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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 16/97 -


so many acts of one great and entire drama. I mention this as a preliminary justification of the practice of Shakspeare and other modern poets, to connect together in one representation a larger circle of human destinies, as we can produce to the critics who object to this the supposed example of the ancients.

In _Agamemnon_, it was the intention of Aeschylus to exhibit to us a sudden fall from the highest pinnacle of prosperity and renown into the abyss of ruin. The prince, the hero, the general of the combined forces of the Greeks, in the very moment of success and the glorious achievement of the destruction of Troy, the fame of which is to be re-echoed from the mouths of the greatest poets of all ages, in the very act of crossing the threshold of his home, after which he had so long sighed, and amidst the fearless security of preparations for a festival, is butchered, according to the expression of Homer, "like an ox in the stall," slain by his faithless wife, his throne usurped by her worthless seducer, and his children consigned to banishment or to hopeless servitude.

With the view of giving greater effect to this dreadful reverse of fortune, the poet endeavours to throw a greater splendour over the destruction of Troy. He has done this in the first half of the piece in a manner peculiar to himself, which, however singular, must be allowed to be impressive in the extreme, and well fitted to lay fast hold of the imagination. It is of importance to Clytemnestra that she should not be surprised by the sudden arrival of her husband; she has therefore arranged an uninterrupted series of signal fires from Troy to Mycenae, to announce to her that great event. The piece commences with the speech of a watchman, who supplicates the gods for a deliverance from his labours, as for ten long years he has been exposed to the cold dews of night, has witnessed the changeful course of the stars, while looking in vain for the expected signal; at the same time he sighs in secret over the corruption which reigns within the royal house. At this moment he sees the long- wished-for beacon blazing up, and hastens to announce it to his mistress. A chorus of aged persons appears, and in their songs they go through the whole history of the Trojan War, through all its eventful fluctuations of fortune, from its origin, and recount all the prophecies relating to it, and the sacrifice of Iphigenia, by which the sailing of the Greeks was purchased. Clytemnestra explains to the chorus the joyful cause of the sacrifice which she orders; and the herald Talthybius immediately makes his appearance, who, as an eye-witness, relates the drama of the conquered and plundered city, consigned as a prey to the flames, the joy of the victors, and the glory of their leader. With reluctance, as if unwilling to check their congratulatory prayers, he recounts to them the subsequent misfortunes of the Greeks, their dispersion, and the shipwreck suffered by many of them, an immediate symptom of the wrath of the gods. It is obvious how little the unity of time was observed by the poet,--how much, on the contrary, he avails himself of the prerogative of his mental dominion over the powers of nature, to give wings to the circling hours in their course towards the dreadful goal. Agamemnon now arrives, borne in a sort of triumphal car; and seated on another, laden with booty, follows Cassandra, his prisoner of war, and concubine also, according to the customary privilege of heroes. Clytemnestra greets him with hypocritical joy and veneration; she orders her slaves to cover the ground with the most costly embroideries of purple, that it might not be touched by the foot of the conqueror. Agamemnon, with wise moderation, refuses to accept an honour due only to the gods; at last he yields to her solicitations, and enters the palace. The chorus then begins to utter its dark forebodings. Clytemnestra returns to allure, by friendly speeches, Cassandra also to destruction. The latter is silent and unmoved, but the queen is hardly gone, when, seized with prophetic furor, she breaks out into the most confused and obscure lamentations, but presently unfolds her prophecies more distinctly to the chorus; in spirit she beholds all the enormities which have been perpetrated within that house--the repast of Thyestes, which the sun refused to look upon; the ghosts of the mangled children appear to her on the battlements of the palace. She also sees the death which is preparing for her lord; and, though shuddering at the reek of death, as if seized with madness, she rushes into the house to meet her own inevitable doom, while from behind the scene we hear the groans of the dying Agamemnon. The palace opens; Clytemnestra stands beside the body of her king and husband; like an insolent criminal, she not only confesses the deed, but boasts of and justifies it, as a righteous requital for Agamemnon's sacrifice of Iphigenia to his own ambition. Her jealousy of Cassandra, and criminal connexion with the worthless Aegisthus, who does not appear till after the completion of the murder and towards the conclusion of the piece, are motives which she hardly touches on, and throws entirely into the background. This was necessary to preserve the dignity of the subject; for, indeed, Clytemnestra could not with propriety have been portrayed as a frail seduced woman--she must appear with the features of that heroic age, so rich in bloody catastrophes, in which all passions were violent, and men, both in good and evil, surpassed the ordinary standard of later and more degenerated ages. What is more revolting--what proves a deeper degeneracy of human nature, than horrid crimes conceived in the bosom of cowardly effeminacy? If such crimes are to be portrayed by the poet, he must neither seek to palliate them, nor to mitigate our horror and aversion of them. Moreover, by bringing the sacrifice of Iphigenia thus immediately before us, the poet has succeeded in lessening the indignation which otherwise the foul and painful fate of Agamemnon is calculated to awaken. He cannot be pronounced wholly innocent; a former crime recoils on his own head: besides, according to the religious idea of the ancients, an old curse hung over his house. Aegisthus, the author of his destruction, is a son of that very Thyestes on whom his father Atreus took such an unnatural revenge; and this fateful connexion is vividly brought before our minds by the chorus, and more especially by the prophecies of Cassandra.

I pass over the subsequent piece of the _Choephorae_ for the present; I shall speak of it when I come to institute a comparison between the manner in which the three poets have handled the same subject.

The fable of the _Eumenides_ is, as I have already said, the justification of Orestes, and his absolution from blood-guiltiness: it is a trial, but a trial where the accusers and the defenders and the presiding judges are gods. And the manner in which the subject is treated corresponds with its majesty and importance. The scene itself brought before the eyes of the Greeks all the highest objects of veneration that they acknowledged.

It opens in front of the celebrated temple at Delphi, which occupies the background; the aged Pythia enters in sacerdotal pomp, addresses her prayers to all the gods who at any time presided, or still preside, over the oracle, harangues the assembled people (represented by the actual audience), and goes into the temple to seat herself on the tripod. She returns full of consternation, and describes what she has seen in the temple: a man, stained with blood, supplicating protection, surrounded by sleeping women with snaky hair; she then makes her exit by the same entrance as she came in by. Apollo now appears with Orestes, who is in a traveller's garb, and carries a sword and olive-branch in his hands. He promises him his farther protection, enjoins him to flee to Athens, and commends him to the care of the present but invisible Mercury, to whose safeguard travellers, and especially those who were under the necessity of journeying by stealth, were usually consigned.

Orestes goes off at the side which was supposed to lead to foreign lands; Apollo re-enters his temple, which remains open, and the Furies are seen in the interior, sleeping on the benches. Clytemnestra's ghost now ascends by the charonic stairs, and, passing through the orchestra, appears on the stage. We are not to imagine it a haggard skeleton, but a figure with the appearance of life, though paler, with the wound still open in her breast, and shrouded in ethereal-coloured vestments. She calls on the Furies, in the language of vehement reproach, and then disappears, probably through a trap-door. The Furies awake, and not finding Orestes, they dance in wild commotion round the stage, while they sing the choral song. Apollo again comes out of the temple, and drives them away, as profaning his sanctuary. We may imagine him appearing with the sublime displeasure of the Apollo of the Vatican, with bow and quiver, but also clad with tunic and chlamys.

The scene now changes; but as the Greeks on such occasions were fond of going the shortest way to work, the background probably remained unchanged, and was now supposed to represent the temple of Minerva, on the Areopagus, while the lateral decorations were converted into Athens and its surrounding landscape. Orestes now enters, as from foreign land, and, as a suppliant, embraces the statue of Pallas standing before the temple. The chorus (who, according to the poet's own description, were clothed in black, with purple girdles, and serpents in their hair, in masks having perhaps something of the terrific beauty of Medusa-heads, and marking too their great age on the principles of sculpture) follows close on his steps, but for the rest of the piece remains below in the orchestra. The Furies had at first behaved themselves like beasts of prey, furious at the escape of their booty, but now, hymning with tranquil dignity the high and terrible office they had among mortals, they claim the head of Orestes, as forfeited to them, and devote it with mysterious charms to endless torment. At the intercession of the suppliant, Pallas, the warrior-virgin, appears in a chariot drawn by four horses. She inquires the cause of his invocation, and listens with calm dignity to the mutual complaints of Orestes and his adversaries, and, at the solicitation of the two parties, finally undertakes, after due reflection, the office of umpire. The assembled judges take their seats on the steps of the temple--the herald commands silence among the people by sound of trumpet, just as in a real trial. Apollo advances to advocate the cause of his suppliant, the Furies in vain protest against his interference, and the arguments for and against the deed are debated between them in short speeches. The judges cast their ballots into the urn, Pallas throws in a white one; all is wrought up to the highest pitch of expectation; Orestes, in agony of suspense, exclaims to his protector--

O Phoebus Apollo, how will the cause be decided?

The Furies on the other hand:

O Night, black Mother, seest thou these doings?

Upon counting the black and white pebbles, they are found equal in number, and the accused, therefore, by the decision of Pallas, is acquitted. He breaks out into joyful thanksgiving, while the Furies on the other hand declaim against the overbearing arrogance of these younger gods, who take such liberties with those of Titanic race. Pallas bears their rage with equanimity, addresses them in the language of kindness, and even of veneration; and these so indomitable beings are unable to withstand the charms of her mild eloquence. They promise to bless the land which is under her tutelary protection, while on her part Pallas assigns them a sanctuary in the Attic domain, where they are to be called the _Eumenides_, that is, "the Benevolent Goddesses." The whole ends with a solemn procession round the theatre, with hymns of blessing, while bands of children, women, and old men, in purple robes and with torches in their hands, accompany the Furies in their exit.

Let us now take a retrospective view of the whole trilogy. In the _Agamemnon_ we have a predominance of free-will both in the plan and execution of the deed: the principal character is a great criminal, and the piece ends with the revolting impressions produced by the sight of triumphant tyranny and crime. I have already pointed out the allusions it contains to a preceding destiny.

The deed committed in the _Choephorae_ is partly enjoined by Apollo as the appointment of fate, and partly originates in natural motives: Orestes' desire of avenging his father, and his brotherly love for the oppressed Electra. It is only after the execution of the deed that the struggle between the most sacred feelings becomes manifest, and here again the sympathies of the spectators are excited without being fully appeased.

From its very commencement, the _Eumenides_ stands on the very summit


Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 16/97

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