Page:Euripides the Rationalist.djvu/20

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crease of riches, but when Admetus, yet young, was doomed by the Fates to die, obtained their consent to accept a substitute. Alcestis, the wife of Admetus, undertook to redeem his life by the sacrifice of her own, and died accordingly on the day predicted. But the favour of heaven was not to be thus frustrated of its completeness; for Heracles, as Apollo willed and foresaw, rescued the heroic wife from the grave and the arms of death, and restored her alive again to her husband. If the roots of the legend are obscure, and descend into a stratum of thought and feeling which can hardly now be penetrated, the religious instincts to which it appeals as a whole are plain and universal. Accepted in the simplicity of faith, it offers, in the first place, a comforting answer to that question of questions, with which the mind of mortality is for ever occupied, an assurance that the spirits of the just are in the hand of God. The form is foreign to us, but the substance familiar and intelligible, so much so that to believe, even for one imaginative instant, in the truth of the history is to feel, for that instant, its profound religious importance. The virtues by which this manifestation of divine goodness is earned,—in the husband humanity towards the unhappy and helpless, in the wife the utmost unselfishness of love,—are virtues to some extent of all ages and pre-eminently of the Christian ages. If the modern attempts to deal with the subject in dramatic and other forms have not been highly successful, this is explained sufficiently by the absence of one indispensable condition, a genuine or at least, if I may so put it, a practically efficient faith on the part of the spectator and reader. The theme is too solemn for play; but if (to make a bold hypothesis) it were possible for a modern audience to retain for the space of two hours a belief in the miracle, there would be no remaining difficulty in the way of an impressive representation. At Athens in the fifth century before Christ this one impediment did not exist. The belief was a part of public religion[1]; and even those who had ceased to share it by personal conviction could have no difficulty in re-assuming it temporarily for the purpose of artistic enjoyment. In one respect the subject was peculiarly fitted for the newly-founded stage of tragedy. Aeschylus, from whose mind the new art had taken

  1. Alc. 452.