Euripides the Rationalist

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London: C. J. CLAY and SONS,
Glasgow: 263, ARGYLE STREET.


Leipzig: F. A. BROCKHAUS.









THE purpose of this book is to explain and account for, perhaps also to diminish or to abolish, but at any rate to account for and explain, the great and surprising difference of opinion between ancient readers and modern respecting the position and merits of Euripides. That this difference exists is not, so far as I know, disputed, and certainly cannot be disputed with reason; in many modern works of authority it has been justly marked and emphasized. From Euripides' death to the decline and fall of pagan learning there never was, so far as we have evidence, any noteworthy dissent from the view that Euripides, however he, like any other artist, might be variously estimated by personal taste, stood at all events in the very first rank of artists, superior to all but the elect, and not demonstrably or confessedly inferior to any. Such is the opinion depicted, variously but harmoniously, by the highest representatives of literary culture in succession down to the very end, by Plato, by Cicero, by Lucian, and by all the voices who fill up that tract of time. There is not a sign that by any one commanding attention the question was ever raised whether Euripides had really deserved the honour of standing with Sophocles and with Aeschylus. The opinion which groups them as 'different but equal' is given by Cicero, for example, not as his own judgment, but as a commonplace. The polemic of Aristophanes, if and in so far as it tends to impeach Euripides as an artist (for almost all of it, that can be taken as serious, is aimed not at his art but at his opinions) failed with the ancient world completely. By the side of Aeschylus and Sophocles—and if distinctions must be made, not lowest assuredly of the three—Euripides stood securely. It is on the other hand notorious that in modern times this position of his has been incessantly contested, and by the weight as well as the majority of voices has been with increasing emphasis denied. The contradiction is no matter of detail; it goes to the whole tone and substance of judgment. No one in modern times, since Greek has been well understood, has said that his dearest desire beyond the grave would be to meet Euripides; not this nor anything like it. No one in the ancient world, so far as we know, ever said that much of Euripides' work might seem to have been composed in a fever; not this nor anything like it. Agreeing generally, with remarkable but not surprising exactness, in their estimate of the great writers Greek and Roman, about this one man the ancient readers and the modern are out of accord. The most cultivated men of the ancient world (I do not except or forget Aristotle, who shall be specially considered in due course) speak of Euripides regularly and habitually as modest men would now speak of Shakespeare or Goethe, and sometimes as reverent men would now speak of Dante or St Paul. The modern remarks, whether of censure or defence, are pitched in another key and confined to a different range. The ancients do not defend Euripides. In our time a defence, cordial sometimes or fervent, but still a defence, is the utmost that he obtains. By Menander, or Ennius, or Ovid, to judge from their own practice, such a defence would have been heard with amazement. There are some names which must not be so praised, and in the ancient world among such names, high among such, stood the name of Euripides.

The explanation of this discrepancy, which will here be offered, has at least one advantage. The reader will not be asked to dissent, as a matter of taste and aesthetic judgment, either from the ancient opinion or from the modern. Scarcely even the scorn of Schlegel is too much for many of the works of Euripides, read as they were by Schlegel and are by the modern world in general. Scarcely even the adoration of the admirer pourtrayed by Philemon is too much for Euripides, read as he was read certainly by Lucian and presumably by the ancient world in general. The works of Euripides, almost all of them, depend for their interpretation on a certain broad conventional principle, probably not ever applicable to many writings except his, and applicable to no others now extant. This principle is stated (as we shall see before we conclude) by an excellent authority in the clearest terms; but nevertheless it has never in modern times been steadily applied, and for the most part has been simply ignored. The effect of this one error can be compared only to that of changing, in a mathematical expression, the positive sign for the negative; and the result is a body of criticism, of which a large part is really not more pertinent or more reasonable than it would be to put a statue upon its head, and then to complain of the statuary for representing a man with his feet in the air.


The legend, pp. 3–5. Analysis of the play, 5–6. Paley's criticism, 7. Altercation with Pheres and intoxication of Heracles, their aesthetic effect, 8–9. Defence of Admetus, not maintainable, 11–14. Defence of Heracles; Balaustion's Adventure; Browning changes the character, substituting that of the Madness of Heracles, 15–22, 39. The true Heracles, professional athlete and soldier, 22–25. Greek view of drunkenness, 26. The bargain of the Fates, how limited, 26–28. The 'hospitality' of Admetus to Heracles, properly condemned by Euripides, 30–42. The 'unity of time', a misleading fiction, 43. Funeral custom in Athens, 44–45. Funerals on the stage, 45–46. The funeral of Alcestis, 47–54. True bearing of the scene with Pheres, 54–60. Breaks in the action, absence of Chorus, 61–62. Final scene; disguise of Alcestis, its aesthetic effect, 64. Dialogue of Heracles and Admetus, 65–66. The finale, 66–67. προσειπεῖν, 66. συνέστιος, 67. The finale not conceivable as representing reality, 67–73. Explanation of this; the purpose of Euripides is to expose the legend as untrue; the finale is ironical, 73–77. This form of construction typical and regular in Euripides; the Euripidean 'tag', 77, 112, 196. Contrast of ancient and modern theatre, 78–79. Religion of Euripides, and his relation to the theatre, 79–84. Disguise practically necessary to him, 84–88. Its moral danger; censure of Aristophanes, 88. Its special attraction for the Athenians, a consequence of their national character, 89–92. Its usefulness to wit; examples from the Alcestis, 92–95. Consequent method of exhibiting the popular gods; generally detached from the action proper, as in the Alcestis, 95–96. Difficulty of realizing Euripides' point of view from our habituation to another manner (the Alexandrian) of treating the Greek legends, 97–99. The prologue to the Alcestis, Apollo and Death, 99–102. Effect of Euripides on readers, and specially under discussion; great importance of this, shown by Aristophanes, 102–105. General view of the play as it might be expounded by the 'Euripides' of the Frogs, 105–112. Interest not centred on Alcestis, but on the resurrection, 113–114. Disorganization in all the scenes produced by misplacing it, shown in commentaries, 115. The death-scene, 115–118. The intoxication of Heracles, 119. Dramatic advantage, to imitation of nature, of obscurity permissible to a certain degree, 120–122. Manner of Alcestis' burial; supposed oversight of author, really part of design, 122–128.

Parallel in construction between Ion and Alcestis, 130–131. Prologue of the Ion compared with the finale; the failure of Apollo's design, 131–137. The prologue and finale, as in the Alcestis, ironical, 137–139. The action of the Ion; abstract, 140–144. The finale no dênouement, 144–146. The action of the play really proceeds on the assumption that there is no Apollo, the oracle being a fraud, 146–149. The fraud of the cradle and tokens, 148–151. Summary of the story, disengaged from the miraculous prologue and finale, 152–153. Result of the attempt to carry out logically the current hypothesis, 155–158. Ion and Lourdes, 158. The fraud of the cradle resumed, 160–163. The tragedy of faith, 163. Difficulty of performing Euripides at the present day, 163–164.

Finale of the Iphigenia; proof of the true character of a Euripidean god from stage-jest put in the mouth of Athena, 168–171. Parallel case of the Orestes, 171–173. Ἄρειοι πάγοι, 171. Ridicule of anthropomorphic religion in reference to the Dioscuri; inference from it to general intention of the play, 174–175. The story does not assume the existence of Apollo, 176–183. 'Lacuna' in the oracle, as to the meeting of Iphigenia and Orestes, 180. Trial before the Areopagus, contrast with the Eumenides, 176. Iphigenia's dream; contrast with the Choephori, 177, The miraculous wind, 182. The motive of the oracle, 182–183. The Furies; hallucination of Orestes; inference from this as to his account of the scene at the Areopagus, 183–189. The Furies in Aeschylus and in Euripides; their costume, etc., 184. The Semnai θεαὶ ἀνώνυμοι: point of this designation in reference to the Eumenides, 185–186. Legendary origin of the Choës; Euripides explodes it, 187–188. Artemis, her supposed part in the transference of Iphigenia to Taurica; rationalistic explanation, after the manner of Palaephatus; the name Thoas 189–192. Summary. True purpose of the play; necessary to its effect as a tragedy, 192–193. Moral quality of Orestes' enterprise, and of Iphigenia's plot, 193–195. The pretended finale, its flatness and futility; allusion to 'the Euripidean tag', 195–197. The stage-gods of Euripides, not to be regarded as personages in the drama; statement of Lucian, 197–201. Inconsistency between the finale and the play; character and condition of Orestes, 201–204. And of Iphigenia, 204. Character and fate of Pylades, 205. And of the Chorus, 206. Euripides and the Poetics of Aristotle, 206–215. General purpose of Aristotle in the Poetics; his criticism of the dramatists negative, 206–207. Aeschylus, 207–208. Sophocles, 208–209. Euripides, 209–211. 'The most tragic of the poets', 210. General opposition between Aristotle's principles and the tragedy of the fifth century, 211–212. Illustrated by Aristotle from the Iphigenia, 213. Question as to the limits of Aristotle's theory, 214.

The variations of orthodoxy useful to the dissenter, 217–218. The Pythian ode in the Iphigenia; importance of its isolation as an entr'acte, 218–219, 229. Religious character of the Chorus as connected with Delos, 219. The ode contrasted with the prologue to the Eumenides, 219–229. Aeschylean history of Pytho, its general character, 220. Tradition of contest between rival deities, how dealt with, 221. Aeschylean Zeus, 222. Bacchus at Delphi, 223. The ode, 224–225. Satire of Pythian avarice, 226. Euripidean history of Pytho, 227–229.


General result of the preceding Essays, 231–232. The critical problem of the Phoenissae; prima facie appearance of interpolation, 232–235. The personage of Antigone and the banishment of Oedipus, not appropriate, 236–243. Date of the change; not made by Euripides, but suggested by the Oedipus at Colonus, 244–247. Motive and interest of the change; the existing finale allegorical, 247–259. Euripides as 'Oedipus'; allusions elsewhere, 257–259. The Sphinx and Aeschylus, 259. Conclusion, 260.


This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.