Euripides and His Age/Chapter 4
The next play of which we have full knowledge must have staggered its audience. The Medea was promptly put by the official judges at the bottom of the list of competing plays, and thereafter took its place, we do not know how soon, as one of the consummate achievements of the Greek tragic genius. Its stamp is fixed on all the imagination of antiquity.
The plot of the Medea begins where that of the Daughters of Pelias (p. 69) ended. Jason had fled with Medea and her two children to Corinth, which is ruled by Creon, an old king with a daughter but no son to succeed him. The famous warrior-prince will just suit Creon as a son-in-law, if only he will dismiss his discreditable barbarian mistress. Jason has never been able to tell the truth to Medea yet; who could? He secretly accepts Creon's terms; he marries the princess; and Creon descends on Medea with soldiers to remove her instantly from the territory of Corinth. Medea begs for one day in which to make ready for exile, for the children's sake. One day will be enough. By desperate flattery and pleading she gets it. There follows a first scene with Jason, in which man and woman empty their hearts on one another—at least they try to; but even yet some fragments of old habit and conventional courtesy prevent Jason from telling the full truth. Still it is a wonderful scene, Jason reasonable and cold, ready to recognize all her claims and provide her with everything she needs except his own heart's blood; Medea desolate and half mad, asking for nothing but the one thing he will not give. Love to her is the whole world, to him it is a stale memory. This scene ends in defiance, but there is another in which Medea feigns repentance and submission, and sends Jason with the two children to bear a costly gift to the new bride. It may, she suggests, induce Creon to spare the children and let her go to exile alone. The gift is really a robe of burning poison, which has come to Medea from her divine ancestor, the Sun. The bride dies in agony together with her father who tries to save her. Jason rushes to save his two children from the vengeance which is sure to come upon them from the kinsmen of the murdered bride; but Medea has already slain them with her own hand and stands laughing at him over their bodies. She too suffers, but she loves the pain, since it means that he shall have happiness no more. The Daughter of the Sun sails away on her dragon-chariot and an ecstasy of hate seems to blind the sky.
The Medea shows a new mastery of tragic technique, especially in the extraordinary value it gets out of the chorus (p. 240). But as illustrating the life of Euripides there are one or two special points in it that claim notice. In the first place it states the cause of a barbarian woman against a Greek man who has wronged her. Civilized men have loved and deserted savage women since the world began, and I doubt if ever the deserted one has found such words of fire as Medea speaks. The marvel is that in such white-hot passion there is room for satire. But there is; and even a reader can scarcely withhold a bitter laugh when Jason explains the advantage he has conferred on Medea by bringing her to a civilized country. But Medea is not only a barbarian; she is also a woman, and fights the horrible war that lies, an eternally latent possibility, between woman and man. Some of the most profound and wounding things said both by Medea and by Jason might almost be labelled in a book of extracts "Any wife to any husband," or "Any husband to any wife." And Medea is also a witch; she is also at heart a maniac. It is the madness produced by love rejected and justice denied, by the sense of helpless, intolerable wrong. A lesser poet might easily have made Medea a sympathetic character, and have pretended that long oppression makes angels of the oppressed. In the great chorus which hymns the rise of Woman to be a power in the world it would have been easy to make the Woman's day a day of peace and blessing. But Euripides, tragic to the heart and no dealer in pleasant make-believe, saw things otherwise; when these oppressed women strike back, he seems to say, when these despised and enslaved barbarians can endure no longer, it will not be justice that comes but the revenge of madmen.
This kind of theme was not in itself likely to please an audience; but what always galls the average theatre-goer most in a new work of genius is not the subject but the treatment. Euripides' treatment of his subject was calculated to irritate the plain man in two ways. First it was enigmatic. He did not label half his characters bad and half good; he let both sides state their case and seemed to enjoy leaving the hearer bewildered. And further, he made a point of studying closely and sympathetically many regions of thought and character which the plain man preferred not to think of at all. When Jason had to defend an obviously shabby case, no gentleman cared to hear him; but Euripides insisted on his speaking. He enjoyed tracking out the lines of thought and feeling which really actuate men, even fine men like Jason, in Jason's position. When Medea was revealed as obviously a wicked woman the plain man thought that such women should simply be thrashed, not listened to. But Euripides loved to trace all her complicated sense of injustice to its origins, and was determined to understand and to explain rather than to condemn. The plain man had a kind of justification for saying that Euripides actually seemed to like these traitors and wicked women; for such thorough understanding as this involves always a good deal of sympathy.
This charge could with even more reason be brought against another masterpiece of drama, which followed three years after the Medea. The Hippolytus (428 B.C.) did indeed win the first prize from the official judges, besides establishing itself in the admiration of after ages and inspiring Seneca and Racine to their finest work. But it profoundly shocked public opinion at the same time. The plot is a variant of a very old theme found in ancient Egypt and in the Pentateuch. Theseus, not here the ideal democrat on the Athenian throne, but the stormy and adventurous hero of the poets, had early in life conquered the Amazons and ravished their virgin Queen. She died, leaving a son like herself, Hippolytus. Theseus some twenty years after married Phaedra, the young daughter of Minos, king of Crete, and she by the evil will of Aphrodite fell in love with Hippolytus. She told no one her love, and was trying to starve herself to death, when her old Nurse contrived to worm the secret from her and treacherously, under an oath of secrecy, told it to Hippolytus. Phaedra, furious with the Nurse and with Hippolytus, in a blind rage of self-defence, writes a false accusation against Hippolytus and hangs herself. Hippolytus, charged by Theseus with the crime, will not break his oath and goes out to exile under his father's curse. The gods, in fulfilment of the curse, send death to him, but before he actually dies reveal his innocence. The story which might so easily be made ugly or sensual is treated by Euripides with a delicate and austere purity. In construction, too, and general beauty of workmanship, though not in greatness of idea or depth of passion, the Hippolytus is perhaps the finest of all his plays, and has still a great appeal on the stage. But the philistine was vaguely hurt and angered by the treatment, so tender and yet so inexorable, accorded to a guilty love, and doubtless the more conventional Athenian ladies shocked themselves over the bare idea of such a heroine being mentioned. It gives us some measure of the stupidity of public criticism at the time, that we find special attacks made upon one phrase of Hippolytus. In his first rage with the Nurse he vows he will tell Theseus of her proposal. She reminds him of his oath, and he cries:
It is a passing flash of indignation at the trap in which he has been caught. When the time comes he keeps his oath at the cost of his life. Yet the line is repeatedly cited as showing the dreadful doctrines of Euripides and the sophists; doctrines that would justify any perjury!
The Hippolytus, as we have it, is a rewritten play. In his first version Euripides had a scene in which Phaedra actually declared her love. This more obvious treatment was preferred by Seneca and Racine; but Euripides in his second thoughts reached a far more austere and beautiful effect. His Phaedra goes to her death without having spoken one word to Hippolytus: she has heard him but has not answered. The Hippolytus has more serene beauty than any of Euripides' plays since the Alcestis, and is specially remarkable as the first great drama on the subject of tragic or unhappy love, a theme which has been so extraordinarily fruitful on the modern stage. To contemporaries it was also interesting as one of the earliest treatments of a purely local Attic story, which had not quite found its way into the great sagas of epic tradition.
The note of the Medea was struck again some two years later (426 ?) in a play almost equally powerful and more horrible, the Hecuba. The heroine is the famous Queen of Troy, a barbarian woman like Medea, majestic and beautiful at the beginning of the action and afterwards transformed by intolerable wrongs into a kind of devil. Her "evils" are partly the ordinary evils that come to the conquered in war, but they are made worse by the callousness of her Greek conquerors. The play strikes many notes of special bitterness. For instance, the one champion whom Hecuba finds among her conquerors is the general, Agamemnon. He pleads her cause in the camp, because, God help him! he has taken her daughter Cassandra, the mad prophetess vowed to eternal virginity, to be his concubine, and consequently feels good-natured. There is another note, remarkable in an Athenian. The mob of the Greek army, in a frenzy of superstition, clamour to have a Trojan princess sacrificed at Achilles' tomb. In the debate on this subject we are told that several princes spoke; among them the two sons of Theseus, the legendary kings of Athens. They would surely, as enlightened Athenians, prevent such atrocities? On the contrary, all we hear is that they spoke against one another, but both were for the murder! At the end of the Hecuba, as at the end of the Medea, we are wrought to a pitch of excitement at which incredible legends begin to seem possible. History related that the Queen of Troy, maddened by her wrongs, had been transformed into a kind of Hell-hound with fiery eyes, whom sailors saw at night prowling round the hill where she was stoned. In her bloody revenge on the only enemy she can trap into her power, she seems already to have become this sort of being in her heart, and when her blind and dying victim prophesies the coming transformation, it seems natural. One only feels that perhaps the old miraculous stories are true after all. The one light that shines through the dark fury of the Hecuba is the lovely and gentle courage, almost the joy, with which the virgin martyr, Polyxena, goes to her death.
I have taken the Hecuba slightly before its due date, because of its return with increased bitterness to the tone and subject of the Medea. We will now go back. There had been in the interim a change in the poet's mind, or, at the least, a strong clash of conflicting emotions. The Medea was produced in 431, the first year of the Peloponnesian War. This war, between the Athenian empire, representing the democratic and progressive forces of Greece, and the Peloponnesian confederacy with Sparta at its head, lasted with one interruption for twenty-seven years and ended in the capture of Athens and the destruction of her power. When war was first declared it represented the policy of Pericles, the great statesman of the Enlightenment, the friend of Anaxagoras, and of those whom Euripides honoured most. It seemed at first like a final struggle between the forces of progress and those of resolute darkness. Pericles in a famous speech, which is recorded for us by Thucydides, had explained to his adherents the great causes for which Athens stood; had proclaimed her as the Princess of Cities for whom it was a privilege to die; and urged them, using a word more vivid in Greek than it is in English, to stand about her like a band of Lovers round an Immortal Mistress. Euripides was as a matter of fact still going through his military service and must have seen much hard fighting in these first years of the war.
He responded to Pericles' call by a burst of patriotic plays. Even in the Medea there is one chorus, a little out of place perhaps, but famous in after days, describing the glories of Athens. They are not at all the conventional glories attributed by all patriots to their respective countries. "It is an old and happy land which no conqueror has ever subdued; its children walk delicately through air that shines with sunlight; and Wisdom is the very bread that they eat." (The word is "sophia," embracing Wisdom, Knowledge, Art, Culture; there is no one word for it in English, and the names for the various parts of it have lost their poetry.) "A river," he continues, "flows through the land; and legend tells that Cypris, the Goddess of Love, has sailed upon it and dipped her hand in the water; and now when the river-wind at evening blows it comes laden with a spirit of longing; but it is not ordinary love, it is a Passion and a great Desire for all kinds of godlike endeavour, a Love that sits with Wisdom upon her throne." . . . "A pity the man should be so priggish." We may imagine the comment of the average Athenian paterfamilias.
Towards the beginning of the war we may safely date the Children of Heracles, a mutilated but beautiful piece, which rings with this particular spirit of patriotism (cf. p. 41 above). Heracles is dead; his children and mother are persecuted and threatened with death by his enemy, Eurystheus, king of Argos. Under the guidance of their father's old comrade, Iolaus, they have fled from Argos, and tried in vain to find protectors in every part of Greece. No city dares protect them against the power of Argos. At the opening of the play we find the children and Iolaus clinging as suppliants to an altar in Athens. The herald of Argos breaks in upon them, flings down the old man and prepares to drag the children off. "What hope can Iolaus possibly cherish?" Iolaus trusts in two things, in Zeus who will protect the innocent, and in Athens which is a free city and not afraid. The king of Athens, a son of Theseus, appears and rebukes the herald. The herald's argument is clear: "These children are Argive subjects and are no business of yours; further, they are utterly helpless and will be no possible good to you as allies. And if you do not give them up peacefully, Argos declares instant war." The king "wishes for peace with all men; but he will not offend God, nor betray the innocent; also he rules a free city and will take no orders from any outside power. As to the fate of these children not being his business, it is always the business of Athens to save the oppressed." One remembers the old claim, emphatically approved by the historian of the Persian Wars, that Athens was the saviour of Hellas. One remembers also the ultimatum of the Peloponnesian confederacy which Pericles rejected on the eve of the present war; and the repeated complaints of the Corinthians that Athens "will neither rest herself nor let others rest." These supply the clue to a large part of the patriotism of the Children of Heracles. There is another element also, and perhaps one that will better stand the test of impartial criticism, in Euripides' ideal of Athens. She will be true to Hellas and all that Hellas stands for: for law, for the gods of mercy, for the belief in right rather than force. Also, as the king of Athens is careful to observe, for democracy and constitutional government. He is no despot ruling barbarians.
The same motives recur with greater fulness and thoughtfulness in another play of the early war time—the exact year is not certain—the Suppliant Women. Scholars reading the play now, in cool blood, with the issues at stake forgotten, are inclined to smile at a sort of pedantry in the poet's enthusiasm. It reminds one of the punctiliousness with which Shelley sometimes gives one the sincere milk of the word according to Godwin. This play opens, like the last, with a scene of supplication. A band of women—Argive mothers they are this time, whose sons have been slain in war against Thebes—have come to Athens as suppliants. They are led by Adrastus, the great and conquered lord of Argos, and finding Aethra, the king's mother, at her prayers beside the altar, have surrounded her with a chain of suppliant branches which she dares not break. They only ask that Theseus, her son, shall get back for them the bodies of their dead sons, whom the Thebans, contrary to all Hellenic law, have flung out unburied for dogs to tear. Theseus at first refuses, on grounds of policy, and the broken-hearted women take up their branches and begin to go, when Aethra, who has been weeping silently, breaks out: "Is this kind of wrong to be allowed to exist?"
"Thou shalt not suffer it, thou being my child!
Thou hast seen men scorn thy City, call her wild
Of counsel, mad; thou hast seen the fire of morn
Flash from her eyes in answer to their scorn.
Come toil on toil; 'tis this that makes her grand;
Peril on peril! And common states, that stand
In caution, twilight cities, dimly wise—
Ye know them, for no light is in their eyes.
Go forth, my son, and help. My fears are fled.
Women in sorrow call thee, and men dead."
(Suppl 320 ff.)
Theseus accepts his mother's charge. It has been his old habit to strike wherever he saw oppression without counting the risk; and it shall never be said of him that an ancient Law of God was set at naught when he and Athens had power to enforce it. It is Athens as the "saviour of Hellas" that we have here. It is Athens the champion of Hellenism and true piety, but it is also the Athens of free thought and the Enlightenment. For later on, when the dead bodies are recovered from the battle-field, they are a ghastly sight. The old unreflecting Greece would in the first place have thought them a pollution, a thing which only slaves must be sent to handle. In the second place, since the mothers were making lamentation, the bodies must be brought to their eyes, so as to improve the lamentation. But Theseus feels differently on both points. Why should the mothers' grief be made more bitter? Let the bodies be burned in peace and the decent ashes given to the mothers. And as to the defilement, the king himself, we hear, has taken up the disfigured bodies in his arms and washed their wounds and "shown them love." No slave touched them. "How dreadful! Was he not ashamed?" asks a bystander—the Greek word means something between "ashamed" and "disgusted." "No," is the answer: "Why should men be repelled by one another's sufferings?" (768) It is a far-reaching answer, with great consequences. It is the antique counterpart of St. Francis kissing the leper's sores. The man of the herd is revolted by the sight of great misery and inclines to despise and even hate the sufferer; the man of the enlightenment sees deeper, and the feeling of revulsion passes away in the wish to help.
We spoke of a slight pedantry in the enthusiasms of the Suppliant Women. It is illustrated even by points like this, and by a tendency in Theseus to lecture on good manners and the Athenian constitution. The rude Theban herald enters asking, "Who is monarch of this land?" using the word "tyrannos" for "monarch." Theseus corrects him at once. "There is no 'tyrannos' here. This is a free city; and when I say a free city, I mean one in which the whole people by turns takes part in the sovereignty, and the rich have no privilege as against the poor" (399–408). These dissertations on democratic government could stir men's passions and force their way into scenes of high poetry legitimately enough at a time when men were fighting and dying for their democracy. To those who are not "Lovers" of the beautiful city they will seem cold and irrelevant.
Other plays of this period show marks of the same great wave of love for Athens. The lost plays Aigeus, Theseus, Erechtheus, all on Attic subjects, can be dated in the first years of the war; the Hippolytus is built on an old legend of the Acropolis and a poetic love of Athens shines through the story. The Andromache especially is a curious document, the meaning of which is discussed later on (p. 112). But the two plays we have described at length, The Children of Heracles and the Suppliant Women, give the best idea of what patriotism meant to our poet. With most men patriotism is a matter of association and custom. They stick to their country because it is theirs; to their own habits and prejudices and even neighbours for the same reason. But with Euripides his ideals came before his actual surroundings. He loved Athens because Athens meant certain things, and if the real Athens should cease to mean those things he would cast her out of his heart. At least he would try to do so; in point of fact that is always a very difficult thing to do. But if ever Athens should be false, it was pretty certain that Euripides would find hatred mingling with his betrayed love. There were signs of this even in the Medea and the Hecuba.
But before dealing with that subject we must dwell for a few moments upon another fine play, which marks in more than one sense the end of a period. The Heracles, written about the year 423, shows Theseus in the same rôle of Athenian hero. In the Suppliant Women he had helped Adrastus and the Argive mothers and shown them the path of true Hellenism; in the Heracles he comes to the rescue of Heracles in his fall. That hero has been mad and slain his own children; he has recovered and awakes to find himself bound to a pillar, with dead bodies that he cannot recognize round about him. He rages to be set free. He compels those who know to tell him the whole truth. Frantic with shame and horror, he wishes to curse God and die, when he sees Theseus approaching. Theseus has been his friend in many hard days and Heracles dares not face him nor speak to him. The touch of one so blood-guilty, the sound of his voice, the sight of his face, would bring pollution. He shrouds himself in his mantle and silently waves Theseus away. In a moment his friend's arms are round him, and the shrouding mantle is drawn off. There is no such thing as pollution; no deed of man can stain the immortal sunlight, and a friend's love does not fear the infection of blood. Heracles is touched: he thanks Theseus and is now ready to die. God has tempted him too far, and he will defy God. Theseus reminds him of what he is: the helper of man, the powerful friend of the oppressed; the Heracles who dared all and endured all; and now, like a common, weak-hearted man, he speaks of suicide! "Hellas will not suffer you to die in your blindness!" (1254). The great adventurer is softened and won over by the "wisdom" of Theseus, and goes to Athens to fulfil, in spite of suffering, whatever further tasks life may have in store for him.
This condemnation of suicide was unusual in antiquity; and the Heracles also contains one remarkable denial of the current myths, the more remarkable because, as Dr. Verrall has pointed out, it seems almost to upset the plot of the play. Heracles' madness is sent upon him by the malignity of Hera; we see her supernatural emissary entering the room where Heracles lies. And the hero himself speaks of his supernatural adventures. Yet he also utters the lines:
Say not there be adulterers in Heaven
Nor prisoner gods and gaoler. Long ago
My heart has known it false and will not alter.
God, if he be God, lacketh naught. All these
Are dead unhappy tales of minstrelsy.
(Her. 1341; cf. Iph. Taur. 380–392; Bellerophon fr. 292.)
But in another way, too, the Heracles marks an epoch in the poet's life. It seems to have been written in or about the year 423, and it was in 424 that Euripides had reached the age of sixty and was set free from military service. He had had forty years of it, steady work for the most part; fighting against Boeotians, Spartans, Corinthians, against Thracian barbarians, in all probability also against other people further overseas. We have no record of the campaigns in which Euripides served; but we have by chance an inscription of the year 458, when he was twenty-six, giving the names of the members of one particular tribe, the Sons of Erechtheus, who fell in war in that one year. They had fallen "in Cyprus, in Egypt, in Phoenicia, at Halieis, in Aegina and at Megara." There were ten such tribes in Athens. And this record gives some notion of the extraordinary energy and ubiquity of the Athenian armies.
It is strange to reflect on the gulf that lies between the life of an ancient poet and his modern descendants. Our poets and men of letters mostly live either by writing or by investments eked out by writing. They are professional writers and readers and, as a rule, nothing else. It is comparatively rare for any one of them to face daily dangers, to stand against men who mean to kill him and beside men for whom he is ready to die, to be kept a couple of days fasting, or even to work in the sweat of his body for the food he eats. If such things happen by accident to one of us we cherish them as priceless "copy," or we even go out of our way to compass the experience artificially.
But an ancient poet was living hard, working, thinking, fighting, suffering, through most of the years that we are writing about life. He took part in the political assembly, in the Council, in the jury-courts; he worked at his own farm or business; and every year he was liable to be sent on long military expeditions abroad or to be summoned at a day's notice to defend the frontier at home. It is out of a life like this, a life of crowded reality and work, that Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides found leisure to write their tragedies; one writing 90, one 127, and the third 92! Euripides was considered in antiquity a bookish poet. He had a library—in numbers probably not one book for every hundred that Tennyson or George Meredith had: he was a philosopher, he read to himself. But on what a background of personal experience his philosophy was builded! It is probably this immersion in the hard realities of life that gives ancient Greek literature some of its special characteristics. Its firm hold on sanity and common sense, for instance; its avoidance of sentimentality and paradox and various seductive kinds of folly; perhaps also its steady devotion to ideal forms and high conventions, and its aversion from anything that we should call "realism." A man everlastingly wrapped round in good books and safe living cries out for something harsh and real— for blood and swear-words and crude jagged sentences. A man who escapes with eagerness from a life of war and dirt and brutality and hardship to dwell just a short time among the Muses, naturally likes the Muses to be their very selves and not remind him of the mud he has just washed off. Euripides has two long descriptions of a battle, one in the Children of Heracles and one in the Suppliant Women; both are rhetorical Messenger's Speeches, conventionally well-written and without one touch that suggests personal experience. It is curious to compare these, the writings of the poet who had fought in scores of hand-to-hand battles, with the far more vivid rhapsodies of modern writers who have never so much as seen a man pointing a gun at them. Aeschylus indeed has written one splendid battle piece in the Persians. But even there there is no realism; it is the spirit of the war of liberation that thrills in us as we read, it is not the particular incidents of the battle.
Forty years of military service finished: as the men of sixty stepped out of the ranks they must have had a feeling of mixed relief and misgiving. They are now officially "Gerontes," Old Men: they are off hard work, and to be at the end of hard work is perilously near being at the end of life. There is in the Heracles a wistful chorus, put in the mouths of certain Theban elders (637 ff.), "Youth is what I love for ever; Old Age is a burden upon the head, a dimness of light in the eyes, heavier than the crags of Etna. Fame and the crown of the East and chambers piled with gold, what are they all compared with Youth?" A second life is what one longs for. To have it all again and live it fully; if a man has any aretê in him, any real life left in his heart, that is what ought to be possible. . . . For Euripides himself it seems there is still a life to be lived. The words are important and almost untranslatable. "I will never cease mingling together the Graces and the Muses"—such words are nearly nonsense, like most literal translations. The "Graces" or Charities are the spirits of fulfilled desire, the Muses are all the spirits of "Music" or of "Wisdom"—of History and Mathematics, by the way, just as much as Singing and Poetry. "I will not rest. I will make the spirits of Fulfilled Desire one with the spirits of Music, a marriage of blessedness. I care not to live if the Muses leave me; their garlands shall be about me for ever. Even yet the age-worn minstrel can turn Memory into song."
Memory, according to Greek legend, was the mother of the Muses; and the "memory" of which Euripides is thinking is that of the race, the saga of history and tradition, more than his own. The Muses taught him long ago their mystic dance, and he will be theirs for ever; he will never from weariness or faint heart ask them to rest. He was thinking doubtless of the lines of the old poet Alcman to his dancing maidens, lines almost the most beautiful ever sung by Greek lips: "No more, ye maidens honey-throated, voices of longing; my limbs will bear me no more. Would God I were a ceryl-bird, over the flower of the wave with the halcyons flying, and never a care in his heart, the sea-blue bird of the spring!" Euripides asks for no rest: cares and all, he accepts the service of the Muses and prays that he may bear their harness to the end. It was a bold prayer, and the Muses in granting it granted it at a heavy price.