Page:Euripides the Rationalist.djvu/19

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.



Excepting perhaps the Andromache, the Alcestis of all the plays has provoked most frequently and thoroughly this contradictory judgment of parts and whole, which in modern times has been the dominant note of criticism. These two belong neither to that very small list of which we are able to say that, with no reservations or insignificant reservations, we comprehend and admire the whole work, nor to that very large list, where comprehension is so much at fault that, to say the plain truth, they have ceased to have any general importance, being relegated to the school-room and lecture-room. In the Medea we have scarcely any fault to find; the faults, whatever they may be, of the Ion and the Madness of Heracles, can be left to be disputed by scholars. But the Alcestis cannot so be dismissed. We love Alcestis well enough to be jealous for her. The play of Euripides, so far as it is concerned with her wifely devotion, has told enough on our hearts to make us warmly sensible of what we find in it to offend us; and the complaints, which otherwise might simmer in obscurity, are stirred by this interest to vigour and fulness of expression. The more closely and impartially these complaints are examined, the more clearly it will appear that either the author of the play is, or we ourselves are, singularly unfortunate in the view we take of the subject. If modern criticism has not mistaken the matter, Euripides in the Alcestis shows himself at once master and tiro, master in the execution of details, tiro, or something less, in the lack of taste and judgment, by which the elements are so incongruously and inharmoniously combined.

The history of Alcestis, like many other legends whose origin is doubtful or lost, had been drawn before recorded times into the great circle of religious belief whose centre was the oracle of Delphi. It is possible that Heracles, who as a semi-divine agent retains in the version known to us an important though subordinate part, once figured as an independent deity, and that with his worship, not that of Apollo, the story was associated at some earlier stage. But in its existing shape it belongs to the deity of Pytho. In its general outline it is almost too familiar for repetition. Apollo, being condemned by Zeus to serve for a time among the herdsmen of a mortal man, and having found in Admetus, prince of Pherae in Thessaly, a kind and gentle master, not only rewarded the house with vast in-