge of her household duties; and the two depart,
he to his work in the field and she upon her errand. Orestes now enters
with Pylades, and, in a speech to him, states that he has already
sacrificed at his father's grave, but that not daring to enter the city,
he wishes to find his sister, who, he is aware, is married and dwells
somewhere near on the frontiers, that he may learn from her the posture of
affairs. He sees Electra approach with the water-pitcher, and retires. She
breaks out into an ode bewailing her own fate and that of her father.
Hereupon the chorus, consisting of rustic virgins, makes its appearance,
and exhorts her to take a part in a festival of Juno, which she, however,
depressed in spirit, pointing to her tattered garments, declines. The
chorus offer to supply her with festal ornaments, but she still refuses.
She perceives Orestes and Pylades in their hiding-place, takes them for
robbers, and hastens to escape into the house; when Orestes steps forward
and prevents her, she imagines he intends to murder her; he removes her
fears, and gives her assurances that her brother is still alive. On this
he inquires into her situation, and the spectators are again treated with
a repetition of all the circumstances. Orestes still forbears to disclose
himself, and promising merely to carry any message from Electra to her
brother, testifies, as a stranger, his sympathy in her situation. The
chorus seizes this opportunity of gratifying its curiosity about the fatal
events of the city; and Electra, after describing her own misery, depicts
the wantonness and arrogance of her mother and Aegisthus, who, she says,
leaps in contempt upon Agamemnon's grave, and throws stones at it. The
peasant returns from his work, and thinks it rather indecorous in his wife
to be gossiping with young men, but when he hears that they have brought
news of Orestes, he invites them in a friendly manner into his house.
Orestes, on witnessing the behaviour of the worthy man, makes the
reflection that the most estimable people are frequently to be found in
low stations, and in lowly garb. Electra upbraids her husband for inviting
them, knowing as he must that they had nothing in the house to entertain
them with; he is of opinion that the strangers will be satisfied with what
he has, that a good housewife can always make the most of things, and that
they have at least enough for one day. She dispatches him to Orestes' old
keeper and preserver who lives hard by them, to bid him come and bring
something with him to entertain the strangers, and the peasant departs
muttering wise saws about riches and moderation. The chorus bursting out
into an ode on the expedition of the Greeks against Troy, describes at
great length the figures wrought on the shield which Achilles received
from Thetis, and concludes with expressing a wish that Clytemnestra may be
punished for her wickedness.

The old guardian, who with no small difficulty ascends the hill towards
the house, brings Electra a lamb, a cheese, and a skin of wine; he then
begins to weep, not failing of course to wipe his eyes with his tattered
garments. In reply to the questions of Electra he states, that at the
grave of Agamemnon he found traces of an oblation and a lock of hair; from
which circumstance he conjectured that Orestes had been there. We have
then an allusion to the means which Aeschylus had employed to bring about
the recognition, namely, the resemblance of the hair, the prints of feet,
as well as the homespun-robe, with a condemnation of them as insufficient
and absurd. The probability of this part of the drama of Aeschylus may,
perhaps, admit of being cleared up, at all events one is ready to overlook
it; but an express reference like this to another author's treatment of
the same subject, is the most annoying interruption and the most fatal to
genuine poetry that can possibly be conceived. The guests come out; the
old man attentively considers Orestes, recognizes him, and convinces
Electra that he is her brother by a scar on his eyebrow, which he received
from a fall (this is the superb invention, which he substitutes for that
of Aeschylus), Orestes and Electra embrace during a short choral ode, and
abandon themselves to their joy. In a long dialogue, Orestes, the old
slave, and Electra, form their plans. The old man informs them that
Aegisthus is at present in the country sacrificing to the Nymphs, and
Orestes resolves to steal there as a guest, and to fall on him by
surprise. Clytemnestra, from a dread of unpleasant remarks, has not
accompanied him; and Electra undertakes to entice her mother to them by a
false message of her being in child-bed. The brother and sister now join
in prayers to the gods and their father's shade, for a successful issue of
their designs. Electra declares that she will put an end to her existence
if they should miscarry, and, for that purpose, she will keep a sword in
readiness. The old tutor departs with Orestes to conduct him to Aegisthus,
and to repair afterwards to Clytemnestra. The chorus sings of the Golden
Ram, which Thyestes, by the assistance of the faithless wife of Atreus,
was enabled to carry off from him, and the repast furnished with the flesh
of his own children, with which he was punished in return; at the sight of
which the sun turned aside from his course; a circumstance, however, which
the chorus very sapiently adds, that it was very much inclined to call in
question. From a distance is heard a noise of tumult and groans; Electra
fears that her brother has been overcome, and is on the point of killing
herself. But at the moment a messenger arrives, who gives a long-winded
account of the death of Aegisthus, and interlards it with many a joke.
Amidst the rejoicings of the chorus, Electra fetches a wreath and crowns
her brother, who holds in his hands the head of Aegisthus by the hair.
This head she upbraids in a long speech with its follies and crimes, and
among other things says to it, it is never well to marry a woman with whom
one has previously lived in illicit intercourse; that it is an unseemly
thing when a woman obtains the mastery in a family, &c. Clytemnestra is
now seen approaching; Orestes begins to have scruples of conscience as to
his purpose of murdering a mother, and the authority of the oracle, but
yields to the persuasions of Electra, and agrees to do the deed within the
house. The queen arrives, drawn in a chariot sumptuously hung with
tapestry, and surrounded by Trojan slaves; Electra makes an offer to
assist her in alighting, which, however, is declined. Clytemnestra then
alleges the sacrifice of Iphigenia as a justification of her own conduct
towards Agamemnon, and calls even upon her daughter to state her reasons
in condemnation, that an opportunity may be given to the latter of
delivering a subtle, captious harangue, in which, among other things, she
reproaches her mother with having, during the absence of Agamemnon, sat
before her mirror, and studied her toilette too much. With all this
Clytemnestra is not provoked, even though her daughter does not hesitate
to declare her intention of putting her to death if ever it should be in
her power; she makes inquiries about her daughter's supposed confinement,
and enters the hut to prepare the necessary sacrifice of purification.
Electra accompanies her with a sarcastic speech. On this the chorus begins
an ode on retribution: the shrieks of the murdered woman are heard within
the house, and the brother and sister come out stained with her blood.
They are full of repentance and despair at the deed which they have
committed; increase their remorse by repeating the pitiable words and
gestures of their dying parent. Orestes determines on flight into foreign
lands, while Electra asks, "Who will now take me in marriage?" Castor and
Pollux, their uncles, appear in the air, abuse Apollo on account of his
oracle, command Orestes, in order to save himself from the Furies, to
submit to the sentence of the Areopagus, and conclude with predicting a
number of events which are yet to happen to him. They then enjoin a
marriage between Electra and Pylades; who are to take her first husband
with them to Phocis, and there richly to provide for him. After a further
outburst of sorrow, the brother and sister take leave of one another for
life, and the piece concludes.

We easily perceive that Aeschylus has viewed the subject in its most
terrible aspect, and drawn it within that domain of the gloomy divinities,
whose recesses he so loves to haunt. The grave of Agamemnon is the murky
gloom from which retributive vengeance issues; his discontented shade, the
soul of the whole poem. The obvious external defect, that the action
lingers too long at the same point, without any sensible progress,
appears, on reflection, a true internal perfection: it is the stillness of
expectation before a deep storm or an earthquake. It is true the prayers
are repeated, but their very accumulation heightens the impression of a
great unheard-of purpose, for which human powers and motives by themselves
are insufficient. In the murder of Clytemnestra, and her heart-rending
appeals, the poet, without disguising her guilt, has gone to the very
verge of what was allowable in awakening our sympathy with her sufferings.
The crime which is to be punished is kept in view from the very first by
the grave, and, at the conclusion, it is brought still nearer to our minds
by the unfolding the fatal garment: thus, Agamemnon non, after being fully
avenged, is, as it were, murdered again before the mental eye. The flight
of Orestes betrays no undignified weakness or repentance; it is merely the
inevitable tribute which he must pay to offended nature.

It is only necessary to notice in general terms the admirable management
of the subject by Sophocles. What a beautiful introduction has he made to
precede the queen's mission to the grave, with which Aeschylus begins at
once! With what polished ornament has he embellished it throughout, for
example, with the description of the games! With what nice judgment does
he husband the pathos of Electra; first, general lamentations, then hopes
derived from the dream, their annihilation by the news of Orestes' death,
the new hopes suggested by Chrysothemis only to be rejected, and lastly
her mourning over the urn. Electra's heroism is finely set off by the
contrast with her more submissive sister. The poet has given quite a new
turn to the subject by making Electra the chief object of interest. A
noble pair has the poet here given us; the sister endued with unshaken
constancy in true and noble sentiments, and the invincible heroism of
endurance; the brother prompt and vigorous in all the energy of youth. To
this he skilfully opposes circumspection and experience in the old man,
while the fact that Sophocles as well as Aeschylus has left Pylades
silent, is a proof how carefully ancient art disdained all unnecessary

But what more especially characterizes the tragedy of Sophocles, is the
heavenly serenity beside a subject so terrific, the fresh air of life and
youth which breathes through the whole. The bright divinity of Apollo, who
enjoined the deed, seems to shed his influence over it; even the break of
day, in the opening scene, is significant. The grave and the world of
shadows, are kept in the background: what in Aeschylus is effected by the
spirit of the murdered monarch, proceeds here from the heart of the still
living Electra, which is endowed with an equal capacity for
inextinguishable hatred or ardent love. The disposition to avoid
everything dark and ominous, is remarkable even in the very first speech
of Orestes, where he says he feels no concern at being thought dead, so
long as he knows himself to be alive, and in the full enjoyment of health
and strength. He is not beset with misgivings or stings of conscience
either before or after the deed, so that the determination is more
steadily maintained by Sophocles than in Aeschylus; and the appalling
scene with Aegisthus, and the reserving him for an ignominious death to
the very close of the piece, is more austere and solemn than anything in
the older drama. Clytemnestra's dreams furnish the most striking token of
the relation which the two poets bear to each other: both are equally
appropriate, significant, and ominous; that of Aeschylus is grander, but
appalling to the senses; that of Sophocles, in its very tearfulness,
majestically beautiful.

The piece of Euripides is a singular example of poetic, or rather unpoetic
obliquity; we should never have done were we to attempt to point out all
its absurdities and contradictions. Why, for instance, does Orestes
fruitlessly torment his sister by maintaining his incognito so long? The
poet too, makes it a light matter to throw aside whatever stands in his
way, as in the case of the peasant, of whom, after his departure to summon
the old keeper, we have no farther account. Partly for the sake of
appearing original, and partly from an idea that to make Orestes kill the
king and queen in the middle of their capital would be inconsistent with
probability, Euripides has involved himself in still greater
improbabilities. Whatever there is of the tragical in his drama is not his
own, but belongs either to the fable, to his predecessors, or to
tradition. In his hands, at least, it has ceased to be tragedy, but is
lowered into "a family picture," in the modern signification of the word.
The effect attempted to be produced by the poverty of Electra is pitiful
in the extreme; the poet has betrayed his secret in the complacent display
which she makes of her misery. All the preparations for the crowning act
are marked by levity, and a want of internal conviction: it is a
gratuitous torture of our feelings to make Aegisthus display a good-
natured hospitality, and Clytemnestra a maternal sympathy with her
daughter, merely to excite our compassion in their behalf; the deed is no
sooner executed, but its effect is obliterated by the most despicable
repentance, a repentance which arises from no moral feeling, but from a
merely animal revulsion. I shall say nothing of his abuse of the oracle of
Delphi. As it destroys the very basis of the whole drama, I cannot see why
Euripides should have written it, except to provide a fortunate marriage
for Electra, and to reward the peasant for his continency. I could wish
that the wedding of Pylades had been celebrated on the stage, and that a
good round sum of money had been paid to the peasant on the spot; then
everything would have ended to the satisfaction of the spectators as in an
ordinary comedy.

Not, however, to be unjust, I must admit that the _Electra_ is perhaps the
very worst of Euripides' pieces. Was it the rage for novelty which led him
here into such faults? He was truly to be pitied for having been preceded
in the treatment of this same subject by two such men as Sophocles and
Aeschylus. But what compelled him to measure his powers with theirs, and
to write an _Electra_ at all?


Character of the remaining Works of Euripides--The Satirical Drama--
Alexandrian Tragic Poets.

Of the plays of Euripides, which have come down to us in great number, we
can only give a very short and general account.

On the score of beautiful morality, there is none of them, perhaps, so
deserving of praise as the _Alcestis_. Her resolution to die, and the
farewell which she takes of her husband and children, are depicted with
the most overpowering pathos. The poet's forbearance, in not allowing the
heroine to speak on her return from the infernal world, lest he might draw
aside the mysterious veil which shrouds the condition of the dead, is
deserving of high praise. Admetus, it is true, and more especially his
father, sink too much in our esteem from their selfish love of life; and
Hercules appears, at first, blunt even to rudeness, afterwards more noble
and worthy of himself, and at last jovial, when, for the sake of the joke,
he introduces to Admetus his veiled wife as a new bride.

_Iphigenia in Aulis_ is a subject peculiarly suited to the tastes and
powers of Euripides; the object here is to excite a tender emotion for the
innocent and child-like simplicity of the heroine: but Iphigenia is still
very far from being an Antigone. Aristotle has already remarked that the
character is not well sustained throughout. "Iphigenia imploring," he
says, "has no resemblance to Iphigenia afterwards yielding herself up a
willing sacrifice."

_Ion_ is also one of his most delightful pieces, on account of the picture
of innocence and priestly sanctity in the boy whose name it bears. In the
course of the plot, it is true, there are not a few improbabilities,
makeshifts, and repetitions; and the catastrophe, produced by a falsehood,
in which both gods and men unite against Xuthus, can hardly be
satisfactory to our feelings.

As delineations of female passion, and of the aberrations of a mind
diseased, _Phaedra_ and _Medea_ have been justly praised. The play in
which the former is introduced dazzles us by the sublime and beautiful
heroism of _Hippolytus_; and it is also deserving of the highest
commendation on account of the observance of propriety and moral
strictness, in so critical a subject. This, however, is not so much the
merit of the poet himself as of the delicacy of his contemporaries; for
the _Hippolytus_ which we possess, according to the scholiast, is an
improvement upon an earlier one, in which there was much that was
offensive and reprehensible. [Footnote: The learned and acute Brunck,
without citing any authority, or the coincidence of fragments in
corroboration, says that Seneca in his _Hippolytus_, followed the plan of
the earlier play of Euripides, called the _Veiled Hippolytus_. How far
this is mere conjecture I cannot say, but at any rate I should be inclined
to doubt whether Euripides, even in the censured drama, admitted the scene
of the declaration of love, which Racine, however in his _Phaedra_. has
not hesitated to adopt from Seneca.]

The opening of the _Medea_ is admirable; her desperate situation is,
by the conversation between her nurse and the keeper of her children, and
her own wailings behind the scene, depicted with most touching effect. As
soon, however, as she makes her appearance, the poet takes care to cool
our emotion by the number of general and commonplace reflections which he
puts into her mouth. Lower does she sink in the scene with Aegeus, where,
meditating a terrible revenge on Jason, she first secures a place of
refuge, and seems almost on the point of bespeaking a new connection. This
is very unlike the daring criminal who has reduced the powers of nature to
minister to her ungovernable passions, and speeds from land to land like a
desolating meteor;--the Medea who, abandoned by all the world, was still
sufficient for herself. Nothing but a wish to humour Athenian antiquities
could have induced Euripides to adopt this cold interpolation of his
story. With this exception he has, in the most vivid colours, painted, in
one and the same person, the mighty enchantress, and the woman weak only
from the social position of her sex. As it is, we are keenly affected by
the struggles of maternal tenderness in the midst of her preparations for
the cruel deed. Moreover, she announces her deadly purpose much too soon
and too distinctly, instead of brooding awhile over the first confused,
dark suggestion of it. When she does put it in execution, her thirst of
revenge on Jason might, we should have thought, have been sufficiently
slaked by the horrible death of his young wife and her father; and the new
motive, namely, that Jason, as she pretends, would infallibly murder the
children, and therefore she must anticipate him, will by no means bear
examination. For she could as easily have saved the living children with
herself, as have carried off their dead bodies in the dragon-chariot.
Still this may, perhaps, be justified by the perturbation of mind into
which she was plunged by the crime she had perpetrated.

Perhaps it was such pictures of universal sorrow, of the fall of
flourishing families and states from the greatest glory to the lowest
misery, nay, to entire annihilation, as Euripides has sketched in the
_Troades_, that gained for him, from Aristotle, the title of _the
most tragic of poets_. The concluding scene, where the captive ladies,
allotted as slaves to different masters, leave Troy in flames behind them,
and proceed towards the ships, is truly grand. It is impossible, however,
for a piece to have less action, in the energetical sense of the word: it
is a series of situations and events, which have no other connexion than
that of a common origin in the capture of Troy, but in no respect have
they a common aim. The accumulation of helpless suffering, against which
the will and sentiment even are not allowed to revolt, at last wearies us,
and exhausts our compassion. The greater the struggle to avert a calamity,
the deeper the impression it makes when it bursts forth after all. But
when so little concern is shown, as is here the case with Astyanax, for
the speech of Talthybius prevents even the slightest attempt to save him,
the spectator soon acquiesces in the result. In this way Euripides
frequently fails. In the ceaseless demands which this play makes on our
compassion, the pathos is not duly economized and brought to a climax: for
instance, Andromache's lament over her living son is much more heart-
rending than that of Hecuba for her dead one. The effect of the latter is,
however, aided by the sight of the little corpse lying on Hector's shield.
Indeed, in the composition of this piece the poet has evidently reckoned
much on ocular effect: thus, for the sake of contrast with the captive
ladies, Helen appears splendidly dressed, Andromache is mounted on a car
laden with spoils; and I doubt not but that at the conclusion the entire
scene was in flames. The trial of Helen painfully interrupts the train of
our sympathies, by an idle altercation which ends in nothing; for in spite
of the accusations of Hecuba, Menelaus abides by the resolution which he
had previously formed. The defence of Helen is about as entertaining as
Isocrates' sophistical eulogium of her.

Euripides was not content with making Hecuba roll in the dust with covered
head, and whine a whole piece through; he has also introduced her in
another tragedy which bears her name, as the standing representative of
suffering and woe. The two actions of this piece, the sacrifice of
Polyxena, and the revenge on Polymestor, on account of the murder of
Polydorus, have nothing in common with each other but their connexion with
Hecuba. The first half possesses great beauties of that particular kind in
which Euripides is pre-eminently successful: pictures of tender youth,
female innocence, and noble resignation to an early and violent death. A
human sacrifice, that triumph of barbarian superstition, is represented as
executed, suffered, and looked upon, with that Hellenism of feeling which
so early effected the abolition of such sacrifices among the Greeks. But
the second half most revoltingly effaces these soft impressions. It is
made up of the revengeful artifices of Hecuba, the blind avarice of
Polymestor, and the paltry policy of Agamemnon, who, not daring himself to
call the Thracian king to account, nevertheless beguiles him into the
hands of the captive women. Neither is it very consistent that Hecuba,
advanced in years, bereft of strength, and overwhelmed with sorrow, should
nevertheless display so much presence of mind in the execution of revenge,
and such a command of tongue in her accusation and derision of Polymestor.

We have another example of two distinct and separate actions in the same
tragedy, the _Mad Hercules_. The first is the distress of his family
during his absence, and their deliverance by his return; the second, his
remorse at having in a sudden frenzy murdered his wife and children. The
one action follows, but by no means arises out of the other.

The _Phoenissae_ is rich in tragic incidents, in the common acceptation of
the word: the son of Creon, to save his native city, precipitates himself
from the walls; Eteocles and Polynices perish by each other's hands; over
their dead bodies Jocasta falls by her own hand; the Argives who hare made
war upon Thebes are destroyed in battle; Polynices remains uninterred; and
lastly, Oedipus and Antigone are driven into exile. After this enumeration
of the incidents, the Scholiast aptly notices the arbitrary manner in
which the poet has proceeded, "This drama," says he, "is beautiful in
theatrical effect, even because it is full of incidents totally foreign to
the proper action. Antigone looking down from the walls has nothing to do
with the action, and Polynices enters the town under the safe-conduct of a
truce, without any effect being thereby produced. After all the rest the
banished Oedipus and a wordy ode are tacked on, being equally to no
purpose." This is a severe criticism, but it is just.

Not more lenient is the Scholiast on _Orestes_: "This piece," he
says, "is one of those which produce a great effect on the stage, but with
respect to characters it is extremely bad; for, with the exception of
Pylades, all the rest are good for nothing." Moreover, "Its catastrophe is
more suitable to comedy than tragedy." This drama begins, indeed, in the
most agitating manner. Orestes, after the murder of his mother, is
represented lying on his bed, afflicted with anguish of soul and madness;
Electra sits at his feet, and she and the chorus remain in trembling
expectation of his awaking. Afterwards, however, everything takes a
perverse turn, and ends with the most violent strokes of stage effect.

The _Iphigenia in Tauris_, in which the fate of Orestes is still
further followed out, is less wild and extravagant, but in the
representation both of character or passion, it seldom rises above
mediocrity. The mutual recognition between brother and sister, after such
adventures and actions, as that Iphigenia, who had herself once trembled
before the bloody altar, was on the point of devoting her brother to a
similar fate, produces no more than a transient emotion. The flight of
Orestes and his sister is not highly calculated to excite our interest:
the artifice by which Iphigenia brings it about is readily credited by
Thoas, who does not attempt to make any opposition till both are safe, and
then he is appeased by one of the ordinary divine interpositions. This
device has been so used and abused by Euripides, that in nine out of his
eighteen tragedies, a divinity descends to unravel the complicated knot.

In _Andromache_ Orestes makes his appearance for the fourth time. The
Scholiast, in whose opinion we may, we think, generally recognize the
sentiments of the most important of ancient critics, declares this to be a
very second-rate play, in which single scenes alone are deserving of any
praise. Of those on which Racine has based his free imitations, this is
unquestionably the very worst, and therefore the French critics have an
easy game to play in their endeavours to depreciate the Grecian
predecessor, from whom Racine has in fact derived little more than the
first suggestion of his tragedy.

The _Bacchae_ represents the infectious and tumultuous enthusiasm of
the worship of Bacchus, with great sensuous power and vividness of
conception. The obstinate unbelief of Pentheus, his infatuation, and
terrible punishment by the hands of his own mother, form a bold picture.
The effect on the stage must have been extraordinary. Imagine, only, a
chorus with flying and dishevelled hair and dress, tambourines, cymbals,
&c., in their hands, like the Bacchants we see on bas-reliefs, bursting
impetuously into the orchestra, and executing their inspired dances amidst
tumultuous music,--a circumstance, altogether unusual, as the choral odes
were generally sung and danced at a solemn step, and with no other
accompaniment than a flute. Here the luxuriance of ornament, which
Euripides everywhere affects, was for once appropriate. When, therefore,
several of the modern critics assign to this piece a very low rank, they
seem to me not to know what they themselves would wish. In the composition
of this piece, I cannot help admiring a harmony and unity, which we seldom
meet with in Euripides, as well as abstinence from every foreign matter,
so that all the motives and effects flow from one source, and concur
towards a common end. After the _Hippolytus_, I should be inclined to
assign to this play the first place among all the extant works of

The _Heraclidae_ and the _Supplices_ are mere _occasional_ tragedies,
_i.e._, owing their existence to some temporary incident or excitement,
and they must have been indebted for their success to nothing else but
their flattery of the Athenians. They celebrate two ancient heroic deeds
of Athens, on which the panegyrists, amongst the rest Isocrates, who
always mixed up the fabulous with the historical, lay astonishing stress:
the protection they are said to have afforded to the children of Hercules,
the ancestors of the Lacedaemonian kings, from the persecution of
Eurystheus, and their going to war with Thebes on behalf of Adrastus, king
of Argos, and forcing the Thebans to give the rites of burial to the Seven
Chieftains and their host. The _Supplices_ was, as we know, represented
during the Peloponnesian war, after the conclusion of a treaty between the
Argives and the Lacedaemonians; and was intended to remind the Argives of
their ancient obligation to Athens, and to show how little they could hope
to prosper in the war against the Athenians. The _Heraclidae_ was
undoubtedly written with a similar view in respect to Lacedaemon. Of the
two pieces, however, which are both cast in the same mould, the Female
Suppliants, so called from the mothers of the fallen heroes, is by far the
richest in poetical merit; the _Heraclidae_ appears, as it were, but a
faint impression of the other. In the former piece, it is true, Theseus
appears at first in a somewhat unamiable light, upbraiding, as he does,
the unfortunate Adrastus with his errors at such great length, and perhaps
with so little justice, before he condescends to assist him; again the
disputation between Theseus and the Argive herald, as to the superiority
of a monarchical or a democratical constitution, ought in justice to be
banished from the stage to the rhetorical schools; while the moral
eulogium of Adrastus over the fallen heroes is, at least, very much out of
place. I am convinced that Euripides was here drawing the characters of
particular Athenian generals, who had fallen in some battle or other. But
even in this case the passage cannot be justified in a dramatic point of
view; however, without such an object, it would have been silly and
ridiculous in describing those heroes of the age of Hercules, (a Capaneus,
for instance, who set even heaven itself at defiance,) to have launched
out into the praise of their civic virtues. How apt Euripides was to
wander from his subject in allusions to perfectly extraneous matters, and
sometimes even to himself, we may see from a speech of Adrastus, who most
impertinently is made to say, "It is not fair that the poet, while he
delights others with his works, should himself suffer inconvenience."
However, the funeral lamentations and the swan-like song of Evadne are
affectingly beautiful, although she is so unexpectedly introduced into the
drama. Literally, indeed, may we say of her, that she jumps into the play,
for without even being mentioned before she suddenly appears first of all
on the rock, from which she throws herself on the burning pile of

The _Heraclidae_ is a very poor piece; its conclusion is singularly
bald. We hear nothing more of the self-sacrifice of Macaria, after it is
over: as the determination seems to have cost herself no struggle, it
makes as little impression upon others. The Athenian king, Demophon, does
not return again; neither does Iolaus, the companion of Hercules and
guardian of his children, whose youth is so wonderfully renewed. Hyllus,
the noble-minded Heraclide, never even makes his appearance; and nobody at
last remains but Alcmene, who keeps up a bitter altercation with
Eurystheus. Euripides seems to have taken a particular pleasure in drawing
such implacable and rancorous old women: twice has he exhibited Hecuba in
this light, pitting her against Helen and Polymestor. In general, we may
observe the constant recurrence of the same artifice and motives is a sure
symptom of mannerism. We have in the works of this poet three instances of
women offered in sacrifice, which are moving from their perfect
resignation: Iphigenia, Polyxena, and Macaria; the voluntary deaths of
Alceste and Evadne belong in some sort also to this class. Suppliants are
in like manner a favourite subject with him, because they oppress the
spectator with apprehension lest they should be torn by force from the
sanctuary of the altar. I have already noticed his lavish introduction of
deities towards the conclusion.

The merriest of all tragedies is _Helen_, a marvellous drama, full of
wonderful adventures and appearances, which are evidently better suited to
comedy. The invention on which it is founded is, that Helen remained
concealed in Egypt (so far went the assertion of the Aegyptian priests),
while Paris carried off an airy phantom in her likeness, for which the
Greeks and Trojans fought for ten long years. By this contrivance the
virtue of the heroine is saved, and Menelaus, (to make good the ridicule
of Aristophanes on the beggary of Euripides' heroes,) appears in rags as a
beggar, and in nowise dissatisfied with his condition. But this manner of
improving mythology bears a resemblance to the _Tales of the Thousand
and One Nights_.

Modern philologists have dedicated voluminous treatises, to prove the
spuriousness of _Rhesus_, the subject of which is taken from the
eleventh book of the Iliad. Their opinion is, that the piece contains such
a number of improbabilities and contradictions, that it is altogether
unworthy of Euripides. But this is by no means a legitimate conclusion. Do
not the faults which they censure unavoidably follow from the selection of
an intractable subject, so very inconvenient as a nightly enterprise? The
question respecting the genuineness of any work, turns not so much on its
merits or demerits, as rather on the resemblance of its style and
peculiarities to those of the pretended author. The few words of the
Scholiast amount to a very different opinion: "Some have considered this
drama to be spurious, and not the work of Euripides, because it bears many
traces of the style of Sophocles. But it is inscribed in the _Didascaliae_
as his, and its accuracy with respect to the phenomena of the starry
heaven betrays the hand of Euripides." I think I understand what is here
meant by the style of Sophocles, but it is rather in detached scenes, than
in the general plan, that I at all discern it. Hence, if the piece is to
be taken from Euripides, I should be disposed to attribute it to some
eclectic imitator, but one of the school of Sophocles rather than of that
of Euripides, and who lived only a little later than both. This I infer
from the familiarity of many of the scenes, for tragedy at this time
was fast sinking into the domestic tragedy, whereas, at a still later
period, the Alexandrian age, it fell into an opposite error of bombast.

The _Cyclops_ is a satiric drama. This is a mixed and lower species
of tragic poetry, as we have already in passing asserted. The want of some
relaxation for the mind, after the engrossing severity of tragedy, appears
to have given rise to the satiric drama, as indeed to the after-piece in
general. The satiric drama never possessed an independent existence; it
was thrown in by way of an appendage to several tragedies, and to judge
from that we know of it, was always considerably shorter than the others.
In external form it resembled Tragedy, and the materials were in like
manner mythological. The distinctive mark was a chorus consisting of
satyrs, who accompanied with lively songs, gestures, and movements, such
heroic adventures as were of a more cheerful hue, (many in the _Odyssey_
for instance; for here, also, as in many other respects, the germ is to be
found in Homer,) or, at least, could be made to wear such an appearance.
The proximate cause of this species of drama was derived from the
festivals of Bacchus, where satyr-masks was a common disguise. In
mythological stories with which Bacchus had no concern, these constant
attendants of his were, no doubt, in some sort arbitrarily introduced, but
still not without a degree of propriety. As nature, in her original
freedom, appeared to the fancy of the Greeks to teem everywhere with
wonderful productions, they could with propriety people with these
sylvan beings the wild landscapes, remote from polished cities, where the
scene was usually laid, and enliven them with their wild animal frolics.
The composition of demi-god with demi-beast formed an amusing contrast. We
have an example in the _Cyclops_ of the manner in which the poets
proceeded in such subjects. It is not unentertaining, though the subject-
matter is for the most part contained in the _Odyssey_; only the pranks of
Silenus and his band are occasionally a little coarse. We must confess
that, in our eyes, the great merit of this piece is its rarity, being the
only extant specimen of its class which we possess. In the satiric dramas
Aeschylus must, without doubt, have displayed more boldness and meaning in
his mirth; as, for instance, when he introduced Prometheus bringing down
fire from heaven to rude and stupid man; while Sophocles, to judge from
the few fragments we have, must have been more elegant and moral, as when
he introduced the goddesses contending for the prize of beauty, or
Nausicaa offering protection to the shipwrecked Ulysses. It is a striking
feature of the easy unconstrained character of life among the Greeks, of
its gladsome joyousness of disposition, which knew nothing of a starched
and stately dignity, but artist-like admired aptness and gracefulness,
even in the most insignificant trifles, that in this drama called
_Nausicaa_, or "_The Washerwomen_," in which, after Homer, the princess at
the end of the washing, amuses herself at a game of ball with her maids,
Sophocles himself played at ball, and by his grace in this exercise
acquired much applause. The great poet, the respected Athenian citizen,
the man who had already perhaps been a General, appeared publicly in
woman's clothes, and as, on account of the feebleness of his voice, he
could not play the leading part of Nausicaa, took perhaps the mute under
part of a maid, for the sake of giving to the representation of his piece
the slight ornament of bodily agility.

The history of ancient tragedy ends with Euripides, although there were a
number of still later tragedians; Agathon, for instance, whom Aristophanes
describes as fragrant with ointment and crowned with flowers, and in whose
mouth Plato, in his _Symposium_, puts a discourse in the taste of the
sophist Gorgias, full of the most exquisite ornaments and empty
tautological antitheses. He was the first to abandon mythology, as
furnishing the natural materials of tragedy, and occasionally wrote pieces
with purely fictitious names, (this is worthy of notice, as forming a
transition towards the new comedy,) one of which was called the
_Flower_, and was probably therefore neither seriously affecting nor
terrible, but in the style of the idyl, and pleasing.

The Alexandrian scholars, among their other lucubrations, attempted also
the composition of tragedies; but if we are to judge of them from the only
piece which has come down to us, the _Alexandra_ of Lycophron, which
consists of an endless monologue, full of prophecy, and overladen with
obscure mythology, these productions of a subtle dilettantism must have
been extremely inanimate and untheatrical, and every way devoid of
interest. The creative powers of the Greeks were, in this department, so
completely exhausted, that they were forced to content themselves with the
repetition of the works of their ancient masters.


The Old Comedy proved to be completely a contrast to Tragedy--Parody--
Ideality of Comedy the reverse of that of Tragedy--Mirthful Caprice--
Allegoric and Political Signification--The Chorus and its Parabases.

We now leave Tragic Poetry to occupy ourselves with an entirely opposite
species, the _Old_ Comedy. Striking as this diversity is, we shall,
however, commence with pointing out a certain symmetry in the contrast and
certain relations between them, which have a tendency to exhibit the
essential character of both in a clearer light. In forming a judgment of
the Old Comedy, we must banish every idea of what is called Comedy by the
moderns, and what went by the same name among the Greeks themselves at a
later period. These two species of Comedy differ from each other, not
only in accidental peculiarities, (such as the introduction in the old of
real names and characters,) but essentially and diametrically. We must
also guard against entertaining such a notion of the Old Comedy as would
lead us to regard it as the rude beginnings of the more finished and
cultivated comedy of a subsequent age [Footnote: This is the purport of
the section of Barthlemy in the _Anacharsis_ on the Old Comedy: one
of the poorest and most erroneous parts of his work. With the pitiful
presumption of ignorance, Voltaire pronounced a sweeping condemnation of
Aristophanes, (in other places, and in his _Philosophical Dictionary_
under Art. _Athe_), and the modern French critics have for the most
part followed his example. We may, however, find the foundation of all the
erroneous opinions of the moderns on this subject, and the same prosaical
mode of viewing it, in Plutarch's parallel between Aristophanes and
Menander.], an idea which many, from the unbridled licentiousness of the
old comic writers, have been led to entertain. On the contrary the former
is the genuine _poetic_ species; but the New Comedy, as I shall show
in due course, is its decline into prose and reality.

We shall form the best idea of the Old Comedy, by considering it as the
direct opposite of Tragedy. This was probably the meaning of the assertion
of Socrates, which is given by Plato towards the end of his _Symposium_.
He tells us that, after the other guests were dispersed or had fallen
asleep, Socrates was left awake with Aristophanes and Agathon, and that
while he drank with them out of a large cup, he forced them to confess,
however unwillingly, that it is the business of one and the same man to be
equally master of tragic and comic composition, and that the tragic poet
is, in virtue of his art, comic poet also. This was not only repugnant to
the general opinion, which wholly separated the two kinds of talent, but
also to all experience, inasmuch as no tragic poet had ever attempted to
shine in Comedy, nor conversely; his remark, therefore, can only have been
meant to apply to the inmost essence of the things. Thus at another time,
the Platonic Socrates says, on the subject of comic imitation: "All
opposites can be fully understood only by and through each other;
consequently we can only know what is serious by knowing also what is
laughable and ludicrous." If the divine Plato by working out that dialogue
had been pleased to communicate his own, or his master's thoughts,
respecting these two kinds of poetry, we should have been spared the
necessity of the following investigation.

One aspect of the relation of comic to tragic poetry may be comprehended
under the idea of _parody_. This parody, however, is one infinitely
more powerful than that of the mock heroic poem, as the subject parodied,
by means of scenic representation, acquired quite another kind of reality
and presence in the mind, from what the pope did, which relating the
transactions of a distant age, retired, as it were, with them into the
remote olden time. The comic parody was brought out when the thing
parodied was fresh in recollection, and as the representation took place
on the same stage where the spectators were accustomed to see its serious
original, this circumstance must have greatly contributed to heighten the
effect of it. Moreover, not merely single scenes, but the very form of
tragic composition was parodied, and doubtless the parody extended not
only to the poetry, but also to the music and dancing, to the acting
itself, and the scenic decoration. Nay, even where the drama trod in the
footsteps of the plastic arts, it was still the subject of comic parody,
as the ideal figures of deities were evidently transformed into
caricatures [Footnote: As an example of this, I may allude to the well-
known vase-figures, where Mercury and Jupiter, about to ascend by a ladder
into Alcmene's chamber, are represented as comic masks.]. Now the more
immediately the productions of all these arts fall within the observance
of the external senses, and, above, all the more the Greeks, in their
popular festivals, religious ceremonies, and solemn processions, were
accustomed to, and familiar with, the noble style which was the native
element of tragic representation, so much the more irresistibly ludicrous
must have been the effect of that general parody of the arts, which it was
the object of Comedy to exhibit.

But this idea does not exhaust the essential character of Comedy; for
parody always supposes a reference to the subject which is parodied, and a
necessary dependence on it. The Old Comedy, however, as a species of
poetry, is as independent and original as Tragedy itself; it stands on the
same elevation with it, that is, it extends just as far beyond the limits
of reality into the domains of free creative fancy.

Tragedy is the highest earnestness of poetry; Comedy altogether sportive.
Now earnestness, as I observed in the Introduction, consists in the
direction of the mental powers to an aim or purpose, and the limitation of
their activity to that object. Its opposite, therefore, consists in the
apparent want of aim, and freedom from all restraint in the exercise of
the mental powers; and it is therefore the more perfect, the more
unreservedly it goes to work, and the more lively the appearance there is
of purposeless fun and unrestrained caprice. Wit and raillery may be
employed in a sportive manner, but they are also both of them compatible
with the severest earnestness, as is proved by the example of the later
Roman satires and the ancient Iambic poetry of the Greeks, where these
means were employed for the expression of indignation and hatred.

The New Comedy, it is true, represents what is amusing in character, and
in the contrast of situations and combinations; and it is the more comic
the more it is distinguished by a want of aim: cross purposes, mistakes,
the vain efforts of ridiculous passion, and especially if all this ends at
last in nothing; but still, with all this mirth, the form of the
representation itself is serious, and regularly tied down to a certain
aim. In the Old Comedy the form was sportive, and a seeming aimlessness
reigned throughout; the whole poem was one big jest, which again contained
within itself a world of separate jests, of which each occupied its own
place, without appearing to trouble itself about the rest. In tragedy, if
I may be allowed to make my meaning plain by a comparison, the monarchical
constitution prevails, but a monarchy without despotism, such as it was in
the heroic times of the Greeks: everything yields a willing obedience to
the dignity of the heroic sceptre. Comedy, on the other hand, is the
democracy of poetry, and is more inclined even to the confusion of anarchy
than to any circumscription of the general liberty of its mental powers
and purposes, and even of its separate thoughts, sallies, and allusions.

Whatever is dignified, noble, and grand in human nature, admits only of a
serious and earnest representation; for whoever attempts to represent it,
feels himself, as it were, in the presence of a superior being, and is
consequently awed and restrained by it. The comic poet, therefore, must
divest his characters of all such qualities; he must place himself without
the sphere of them; nay, even deny altogether their existence, and form an
ideal of human nature the direct opposite of that of the tragedians,
namely, as the odious and base. But as the tragic ideal is not a
collective model of all possible virtues, so neither does this converse
ideality consist in an aggregation, nowhere to be found in real life, of
all moral enormities and marks of degeneracy, but rather in a dependence
on the animal part of human nature, in that want of freedom and
independence, that want of coherence, those inconsistencies of the inward
man, in which all folly and infatuation originate.

The earnest ideal consists of the unity and harmonious blending of the
sensual man with the mental, such as may be most clearly recognised in
Sculpture, where the perfection of form is merely a symbol of mental
perfection and the loftiest moral ideas, and where the body is wholly
pervaded by soul, and spiritualized even to a glorious transfiguration.
The merry or ludicrous ideal, on the other hand, consists in the perfect
harmony and unison of the higher part of our nature with the animal as the
ruling principle. Reason and understanding are represented as the
voluntary slaves of the senses. Hence we shall find that the very
principle of Comedy necessarily occasioned that which in Aristophanes has
given so much offence; namely, his frequent allusions to the base
necessities of the body, the wanton pictures of animal desire, which, in
spite of all the restraints imposed on it by morality and decency, is
always breaking loose before one can be aware of it. If we reflect a
moment, we shall find that even in the present day, on our own stage, the
infallible and inexhaustible source of the ludicrous is the same
ungovernable impulses of sensuality in collision with higher duties; or
cowardice, childish vanity, loquacity, gulosity, laziness, &c. Hence, in
the weakness of old age, amorousness is the more laughable, as it is plain
that it is not mere animal instinct, but that reason has only served to
extend the dominion of the senses beyond their proper limits. In
drunkenness, too, the real man places himself, in some degree, in the
condition of the comic ideal.

The fact that the Old Comedy introduced living characters on the stage, by
name and with all circumstantiality, must not mislead us to infer that
they actually did represent certain definite individuals. For such
historical characters in the Old Comedy have always an allegorical
signification, and represent a class; and as their features were
caricatures in the masks, so, in like manner, were their characters in the
representation. But still this constant allusion to a proximate reality,
which not only allowed the poet, in the character of the chorus, to
converse with the public in a general way, but also to point the finger at
certain individual spectators, was essential to this species of poetry. As
Tragedy delights in harmonious unity, Comedy flourishes in a chaotic
exuberance; it seeks out the most motley contrasts, and the unceasing play
of cross purposes. It works up, therefore, the most singular, unheard-of,
and even impossible incidents, with allusions to the well-known and
special circumstances of the immediate locality and time.

The comic poet, as well as the tragic, transports his characters into an
ideal element: not, however, into a world subjected to necessity, but one
where the caprice of inventive wit rules without check or restraint, and
where all the laws of reality are suspended. He is at liberty, therefore,
to invent an action as arbitrary and fantastic as possible; it may even be
unconnected and unreal, if only it be calculated to place a circle of
comic incidents and characters in the most glaring light. In this last
respect, the work should, nay, must, have a leading aim, or it will
otherwise be in want of _keeping_; and in this view also the comedies
of Aristophanes may be considered as perfectly systematical. But then, to
preserve the comic inspiration, this aim must be made a matter of
diversion, and be concealed beneath a medley of all sorts of out-of-the-
way matters. Comedy at its first commencement, namely, under the hands of
its Doric founder, Epicharmus, borrowed its materials chiefly from the
mythical world. Even in its maturity, to judge from the titles of many
lost plays of Aristophanes and his contemporaries, it does not seem to
have renounced this choice altogether, as at a later period, in the
interval between the old and new comedy, it returned, for particular
reasons, with a natural predilection to mythology. But as the contrast
between the matter and form is here in its proper place, and nothing can
be more thoroughly opposite to the ludicrous form of exhibition than the
most important and serious concerns of men, public life and the state
naturally became the peculiar subject-matter of the Old Comedy. It is,
therefore, altogether political; and private and family life, beyond which
the new never soars, was only introduced occasionally and indirectly, in
so far as it might have a reference to public life. The Chorus is
therefore essential to it, as being in some sort a representation of the
public: it must by no means be considered as a mere accidental property,
to be accounted for by the local origin of the Old Comedy; we may assign
its existence to a more substantial reason--its necessity for a complete
parody of the tragic form. It contributes also to the expression of that
festal gladness of which Comedy was the most unrestrained effusion, for in
all the national and religious festivals of the Greeks, choral songs,
accompanied by dancing, were performed. The comic chorus transforms itself
occasionally into such an expression of public joy, as, for instance, when
the women who celebrate the Thesmophoriae in the piece that bears that
name, in the midst of the most amusing drolleries, begin to chant their
melodious hymn, just as in a real festival, in honour of the presiding
gods. At these times we meet with such a display of sublime lyric poetry,
that the passages may be transplanted into tragedy without any change or
alteration whatever. There is, however, this deviation from the tragic
model, that there are frequently, in the same comedy, several choruses
which sometimes are present together, singing in response, or at other
times come on alternately and drop off, without the least general
reference to each other. The most remarkable peculiarity, however, of the
comic chorus is the _Parabasis_, an address to the spectators by the
chorus, in the name, and as the representative of the poet, but having no
connexion with the subject of the piece. Sometimes he enlarges on his own
merits, and ridicules the pretensions of his rivals; at other times,
availing himself of his right as an Athenian citizen, to speak on public
affairs in every assembly of the people, he brings forward serious or
ludicrous motions for the common good. The Parabasis must, strictly
speaking, be considered as incongruous with the essence of dramatic
representation; for in the drama the poet should always be behind his
dramatic personages, who again ought to speak and act as if they were
alone, and to take no perceptible notice of the spectators. Such
intermixtures, therefore, destroy all tragic impression, but to the comic
tone these intentional interruptions or intermezzos are welcome, even
though they be in themselves more serious than the subject of the
representation, because we are at such times unwilling to submit to the
constraint of a mental occupation which must perforce be kept up, for then
it would assume the appearance of a task or obligation. The Parabasis may
partly have owed its invention to the circumstance of the comic poets not
having such ample materials as the tragic, for filling up the intervals of
the action when the stage was empty, by sympathising and enthusiastic
odes. But it is, moreover, consistent with the essence of the Old Comedy,
where not merely the subject, but the whole manner of treating it was
sportive and jocular. The unlimited dominion of mirth and fun manifests
itself even in this, that the dramatic form itself is not seriously
adhered to, and that its laws are often suspended; just as in a droll
disguise the masquerader sometimes ventures to lay aside the mask. The
practice of throwing out allusions and hints to the pit is retained even
in the comedy of the present day, and is often found to be attended with
great success; although unconditionally reprobated by many critics. I
shall afterwards examine how far, and in what departments of comedy, these
allusions are admissible.

To sum up in a few words the aim and object of Tragedy and Comedy, we may
observe, that as Tragedy, by painful emotions, elevates us to the most
dignified views of humanity, being, in the words of Plato, "the imitation
of the most beautiful and most excellent life;" Comedy, on the other hand,
by its jocose and depreciatory view of all things, calls forth the most
petulant hilarity.


Aristophanes--His Character as an Artist--Description and Character of his
remaining Works--A Scene, translated from the _Acharnae,_ by way of

Of the Old Comedy but one writer has come down to us, and we cannot,
therefore, in forming an estimate of his merits, enforce it by a
comparison with other masters. Aristophanes had many predecessors,
_Magnes_, _Cratinus_, _Crates,_ and others; he was indeed one of the
latest of this school, for he outlived the Old Comedy. We have no
reason, however, to believe that we witness in him its decline, as we
do that of Tragedy in the case of the last tragedian; in all probability
the Old Comedy was still rising in perfection, and he himself one of its
most finished authors. It was very different with the Old Comedy and with
Tragedy; the latter died a natural, and the former a violent death.
Tragedy ceased to exist, because that species of poetry seemed to be
exhausted, because it was abandoned, and because no one was now able to
rise to the pitch of its elevation. Comedy was deprived by the hand of
power of that unrestrained freedom which was necessary to its existence.
Horace, in a few words, informs us of this catastrophe: "After these
(Thespis and Aeschylus) followed the Old Comedy, not without great merit;
but its freedom degenerated into licentiousness, and into a violence which
deserved to be checked by law. The law was enacted, and the Chorus sunk
into disgraceful silence as soon as it was deprived of the right to
injure." [Footnote:
Successit vetus his comedia, non sine mult
Laude, sed in vitium libertas excidit, et vim
Dignam lege regi: lex est accepta: chorusque
Turpiter obticuit, sublato jure nocendi.] Towards the end of the
Peloponnesian war, when a few individuals, in violation of the
constitution, had assumed the supreme authority in Athens, a law was
enacted, giving every person attacked by comic poets a remedy by law.
Moreover, the introduction of real persons on the stage, or the use of
such masks as bore a resemblance to their features, &c., was prohibited.
This gave rise to what is called the _Middle Comedy_. The form still
continued much the same; and the representation, if not perfectly
allegorical, was nevertheless a parody. But the essence was taken away,
and this species must have become insipid when it could no longer be
seasoned by the salt of personal ridicule. Its whole attraction consisted
in idealizing jocularly the reality that came nearest home to every one of
the spectators, that is, in representing it under the light of the most
preposterous perversity; and how was it possible now to lash even the
general mismanagement of the state-affairs, if no offence was to be given
to individuals? I cannot, therefore, agree with Horace in his opinion that
the abuse gave rise to the restriction. The Old Comedy flourished together
with Athenian liberty; and both were oppressed under the same
circumstances, and by the same persons. So far were the calumnies of
Aristophanes from having been the occasion of the death of Socrates, as,
without a knowledge of history, many persons have thought proper to assert
(for the _Clouds_ were composed a great number of years before), that
it was the very same revolutionary despotism that reduced to silence alike
the sportive censure of Aristophanes, and also punished with death the
graver animadversions of the incorruptible Socrates. Neither do we see
that the persecuting jokes of Aristophanes were in any way detrimental to
Euripides: the free people of Athens beheld alike with admiration the
tragedies of the one, and their parody by the other, represented on the
same stage; they allowed every variety of talent to flourish undisturbed
in the enjoyment of equal rights. Never did a sovereign, for such was the
Athenian people, listen more good-humouredly to the most unwelcome truths,
and even allow itself to be openly laughed at. And even if the abuses in
the public administration were not by these means corrected, still it was
a grand point that this unsparing exposure of them was tolerated. Besides,
Aristophanes always shows himself a zealous patriot; the powerful
demagogues whom he attacks are the same persons that the grave Thucydides
describes as so pernicious. In the midst of civil war, which destroyed for
ever the prosperity of Greece, he was ever counselling peace, and
everywhere recommended the simplicity and austerity of the ancient
manners. So much for the political import of the Old Comedy.

But Aristophanes, I hear it said, was an immoral buffoon. Yes, among other
things, he was that also; and we are by no means disposed to justify the
man who, with such great talents, could yet sink so very low, whether it
was to gratify his own coarse propensities, or from a supposed necessity
of winning the favour of the populace, that he might be able to tell them
bold and unpleasant truths. We know at least that he boasts of having been
much more sparing than his rivals in the use of obscene jests, to gain the
laughter of the mob, and of having, in this respect, carried his art to
perfection. Not to be unjust towards him, we must judge of all that
appears so repulsive to us, not by modern ideas, but by the opinions of
his own age and nation. On certain subjects the morals of the ancients
were very different from ours, and of a much freer character. This arose
from the very nature of their religion, which was a real worship of
Nature, and had sanctioned many public customs grossly injurious to
decency. Besides, from the very retired manner in which the women lived,
[Footnote: This brings us to the consideration of the question so much
agitated by antiquaries, whether the Grecian women were present at the
representation of plays in general, and more especially of comedies. With
respect to tragedy, I think the question must be answered in the
affirmative, since the story about the _Eumenides_ of Aeschylus could
not have been invented with any degree of propriety, had women never
visited the theatre. Moreover, there is a passage in Plato (_De Leg._,
lib. ii. p. 658, D.), in which he mentions the predilection educated women
evince for tragical composition. Lastly, Julius Pollux, among the
technical expressions belonging to the theatre, mentions the Greek word
for a _spectatress_. But in the case of the old comedy, I should be
inclined to think that they were not present. However, its indecency alone
does not appear to be a decisive proof. Even in the religious festivals
the eyes of the women must have been exposed to sights of gross indecency.
But in the numerous addresses of Aristophanes to the spectators, even
where he distinguishes them according to their respective ages and
otherwise, we never observe any mention of spectatresses, and the
poet would hardly have omitted the opportunity which this afforded him for
some witticism or joke. The only passage with which I am acquainted,
whence any conclusion may be drawn in favour of the presence of women, is
_Pax_, v. 963-967. But still it remains doubtful, and I recommend it
to the consideration of the critic.--AUTHOR.], while the men were almost
constantly together, the language of conversation contracted a certain
coarseness, as is always the case under similar circumstances. In modern
Europe, since the origin of chivalry, women have given the tone to social
life, and to the respectful homage which we yield to them, we owe the
prevalence of a nobler morality in conversation, in the fine arts, and in
poetry. Besides, the ancient comic writers, who took the world as they
found it, had before their eyes a very great degree of corruption of

The most honourable testimony in favour of Aristophanes is that of the
sage Plato, who in an epigram says, that the Graces chose his soul for
their abode, who was constantly reading him, and transmitted the _Clouds_,
(this very play, in which, with the meshes of the sophists, philosophy
itself, and even his master Socrates, was attacked), to Dionysius the
elder, with the remark, that from it he would be best able to understand
the state of things at Athens. He could hardly mean merely that the play
was a proof of the unbridled democratic freedom which prevailed in Athens;
but must have intended it as an acknowledgment of the poet's profound
knowledge of the world, and his insight into the whole machinery of the
civil constitution. Plato has also admirably characterised him in his
_Symposium_, where he puts into his mouth a speech on love, which
Aristophanes, far from every thing like high enthusiasm, considers merely
in a sensual view. His description of it is, however, equally bold and

We might apply to the pieces of Aristophanes the motto of a pleasant and
acute adventurer in Goethe: "Mad, but clever." In them we are best enabled
to conceive why the Dramatic Art in general was consecrated to Bacchus: it
is the intoxication of poetry, the Bacchanalia of fun. This faculty will
at times assert its rights as well as others; and hence several nations
have set apart certain festivals, such as Saturnalia, Carnivals, &c., in
which the people may give themselves altogether up to frolicsome follies,
that when once the fit is over, they may for the rest of the year remain
quiet, and apply themselves to serious business. The Old Comedy is a
general masquerade of the world, during which much passes that is not
authorised by the ordinary rules of propriety; but during which much also
that is diverting, witty, and even instructive, is manifested, which would
never be heard of without this momentary breaking up of the barricades of

However vulgar and even corrupt Aristophanes may have been in his own
personal propensities, and however offensive his jokes are to good manners
and good taste, we cannot deny to him, both in the general plan and
execution of his poems, the praise of carefulness, and the masterly skill
of a finished artist. His language is extremely polished, the purest
Atticism reigns in it throughout, and with the greatest dexterity he
adapts it to every tone, from the most familiar dialogue up to the high
elevation of the Dithyrambic ode. We cannot doubt that he would have been
eminently successful in grave poetry, when we see how at times with
capricious wantonness he lavishes it only to destroy at the next moment
the impression he has made. The elegant choice of the language becomes
only the more attractive from the contrast in which it is occasionally
displayed by him; for he not only indulges at times in the rudest
expressions of the people, the different dialects, and even in the broken
Greek of barbarians, but he extends the same arbitrary power which he
exercised over nature and human affairs, to language itself, and by
composition, allusion to names of persons, or imitation of particular
sounds, coins the strangest words imaginable. The structure of his
versification is not less artificial than that of the tragedians; he uses
the same forms, but differently modified: his object is ease and variety,
instead of gravity and dignity; but amidst all this apparent irregularity,
he still adheres with great accuracy to the laws of metrical composition.
As Aristophanes, in the exercise of his separate but infinitely varied and
versatile art, appears to me to have displayed the richest development of
almost every poetical talent, so also whenever I read his works I am no
less astonished at the extraordinary capacity of his hearers, which the
very nature of them presupposes. We might, indeed, expect from the
citizens of a popular government an intimate acquaintance with the history
and constitution of their country, with public events and transactions,
with the personal circumstance of all their contemporaries of any note or
consequence. But besides all this, Aristophanes required of his auditory a
cultivated poetical taste; to understand his parodies, they must have
almost every word of the tragical master-pieces by heart. And what
quickness of perception was requisite to catch, in passing the lightest
and most covert irony, the most unexpected sallies and strangest
allusions, which are frequently denoted by the mere twisting of a
syllable! We may boldly affirm, that notwithstanding all the explanations
which have come down to us--notwithstanding the accumulation of learning
which has been spent upon it, one-half of the wit of Aristophanes is
altogether lost to the moderns. Nothing but the incredible acuteness and
vivacity of the Athenian intellect could make it conceivable that these
comedies which, with all their farcical drolleries, do, nevertheless, all
the while bear upon the most grave interests of human life, could ever
have formed a source of popular amusement. We may envy the poet who could
reckon on so clever and accomplished a public; but this was in truth a
very dangerous advantage. Spectators whose understandings were so quick,
would not be easily pleased. Thus Aristophanes complains of the too
fastidious taste of the Athenians, with whom the most admired of his
predecessors were immediately out of favour as soon as the slightest trace
of a falling off in their mental powers was perceivable. On the other
hand, he allows that the other Greeks could not bear the slightest
comparison with them in a knowledge of the Dramatic Art. Even genius in
this department strove to excel at Athens, and here, too, the competition
was confined within the narrow period of a few festivals, during which the
people always expected to see something new, of which there was always a
plentiful supply. The prizes (on which all depended, there being no other
means of gaining publicity) were distributed after a single
representation. We may easily imagine, therefore, the state of perfection
to which this would be carried under the directing care of the poet. If we
also take into consideration the high state of the co-operating arts, the
utmost distinctness of delivery (both in speaking and singing,) of the
most finished poetry, as well as the magnificence and vast size of the
theatre, we shall then have some idea of a theatrical treat, the like of
which has never since been offered to the world.

Although, among the remaining works of Aristophanes, we have several of
his earliest pieces, they all bear the stamp of equal maturity. He had, in
fact, been long labouring in silence to perfect himself in the exercise of
an art which he conceived to be of all others the most difficult; nay,
from diffidence in his own power, (or, to use his own words, like a young
girl who consigns to the care of others the child of her secret love,) he
even brought out his earliest pieces under others' names. He appeared for
the first time without this disguise with the _Knights_, and here he
displayed the undaunted resolution of a comedian, by an open assault on
popular opinion. His object was nothing less than the overthrow of Cleon,
who, after the death of Pericles, was at the head of all state affairs, a
promoter of war, and a worthless man of very ordinary abilities, but at
the same time the idol of an infatuated people. The only opponents of
Cleon were the rich proprietors, who constituted the class of horsemen or
knights: these Aristophanes in the strongest manner made of his party, by
forming the chorus of them. He had the prudence never to name Cleon,
though he portrayed him in such a way that it was impossible to mistake
him. Yet such was the dread entertained of Cleon and his faction, that no
mask-maker would venture to execute his likeness: the poet, therefore,
resolved to act the part himself, merely painting his face. We may easily
imagine the storms and tumults which this representation must have excited
among the assembled crowd; however, the bold and well-concerted efforts of
the poet were crowned with success: his piece gained the prize. He was
proud of this feat of theatrical heroism, and often alludes with a feeling
of satisfaction to the Herculean valour with which he first combated the
mighty monster. No one of his plays, perhaps, is more historical and
political; and its rhetorical power in exciting our indignation is almost
irresistible: it is a true dramatic Philippic. However, in point of
amusement and invention, it does not appear to me the most fortunate. The
thought of the serious danger which he was incurring may possibly have
disposed him to a more serious tone than was suitable to comedy, or stung,
perhaps, by the persecution he had already suffered from Cleon, he may,
perhaps, have vented his rage in too Archilochean a style. When the storm
of cutting invective has somewhat spent itself, we have then several droll
scenes, such us that where the two demagogues, the leather-dealer (that
is, Cleon) and the sausage-seller, vie with each other by adulation, by
oracle-quoting, and by dainty tit-bits, to gain the favour of Demos, a
personification of the people, who has become childish through age, a
scene humorous in the highest degree; and the piece ends with a triumphal
rejoicing, which may almost be said to be affecting, when the scene
changes from the Pnyx, the place where the people assembled, to the
majestic Propylaea, when Demos, who has been wonderfully restored to a
second youth, comes forward in the garb of an ancient Athenian, and shows
that with his youthful vigour, he has also recovered the olden sentiments
of the days of Marathon.

With the exception of this attack on Cleon, and with the exception also of
the attacks on Euripides, whom he seems to have pursued with the most
unrelenting perseverance, the other pieces of Aristophanes are not so
exclusively pointed against individuals. They have always a general, and
for the most part a very important aim, which the poet, with all his
turnings, digressions, and odd medleys, never loses sight of. The
_Peace_, the _Acharnae_, and the _Lysistrata_, with many turns, still all
recommend peace; and one object of the _Ecclesiazusae_, or _Women in
Parliament,_, of the _Thesmophoriazusae, or Women keeping the Festival of
the Thesmophoriae_, and of _Lysistrata_, is to throw ridicule on the
relations and the manners of the female sex. In the _Clouds_ he laughs at
the metaphysics of the Sophists, in the _Wasps_ at the mania of the
Athenians for hearing and determining law-suits; the subject of the
_Frogs_ is the decline of the tragic art, and _Plutus_ is an allegory on
the unjust distribution of wealth. The _Birds_ are, of all his pieces, the
one of which the aim is the least apparent, and it is on that very account
one of the most diverting.

_Peace_ begins in the most spirited and lively manner; the peace-
loving Trygaeus rides on a dung-beetle to heaven in the manner of
Bellerophon; War, a desolating giant, with his comrade Riot, alone, in
place of all the other gods, inhabits Olympus, and there pounds the cities
of men in a great mortar, making use of the most celebrated generals for
pestles. The Goddess Peace lies buried in a deep well, out of which she is
hauled up by ropes, through the united exertions of all the states of
Greece: all these ingenious and fanciful inventions are calculated to
produce the most ludicrous effect. Afterwards, however, the play is not
sustained at an equal elevation; nothing remains but to sacrifice, and to
carouse in honour of the recovered Goddess of Peace, when the importunate
visits of such persons as found their advantage in war form, indeed, an
entertainment pleasant enough, but by no means correspondent to the
expectations which the commencement gives rise to. We have, in this piece,
an additional example to prove that the ancient comic writers not only
changed the decoration during the intervals, when the stage was empty, but
also while an actor was in sight. The scene changes from Attica to
Olympus, while Trygaeus is suspended in the air on his beetle, and calls
anxiously to the director of the machinery to take care that he does not
break his neck. His descent into the orchestra afterwards denotes his
return to the earth. It was possible to overlook the liberties taken by
the tragedians, according as their subject might require it, with the
Unities of Place and Time, on which such ridiculous stress has been laid
by many of the moderns, but the bold manner in which the old comic writer
subjects these mere externalities to his sportive caprice is so striking,
that it must enforce itself on the most short-sighted observers: and yet
in all the treatises on the constitution of the Greek stage, due respect
has never yet been paid to it.

The _Acharnians_, an earlier piece, [Footnote: The Didascaliae place
it in the year before the _Knights_. It is therefore, the earliest of
the extant pieces of Aristophanes, and the only one of those which he
brought out under a borrowed name, that has come down to us.] appears to
me to possess a much higher excellence than _Peace_, on account of
the continual progress of the story, and the increasing drollery, which at
last ends in a downright Bacchanalian uproar. Dikaiopolis, the honest
citizen, enraged at the base artifices by which the people are deluded,
and by which they are induced to reject all proposals for peace, sends an
embassy to Lacedaemon, and concludes a separate treaty for himself and his
family. He then retires to the country, and, in spite of all assaults,
encloses a piece of ground before his house, within which there is a
peaceful market for the people of the neighbouring states, while the rest
of the country is suffering from the calamities of war. The blessings of
peace are represented most temptingly to hungry stomachs: the fat Boeotian
brings his delicious eels and poultry for sale, and nothing is thought of
but feasting and carousing. Lamachus, the celebrated general, who lives on
the other side, is, in consequence of a sudden inroad of the enemy, called
away to defend the frontiers; Dikaiopolis, on the other hand, is invited
by his neighbours to a feast, where every one brings his own scot.
Preparations military and preparations culinary are now carried on with
equal industry and alacrity; here they seize the lance, there the spit;
here the armour rings, there the wine-flagon; there they are feathering
helmets, here they are plucking thrushes. Shortly afterwards Lamachus
returns, supported by two of his comrades, with a broken head and a lame
foot, and from the other side Dikaiopolis is brought in drunk, and led by
two good-natured damsels. The lamentations of the one are perpetually
mimicked and ridiculed in the rejoicings of the other; and with this
contrast, which is carried to the very utmost limit, the play ends.

_Lysistrata_ is in such bad repute, that we must mention it lightly
and rapidly, just as we would tread over hot embers. According to the
story of the poet, the women have taken it into their heads to compel
their husbands, by a severe resolution, to make peace. Under the direction
of a clever leader they organize a conspiracy for this purpose throughout
all Greece, and at the same time gain possession in Athens of the
fortified Acropolis. The terrible plight the men are reduced to by this
separation gives rise to the most laughable scenes; plenipotentiaries
appear from the two hostile powers, and peace is speedily concluded under
the management of the sage Lysistrata. Notwithstanding the mad indecencies
which are contained in the piece, its purpose, when stript of these, is
upon the whole very innocent: the longing for the enjoyment of domestic
joys, so often interrupted by the absence of the husbands, is to be the
means of putting an end to the calamitous war by which Greece had so long
been torn in pieces. In particular, the honest bluntness of the
Lacedaemonians is inimitably portrayed.

The _Ecclesiazusae_ is in like manner a picture of woman's ascendency, but
one much more depraved than the former. In the dress of men the women
steal into the public assembly, and by means of the majority of voices
which they have thus surreptitiously obtained, they decree a new
constitution, in which there is to be a community of goods and of women.
This is a satire on the ideal republics of the philosophers, with similar
laws; Protagoras had projected such before Plato. The comedy appears to me
to labour under the very same fault as the _Peace_: the introduction,
the secret assembly of the women, their rehearsal of their parts as men,
the description of the popular assembly, are all handled in the most
masterly manner; but towards the middle the action stands still. Nothing
remains but the representation of the perplexities and confusion which
arise from the different communities, especially the community of women,
and from the prescribed equality of rights in love both for the old and
ugly, and for the young and beautiful. These perplexities are pleasant
enough, but they turn too much on a repetition of the same joke. Generally
speaking, the old allegorical comedy is in its progress exposed to the
danger of sinking. When we begin with turning the world upside down, the
most wonderful incidents follow one another as a matter of course, but
they are apt to appear petty and insignificant when compared with the
decisive strokes of fun in the commencement.

The _Thesmophoriazusae_ has a proper intrigue, a knot which is not
loosed till the conclusion, and in this possesses therefore a great
advantage. Euripides, on account of the well-known hatred of women
displayed in his tragedies, is accused and condemned at the festival of
the Thesmophoriae, at which women only were admitted. After a fruitless
attempt to induce the effeminate poet Agathon to undertake the hazardous
experiment, Euripides prevails on his brother-in-law, Mnesilochus, who was
somewhat advanced in years, to disguise himself as a woman, that under
this assumed appearance he may plead his cause. The manner in which he
does this gives rise to suspicions, and he is discovered to be a man; he
flies to the altar for refuge, and to secure himself still more from the
impending danger, he snatches a child from the arms of one of the women,
and threatens to kill it if they do not let him alone. As he attempts to
strangle it, it turns out to be a leather wine-flask wrapped up like a
child. Euripides now appears in a number of different shapes to save his
friend: at one time he is Menelaus, who finds Helen again in Egypt; at
another time he is Echo, helping the chained Andromeda to pour out her
lamentations, and immediately after he appears as Perseus, about to
release her from the rock. At length he succeeds in rescuing Mnesilochus,
who is fastened to a sort of pillory, by assuming the character of a
procuress, and enticing away the officer of justice who has charge of him,
a simple barbarian, by the charms of a female flute-player. These parodied
scenes, composed almost entirely in the very words of the tragedies, are
inimitable. Whenever Euripides is introduced, we may always, generally
speaking, lay our account with having the most ingenious and apposite
ridicule; it seems as if the mind of Aristophanes possessed a peculiar and
specific power of giving a comic turn to the poetry of this tragedian.

The _Clouds_ is well known, but yet, for the most part, has not been
duly understood or appreciated. Its object is to show that the fondness
for philosophical subtleties had led to a neglect of warlike exercises,
that speculation only served to shake the foundations of religion and
morals, and that by the arts of sophistry, every duty was rendered
doubtful, and the worse cause frequently came off victorious. The Clouds
themselves, as the chorus of the piece (for the poet converts these
substances into persons, and dresses them out strangely enough), are an
allegory on the metaphysical speculations which do not rest on the ground
of experience, but float about without any definite shape or body, in the
region of possibilities. We may observe in general that it is one of the
peculiarities of the wit of Aristophanes to take a metaphor literally, and
to exhibit it in this light before the eyes of the spectators. Of a man
addicted to unintelligible reveries, it is a common way of speaking to say
that he is up in the clouds, and accordingly Socrates makes his first
appearance actually descending from the air in a basket. Whether this
applies exactly to him is another question; but we have reason to believe
that the philosophy of Socrates was very ideal, and that it was by no
means so limited to popular and practical matters as Xenophon would have
us believe. But why has Aristophanes personified the sophistical
metaphysics by the venerable Socrates, who was himself a determined
opponent of the Sophists? There was probably some personal grudge at the
bottom of this, and we do not attempt to justify it; but the choice of the
name by no means diminishes the merit of the picture itself. Aristophanes
declares this play to be the most elaborate of all his works: but in such
expressions we are not always to take him exactly at his word. On all
occasions, and without the least hesitation, he lavishes upon himself the
most extravagant praises; and this must be considered a feature of the
licence of comedy. However, the _Clouds_ was unfavourably received,
and twice unsuccessfully competed for the prize.

The _Frogs_, as we have already said, has for its subject the decline
of Tragic Art. Euripides was dead, as well as Sophocles and Agathon, and
none but poets of the second rank were now remaining. Bacchus misses
Euripides, and determines to bring him back from the infernal world. In
this he imitates Hercules, but although furnished with that hero's lion-
skin and club, in sentiments he is very unlike him, and as a dastardly
voluptuary affords us much matter for laughter. Here we have a
characteristic specimen of the audacity of Aristophanes: he does not even
spare the patron of his own art, in whose honour this very play was
exhibited. It was thought that the gods understood a joke as well, if not
better, than men. Bacchus rows himself over the Acherusian lake, where the
frogs merrily greet him with their melodious croakings. The proper chorus,
however, consists of the shades of those initiated in the Eleusinian
mysteries, and odes of surpassing beauty are put in their mouths.
Aeschylus had hitherto occupied the tragic throne in the world below, but
Euripides wants to eject him. Pluto presides, but appoints Bacchus to
determine this great controversy; the two poets, the sublimely wrathful
Aeschylus, and the subtle and conceited Euripides, stand opposite each
other and deliver specimens of their poetical powers; they sing, they
declaim against each other, and in all their peculiar traits are
characterised in masterly style. At last a balance is brought, on which
each lays a verse; but notwithstanding all the efforts of Euripides to
produce ponderous lines, those of Aeschylus always make the scale of his
rival to kick the beam. At last the latter becomes impatient of the
contest, and proposes that Euripides himself, with all his works, his
wife, children, Cephisophon and all, shall get into one scale, and he will
only lay against them in the other two verses. Bacchus in the mean time
has become a convert to the merits of Aeschylus, and although he had sworn
to Euripides that he would take him back with him from the lower world, he
dismisses him with a parody of one of his own verses in _Hippolytus_:

My tongue hath sworn, I however make choice of Aeschylus.

Aeschylus consequently returns to the living world, and resigns the tragic
throne in his absence to Sophocles.

The observation on the changes of place, which I made when mentioning
_Peace_, may be here repeated. The scene is first at Thebes, of which
both Bacchus and Hercules were natives; afterwards the stage is changed,
without its ever being left by Bacchus, to the nether shore of the
Acherusian lake, which must have been represented by the sunken space of
the orchestra, and it was not till Bacchus landed at the other end of the
logeum that the scenery represented the infernal world, with the palace of
Pluto in the back-ground. This is not a mere conjecture, it is expressly
stated by the old scholiast.

The _Wasps_ is, in my opinion, the feeblest of Aristophanes' plays.
The subject is too limited, the folly it ridicules appears a disease of
too singular a description, without a sufficient universality of
application, and the action is too much drawn out. The poet himself speaks
this time in very modest language of his means of entertainment, and does
not even promise us immoderate laughter.

On the other hand, the _Birds_ transports us by one of the boldest
and richest inventions into the kingdom of the fantastically wonderful,
and delights us with a display of the gayest hilarity: it is a joyous-
winged and gay-plumed creation. I cannot concur with the old critic in
thinking that we have in this work a universal and undisguised satire on
the corruptions of the Athenian state, and of all human society. It seems
rather a harmless display of merry pranks, which hit alike at gods and men
without any particular object in view. Whatever was remarkable about birds
in natural history, in mythology, in the doctrine of divination, in the
fables of Aesop, or even in proverbial expressions, has been ingeniously
drawn to his purpose by the poet; who even goes back to cosmogony, and
shows that at first the raven-winged Night laid a wind-egg, out of which
the lovely Eros, with golden pinions (without doubt a bird), soared aloft,
and thereupon gave birth to all things. Two fugitives of the human race
fall into the domain of the birds, who resolve to revenge themselves on
them for the numerous cruelties which they have suffered: the two men
contrive to save themselves by proving the pre-eminency of the birds over
all other creatures, and they advise them to collect all their scattered
powers into one immense state; the wondrous city, Cloud-cuckootown, is
then built above the earth; all sorts of unbidden guests, priests, poets,
soothsayers, geometers, lawyers, sycophants, wish to nestle in the new
state, but are driven out; new gods are appointed, naturally enough, after
the image of the birds, as those of men bore a resemblance to man. Olympus
is walled up against the old gods, so that no odour of sacrifices can
reach them; in their emergency, they send an embassy, consisting of the
voracious Hercules, Neptune, who swears according to the common formula,
by Neptune, and a Thracian god, who is not very familiar with Greek, but
speaks a sort of mixed jargon; they are, however, under the necessity of
submitting to any conditions they can get, and the sovereignty of the
world is left to the birds. However much all this resembles a mere
farcical fairy tale, it may be said, however, to have a philosophical
signification, in thus taking a sort of bird's-eye view of all things,
seeing that most of our ideas are only true in a human point of view.

The old critics were of opinion that Cratinus was powerful in that biting
satire which makes its attack without disguise, but that he was deficient
in a pleasant humour, also that he wanted the skill to develope a striking
subject to the best advantage, and to fill up his pieces with the
necessary details. Eupolis they tell us was agreeable in his jokes, and
ingenious in covert allusions, so that he never needed the assistance of
parabases to say whatever he wished, but that he was deficient in satiric
power. But Aristophanes, they add, by a happy medium, united the
excellencies of both, and that in him we have satire and pleasantry
combined in due proportion and attractive manner. From these statements I
conceive myself justified in assuming that among the pieces of
Aristophanes, the _Knights_ is the most in the style of Cratinus, and
the _Birds_ in that of Eupolis; and that he had their respective
manners in view when he composed these pieces. For although he boasts of
his independent originality, and of his never borrowing anything from
others, it was hardly possible that among such distinguished contemporary
artists, all reciprocal influence should be excluded. If this opinion be
well founded, we have to lament the loss of the works of Cratinus, perhaps

Book of the day: