Sophocles (Classical Writers)/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V.

EXTERNAL CONDITIONS—CHOICE OF FABLE.

It is unnecessary to dwell here at any length on the external conditions of representation to which Athenian tragedy owed much of its peculiar form—the size of the open theatre, the performance by daylight, the small number of the actors, the continual presence of the chorus. These and other circumstances may be said to have conspired with the genius of Greek art to combine grandeur with simplicity and unity. The addition of the third actor, with which Sophocles is credited, enabled him to add something of complexity without introducing confusion.[1]

But there is one limitation, of a less absolute kind, to which attention may be particularly directed—that of the choice of subject.

The time when an audience would cry, on seeing a new hero, "This has nothing to do with Bacchus," was indeed long since passed. But so also was the period of novel enterprises, in which a drama like the Persæ had been possible. After that brief excursion into the region of contemporary history, tragedy had returned within the cycle of Hellenic legend. The art in fact stood on the border-line between two worlds: that of heroic tradition, which to the people's imagination was still real, and which they had begun to connect with existing political relations, and that of philosophic thought, which was still in that early phase which can be contented with imaginative expression. When the fables were no longer believed, when philosophy was attaining clearness, the native air of tragedy was spent (See above, c. 3, p. 16.)

It was impossible all at once to make a new beginning and to leap, theatre and all, out of the age of Pericles into that of Lessing and Goethe. There are isolated scenes and speeches in Euripides, which might seem to give promise of a dramatic art more comprehensive and more real than had been known hitherto, an art in which "the whole tragedy and comedy of life," of which Plato wrote, would be represented in the light of true ideas, without the inconvenient trappings of mythology. But these are, after all, but splendid patches on an inharmonious work, the occasional springing of a plant, "which bears a golden flower, but not in this soil."

The very narrowness of his range, indeed, gave to the ancient poet a capital advantage in point of reality. Greek tragedy not only took shape and growth directly from the spirit of the time, but dealt with subjects of the most vital interest. For to the Athenians of the time of Cleisthenes or of Miltiades, and later still, the local or neighbouring hero was a living power, present in their midst, whose destinies were inseparably bound up with the national existence. Hence the imagination of the ancient spectator met the poet half-way and conspired with him in the production of an atmosphere of illusion. For, as Aristotle puts it, "what is possible is credible, and what once happened was clearly possible." Whereas the utmost that can be said for a modern fable is that "the story is extant, and written in very choice Italian."

The protagonist of modern fiction is a shadowy being, who is to us only what the poet makes him. Even in going to hear an historical play we think of it chiefly as a work of imagination. Very different was the eager expectation with which the Athenians awaited the coming on of Theseus or of Heracles. Yet these objects of reverence were sufficiently removed in time to give scope for a free handling of the fables concerning them; a freedom used more deliberately by Sophocles than by Shakespeare.

Let it be imagined for a moment that in the sixteenth century the Warwicks and Talbots, the Cliffords and the Suffolks, of English history, had been universally believed to be of divine origin; that their real presence had been then supposed to affect the fortunes of the parishes in which their bones were laid, and to influence affairs of state;—that whole counties had claimed to be related to them by blood. And let it be further imagined that the merest outline of their life-history was generally known, so that the poet was as free to mould their destinies as those of Posthumus, Imogen, or Prospero. Then we may have some hint of the difference in regard to opportunities for affecting popular feeling, between Greek tragedy and the Elizabethan drama.

But it is not less true that, while the modern dramatist has even an embarrassing range of choice, in the traditions of all nations, in classical poetry and in popular fiction, the Greek tragedian was bound within the sphere of national heroic legend. And the fables which this contained, however numerous and varied in detail, tended to ring the changes on a few striking incidents which had been impressed on the rude fancy of a primitive time. The avenger of blood, the outcast homicide, the fulfilment of the curse, the return of the exile, the recognition of the stranger, the protection of the suppliant, the purification of the polluted, the horrors of incest and parricide, are topics which continually recur. These ancient and often grotesque conceptions the poet had to make the vehicle of his art in holding up his ideal mirror to a more refined and reflective age. It would be a flagrant misconception to credit him with the invention of his fable. The story of Œdipus, for example, could never have been invented by Sophocles. What he has done is to make the weird tale a means for revealing the inmost workings of the heart, for moving awe and pity in the highest degree and for impressing anew the old lesson of the sacredness of the family. In thus humanising an archaic horror, which, because archaic, had the stronger claim on the imagination, there remains a certain amount of inevitable incongruity; although much less than where a "crowner's quest" is spoken of in Denmark, or King Arthur is seen—

"like a modern gentleman,
Of stately port;"

less, too, than would appear if we ignored the fact, that legendary persons and events had an intense reality for the popular imagination, long after, such minds as Thucydides' had outgrown- them: a fact which is strikingly apparent in the orations of Lysias.

From the body of Greek legend, then, the poet had to select his theme. And, according to Aristotle, the range of choice was further narrowed, as the purpose of tragedy came, to be more clearly seen, until the subjects universally applauded were confined to the histories of a few royal houses, whose fortunes supplied characters, situations, and catastrophes, of an eminently tragic nature. It is clear, however, if we turn over the fragments of Sophocles and Euripides, that Aristotle is speaking, not of their entire works, but of those which in his time were esteemed as masterpieces.

How far each poet borrowed from the earlier literature, or to what extent he relied on oral tradition, such as may have still floated round the local worship of particular heroes,[2] we can never know. It seems probable, as Schneidewin has shown, that Æschylus adopted some things from the lyric poets, where Sophocles preferred to rest on the simpler Homeric narrative, not, however, as embodied in the Iliad or Odyssey, but in the wider cycle of later and inferior epic poetry, now lost. It does not follow from this that the Iliad and the Odyssey were unknown to Sophocles. Tennyson does not take his subjects from Chaucer or Shakespeare, yet his poetry derives many hues from both. Even if confessedly inferior, the Cyclus may have been thought "good to steal from," just as the writer of a Greek tragedy in the present day might select his subject from Hyginus or Apollodorus rather than from Euripides. Or, on the other hand, the Iliad and Odyssey may have existed and yet not have been popular in Attica at a particular time. Such popularity would depend less upon the beauty or force of the poetry than upon the real or imaginary relation of the subject to the interests of the hearers. The "Wrath of Ajax" would have more charm for the men of Salamis than the "Wrath of Achilles." At all events many strange phenomena would be less strange than that the Iliad and Odyssey should be the productions of nameless poets in historic times, and that the life in them, so unrivalled in vividness and clearness, yet so different from the life of the fifth century, should be the artificial reproduction (with whatever aids from ballad poetry) of a forgotten age.[3]

For the tragic poet the motives of selection were as varied as the motives of dramatic interest. A fable may have been preferred, (1) because of its association with some popular worship; (2) because of national or political interests attaching to the scene; (3) because the hero represented some Pan-Hellenic or (4) Athenian feeling; (5) because it had been already made popular through epic recitation; or (6) because of some essential aptitude for tragic handling. This last consideration can never have been absent; the others may have been variously present, either singly or combined.

In the following list of tragic subjects which are known to have been treated by Sophocles, we may notice, first, the absence of purely Dionysiac fables, which, as the art was more and more refined, were mostly relegated to the satyric drama, until the "old friend with a new face" appeared once more in the Bacchæ of Euripides; and secondly, the preference of human over Olympian or Titanic heroes. An increased proportion of Attic subjects, as compared with Æschylus, has also been remarked. But considering the much smaller number of Æschylean subjects known to us, this point cannot be regarded as certain, although for the Aiantean trilogy of the one poet at least a dozen Attic fables are known to have been treated by the other. Yet these form but a seventh part of the whole, and in some cases, as in the Triptolemus, the choice is rather due to a religious than to a political or patriotic motive. In like manner it is probably the result of religious more than of national affinities, as well as of epic tradition, that the legends of Thebes and Argos bulk so much more largely than the legend of Corinth. The Pan-Hellenic subjects of the Trojan War and the voyage of the Argonauts were largely drawn upon by Sophocles, as appears from the following list of fables treated by him[4]:—

1. Subjects connected with the Trojan War.

Æthiopes (story of Memnon). Ajax with the Scourge. Ajax the Locrian. Aleadæ (story of Telephus). Alexander. Antenoridæ. Captives (perhaps the story of Chryseïs). Dolopians. Eumelus. Euryalus. Helen demanded back. Laconian Maidens. Laocoon. Lovers of Achilles (qy. satyric?). Mysians. Nauplius 1st. Nauplius 2nd. Odysseus feigning madness. Palamedes. Page:Sophocles (Classical Writers).djvu/45 Page:Sophocles (Classical Writers).djvu/46



  1. For a full outline of this part of the subject the reader is again referred to Mr. Jebb's Primer of Greek Literature.
  2. The tragic poet was the ally of priests and prophets, and himself exercised a kind of priesthood. Such men were always learned in tradition (λόγιοι). And a worship like that of Dionysus at Eleutheræ, or of Demeter at Eleusis, was sure to become the focus of a body of tradition which must have lived orally, whether poets gave shape to it or not.
  3. Our thanks are, notwithstanding, due to Professor Paley for the learning and ingenuity which he has expended in supporting his theory, and for his original and valuable suggestions respecting the history of writing and of the fine arts in Hellas.
  4. This string of names should be made significant by reference to a classical dictionary.