Aeschylus (Copleston)/Chapter 7
THE STORY OF ORESTES.
From the story of Thebes we pass now to Pelops' line, to contemplate there again the terrible course of divine displeasure once provoked against a family. Atreus, the son of Pelops, being wronged by his brother Thyestes, revenged himself by an act of treachery and impiety. He invited Thyestes to a banquet, in which the flesh of his own children was set before the unconscious father. The sun turned back in his course to avoid a sight so horrible, and from this time calamity never departed from that house, till an expiator was found in the person of Orestes. Agamemnon, who led the Greeks to Troy to revenge the injury of his brother Menelaus, was son of this impious Atreus. While he was waging war for ten years in Asia, his wife, Clytemnestra, was unfaithful to him, and admitted into his palace one Ægisthus, the son of the outraged Thyestes, who was destined bitterly to avenge his father's wrong upon the house of Atreus. The guilty pair determined to murder Agamemnon on his return, for both were afraid to face him; and Clytemnestra had, besides, this charge against him, that he had sacrificed her daughter Iphigenia to appease the goddess Artemis, whose wrath had kept the whole Grecian fleet becalmed at Aulis. Moreover, Agamemnon too was found unfaithful, for he brought with him Cassandra, the inspired daughter of Priam, to be his concubine. And so Agamemnon died, and Clytemnestra and Ægisthus reigned in Argos; but Orestes, son of Agamemnon, when he became a man, was charged by Apollo to avenge the murder of his father. And he obeyed, and killed both Ægisthus and his mother. Then the dark deities who pursue impious murderers drove the matricide in misery from land to land, until at last his cause was tried, and Apollo pleaded for him before the high court of Areopagus at Athens, and Minerva, the patron goddess of the city, gave the casting-vote that set him free. And so at last the curse was put away, and the Furies, who had been cruel powers, became beneficent, and a temple was assigned to them in Athens, and they were called the Kind Ones.
Such are the outlines of the story. In the "Agamemnon" is represented the death of the king; in the "Choephori," the vengeance of Orestes; in the "Eumenides," his trial and deliverance; the three plays thus forming one connected whole, or Trilogy. Since this Trilogy is universally regarded as one of the greatest works of human art, while some perhaps would admit no rival to it, we must try at the outset to show in what direction the features of its greatness are to be looked for. Perhaps we do not sufficiently remember how real a person Agamemnon was to the Athenian audience. In Homer's verses, which were constantly in their mouths, he lived and moved as a familiar figure; they never doubted that he was all that Homer made him, chosen captain of the whole Grecian hosts, the first man in Greece (and Greece was the world), "the king of men." And here we are to see him in the hour of his triumph, the representative of Greece victorious over the barbarian world. And as the actors, from the first, are heroes great from their fame and position, so, as the play goes on, the action is caught up into the hands of the gods themselves, and we are admitted to see and hear Apollo, and Minerva, and the Furies. But this greatness of fame and position is something merely outward,—it serves to create a prejudice in favour of the persons, to insure attention to all they do or say; but their real greatness lies, of course, in their characters as depicted by the poet. In this direction we shall have to look for one of the chief elements of sublimity: in the force of intellect exhibited by the actors; the intensity—not violence, but restrained intensity—of the emotions expressed; and the strength of the wills which are shown conflicting. But even more than in the characters we must look for greatness in the action. There again there is an outer and an inner side. The mere death of Agamemnon is a tremendous event. "Kill a king, said'st thou?" A king in the old heroic days, when a real divinity hedged him round? The king of men himself?—
"The cease of Majesty
Dies not alone; but like a gulf, doth, draw
What's near it with it; it is a massy wheel
Fixed on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoined; which when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with, a general groan."
And the death of Clytemnestra and Ægisthus is a tremendous act of vengeance. A similar act forms the plot of one of Shakespeare's greatest plays; for Orestes is a Greek Hamlet, as Clytemnestra is the Greek Lady Macbeth. And in the last of the three plays the actions are important indeed. The solemn foundation of the Areopagus to be for ever a high court in Athens, the establishment of the Eumenides as guardians of the city, and the conducting of them with solemn pomp to their temple, were events, at least to an Athenian, of overpowering interest. But this is only the outside. The real plot consists in the course of divine providence, the working out of moral laws; and the unity of the whole Trilogy is best seen when we trace this plot throughout it. The veil is drawn aside which hides the dark forms of Erinnys and Atè from men's eyes as they scowl upon the sinner and dog his steps; as they stir up the powers that punish, or in their anger rear the fell brood of arrogance and impiety in their victim's home. And we are admitted, too, to see the conflict between the bright gods of day and the powers of darkness; we are taught why men suffer, and how they may be healed. In the inner moral significance of the plot, then, we must look for the chief element of greatness. Nor is it fanciful to regard the play in this way, as if we were seeking for allegory or mystical interpretations; for the poet clearly treated his subject so, and meant his audience to receive it. The moral meaning of events is traced continuously, and openly expressed.
The reader will be able to judge for himself of the value of the answer which Æschylus gives to the great question of the origin of evil. How far does his solution fail in the several points which it attempts? Does it correspond with the facts? Does it justify God? Does it cheer man? Out of the depth of heathen darkness, from among the idols and the impure rites of pagan Greece, there comes up a gleam of light—light of explanation, light of reproof, light of encouragement. What is it worth? Does it seem to be a faint remnant of some old revelation, diluted, refracted, discoloured, but still a remnant of the truth? Or is it a spark of promise—a beginning which is to burst into fuller light some day? This question is surely most important. If we consider how much modern Europe owes to these Greeks who applauded Æschylus, we cannot but inquire with the deepest interest into the degree and character of their moral enlightenment. And on this point no information is more valuable than that which the tragedians give us; and this Trilogy is, of all tragedies, the most instructive.
Once more, to consider the main drift of these plays. We are so much accustomed to regard each man as responsible for his own sins, and these only, that we are inclined to forget how much is to be said for a different view—to forget that children bear the iniquity of their parents. Now here is a nation full of the joy of life, and full also of careful and wondering reflection—just like a child, in fact, in both; and this nation gives us—or one of its greatest minds gives us—as its experience, that a man is not entirely responsible for his own deeds, but is impelled by temptation which comes on him in punishment of his father's crimes. The moral unit, so to speak, is a house, not a man. A family sins, and a family is punished. The gods then are just, though their course of action presses hardly on the individual. But where is the hope? The Prometheus and the Eumenides seem to give it. On the one hand, suffering at last expiates, and vengeance can be satisfied; on the other hand, a constant and conscientious pursuit of duty may obtain remission. These two points are shown thus. When Orestes is set free, not only has the house of Pelops suffered enough to satisfy the justice of the gods, but Orestes, by his careful execution of all divine commands, has been the means of carrying out the divine will, and restoring, as it were, the moral balance. He has awarded to each his exact due, whether of punishment or respect; he has given to piety and to vengeance their right proportion; and when the balance is restored, nothing is wanting except certain ceremonies to complete his expiation.
Now we may think what we will about the rightness or wrongness of this view of morals, but we are compelled to notice, with respect as well as pity, that the Greeks, our teachers, once thought thus; and to consider how dismal was the state of a man who ever feared that some Fury, resistless and malignant, was urging him to a ruin which he could not but rush into. How little hope the individual could draw from his confidence that in the end all would come right, seeing that, although the race might be restored, the individual was to perish by the way!
But the sadder all this is the fitter it is for tragedy; and if we have in any degree realised it, we shall the better see the terrible grandeur of the powers which Æschylus shows us at work in Clytemnestra and Agamemnon.
But let us go into the theatre and see it all for ourselves. First comes the "Agamemnon"—the "Macbeth of antiquity," as Milman calls it; "as noble a tragedy," says Professor Wilson, "as ever went sweeping by across the floor of a stage."
The busy conversation of the crowd is hushed, the curtain is removed, and the play begins. A stately palace, built of vast stones, such as were
"Piled by the hands of giants
For godlike kings of old,"
forms the background of the scene; and upon a lonely tower on its outer wall a watchman lies, resting on his arm, and "looking forth into the night." For ten long years he has watched there, with his eyes towards Troy; for Agamemnon had promised, when he went away, to send, as soon as Troy should fall, a message of beacon-fires to tell the good news to his wife in Argos. The watchman has hardly spoken before we feel, from his weariness, how long the war has lasted, and how long Clytemnestra's faithfulness has been tried. Night after night he has watched the stars, and passed the damp cold hours in sleepless weariness, striving at times to beguile his loneliness with song; but at all such times gaiety has been driven away—by what?
"Still, as I strive to guile the unquiet night—
Sad remedy!—with song or carol gay,
I. can but weep and mourn this fatal house,
Not as of old with righteous wisdom ruled."
While he is speaking, far away out on the right of the stage a bright flame shoots up: it is the beacon's blaze. "All hail," the watchman cries,—
"All hail, thou glory of the night! that blazest
With noon-day splendour, wakening Argos up
To dance and song for this thrice-blest event!"
He will go to tell the queen of the good news,—good news, and yet,—
"But peace! no more! the seal is on my lips!
The palace' self, could it but find a voice,
"Would speak from its dark walls! To the understanding
I speak; to those who understand not—nothing."
Already we begin to fear that some storm is coming.
The watchman is gone, and the Chorus, twelve old Argive senators, troop in and take their place. No sounds of all that we have heard in the preceding plays seem to equal the grandeur of this half-triumphant, half-desponding song. The Greek fleet sail forth proudly, led by the "twin-throned, twin-sceptred pair," Menelaus and Agamemnon,—
"And loud and fierce their battle-clang,
Like screams of angry vultures rang,"
as they go, heaven-sent, to punish Paris, and bring alike on Greece and Troy
"Many a wild and wearying strife,
With failing knees bowed to the dust,
And lances shivering in their onward thrust."
Then the sad prophetic note is struck again:—
"But be the issue as it may,
Eternal fate will hold its way;
Nor lips that pray, nor eyes that weep,
Nor cups that rich libations steep,
Soothe those dark Powers' relentless ire,
Whose altars never flame with hallowed fire."
And now the whole city is seen ablaze with the fires of sacrifice, and the Chorus guesses that Clytemnestra has received the long-wished-for tidings. While they wait, eager to hear if this be so, their song takes up the story of the journey of the fleet to Troy.
An awful portent had appeared on the way to the two monarchs. Two eagles, while the host was starting, were seen close by the palace, preying on a hare, the favourite of Artemis. And Calchas, the seer, read the omen thus: "Troy will fall before the sons of Atreus, but a shade hangs over their proud array, for Artemis is angry at the eagles' feast;" and though the prophet prayed that the omen might be averted, yet the gloomy burden peals out startlingly:—
"Ring out the dolorous hymn, yet triumph still the good!"
Calchas prayed that the injured goddess might not in anger delay the fleet, and force upon the chiefs
"That other sacrifice—
That darker sacrifice, unblest
By music or by jocund feast:
Whence sad domestic strife shall rise,
And, dreadless of her lord, fierce woman's hate;
Whose child-avenging wrath in sullen state
Broods, wily housewife, in her chamber's gloom,
Over that unforgotten doom.
Such were the words that Calchas clanged abroad,
When crossed those ominous birds the onward road
Of that twice royal brotherhood:
A mingled doom
Of glory and of gloom.
Ring out the dolorous hymn, yet triumph still the good!"
Ominous, indeed, is the starting; and the mind, oppressed with apprehension, turns to think of the holy powers that govern all these things. Zeus it is who rules unrivalled. Two dynasties of gods have fallen before him; and still his lesson to mortals is, "Learning through Sorrow." Dark and sad it all seems now, and wisdom when it comes will be the wisdom of remorse.
The fears of Calchas were too well founded. On Chalcis' coast, by Aulis' rock-bound shore, winds came that kept the fleet in unwelcome rest, and famine and weariness wasted the strength of Greece. At last the seer spoke out in the name of Artemis, and called for a virgin's blood, the blood of Iphigenia. It was a hard choice for Agamemnon,—
"Dire doom! to disobey the Gods' commands!
More dire, my child, mine house's pride, to slay,
Dabbling in virgin blood a father's hands."
But necessity is overpowering,—
"So he endured to be the priest
In that child-slaughtering rite unblest,
The first-fruit offering of that host
In fatal war for a bad woman lost.
The prayers, the mute appeal to her hard sire,
Her youth, her virgin beauty,
Nought heeded they, the Chiefs for war on fire.
So to the ministers of that dire duty
(First having prayed) the father gave the sign,
Like some soft kid, to lift her to the shrine.
There lay she prone,
Her graceful garments round her thrown;
But first her beauteous mouth around
Their violent bonds they wound,
Lest her dread curse the fated house should smite
With their rude inarticulate might.
But she her saffron robe to earth let fall:
The shaft of pity from her eye
Transpierced that awful priesthood—one and all.
Lovely as in a picture stood she by
As she would speak. Thus at her father's feasts
The virgin, 'mid the revelling guests,
Was wont with her chaste voice to supplicate
For her dear father an auspicious fate."
At the end of this sad story the Chorus cease. This omen was but too true; yet it is no gain, they say, to know the future—it is only antedating sorrow. Yet may better days come now.
Such hopes are little better than forebodings.
That beautiful picture of the death of Iphigenia has been the theme of many poets. Euripides has a tragedy upon it—the "Iphigenia in Aulis;" and among the Romans, Lucretius has described it finely, translating and almost improving the two tragedians, as an instance of the evils to which religion has prompted men; and Tennyson has drawn the whole in a few lines with intense vividness, in his "Dream of Fair Women."
"With the sound of these prophetic strains yet in their ears, the Chorus sees the approach of—Clytemnestra. Their strain has prepared us for something dreadful in the face and figure of the avenging Queen,—
'For ne'er was mortal sound so full of woe.'
She comes—and then we have such a description as makes the glow-worm light of modern poetry
'Pale its ineffectual fires.'
She comes rejoicingly, exultingly—floating on stately and beautiful in her revenge—of which the passion, about to be satiated and appeased, breaks out into a glorious burst, that shows how sin and wickedness can make a Poetess of the Highest Order.
She tells the Chorus that Troy has been taken, and they ask, 'How long ago? When was the city sacked?' She replies, ' 'Twas in the night that bore this rising light.' The Chorus, incredulous, asks again, 'But how? What messenger could come so fast?' And this is her glorious reply:"—
"The Fire-God, kindling his bright light on Ida!
Beacon to beacon fast and forward flashed,
An estafette of fire, on to the rocks
Of Hermes-hallowed Lemnos: from that isle
Caught, thirdly, Jove-crowned Athos the red light,
That broader, skimming o'er the shimmering sea,
Went travelling in its strength. For our delight
The pine-torch, golden-glittering like the sun,
Spoke to the watchman on Macistus' height.
Nor he delaying, nor by careless sleep
Subdued, sent on the fiery messenger:
Far o'er Euripus' tide the beacon-blaze
Signalled to the Messapian sentinels.
Light answering light, they sent the tidings on,
Kindling into a blaze the old dry heath;
And mightier still, and waning not a whit,
The light leaped o'er Asopus' plain, most like
The crescent moon, on to Cithseron's peak,
And woke again another missive fire.
Nor did the guard disdain the far-seen light,
But kindled up at once a mightier flame.
O'er the Gorgopian lake it flashed like lightning
On the sea-beaten cliffs of Megaris;
Woke up the watchman not to spare his fire,
And, gathering in its unexhausted strength,
The long-waving bearded flame from off the cliffs
That overlook the deep Saronian gulf,
As from a mirror streamed. On flashed it; reached
Arachne, our close neighbouring height, and there,
Not unbegotten of that bright fire on Ida,
On sprang it to Atrides' palace-roof.
Such were the laws of those swift beacon-fires:
So flash the torches on from hand to hand
In the holy rite, brightest the first and last.
Such is the proof and sign of victory
Sent by my husband from now captured Troy."
The reader will recognise here the original of Macaulay's "Armada." Indeed that poem gives, better than any translation, the spirit and dash and picturesqueness of the passage; from the kindling of the first beacon on Mount Edgecombe's height,—
"Till Belvoir's lordly terraces the sign to Lincoln sent,
And Lincoln sped the message on o'er the wide vale of Trent;
Till Skiddaw saw the fire that burned on Gaunt's embattled pile,
And the red glare on Skiddaw roused the burghers of Carlisle."
Then Clytemnestra describes what she imagines to be the scene in Troy, where the cries of the vanquished, as wives and children weep over the bodies of the slain, are mingled in discord with the shouts of the plundering conquerors. No longer forced to sleep on the damp ground, the victors take their ease in the Trojan palaces; but even in their success there is danger of that pride which brings reverses. All is not safe yet; the dangers of return are to be encountered, and even then, if any new offence should be committed, Troy may yet be avenged.
The irony is scarcely concealed.
Now comes a new choric song, a prayer to Zeus, whose judgments cannot fail; who against Paris "bent his bow and made it ready,"—decreed and it was done; who "marks that race from son to son" that dares too much, and grows insolent in over-great prosperity. In moderation is the only safety. Then is described the curse that Paris brought on Troy when Helen came:—
"Bequeathing the wild fray to her own nation
Of clashing spears, and the embattled fleet,
Bearing to Troy her dowry—desolation,
She glided through the gate with noiseless feet,
Daring the undareable! But in their grief
Deep groaned the prophets of that ancient race:
'Woe to the palace! woe to its proud Chief,
The bed warm with the husband's fond embrace!'
Silent there she stood,
Too false to honour, too fair to revile;
For her, far off over the ocean flood,
Yet still most lovely in her parting smile,
A spectre queens it in that haunted spot.
Odious, in living beauty's place,
Is the cold statue's fine-wrought grace.
Where speaking eyes are wanting, love is not."
"And phantasms, from his deep distress unfolding,
Are ever present with their idle charms.
And when that beauteous form he seems beholding,
It slides away from out his clasping arms.
The vision! in an instant it is gone,
On light wing down the silent paths of sleep!
Around that widowed heart, so mute, so lone.
Such are the griefs, and griefs than these more deep
To all from Greece that part
For the dread warfare: Patient in her gloom,
Sits Sorrow, guardian god of each sad home,
And many woes pierce rankling every heart.
Oh, well each knew the strong, the brave, the just,
Whom they sent forth on the horrid track
Of battle; and what now comes back?
Their vacant armour, and a little dust!"
And the sorrow for friends thus lost rises in an ominous murmur against the sons of Atreus, who led the flower of Greece to die in a strange land, in a woman's quarrel. The heavy burden of a people's curse suggests fears that may not be spoken. And again and again in new words the old burden is repeated:—when men are highest in pride, then Erinnys comes, and heaven's thunder bursts first on the over-glorious:—
"Mine be the unenvied fate,
Not too wealthy, not too great.
I covet not, not I, the bad renown
To be the sacker of another's town,
Or see, a wretched slave, the sacking of mine own."
All doubts that remain about the truth of the beacon-message are now dispelled by the arrival of a herald, who comes from the army itself. He is the forerunner of Agamemnon, and all that he says is intended to enhance the greatness of the king's arrival. He salutes, in touching words, his country and her gods, and the palace of Agamemnon, which now shines its best to welcome its monarch, who comes like dawn out of darkness.
"Greet, greet him nobly. Is't not well to greet
Him who the firm foundations of old Troy
Dug up with the avenging spade of Jove,
Searching the soil down to its deepest roots?
The altars and the temples of their Gods
Are all in shapeless ruin; all the seed
Utterly gathered from the blasted land.
Such is the yoke, that o'er the towers of Troy
Hath thrown that elder chieftain, Atreus' son.
Blest above mortals, lo, he comes! Of men
Now living, who so worthy of all honour?"
The leader of the Chorus tells the herald how the army has been ruined, and speaks of some undefined fear. And the herald says, "All suffer in turn, but it is well at last." He describes most graphically the sufferings of the besieging host:—
"Our beds were strewn under the hostile walls;
And from the skies, and from the fenny land,
Came dripping the chill dews, rotting our clothes,
Matting our hair, like hides of shaggy beasts.
Our winters shall I tell, when the bleak cold
Intolerable, down from Ida's snows
Came rushing; even the birds fell dead around us.
Or summer heats, when on his mid-day couch
Heavily fell the waveless sea, no breath
Stirring the sultry air. Why grieve we now?
All is gone by! the toils all o'er! the dead!
No thought have they of rising from their graves.
Why count the suffrages of those who have fallen?
The living only, fickle fortune's wrath
Afflicts with grief. I to calamity
Have bid a long farewell. Of the Argive host
To us, the few survivors, our rich gains
Weigh down in the scale our poor uncounted losses.
In the face of the noon-day sun we make our boast,
Flying abroad over the sea and land,
That now the Argive host hath taken Troy;
And in the ancestral temples of their Gods
Hath nailed the spoils for our eternal glory."
Clytemnestra now comes forward with expressions of exuberant delight; but she never quite hides from us, who are in the secret, the true purpose of her relentless heart. "What day," she cries, "so bright, so blessed, as when the wife greets her returning husband! Throw wide the gates of welcome go and meet him, and tell him that his wife is waiting for him, unchanged and unchangeable! No pleasure have I known but the thought of him, and have watched, like a faithful guardian, over his treasures and his honours." She retires. All has now been done to raise our expectation for the arrival of the king. He is to come at the height of his triumph, and his wife wall greet him with enthusiastic welcome. So now the undertone of sorrow is heard again. The herald tells of storms that have harassed the army on its return, and of the many warriors who can never regain their homes. But with good hopes he goes away, and again the choral song peals in our ears. Again it is of Helen, "the fated to destroy," whose very name meant "ruin."
"To Ilion in beauty came
The wedded mischief! of her name
The wrath of the great Gods on high
Fulfilled the awful augury;
The hoarded vengeance long preparing
For that deed of guilty daring:
Dishonour of the stranger-welcoming board,
And Jove, the Hospitable God and lord.
The brothers of the house, that princely throng,
With the glad hymenean song,
Hymned the eve of that bright wedding-day.
That hymn unlearned, a sadder lay
Shall Priam's ancient city chant anon—
The many-voicèd wail and moan,
In evil hour o'er Paris led
To that disastrous bridal-bed:
Foredoomed t' endure the flood
For years poured wasteful of her citizens' blood."
So a man cherishes a lion's cub, and it is gentle at first and loving, the children's toy, the old man's pleasure; but ere long the lion-nature shows itself, and it proves a priest of Atè, and spreads blood and ruin through the house. So Helen
"Too soon in Troy, her coming seemed to be
Like gentle calm over the waveless sea;
She stood, an image of bright wealth untold.
Oblique from her soft eye the dart
Preyed sweetly on the inmost heart,
Making love's flower its tenderest bloom unfold.
So changing with the changing hours
That wedlock brought her to a bitter end,
A cruel sister, and a cruel friend,
To Priam's daughters in their chamber bowers:
By Hospitable Jove sent in his ire,
No tender bride, rather a Fury dark and dire."
And still the burden is repeated. Wealth brings a misery that never dies, but breeds a brood of evils ever growing. Beneath the quiet cottage-roof dwells Justice, and "decent life flows peaceful on;" but over the gilded palace is spread the funeral pall of Atè.
Earthly greatness and triumph are at their height, as the chief returns, with chariots and retinue, to his palace. The Chorus welcome him as he deserves:—
"Hail, king of Atreus' race renowned,
Who Troy hast levelled with the ground!
How to address thee—how adore;"
but they are anxious to observe a safe moderation in their congratulations;—
"Nor with exceeding praise run o'er,
Nor turning short, pass by too light
The mark and standard of thy might."
They confess that at first his enterprise seemed rash, but now success has justified his daring. Time always reveals true wisdom.
The welcome is, after all, not so enthusiastic as it might be.
The king greets his native land and his country's gods, and describes the state of the defeated city. He is grand as he stands there, a true representative of the heroic age, and tells us how Atè's hurricane howls through the smoking town, and how the Greek nobles leapt forth from the fatal horse.
"The roaring lion rampant o'er the towers
Sprang, glutting his fierce maw with kingly blood."
But still the king of men remembers the dangers of prosperity, and tempers his exultation with regret for the calamities of many of his friends. He is just about to go modestly into his palace without pomp, when the traitress, gorgeously decked out to meet her husband, enters on the scene.
"According to the simplicity," says Potter, "of ancient manners, Clytemnestra should have waited to receive her husband in the house; but her affected fondness led her to disregard decorum. Nothing can be conceived more artful than her speech; but that shows that her heart had little share in it; her pretended sufferings during his absence are touched with great delicacy and tenderness; but had they been real, she would not have stopped him with the querulous recital; the joy for his return, had she felt that joy, would have broke out first; this is deferred to the latter part of her address; then, indeed, she has amassed every image expressive of emotion; but her solicitude to assemble these leads her beyond nature, which expresses her strong passions in broken sentences, and with a nervous brevity, not with the cold formality of a set harangue. Her last words are another instance of the double sense which expresses reverence to her husband, but intends the bloody design with which her soul was agitated."
"Men! citizens! Elders of Argos' state!
I blush not in your presence to pour forth
All a wife's fondness for her lord beloved;
For timorous bashfulness soon dies away
Before familiar faces. Not from others
Learning, but only from mine own sad knowledge
Will I describe my solitary life,
While he was far away under Troy's walls."
She describes at great length how she suffered from rumours of her lord's death; how she had three times tried to hang herself; how her eyes had been dried up with weeping, and her short sleep broken by miserable dreams. As Dean Milman says,
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much."
Then she addresses the king in terms of over-artful panegyric:—
"Thou, watchdog of the unattainted fold!
The main-stay that secures the straining ship!
The firm-based pillar, bearing the lofty roof!
The only son to childless father born!
Land by the lost despairing sailor seen!
Day beaming beautiful after fierce storms!
Cool fountain to the thirsty traveller!"
But she will lead him to the pitch of pride, that his fall may be complete: she will make him impious that the gods may be against him.
"Stay, nor set
On the bare earth, O King, thy hallowed foot;
That which hath trampled upon ruined Troy.
Why tarry ye, my damsels? 'Tis your office
To strew the path with gorgeous carpetings;
Like purple pavement rich be all his way;
That justice to his house may lead him in—
The house he little dreamed of. All the rest
Leave to my care, that may not sleep. So please
The Gods, what's justly destined shall be done."
Irony cannot be carried further.
Agamemnon, however, is not easily flattered to his ruin, and he refuses an honour fit only for the gods.
"Treat me not like a soft and delicate woman,
Nor, gazing open-mouthed, grovelling on earth
Like a barbarian, raise discordant cry:
Nor, strewing with bright tapestries my way,
Make me an envy to all-jealous Heaven.
These are the proud prerogatives of the Gods;
That mortal thus should walk on rich embroideries
Beseems not: do it I cannot without awe.
As a man, honour me, not as a God!
Though she wipe not her feet on carpetings,
Nor variegated garments fine. Fame lifts
High her clear voice. To be of humble mind
Is God's best gift. Blessed is only he
Who in unbroken happiness ends his days.
Still may I prosper, thus not overbold."
But at last he is persuaded to tread the purple, though he insists on removing his sandals for the sake of humility. He steps upon the carpet: we feel that he is doomed. One more touch has to be added; the one thing that might justly provoke the queen is to be done. He leads forth Cassandra, and with kind considerate words recommends her to Clytemnestra's care.
"But thou this stranger-maid
Lead in with courteous welcome. The high Gods
On him who rules his slaves with gentleness
Look gracious: for to bear the yoke of slavery
Is a sore trial to the struggling will.
And she, of our rich spoils the chosen flower,
The army's precious gift, follows me here.
And since to yield to thee I am compelled.
Walking on purple, enter I the palace."
The queen does not notice this request. She repeats her protestations that no profusion could be too great to welcome such a prince, or to express her joy; and then she joins exultingly in the procession which leads him in. And her parting words are these:—
"Jove! Jove! that all things perfectest, my prayers
Bring to perfection! to perfection bring
What thou hast yet to do! Be this thy care."
The grand procession here enters the palace, and the stage is left vacant, except that Cassandra is still there, sitting silent in her chariot. But the notes of melancholy music call our eyes from the stage to the orchestra, where the Chorus is moving in mysterious figures about the altar, where it stands down beneath us on the floor of the theatre. Fear—resistless inexplicable fear—is now the burden of their song; so that, though their own eyes have seen the safe return of the army, yet a sense of danger and calamities to come still overpowers them—an apprehension connected in some way with. that dread of excessive wealth which they have expressed so often. Cassandra is not inattentive to their forebodings: her gestures show that she shares them. But now Clytemnestra comes out again. She bids the captive prophetess, sternly but not insultingly, to accept her lot, and enter the palace as a slave. For a long time Cassandra listens in silence to the queen's command and the advice of the Chorus, her look growing every moment wilder, and her gestures more excited. At last she speaks, and cries again and again to Apollo, the author of her unhappy inspiration, of her sad prophecies that have been always disregarded, and with each repetition her ravings portend more clearly the dreadful deed that is to come. She looks round in horror at the palace-gates, and cries,—
"Dwelling accurst of God!
Dark home of murder and infanticide!
The lord lies slaughtered in that drear abode,
And the dank floor with bloody dew is dyed."
She calls to mind the impious feast of Thyestes, and speaks not dimly of another crime to come. Her beautiful face is disfigured with passion; her hair "streams like a meteor on the troubled air," as the vision forces itself more and more vividly on her reluctant soul. She sees the murderess raise her hand; she sees the bath in which the deed is done, and the Furies punishing the guilty queen. And her own fate, too, is before her:—
"Alas! alas! for myself I fear
Mine own death-hour of agony!
Oh, wherefore do ye lead me here?
Oh, wherefore, hut with him to die?"
Each wild utterance of Cassandra is followed by a short song from the orchestra in comment on her words. "Why," asks the Chorus,—
"Why heaven-struck, heaping ill on ill,
Pour'st thou thy frantic sorrows vain?
Why shrieks thy voice, ill-omened still,
Its awful burthen in awakening strain?
Why roams thy sad prophetic song
Only the paths of grief along?"
Again she is tortured with visions of the past scenes of horror that have defiled the house of Pelops. The murdered children of Thyestes pass before her eyes, with the same terrible distinctness with which the children and the eight kings force themselves on the fancy of Macbeth:—
"See, see ye not upon yon palace-roofs,
Like shapes in dreams, they stand and jibber there,
The children murdered by their nearest kin?
Lo, there they are, in their full-laden hands
Entrails and bowels, horrible food, on which
Their fathers have been feasting."
Vengeance is coming for these things upon the house of Atreus; and though the she-wolf welcomes her lord with flattering words, yet death is certainly prepared for him. There is no longer any concealment. Cassandra foretells in plain words the crime of Clytemnestra, and the excuse she will allege; and at last she tears the prophet-garlands from her head, and dashes down her wand in the dust, hating her unhappy task of uttering warnings that are fated to he disbelieved. Yet she will not die unavenged, for even now she sees the long-exiled son Orestes return, and claim satisfaction for his father's death.
Suddenly, while speaking for a moment more calmly to the Chorus, Cassandra starts back in horror. "Foh!" she cries,—
"Foh! how the house smells with the reek of blood!"
Fluttered like a bird with terror, she yet restrains herself to utter one last prayer for vengeance, one last reflection on the fickleness of fortune, and then goes into the palace to meet her death.
For a minute we are left to consider this wonderful scene of madness; to reflect on its strange medley of emotions, where Ophelia's tenderness and Lear's frenzy are gathered into one, and joined with the agony of foresight of Lochiel's Seer; while the Chorus moralises still over the danger of prosperity. Suddenly a cry is heard within,—
"Woe's me, I'm stabbed! stabbed with a mortal blow!"
Again and again it is repeated, as the majestic voice of Agamemnon, that so often rose above the din of battle, sounds fainter and fainter in the agony of death. The deed is done.
In the orchestra utter confusion prevails, for each member of the Chorus has some different advice to urge, and they start up and rush to and fro in restless excitement. But in a moment all is hushed into the silence of awe.
The back of the stage opens, and the very scene of the murder is brought forth to view. Terrible in her triumph, the bloody axe still in her hands, Clytemnestra is seen standing over her husband's corpse. For all her wickedness still a queen, she stands up boldly and dares to defend her deed:—
"This is no unpremeditated strife:
Over this ancient feud I have brooded long,
That the slow time at length hath brought to pass.
Here stand I, as I smote. 'Twas I that slew him!
Thus, thus I did it! Nought will I deny!
That he could not defend himself, nor 'scape.
As round the fish the inextricable net
Closes, in his rich garments' fatal wealth
I wrapt him. Then once, twice, I smote him home.
Twice groaned he, then stretched out his failing limbs;
And as he lay I added a third blow;
And unto Hades, the dark god below,
Warden of the dead, made my thanksgiving vow.
So, fallen thus, he breathed out his proud life,
And spouted forth such a quick rush of blood,
It splashed me o'er with its black gory dew.
Yet not the less rejoiced I, than the flower
Within the pregnant folds of its sweet cup
Rejoices in the dropping dews of heaven.
Being as it is, ye Argive elders all,
If that ye too feel joy, rejoice with me,
And I protest that were it meet to make
Libations for the dead, 'tis I would make them:
For all that's done is just—is more than just.
He that hath filled the chalice of this house
With cursing and with woe, on his return
Himself should drink it to the very dregs."
The Chorus, the elders of her people, condemn her straightway to be outcast and abhorred; but she still defends herself and defies them, relying on the help of Ægisthus, her accomplice.
"And now hear ye my stern, my solemn oath:—
By Justice, the avenger of my child;
By Atè, by Erinnys, at whose shrine
I have offered up this man, slain by mine hand!
I look not in the house of fear to dwell,
So long as on my hearth kindles his fire
Ægisthus, as of old my constant friend;
He to my daring is no slender shield.
Low lies the man who hath done shameful wrong
To me his wife; he, once the dear delight
Of the fair Chryseid, 'neath the walls of Troy;
And her his captive, her his prophetess,
The sharer of his bed, his soothsayer,
His faithful consort on his couch of sleep,
And on the deck, under the groaning masts.
For this these two have paid the rightful price—
He as ye see him; she, like the sweet swan,
Singing her farewell song, her own sad dirge,
Lies here, his paramour, the delicate morsel,
Intruded here, where I should feast alone."
The Ruin which the gods, in their mysterious will, sent down upon the race of Pelops stands before us visible in Clytemnestra. Looked at from the human side, she is an incarnation of consummate wickedness, triumphant and unashamed; from the divine side she is a messenger of Atè and Erinnys, filled full with their terrible displeasure, the most awful object that could meet the eyes of bewildered and despairing mortals. Through a long series of short answering chants her consciousness of this dread mission is contrasted with the timid horror of the Chorus. After attributing the whole line of sorrows to Helen, and wailing over Cassandra's death, the Chorus calls upon the Alastor, the unforgetting fury,—
"That Dæmon dread,
Whose wrath hangs heavy o'er the head
Of each of that predestined line;
A name, the omen and the sign
Of endless and insatiate misery."
And Clytemnestra takes up the strain:—
"Say not 'twas Agamemnon's wife
That so cut short his fated life,
It was the Alastor, whose dread mien
Took up the likeness of the queen.
Of that dark house 'twas he, 'twas he,
The curse and awful Destiny;
(Where, father of that race unblest,
Old Atreus held his cannibal feast;)
Wreaking for that dread crime the vengeance due,
The full-grown man for those poor babes he slew."
But the Chorus will not admit her defence, and mourn in indignation for the kingly head laid low by such foul treachery. Still the queen asserts the justice of her deed:—
"It was not so; that man of pride!
By no unseemly death he died.
Who first into our household brought
Dark Atè's snares? who earliest taught
That fateful lesson of deceit,
Decoying forth that child of many tears,
Iphigenia, in her tender years?
Evil he did, evil is vengeance meet!
He will not make his insolent boast in Hell;
For with the sword he smote, and by the sword he fell."
And ever the Chorus returns to its wailings and accusations:—
"Woe, woe! earth, earth! wilt thou not swallow me
Ere I am forced my kingly lord to see
Within that bath, with silver walled,
On his low bed unhonoured and unpalled?
Oh, who will bury him?
Oh, who will mourn for him?
Wilt thou, wilt thou, thou daring one, presume—
Thou, thine own husband's bloody murderess!—
To stand and wail as mourner by his tomb?
With graceless grace, unholy holiness,
For noble funeral rites the unblest offerings bless."
And still the murderess "keeps her fixed unaltered mood."
This is in the true spirit of Athenian tragedy. Lady Macbeth, before her crime, is a very Clytemnestra; she welcomes Duncan with the same exaggerated courtesy, and is as resolute in her purpose; but afterwards she trembles and turns pale. Shakespeare is painting human nature, weak and fickle even in the strongest; Æschylus is showing us the wrath of gods, which is simple, direct, and unrepenting.
At length, in the end of the play, Ægisthus himself appears, and he exhibits the character of a violent and cowardly tyrant. He congratulates himself shamelessly on his success, and shows how his father Thyestes is avenged. "Now," he says,—
"Now, 'twere a glorious thing for me to die,
Seeing him caught in justice' iron toils."
The Chorus threaten him with the curse of the people and with stoning; but Ægisthus despises the elders of his city, and confidently asserts his ill-gotten power. Violence is on the point of being used, when Clytemnestra interposes. She pacifies Ægisthus with tenderest words—"purring," says Professor Wilson, "like a satiated tigress round her prey;" and while the Chorus threaten them with the possible return of Orestes, she leads her accomplice in "to set in order all things in that ancient kingly house." Truly they are sadly out of order at present.
The first part of the great threefold drama is over, and while we sit waiting for the next, there can be no want of reflections to occupy our minds. The conversation which ordinarily fills up such intervals in the performance can hardly find place now, for all minds have been oppressed with a weight of awe which does not easily pass away. A confused mass of giant forms and deeds of blood is before our eyes, and mingled tones of triumph and despair are still ringing in our ears. But gradually, as we gaze, the several parts sink back into due proportion, and gradually there comes out into distinctness the supremely great figure of Clytemnestra. It grows up before us more and more vividly as we recall one grand speech after another,—as we remember how she exulted at the thought of her husband's return; how great she was in the defiant extravagance with which she spread his path; how fearfully wicked in her unflinching hypocrisy; how she despised Ægisthus, for whom she had done it all. And then, by her side, we begin to see clearly the noble stature of Agamemnon, and pity, which was suppressed awhile in awe at Clytemnestra, possesses us again.
Is all that villany to triumph, and all that nobleness to perish unavenged? But as we go over in memory the closing scenes, the thought arises of Orestes. What is he doing now? Growing up to manhood in a distant land, and meditating vengeance. He goes to sacred Delphi and consults Apollo, and is bidden to hasten to Argos and kill his mother and her guilty lover. And how are affairs in Argos? The palace is full of Trojan captives; Electra herself, Agamemnon's daughter, is little better than a slave; while hatred has been gradually grooving against Ægisthus and the queen, till there are many who long, hardly in secret, to see the face of the avenger.
But the herald's voice proclaims that the next play is to begin, and the curtain falls for the "Choephori, or Libation-bearers." Still the scene is the royal palace of Argos, but in front of it now is seen the tomb of Agamemnon. We seem to breathe a lighter, freer atmosphere than that which echoed to the dread choruses of the Argive elders or the shriek of the dying king. A brighter, more beautiful vision is before us. Orestes comes upon the scene in his pride of youth, which sadness cannot obscure. His face and his dress may betoken mourning, but in his whole person shines out the symmetry and the brilliance of white skin and lustrous hair which is seen in the young Greek in the wrestling-schools of Athens. He comes forward to his father's tomb, and solemnly offers there two locks of his hair,—the first to Inachus, the river-god of his home, a sign of gratitude for life and nurture; the second to his dead father, as an offering of love, instead of that which he was not allowed to pay at the time of his funeral. This done, he stands apart, and with him Pylades, his faithful companion, who all this time has remained in silence at his side. They stand apart to watch, for the palace-gates are opened, and a train of black-robed women comes out, led by Electra. They are bearing urns with mixed meal and oil and honey, to be poured as libations, or drink-offerings, on the tomb. Orestes at once recognises his sister, and guesses the object of their coming.
Electra remains upon the stage close by the tomb; while the Chorus, these captive women, walk down the broad steps which lead from the stage into the orchestra, and take their stations there to sing. They remain, however, so near the stage as to be at all times close, like Electra, to the tomb. And thus their chant begins:—
"Sent from the palace, forth I tread,
With hands shrill-clapped, a doleful train,—
Libations bearing to the dead.
Marred is my cheek with many a stain,
Nail-ploughed the furrows bleed,
The while on cries of pain
My heart doth feed.
Bending my flaxen-tissued vest,
With smileless passion, uncontrolled,
Grief doth my sorrow-stricken breast
Dismantle of the garment's decent fold.
For shrill, hair-bristling Fear,
Of Atreus' home dream-prompting seer,
Breathing forth rage in sleep,—at dead of night,
From the recesses of these royal halls,
Rang out a cry of wild affright
That heavy on the women's chambers falls.
And dream-interpreters, in Heaven's high name
To faithful utt'rance pledged, proclaim
That unavenged 'neath earth, the slain
Against their slayers wrathfully complain."
This is the key-note of the earlier part of the play: this is the fear which hangs over our minds. This fear has led the queen to send forth this mourning procession, as if she might so appease the wrath of her murdered lord. But blood, says the Chorus, cannot be washed out; Atè will exact her penalty without mercy.
Then Electra speaks to the Chorus. How, she asks, can I fulfil my task, and offer these libations to my father? I cannot say, These are a loving wife's gifts to her husband." Shall I pray that she who sent them may be requited?
"Or, with no mark of honour, silently,
For so my father perished, shall I pour
These vain oblations to the thirsty earth,
Then, tossing o'er my head the lustral urn,
(As one who loathèd refuse forth has cast,)
With eyes averted, back retrace my steps?"
The Chorus bids her accompany the offerings with good wishes for the righteous—for herself, that is, and all who hate Ægisthus—and for Orestes her exiled brother, and pray that on the guilty some god or mortal may come in vengeance. All this is dimly and gradually suggested, and then Electra prays. In perfect beauty she stands before us, sorrow mingled with righteous anger, and prays to the gods below and mother Earth, and to her father's spirit, that they may pity her slavish lot and bring home Orestes from his exile, and that her father's murderess may be justly slain. Then solemnly she ascends the steps of the tomb and pours out the libation, while the Chorus sings a short hymn of grief for the lost warrior. Suddenly Electra's white arm is raised, the dark folds of her dress falling off from it, for she has found upon the tomb her brother's votive lock, and now holds it up in wonder to show it to the Chorus. They cannot guess from whom it comes, but the truth quickly dawns upon the sister's mind. The hair is like her own in colour; Orestes is the only friend who could be so lamenting Agamemnon; footsteps, too, are to be seen leading to the tomb, which in length and shape tally exactly with her own. While she is disturbed and uncertain, hoping but hardly daring to believe, Orestes comes forward and addresses her. She does not know him, and even when he tells her who he is, thinks he is mocking. But when at last she is convinced, her gladness overflows; he shows the very cloak which her hands had wrought; she falls upon his neck, and thus addresses him:—
"Oh! cherished darling of thy father's house,
Hope of our race, thou precious seed, long wept,
Trusting in thy strong arm, thou shalt regain
Thy natal home. O fondly loved, in whom
Centre four dear affections; for perforce
Thee must I hail as father, and on thee
Love for my mother, justly hated, falls;
And for my sister, pitilessly slain.
My faithful brother hast thou ever been,
My pride, my awe;—only may Justice, Strength,
With Zeus supreme, third Saviour, aid thy cause."
Orestes joins in her prayers, and explains how Apollo himself has sent him to execute this purpose, recounting the calamities which would fall on him if he should refuse the service: how Atè would pursue him; how every share in festal cup or sacred rite would be denied him, till, friendless and dishonoured, he must die with all the burden of his guilt upon him. Such oracles he cannot disobey. The avenger has announced his resolve, and the Chorus solemnly approves it. "Doer of wrong must suffer,"—this is the grand old law.
The course of the action being so clearly marked out, it is now to be still further sanctioned by appeals to Heaven, and our interest in it heightened by hearing it dwelt upon, with every variety of treatment, by the two persons engaged upon it. Orestes stands on one side of the tomb, Electra on the other, and just below the Chorus is grouped, to bear part in their alternate song:—
"Ores.What can I, Sire unblest,
Thee from thy couch of rest
Hither to wing?
Lo! in that drear confine,
Darkness is day!
Vainly to Atreus' line
Honours we pay!
Cho.My son, the wasting jaws of fire
Quell not the spirit of the dead,
Full late he manifests his ire.—
When mourned is he whose blood is shed,
The slayer is revealed. In time,
For slaughtered parents, righteous wail
Poured forth unceasing, doth avail
To track the crime.
Elec.In turn, my tearful strain,
O Father, hear!
Hark how thy children twain
Chant anthems drear!
Exiles beside thy tomb,
Sad, suppliant pair;—
No hope relieves our gloom,
Cho.And yet, if so the gods ordain,
Hereafter, gladder notes shall sound;—
Instead of dirge, joy's rapturous strain
Back to these halls shall lead again
The dear one newly found."
So many times they answer one another, grief by turns taking the place of hope; the tone sinking sometimes almost to despair, sometimes rising to prophetic exultation; and throughout it all they call their father, as the Persians called Darius, to come forth from his tomb, and help them to revenge. Gradually the tones grow calmer and more determined; till they settle down, when the resolve is fully ratified, into the sober language of the ordinary dialogue. Then the Chorus says,—
"Unblamed in sooth have ye your speech prolonged,
Due to his tomb, and unlamented fate.
But since to action now thy soul is braced,
To work forthwith! and in the god confide."
Yet even now the fixed resolve is to be strengthened by an omen of success. "Why," asks Orestes, "has the queen sent these offerings to the tomb, seeing that she cannot hope by any sacrifice to wash out the stain of murder?—for, as the saying runs, not all the world, poured out in one libation, could atone for one man's blood."
The Chorus answers him. It is a dream that has made her anxious. She dreamt that she gave birth to a dragon, who fed with his savage jaws at her own breast. She sprang up in terror, and could not rest till these libations had been sent to her husband's tomb. Even to Clytemnestra remorse has come at last, and conscience makes her connect every terror with her crime. She could not know what this dragon meant, but Orestes accepts it as a type of himself:—
"For if the snake, quitting the self-same womb,
Was girded straightway with my swathing-clothes,
And, gaping round the breast that nourished me,
Sucked with my nurture-milk the clotted blood,
While she in terror, at the portent shrieked;—
Needs must it be, that she who reared the pest
A forceful death must die. I, dragon-like,
Myself shall slay her, as her dream declares."
No more is needed to strengthen his resolution or to sanction it, and now he unfolds the details of his plot. With the faithful Pylades, who has never left his side, he is to present himself as a stranger at the gates of the palace, and so to gain admission to the presence of Ægisthus. Then, so soon as he sees the usurper, he will kill him. Such is his plan. Of his mother he says not a word. That intention is too dreadful to be spoken of: though unhesitating in his determination, he will not utter it, even to his friends. Surely there is something very touching and dreadful in this silence.
Orestes and Pylades go away into the fields, to reappear in their new character, and Electra enters the palace. The time of vengeance is close at hand: who does not tremble? The Chorus gives expression to the universal apprehension in a fine and simple ode. They sing of the terrible extremes to which human guilt, especially woman's, at times has reached.
"Cho.Full many a horror drear
And ghastly, Earth doth rear;—
With direful monsters teems encircling Ocean;
Meteors, with threatening sheen,
Hang heaven and earth between;—
The tempest's wrath still raves with wild commotion;
These, and dire winged things, and things that crawl,
Thou mayst describe them all.
Strophe. But man's audacious might
What words can paint aright,
Or woman's daring spirit who may tell?
Her passion's frenzied throes,
Co-mates of mortal woes?
For love unlovely, when its evil spell
'Mong brutes or men the feebler sex befools,
Conjugal bands o'errules."
Then they recite the past crimes of women—Althæa's, who burnt the brand on which her son Meleager's life depended; and Scylla, who for a golden necklace sold her father's life; and, worse than all, of the Lemnian women who slew their husbands, and made the name of Lemnos a byword for atrocity. But justice, they cry, is unerring in her aim, and her throne is immovable.
"Firm based is Justice; Fate of yore
Forged weapon for the blow;
Deep-souled Erinnys doth restore
Th' avenger to his home, and, lo!
He pays the bloody score."
And now the conspirators are come, Orestes and Pylades, with attendants. Orestes walks straight up to the great palace-gates, and knocks repeatedly. A servant at length, appears, and goes into the house to fetch some one to hear the stranger's application. Orestes had said,—
"Let one in trust, a woman bearing rule,
Come forth; yet more decorous were a man.
For when by bashfulness the tongue is swayed
Darkened is speech;—boldly man speaks to man,
And tells his message forth without reserve."
It is a woman who comes out to answer, and no less a woman than Clytemnestra. With the same unhesitating courage, the same exultant wickedness, with, which long ago she boasted of her crime as she stood over her husband's corpse, unchanged she comes out now, and behind her comes Electra. The queen receives the messenger with queenly courtesy. He tells his tale shortly and simply, using the Phocian dialect:—
"Orest.From Phocis I, a Daulian, stranger here.—
What time my home I left, for Argos bound,
Starting on foot, with baggage self-equipped,
A man to me unknown, as I to him,
Met me, inquired my route and told me his.
Strophius, the Phocian, as in talk I learned.
'Stranger,' he said, 'since Argos is thy goal,
Say to the parents,'—strictly mark my words,—
'Dead is Orestes;—grave it on thy mind;—
Whether the counsel of his friends prevail
To bring him home, or give him sepulture.
Alien for aye;—bear thou their mandates back;
For now the brazen urn doth shroud from sight
The ashes of the hero duly wept.'
Such words I heard, and tell thee;—if to those
Who here bear rule I speak, kin to the dead,
I know not;—but 'tis meet his sire should know."
"Tis meet his sire should know"!—did Orestes hope to "wring his mother's heart"? It was not "made of penetrable stuff." She says nothing about the dead father, who indeed knows well enough, and in his ghostly power is furthering all this act of retribution; but although the messenger's tidings are, as she pretends to think, not good, yet she admits him with welcome to the house, and goes herself away to tell the news to Ægisthus. Has she some suspicion? Does she go to seek for men to help against any violence which the strangers may intend?
Again there is a moment of suspense, during which the Chorus sing a chant of eager expectation:—
"Cho.—Dear handmaidens! Sisters dear!
When, oh when, full-voiced and clear,
Shall we, for Orestes' sake,
Loud the joyous pæan wake?"
The hour is come, they say; now must Persuasion lead the guilty ones to offer themselves to the ruin which Erinnys is preparing. As this chorus ends, there comes out of the palace Cilissa, the old nurse of Orestes; and for some time we are interested and half amused with her garrulous lamentations. It is one of the very few passages where a Greek tragedian has touched that deepest chord of pathos which is struck when we smile at the weakness of human nature, and yet grieve the more for its sufferings; the chord which Shakespeare strikes in Lear and Ophelia, in many of the songs of his clowns, and in the story of Falstaff's death-bed. This old nurse, like her in Juliet, runs on with trifling reminiscences of Orestes' childhood, most unworthy of the occasion, except from this point of view. Still the old woman is made to assist in the execution of the plot. Clytemnestra has sent her to summon Ægisthus, and bid him bring his body-guard with him. This latter message the Chorus bids her not to give, and so it is contrived that the usurper shall offer himself unprotected to Orestes' sword. And so, half guessing from the hints of the Chorus that there is something good going forward, Cilissa goes her way.
Once more the stage is empty, and the loud prayers of the Chorus are heard, as they confidently pray to Zeus for his assistance, and call on Orestes to consummate the deed. Soon Ægisthus comes, half doubting the news, which he pretends to call unwelcome; and he asks the Chorus whether it is true. The Chorus reply:—
"We have but heard; go thou thyself within,
Question these strangers;—second-hand reports
Avail not as to hear the tale one's self."
And he replies:—
"Fain would I see the messenger and learn
Whether himself was present at the death,
Or if from blind report this tale he heard;
A wakeful mind he will not soon deceive."
He goes into the palace. Suspense is at its height.
"Cho.Zeus, great Zeus, how frame my cry
Thine aid to win?
How, invoking thee on high,
My strain begin?
For anon with murderous blow,
Either shall the gory blade
Atreus' royal house o'erthrow,—
Prone in dust for ever laid,—
Or in Freedom's sacred name,
Kindling fire and holy light,
Shall the rightful heir reclaim
Wealth and crown,—his twofold right.
Sole against the tyrant pair,
To such deadly grapple hies
Agamemnon's godlike heir;—
None to follow if he dies!
Crown, oh crown, the great emprise!"
A cry is heard; again and again it sounds; and before we have time to doubt, a servant rushes in crying that Ægisthus is slain; and, battering at the door of the women's part of the palace, he calls loudly for Clytemnestra.
She comes hastily forth, knowing instinctively that the hour of her retribution is arrived; but, calling for an axe—the weapon with which she killed Agamemnon—is determined to defend herself to the last. But when Orestes appears, she assumes the guise of tenderness. The avenger says:—
"Dost love this man? With him, in the same tomb,
Then shalt thou lie;—still faithful found in death."
"Hold! hold! my son;" she cries:—
"Revere, my child, this breast
From which, a sleeping infant, thou full oft,
With toothless gums, thy nurture-milk hast sucked."
For one moment Orestes wavers and turns to Pylades, but his friend reminds him of Apollo's command and his own vows, and bids him "choose all for foemen rather than the gods." His momentary hesitation is dispelled. He gives short replies to his mother's pretences of affection, and rejects her excuse with the most solemn answer. She pleads that Fate compelled her to her crime; and Fate, he replies, now ordains her death. He is at least as much the instrument of heaven as she was. Then he drags her into the palace.
While the terrible deed is being done, according to the decorous taste of the Greek theatre, out of sight, the Chorus sings a hymn of unmixed exultation:—
"Reft was I of the sun whose sudden ray
Did with new joy illume
These halls, long sunk in gloom;
It gleamed,—then died away.
Anon, the cheering light,
New-kindled, in these halls shall shine once more,
What time, with lustral rite,
From the polluted hearth is purged the gore,
And Atè put to flight. With form benign,
Fortune, long time an alien, comes to claim
Her home, redeemed from shame.
Clearly the light doth shine !"
No cries are heard this time. The agonies of a mother slain by her own son are too horrible to be even heard. We know the deed is done, and this silence makes the act of solemn justice still more tremendous.
It is done, and the scene is opened; and as we saw Clytemnestra standing in her wicked triumph over the body of her husband, holding in her hand the bloody axe, and pointing to the robe in which her victim had been entangled to be slain,—so now we see Orestes, unhappy but not guilty, standing over his mother's corpse, with his drawn sword in his hand, and pointing to the same robe of Agamemnon in testimony of her guilt. Servants grouped behind him display the long folds of the fatal garment, while Orestes, inspired by the divine justice of which he has been the agent, speaks these solemn words:—
"Behold the tyrants of this land, the twain
My sire who murdered, and this palace reaved.
Majestic once sat they upon their thrones,
United now, as by their fate appears,
And faithful to their pledges e'en in death.
To slay my wretched sire conjoined they swore,
Conjoined to die;—well have they kept their oath.
But further, ye who hearken to these woes,
Mark this device, my wretched father's snare,
His hands which fettered and his feet which yoked.
Unfold it,—form a ring,—and, standing near,
Display the Hero's death-robe, that the Sire,
Not mine, but He who all these woes surveys,
Helios, my mother's impious deeds may mark;
So in my trial, at some future time,
He by my side may stand, and witness bear
That justly I did prosecute to death
My mother;—for of base Ægisthus' doom
Recketh me not;—he, as adulterer,
The lawful forfeit of his crime hath paid."
But calamities are not at an end, as the short cries of the Chorus prophesy:—
"Alas for doings fraught with doom!
Slaughtered he found a gory tomb.
To the survivor grief is but in bloom."
"Alas! no son of mortal race,
Unscathed the path of life may trace!
Fadeth one grief, another comes apace."
Already Orestes begins to feel the Furies of his mother coming upon him:—
With steeds ungoverned, from the course I swerve;
Thoughts past control are whirling me along,
Their captive slave; while terror in my heart
Her pæan and her frenzied dance prepares."
But while Reason yet holds her seat he asserts his righteousness, and pleads the injunction of Apollo. Taking in his hands a suppliant's olive-branch with its festoons of white wool, he turns to go to Delphi, an exile and a wanderer, to seek there the protection of the god he has obeyed. And now he sees the Furies. They rise in the background:—
"Gorgon-like they come,
Vested with sable stoles, their locks entwined
With clustering snakes. No longer may I bide."
And though the Chorus cannot see them, they press round him more closely and more hideous; his frenzy grows, and covering his face with his hands he rushes in madness from the place.
The Chorus still bless him, and pray that he may obtain protection, and march back up the steps across the stage, and through the palace-gates, chanting this song:—
"Thrice the Atridan storm hath burst
O'er Mycenæ's halls.
Child-devouring horror first
Brooded o'er these walls.
Next a king's disaster came,
When the chief who led
Hellas' warriors, known to fame,
In the bath lay dead.
Now, behold a third is come,—
Saviour, shall I say, or doom?
From what quarter sped?
Full-accomplished, when shall Fate,
Lulled to rest, her stormy ire abate?"
In our sympathy for Orestes thus suffering for his piety, we cannot but look forward with eager expectation to the next Play, in which we are to see him delivered from the Furies. But there is another reason, even more powerful, to make the Athenian citizen wait impatiently for the "Eumenides." A rumour has got abroad that Æschylus is going to use all the interest which his great Trilogy must awaken to support a political cause. The leaders of the popular party, Pericles and Ephialtes, are proposing to reform, if not to abolish, the high court of Areopagus. This venerable court has been hitherto in the hands mainly of the nobility, and wields an authority all the more extensive because it is undefined; it is the highest tribunal in cases of murder and sacrilege, and a peculiar sanctity is attached to its decisions. Some, however, of the citizens think, it seems, that it is old-fashioned and unwieldy; and perhaps even that it may become the stronghold of a selfish nobility, who, by straining to the utmost its undefined prerogatives, may make it the means of a formidable opposition to the system of reform which is in progress. Others regard it with the reverence which they conceive to be due to an institution founded by the gods, and intimately connected with the greatness of the city; and among these, we need hardly say, is Æschylus. He intends, by representing the court of Areopagus as the scene of the trial and liberation of Orestes, and as having been founded at that time by Pallas—and not only for that occasion, but for ever—to enlist the sympathy of every pious Athenian on the side of the ancient assembly, and against Ephialtes and Pericles, and the democratic movement which they represent.
Such is the expectation which makes our neighbours in the theatre particularly impatient for the "Eumenides"; though little can be needed to heighten the enthusiasm with which the climax of so deeply interesting a Trilogy will be received. We have seen the crime committed against the father of Orestes, we have seen his solemn act of vengeance, and we have seen that even the righteousness of his cause could not deliver him from the Furies of a mother slain. These Furies have pursued him through many lands, and made his life a misery, until at last he has reached Apollo's shrine in Delphi, and even thither his torturers have pursued him.
But suspense is at an end: the curtain falls, and we are in Delphi, the centre of the world, the very home and source of sanctity and truth. Before us rises the high temple-front, and outside it stand statues of all those Powers which, according to old mythology, have held sway in turn in this most holy place. In prayer before these statues is seen the priestess of the temple;—she whose utterances are oracles; she who awards to the whole Grecian world—yes, and to barbarians too—all that they have of revelation. First in her prayer is mentioned Earth, the primeval prophetess; then Themis, who next held the sacred seat; then Phœbe, another daughter of Earth, who gave to Phœbus Apollo his office and his name. Having done due honour to the local deities, the priestess calls on Pallas, and Bacchus, and Poseidon, and on Zeus, and then enters to take her seat upon the inspiring tripod, that she may give responses to any who may consult the god. And so she goes through the great folding-doors into the temple. Very few of mankind have entered that sacred chapel: there hang the offerings of great kings and sages, who have, during ages past, gained answers from Apollo; there the bright god himself vouchsafes his special presence; there is the Omphalos, or navel-stone, which is believed to be the very centre of the earth.
But the priestess rushes forth again in an agony of terror. She has seen a portentous sight, for at the Omphalos itself a man is sitting in suppliant guise;
"His hands still dripping gore,
His sword new-drawn, his lofty olive-branch
With ample fillets piously enwreathed,
White bands of wool;"
and behind him is a wondrous company of women sleeping—or rather, women they cannot be called, for no gorgons nor harpies are so hideous. The sound of their breathing, the loathsome aspect of their faces, and the filthiness of their dress, all combine to make their very presence a pollution to a temple, or even to the roofs of men. As soon as the terrified priestess has described all this, the scene opens and we see it for ourselves. In the inner sanctuary of the temple is Orestes sitting on the Omphalos, and by him stands Apollo; while behind them, in a semicircle, the Furies are asleep, and quite in the background stands Mercury or Hermes, the escorter of the dead. Apollo speaks:—
"Never will I betray thee: to the end
I guard thee, standing near, or far aloof;
Nor will be gracious ever to thy foes.
And captured now this maddened crew thou seest.
By sleep the loathsome virgins are o'erpowered,
Hoary primeval progeny,—with whom
Nor god, nor man, nor beast, will e'er consort.
For Evil's sake brought forth, in evil gloom
Of subterranean Tartarus they dwell,
Abhorred of men and of the Olympian gods.
But hie thee hence, nor e'er relax thy speed,
For as thou tread'st the wand'rer-trampled earth,
They'll track thee o'er the ample continent,
O'er the wide ocean and the citied isles;
And thou, faint not too early, o'er thy grief
Brooding alone; but haste to Pallas' walls,
And suppliant, her ancient image clasp.
There judges we shall have to try this cause,
And soothing words: so means we shall devise
For evermore to free thee from these toils;
For at my bidding was thy mother slain."
Orestes prays his patron to hold to his promise; and Apollo bids him not to fear, and intrusts him to Hermes to be escorted to Athens, the city of Pallas.
The victim is gone, and the pursuers are still asleep, for indeed in the halls of Apollo such angry powers cannot easily be awake. But are they to remain indifferent? Is a mother slain to lose the satisfaction which her murderer owes? Rather than this, she comes herself to stir up the executors of her vengeance. From the inner part of the temple, clad in dark robes, with her bare neck still showing the wound that her son inflicted, arises the ghost of Clytemnestra; and with bitter reproaches she urges the Furies, by gratitude for the gifts she has offered them, by their own honour lost if he escape, to pursue the matricide. Her words are not unheard. They wake slowly with hideous groans and mutterings; and at length, crying like hounds to one another, the savage note running round the semicircle, they rouse them gradually to their task. As they awake, the ghost again and constantly repeats her exhortations, till, when they are thoroughly excited to renew their chase, she vanishes away. Thus it is that the energy of these cruel powers may always, by the will of those on whose behalf they act, be quickened against the guilty or the representative of a guilty race; just as conscience, ever and anon calling up remembrance of a crime, stirs in a sinner's breast the tortures of remorse. At last, each waking her neighbour, they all start up, and, ranging themselves in chorus-fashion on the stage, utter their angry expressions of baffled rage and disappointment; especially complaining of the arrogance of Apollo, who has dared, an upstart god, to trample on their ancient prerogatives. But Apollo stands up, wrathful and beautiful, his silver bow bent in his hand, as when he slew the Python, and bids them, as they fear his arrows, carry their detested presence from his hallowed temple.
They rejoin with accusations of Apollo, for that he is the sole cause of all the trouble, having urged Orestes to the act of matricide and promised him protection; while they plead the righteousness of their own position as the appointed pursuers of all who have done such deeds. When it is shown that the mother, whom Orestes killed, was herself the murderess of her husband, the Furies answer that that guilt is less, because a husband's blood is not the blood of kindred. The god replies that by such a theory all marriage right is set aside; Jove and Juno, the wedded king and queen of heaven, are dishonoured; and the goddess of love is set at nought. But they cannot be convinced, and the pursuers and the protector part with mutual defiance.
A short interval ensues, during which the scene is changed. Instead of the Delphian sanctuary of Apollo, the high front of Minerva's temple on the Acropolis forms the background. We are in Athens itself at last: no less a city can be the place for the great consummation. Clasping the sacred image of the goddess, Orestes sits and calls on her to grant him her protection, since the pollution of his crime, if such it be, has been worn off by many sacrifices and many prayers, and now with clean hands, at Apollo's bidding, he comes to abide at her decision the issue of his cause. But his foes are close upon his track. They enter now from beneath the stage in front, and rank themselves in the orchestra; and as they come, looking about for their victim, their leader says,—
"'Tis well; sure token this, the man is here.
Follow the leading of this voiceless guide;
For still we track, as hound the wounded fawn,
By blood and reeking drops, our destined prey;
With many a toilsome man-outwearing gasp
Pant my deep vitals, for on every spot
Of the wide earth my charge I shepherded,
And now, in hot pursuit, with wingless flight,
Swift as swift galley o'er the sea I course;
Here in some nook ensconced the game must lie;
With keenest joy I snuff the scent of blood."
Then in lyric strains they exhort one another to the search, and when they see the suppliant at the goddess's side, they repeat their threats of vengeance. Again Orestes speaks, and a noble calmness and confidence pervades his words. "Pale now," he says,—
"Pale now, and dim, the blood-mark on my hand;
Washed clean away the matricidal stain;"
and now with pure lips I pray to Pallas to come from her distant dwelling by the Lybian Lake of Trito, or from whatever spot may hold her, "and be my saviour from those miseries." The Chorus of Furies defy his prayers. He is their victim, and no god shall save him, and they sing their Binding Hymn which will make him fully theirs. Anything more terrible than the intense malignity of this ode it is difficult to imagine. The witches in Macbeth around the fatal caldron are awful from their weird grotesqueness; these Furies, as they dance with every gesture of greedy hatred, are even more awful in their solemn determination.
"Haste we now the dance to wind,
Since beseems in dread refrain,
To utter how our bodeful train
Deal the lots to mortal kind.
Loyal are we to the Right,—
Hence clean hands whoso extendeth,
Scathless still through life he wendeth,
Nor on him our wrath may light.
But who guilty hands doth hide,
Stained with blood,—as yonder wight,—
Lurketh ever at his side,
Witness true, this Brood of Night.
Blood-avengers we appear,
Stern-purposed to achieve our doom severe.
Oh mother, hear me, Mother Night,
Who brought me forth, a living dread,
To scare the living and the dead,
Latona's son does me despite;—
Stealing away my trembling prey,
Destined a mother's murder to requite.
Now o'er the victim lift the dread refrain,
The Furies' death-hymn, madness-fraught;—
Torch of the brain, from Hades brought,—
Soul-binding, lyreless, mortal-blighting strain.
For Fate supreme ordains that we
This office hold for evermore:—
Mortals imbrued with kindred gore
We scathe, till under earth they flee;
And when in death
They yield their breath,
In Hades still our thralls they be.
Now o'er the victim lift the dread refrain,
The Furies' death-hymn, madness-fraught;—
Torch of the brain, from Hades brought,—
Soul-binding, lyreless, mortal-blighting strain."
In answering stanzas they acknowledge and exult in the hatefulness of their office, asserting it with a diabolical confidence which reminds one—if human malice can so nearly approach the hate of deities—of Shylock's deliberate atrocity. And if they remind us of the Jew, so the pure bright being who now appears must remind us of the merciful wisdom, gentle yet determined, of Portia. Minerva comes, like Portia, to defend the righteous man from the apparently legal claims of his cruel enemies. She comes in her warlike beauty, and alights from her chariot, and, holding the long spear in her hand, as the sailor sees her from the far point of Sunium shining in the sunlight on the summit of her temple, stands in the front and speaks:—
"A voice I heard from far Scamander's banks
And now what do I see? Who are ye, whose forms are not like mortals nor yet like goddesses? and who is the man who sits as suppliant at my image? The Chorus explain their titles and office; the goddess listens to them all with marked respect, but condemns their unfair attempt to deny Orestes his defence. At last they leave the issue in her hands, and she turns to the defendant:—
"What wilt answer in thy turn,
O stranger? Tell thy country and thy race,
And thy misfortunes, then ward off this blame;
If, trusting in the right, thou thus dost sit
Clasping mine image, near my sacred shrine,
Ixion-like, a suppliant revered,
To all of these make answer clear to me."
His answer is dignified and clear:—
"Athena, queen! matter of grave import
First will I from thy words last-uttered purge.
Not blood-polluted am I, nor doth stain
Cleave to thine image from thy suppliant's hand.
Sure proof of this I will adduce;—'tis law
That voiceless lives the man defiled by blood,
Till purifier's hand hath him besprent
With victim's blood, slain in life's budding prime.
Long since at other shrines have been performed,
With victims and with streams, these lustral rites.
Thus then this care, as cancelled, I dismiss.
My lineage, what it is, thou soon shalt hear.
Argive am I, my sire thou knewest well,
Marshal of naval heroes, Agamemnon,
In league with whom thou madest Ilion,
Troya's proud city, an uncitied waste.
The hero home returned, and basely fell;
For him, entangled in a subtle net,
My mother, black of soul, did reave of life;
The bath bore witness to the deed of blood.
Myself, long time an exile, coming home,
Slew her who bare me,—I deny it not,—
Avenging my dear father, blood for blood.
But Loxias is sharer in my guilt
Who goads of anguish to my heart announced,
Unless the guilty found from me their due.
My deed, or just, or unjust, do thou judge;—
Whate'er thy verdict, I shall be content."
Minerva shrinks from taking on herself the weight of the decision, fearing to enrage the Furies against her land if she reject their suit, fearing to wrong a suppliant if she grant their claim; and so she founds a court:—
"But since this weighty cause hath lighted here,
Judges of murder, bound by oath, I'll choose,
Solemn tribunal for all future time.
But for yourselves call witnesses and proofs,—
Sworn evidence collect to aid your suit;
Myself the noblest of my citizens,
To whom is dear the sanctity of oaths,
Will cull; then hither come to judge this cause."
The Chorus now renew their chant, and set forth at length the evils that will ensue if in this case their victim escapes. No crime will then be restrained; then men will call in vain on Justice or Erinnys, the only powers who can keep men guiltless and happy. If Awe dwells in the heart, the man may live well, safe from excesses; but he who is careless and knows not Fear will spurn with atheist foot the altar of Justice, and meet with certain retribution.
"But who unforced, with spirit free
Dares to be just, is ne'er unblest;
Whelmed utterly he cannot be:
But for the wretch with lawless breast,
Bold seizer of promiscuous prey,—
I warn you,—he, perforce, his sail
Shall strike amid the conquering gale,
When shrouds and yards dismasted own its sway."
"He cries, but 'mid the whirlpool's roar
None heeds him; for the gods deride
Eyeing the boaster, proud no more,
Struggling amid the surging tide;
Shorn of his strength he yields to Fate;—
The cape he weathers not, but thrown
On Justice' reef, with precious freight,
He perisheth for aye, unwept, unknown."
As this ode is ended the scene is changed again, and we are on Mars Hill, the Areopagus itself; and Pallas enters at the head of twelve Athenian citizens, the judges of the new tribunal. In that vacant space upon the floor of the theatre, in the centre of which the altar stands, these Areopagites take their places, sitting in semicircle just inside that lowest range of the spectators' seats on which are the magistrates of Athens. They are not separated far from the spectators; for in this grand final scene the whole Athenian people are to be taken into the action, and act as judges with the Areopagites. Before them is the altar, on which two urns now stand to receive their votes, and between the altar and the stage the Chorus of Furies is drawn up. Pallas stands on the stage, and by her side a herald; and just as the trumpet's note, when "the king drinks to Hamlet," quickens our senses for the Shakespearian catastrophe, so now the trumpet rings through the Theatre of Bacchus, and summons all, spectators as well as actors, to take their share in the trial of Orestes. The goddess cries,—
"Herald, proclaim! Hold back the multitude,
Let Tuscan trumpet, filled with mortal breath,
Piercing the welkin with sonorous blast,
Ring out its brazen summons to the crowd:
For, this tribunal seated, it befits
Silence should reign; so this assembled town
Shall learn the laws I sanction for all time,
So may this stranger's cause be fairly judged."
So now Apollo enters, and the pleading begins. The Furies examine Orestes closely, and he admits the crime, but justifies it, and ends by calling on Apollo. The god pleads his suppliant's cause, and shows, in answer to the Chorus, that the tie which binds a man to his father is even closer than the mother's, since a child can be born without a mother, as Pallas was herself, who sprang full-armed from the head of Olympian Zeus. Before the votes are given Pallas charges the court, and her words are meant for the assembled citizens of Athens:—
"Hear ye my statute, men of Attica,—
Ye who of bloodshed judge this primal cause;
Nay, and in future aye shall Ægeus' host
Revere this great tribunal. This the hill
Of Ares, seat of Amazons, their tent,
What time 'gainst Theseus, breathing hate, they came,
Waging fierce battle, and their towers upreared,
A counter-fortress to Acropolis;—
To Ares they did sacrifice, and hence
This rock is titled Areopagus.
Here then shall sacred Awe, to Fear allied,
By day and night my lieges hold from wrong,
Save if themselves do innovate my laws.
If thou with mud, or influx base, bedim
The sparkling water, nought thou'lt find to drink.
Nor Anarchy, nor Tyrant's lawless rule
Commend I to my people's reverence;—
Nor let them banish from their city Fear;
For who 'mong men, uncurbed by Fear, is just?
Thus holding Awe in seemly reverence,
A bulwark for your state shall ye possess,
A safeguard to protect your city-walls,
Such as no mortals otherwhere can boast,
Neither in Scythia nor in Pelops' realm.
Behold! This court august, untouched by bribes,
Sharp to avenge, wakeful for those who sleep,
Establish I, a bulwark to this land.
These warnings to my lieges I address,
To unborn ages reaching. Judges, rise,
Assume the pebbles, and decide the cause,
Your oath revering. All hath now been said."
Now one by one the judges rise and drop their votes alternately into each urn, while between each Apollo and the Chorus utter in turn two lines of warning and appeal. When the last judge has resumed his seat, Pallas herself, still standing on the stage, holds up a voting-pebble and speaks thus:—
"With me it rests to give the casting-vote,
And to Orestes I my suffrage pledge.
For to no mother do I owe my birth;
But I, in all save wedlock, praise the male.
In very truth I am my father's child,
Nor care I to avenge a woman's death
Who slew her husband, guardian of the house.
Orestes, judged by equal votes, prevails,
The pebbles now pour quickly from the urns,
Judges, to whom this office is assigned."
While the votes are counted Orestes and the Chorus express in turn their anxiety and suspense. At last the goddess thus declares the verdict;—
"Orestes has escaped the doom of blood,
For equal are the numbers of the votes."
With eager eloquence Orestes pours out his thanks to Pallas, and promises the eternal friendship of his city to Athens. He promises this not only in the fiction of the play, but in real earnest, to Athens, here gathered in the theatre; for just now, when this play is being presented, an alliance has been contracted between Argos and Athens. Loud, therefore, is the applause with which his words are greeted:—
"Now homeward I depart,
Pledged to thy country and thy lieges here
By oath, to be revered for evermore,
That never helmsman of the Argive State
Shall hither bear the well-appointed spear.
For we, ourselves, though couching in the grave,
On those who violate these present oaths
By sore perplexities will work, and send
Distressful marches, and, with omens dire,
Crossings of streams, till they repent their toil.
But unto those who keep this pledge, and honour
Athena's city with confederate spear,
To them we will be gracious evermore.
Hail, goddess, and these city-wardens, hail!
Still may your gripe be fatal to your foes,
While victory and safety crown your spear."
With this Orestes departs, and the main action of the play is over. The curse is removed, and the house of Pelops is free. But just as we have seen that each sad catastrophe is accompanied with intimations of fresh trouble to come, so this happy ending brings with it a train of blessings.
The Chorus are at first furious with indignation that their ancient power is thus trampled under foot by the younger deities, but gradually, by the mild eloquence of Pallas, they are appeased, and consent to accept a temple and worship in her city; and instead of the curses with which they were threatening the land, to shed forth upon it every blessing. The goddess bids them send good gifts:—
"Such as, with gracious influence, from earth,
From dew of ocean, and from heaven, attend
On conquest not ignoble. That soft gales,
With sunshine blowing, wander o'er the land;
That earth's fair fruit, rich increase of the flocks
Fail not my citizens for evermore,
With safety of the precious human seed;—
But, for the impious,—weed them promptly out,
For I, like one who tendeth plants, do love
This race of righteous men, by grief unscathed:—
Such be thy charge. Be mine not to endure
That, among mortals, in war's mighty game,
Athena's city be not conquest-crowned."
And in a new strain they sing:—
"Pallas, thy chosen seat be henceforth mine!
No more the city I despise
Which Zeus omnipotent and Ares prize,
Altar of refuge, glorious shrine,
Stronghold of Grecian deities,
For which, propitious, now I pray,
Pouring my sacred lay;
Springing to light from earth's dark womb,
May life's fair germs prolific bloom,
Lured by the solar ray.
Here may no tree-destroying mildew sweep,—
(So show I forth my grace,)
May no fierce heat within these bounds alight,
Blasting the tender buds; no sterile blight,
Disastrous, onward creep.
But in due season here may flocks of worth
Twin yeanlings bear; and may this race,
Enriched with treasures of the earth,
Honour the Heaven-sent grace!"
Converted thus into kind deities, Eumenides henceforth, instead of Furies, they are led forth in cheerful procession to their temples under the Acropolis. Pallas goes in front to show them to their dwelling; behind them the twelve judges follow, and last a train of women march with blazing torches. Up the broad steps that lead from the orchestra to the stage, along the whole front of the theatre, the stately procession moves, and passes slowly out of sight to go to the crypts in whose gloomy sanctity these daughters of the night are worshipped. And as they go, the escort-hymn is sung:—
Chorus of the Escort.
"Night's hoary children, venerable train,
With friendly escort leave the hallowed fane.
All.Rustics, glad shouts of triumph raise.
Cho.In ancient crypts remote from light,
Victims await you and the hallowed rite.
All.People, ring out your notes of praise.
Cho.With promise to this land of blessings rare,
Down the steep path ye awful beings wend,
Rejoicing in the torch light's dazzling glare.
All.Your cries of jubilee ring out amain.
Cho.Let torch-lights and libations close the rear.
Thus Zeus, all-seeing, and the Fates descend,
To bless these citizens to Pallas dear.
All.Your cry of jubilee ring out amain."
And so it is all over. Very dimly and scantily the scenes have been represented here: we have had but half the play, even in this meagre English; and we have lost altogether the beauty of colouring, the grandeur of the music, and, above all, the sympathy of assembled Athens. But even thus we can hardly wonder if the consent of posterity has given the palm for artistic greatness to the Trilogy of Orestes.
Let us look back for a moment at the scenes that have passed before us, from the watchman on his tower in the lonely darkness, to the blaze of torches that has just parted from our gaze. Let us see Agamemnon coming home in pride, Cassandra in the storm of her wild emotion, Clytemnestra defying the elders of her country; watch, again, Electra with her train of captives bringing their offerings to the dead hero's tomb; Orestes in his unswerving course of vengeance—not Hamlet-like, pondering and regretting, but going straight though sadly to his task; see him driven in madness forth; recall Apollo standing angry with his bow, the hideous Furies chanting their Binding Hymn, bright Pallas holding up the acquitting pebble, Orestes going forth freed and rejoicing;—has it been so dry and lifeless after all, this Greek story?
And if we could see it as they saw it, under the Athenian sky, and feel as they felt then, to whom its religious meaning was a creed, to whom the Argive alliance was a real interest, and the Areopagus a cause to fight for, should we have needed any apology for Æschylus?
END OF ÆSCHYLUS.
PRINTED BY WILLIAM BLACKWOOD AND SONS, EDINBURGH.
- "Hamlet," Act iii. sc. 3.
- The translations throughout the "Agamemnon" are by Dean Milman.
- From Professor Wilson's critique on the "Agamemnon," appended to his 'Homer and his Translators.' W. Blackwood & Sons.
- Quoted by Professor Wilson, loc. cit.
- For the translations throughout this and the following play the writer is indebted to Miss Swanwick's "Trilogy of Æschylus."
- Apollo—so named from the ambiguity of his oracles.
- She thus gives her casting-vote, and establishes that principle of Athenian law by which, when the votes were equal, the decision was always declared in favour of acquittal. The casting-vote thus given on the side of mercy was called the "Calculus Minervæ," or "Minerva's pebble."
- The title is really due to that dislike of the Greeks to calling unpleasant things by their true names, which made them call the Black Sea the Euxine, or "Hospitable Sea."