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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Euripides (c. 480–406 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Cranston Lawton (1853–1941)
 
EURIPIDES, latest in age and perhaps least in rank among the three surviving tragic poets of Athens, was said to have been born on Salamis, during the decisive battle for freedom, when his mother, like the homeless folk of Attica generally, was in temporary exile upon the little island. This legend was at least an artistic invention, since Æschylus shared in the sea fight, and Sophocles, as a beautiful stripling, led the band of boys who danced about the trophy of victory.  1
  The supreme rank of these three is no accident of survival. When news of Euripides’s death reached Athens, Sophocles bade his chorus appear in mourning for him; and a few months later, when both were in the underworld, Aristophanes, in his comedy ‘The Frogs,’ makes the god Dionysos follow them thither, and beg Pluto to restore to earth one dramatist worthy to grace the annual contest at his festival. This testimony from the lifelong enemy and ridiculer of Euripides is borne out by all the evidence we have.  2
  He was probably of good Attic stock, the stories of his parents’ poverty being inventions of the comic poets. He was one of the first to collect a large library. He was carefully educated,—at first as an athlete, from a misunderstanding of an oracle to the effect that he was to “win prizes in contests.” He also developed youthful skill, like his friend Socrates, as an artist. At twenty-five he first obtained the honor of competing as one of the three chosen tragic poets at the Dionysia. All these facts point to good social rank.  3
  He did not, however, like the youthful Sophocles, win at once the popular heart. At his first venture he was placed last. He secured highest honors not once until fourteen years later, and only five times altogether. Yet toward the end of his life, and after his death, his influence, not merely in Athens but throughout Greek lands, was unrivaled. It is no accident that seven dramas of Æschylus, seven of Sophocles, nineteen of Euripides, have been preserved for us. Euripides is said to have composed twenty-three tetralogies, ninety-two dramas! Each play was doubtless an independent and complete work of art, so that the number is indeed surprising.  4
  No worthy successors to this brief line ever arose. The three and their forgotten rivals filled the fifth century B.C. with their splendor. The likeness of them all should strike a modern student, before their differences. All their plays graced the greatest State festival and were a part of the popular religious ceremonial. All save Æschylus’s ‘Persians’—no real exception in its spirit—aim to represent a remote heroic age. The characters are chiefly gods or the immediate offspring of gods. The vain struggle of man against Fate is always a motive, usually the chief thread of the tale. As to outward form, also, the chorus remains to the end the central feature, though its importance is somewhat lessened. The small number of actors, the stiffness of mask and buskin, the simple stage setting, the avoidance of violent or confused action, continued apparently little modified.  5
  Still, there has been a very general conviction in ancient and modern times, first uttered effectively by Aristophanes, that Euripides was a radical innovator, both in art and in religion. Of course this is necessarily true in some degree of any original creative artist. But the question goes much deeper.  6
  That wonderful fifth century falls inevitably into three periods. The generation that saw the terrific invading host of Xerxes melt away like a dream, and Athens arise from her ashes to become queen of the Ægean and the foremost State in the Greek world, could hardly escape a fervent belief in divine guidance of all earthly affairs. Æschylus, himself a Marathonian warrior, probably stamped upon tragedy much of his own intensely religious nature. His human characters seem almost helpless in the grip of stern but just Fate.  7
  In Sophocles the gods are rarely seen on the stage. Man is subject indeed to their rule, but he usually works out his own doom of ill or happiness by ways not inscrutable. In the prosperous period of Cimon and Pericles which formed his early maturity, Athens doubtless felt herself quite capable of accomplishing her own destiny. Pericles and the enlightened circle about him probably troubled themselves very little—beyond judicious outward conformity—with the traditional mythology. To many admiring readers, Sophocles seems cold. His ‘Electra’ best illustrates what we cannot here discuss. His conformity to Æschylean theology seems usually a mere artistic utterance of his own rather vague optimism.  8
  Euripides lived through the same period also. But he was not so harmonious and happy a nature. The pathos of human life, the capriciousness of destiny, the seemingly unjust distribution of lots, distressed and perplexed him. This may not have been so largely true of his earlier work. We have only one play (the ‘Alcestis’) previous to his fiftieth year. At that very time began the great national tragedy of the Thirty Years’ War, destined to end in the utter humiliation and downfall of imperial Athens. The plague, and the death of Pericles, made even the beginnings of the great strife seem tragic. The appalling disaster in Sicily foreshadowed the end, and indeed made it inevitable, long years before it came. It is not strange if the favorite, the popular Athenian poet of that darkening day, often doubted the Divine wisdom,—felt a strife, which his art could not reconcile, between man and Providence.  9
  Whatever the reason, the gods do take again a prominent share in Euripidean as in Æschylean drama; but they often, perhaps usually, act from less noble motives than the human characters. It has been maintained, even,—especially by a living English scholar, Professor Verrall,—that Euripides made it his lifelong purpose to undermine and destroy any belief in the real existence of Zeus and Apollo, Pallas Athene, and all their kin; that he was an aggressive agnostic, using the forms of the traditional gods only to show their helplessness, their imbecility, their impossibility.  10
  But surely the generation that slew Socrates for “introducing strange gods and not honoring those of the State,” would have detected and resented any such flagrant misuse of the holy place and day. Moreover, any such lifelong cynicism would have corroded the artistic powers themselves. Lucian, Voltaire, Swift, illustrate this truth. Many of the pessimistic outbursts often cited as Euripides’s own are uttered in character by his sufferers and sinners, and are mere half-conscious cries of distress or protest. His dramatic power was not always sufficient to recast the old myths in an ethical form which satisfied him. He knew men and women thoroughly, loved them, found them heroic, generous, noble,—and he so painted them. The gods, whom he did not know, fared worse at his hands. Often one is introduced in spectacular fashion at the close, to cut the knot which the poet had failed to untie in the natural course of his plot. (Even Sophocles, once at least,—in the ‘Philoctetes,’—does very much the same thing.) In general, Euripides seems distinctly inferior to his two masters, at their best, in construction, in plot. The world of scholarship is still laughing, with Aristophanes, at Euripides’s long narrative prologues. (See Mr. Shorey’s translation of the scene in the ‘Frogs,’ in the LIBRARY.) His long messengers’ speeches, fine as they are, seem almost epic in their broad descriptions of what we have not seen. (Again, as Professor Mahaffy himself remarks, Sophocles’s ‘Electra’ is the most unfortunate perversion of this indulgence.)  11
  On the other hand, in romantic lyric, in connected picturesque description, in pathos, in sympathy with elemental human feeling, Euripides has no Attic rival whatever. His women, his slaves, his humbler characters generally, are evidently drawn with especial tenderness. He is perhaps so far a “realist” in his art, that he should not have been restricted to the stately figures and famous names of the national myths. Much of his work seems more fitted to frankly contemporaneous drama. He is drawing men and women whom he has known, and should be allowed to say so. His fussy old nurse in the ‘Hippolytus,’ his homely rustic husband of ‘Electra,’ certainly cannot be set upon a pedestal.  12
  But should a work of art, above all of dramatic art, be set upon any pedestal at all? Should not the dramatist, rather, hold the mirror up to nature, bid living men and women walk and talk before us? It is in part the old antagonism, actual or supposed, of Idealism, or Classicism, against Realism, that has raged so long about the name of Euripides. There is much to be said, and truly said, on both sides; but certainly Euripides is, for us, by far the most important of the Attic dramatists. He influenced far more than any other the later course of his art; hastened the fusion of tragedy and comedy in the society melodrama of Menander and Philemon; dominated the Roman stage, and through it, modern dramatic art.  13
  His claim to be a great ethical teacher cannot be successfully disputed. Whatever we may think of his divinities, the world is not the worse but better (as Mr. Browning puts it)—
  “Because Euripides shrank not to teach,
If gods be strong and wicked, man, though weak,
May prove their match by willing to be good.”
  14
  Primarily and chiefly, however, he is a poet. His pictures are vivid, his characters are alive; they speak usually in their own voice, and are a part of the mimic scene. There are indeed instants when we hear, beyond or through them, a sigh from the poet’s own soul; the cry of a perplexed truth-seeker in an age of doubt and discouragement. Thus, when Menelaus promises to punish Helen for her long guilt, there is no adequate dramatic reason for Hecuba’s far-thought apostrophe:—
                          “O Thou
That bearest earth, thyself by earth upborne,
Whoe’er thou art, hard for our powers to guess,
Or Zeus, or Nature’s law, or mind of man,—
To thee I pray, for all the things of earth
In right thou guidest on thy noiseless way.”
  15
  Such passages are not rare, especially in choral odes, where the poet oftener seeks to utter the general belief or feeling of mankind as it appears to himself. It is never perfectly safe to ascribe them to Euripides the man, least of all when quoting from a lost play, where the very sentiment preserved may have been signally refuted.  16
  As we associate Æschylus first of all with the suffering Titan Prometheus, and Sophocles with the stately figure of an Œdipus or an Antigone, proudly facing the blows of fate with human courage, so the pathetic, even elegiac tale of ‘Hippolytus’ is the most characteristic Euripidean study. Here, for the first time, the passion of love is made the central motive of a great poem. Here, too, every human character is fearless in life and in death, while the gods are quarrelsome, vindictive, and ignoble. It is the very play on which Aristophanes lavished his biting wit and ridicule. It was performed in 428 B.C., and appealed to the audience as an Attic myth, centered about their great legendary king Theseus, who is a central though not a leading character.  17
  A madder system of superhuman government, surely, was never outlined, even in Aristophanes’s own realm of Cloud-cuckooville. But these divinities, after all, supply merely a spectacular tableau at the beginning and end,—and the pathetic elegiac motive. Their appearance clears Phædra, Hippolytus, even Theseus, of all fault.  18
  The nobler tone is supplied in the splendid courage displayed by men and women; even by the old attendants; even by the messenger who tells the prince’s mishaps, and faces fearlessly the unforgiving sire:—
  “I am a slave within thy house, O King,
But this at least I never will believe,
That he, thy son, was guilty: not although
The whole of womankind go hang themselves,
And with their letters fill the pines that grow
On Ida!”
  19
  Throughout the play there are fresh glimpses of outdoor life, fragrant breezes blown from glen and sea; strange far-off visions of enchantment arise at the magician’s call. Again, the Birds form the only rival of scenes worthy to be mentioned with ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ itself. And yet again, Phædra’s plea for death to destroy the mad desire that horrifies her wifely heart, the youthful athlete’s piteous plea to his frenzied steeds as they trample upon their beloved master,—these are realism of the noblest kind. And all these varied pictures are included in a play not fifteen hundred lines in length! Racine’s ‘Phèdre’ is much longer, and far less effective.  20
  Better known, and simpler in its plot, is Euripides’s earliest extant play, the ‘Alcestis.’ The dying Alcestis is one of the most noble and pathetic figures in literature. It was popular at once, for her words are parodied by Aristophanes. Milton felt its power, as a famous sonnet reveals. Mr. Browning has made it the center of his great imaginative poem, ‘Balaustion’s Adventure.’ This character should alone secure Euripides from the epithet of “woman-hater,” first cast at him by the most audacious scoffer at women who ever lived.  21
  There are cruel and wicked women in Euripides, though none approaches Æschylus’s Clytæmnestra. The most terrible of them is Medea, who murders her own children to punish their unfaithful father, Jason the Argonaut. Even her action is adequately justified, in a dramatic sense. It is made quite credible that a wronged woman, with the blood of gods and savages in her veins, should do the deeds she dares. The ethical question hardly comes up at all. The capital fault of the play is, that we have no adequate reward at last for all the horrors we have undergone. Indeed, Medea is promised safe refuge in Athens, and the innocent Corinthians are bidden to atone for her deeds. In truth, Medea is in earlier forms of the myth merely sinned against. Euripides’s love of striking contrasts often, perhaps too often, tempted him into making a seemingly defenseless woman’s hand deal the decisive stroke of fate.  22
  So in the ‘Hecuba,’ the Trojan queen, dethroned, enslaved, bereft of all her dearest ones, strikes an unexpected and deadly blow at the most cruel and selfish of men, the Thracian king who for love of gold has murdered his guest, her young son Polydorus. The comparatively noble Agamemnon, who fights for just revenge, or slays the innocent only at superhuman command, is made the half-willing tool of her imperial vengeance.  23
  This tale may remind us that more than half the extant plays, and countless others known by titles and scanty fragments, dealt with characters familiar from the Homeric poems. The great tragedians wisely avoided, as a rule, the very scenes immortalized in Iliad or Odyssey, seizing by preference on earlier or later episodes in the same storm-lost lives.  24
  The most curious illustration here is doubtless the ‘Helena.’ After utilizing Menelaus’s faithless queen as an ignoble and much-berated character in several plays, Euripides gives her the title rôle in a drama intended to rescue her character. It is but a wraith that Paris has wooed and defended for twenty years. Happier than the many heroes who perish in her defense, she herself has been living safe and innocent all these years, under enchantment, in Egypt, the abode of mystery. Here Menelaus, sailing homeward triumphant with the Eidolon, is made doubly happy by receiving a stainless Helen once more. This strange myth, if we can accept it, at least effaces in some degree our indignant sense of injustice, aroused when the ageless daughter of Zeus appears in the Odyssey reigning once more happily over a contented people and an uxorious husband. But Helen, the immortal ideal of beauty, should not be judged, I suppose, by anything so narrow and puritanical as an ethical standard!  25
  Among Euripides’s happiest works is the Tauric ‘Iphigenia.’ The happy outcome of this Greek play is by no means rare on the Attic stage. A certain spirit of reconciliation, or submission at least, seems to have been demanded for a closing scene. At the end of his life Euripides returned to this myth, to depict the earlier scene of sacrifice at Aulis. The play seems to have been left unfinished, and many lines have been added by a weaker hand. Still, the fearless princess, facing death cheerfully for the honor of her people, is a most pathetic figure, and was used with thrilling effect in the quadrimillennial Harvard oration of James Russell Lowell, who compared to her the glad young martyrs of the Civil War. The return of the poet to a theme already used, as was said, in an earlier year, doubtless illustrated the narrow range of myths acceptable to his audience. So all the great three wrote on Phædra and Hippolytus, on Electra and Orestes, on Philoctetes and his bow. The courageous surrender of life at the altar, or under similar conditions, is also repeated in a number of plays, and may remind us of the startling truth that human sacrifice was not absolutely unknown, even in the most enlightened age of historical Hellas. Polyxena, in the ‘Hecuba,’ is more forlorn than Iphigenia, since she actually perishes, at a foeman’s hand, and without the faintest hope of saving even her mother and sisters from slavery, much less of restoring her native city from its ashes. The poet who created such noble and inspiring types of women deserves the eternal gratitude of all who love and honor heroic wives and mothers.  26
  It is not possible nor desirable to discuss here all the nineteen Euripidean plays. We will only mention further the ‘Bacchæ.’ It was written near the close of the century, when the poet was living in voluntary exile, as the honored guest of Archelaus the Macedonian monarch. Those who regard Euripides as a heretic and a skeptic sometimes consider this play as a sort of death-bed recantation. Certainly the divine power of Semele’s child is revealed by a terrific vengeance on those of his own kin who had denied and persecuted him. The play is badly mutilated in the MSS.; its ethical tone is low, and the chief interest centers upon the splendid choral odes in Dionysos’s honor. Out of such odes, as is well known, the drama itself took its rise. It is curious that from this one tragedy alone, at the very close of the century of creative dramatic art, we must form what conception we may of the early dithyramb. More perhaps than other arts, literature as a rule survives in its maturer forms only, and rarely affords us adequate materials for studying its development. Here, as in other fields of Greek literature, we must say that chance, or Providence, has preserved a mere handful out of a whole library of scrolls; but these are, in the main, the masterpieces of the greatest masters.  27
  The only available edition of Euripides’s plays with English notes is the one in the Bibliotheca Classica, by the indefatigable F. A. Paley. It is not very satisfactory, and there are many better editions of single plays. A large part of Euripides has been excellently edited in French by Weil. The great work upon the dramatist’s art is in the same language: Paul Decharme’s ‘Euripide et l’Esprit de son Théâtre.’ One of the most readable chapters in J. A. Symonds’s ‘Greek Poets’ is devoted to our author. Professor Jebb has a masterly article in the Britannica, but his sympathies are on the whole with the elder school. The general reader will find the newer school of criticism represented by Sir Gilbert Murray’s admirable ‘Euripides and his Age.’  28
  It is much better, however, to let the poet make his own impression on us, even if only in translation. The new Bohn version of all the plays in prose by E. P. Coleridge is careful, scholarly, and usually as literal as the idioms of the two languages permit. A very different performance is the verse translation of the dramas in three volumes by A. S. Way. Mr. Way has made a daring venture, and the result is at least very interesting. His rhymes are copious and resounding; in metre he is an avowed and advanced student of Swinburne. All the resources of English poetry are richly lavished on the work. There is a splendor in the general effect,—to which the classical pedant naturally objects, that it is not always Euripidean splendor. A middle ground between these two methods has been attained by the very popular verse translations made in recent years by Sir Gilbert Murray. It is widely felt, even by classical scholars, that they combine most happily a reasonable faithfulness to the Greek text with poetic quality and charm.  29
  Notable English versions of single plays are the ‘Cyclops’ by Shelley, the ‘Hercules’ by Browning, the ‘Medea’ by Mrs. Augusta Webster, the ‘Bacchæ’ by H. H. Milman, etc. The essayist’s ‘Three Dramas of Euripides’ was an attempt to combine close metrical versions of the ‘Alcestis,’ ‘Medea,’ and ‘Hippolytus’ with such literary comment as the modern reader might feel he needed in so remote a theatre. The transcript of ‘Alcestis’ in Browning’s ‘Balaustion’ is hardly a translation, but is incrusted with the most inspiring illustration any classical drama has yet received.  30
 
 
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