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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 21/97 -


When we consider Euripides by himself, without any comparison with his predecessors, when we single out some of his better pieces, and particular passages in others, we cannot refuse to him an extraordinary meed of praise. But on the other hand, when we take him in his connexion with the history of art, when we look at each of his pieces as a whole, and again at the general scope of his labours, as revealed to us in the works which have come down to us, we are forced to censure him severely on many accounts. Of few writers can so much good and evil be said with truth. He was a man of boundless ingenuity and most versatile talents; but he either wanted the lofty earnestness of purpose, or the severe artistic wisdom, which we reverence in Aeschylus and Sophocles, to regulate the luxuriance of his certainly splendid and amiable qualities. His constant aim is to please, he cares not by what means; hence is he so unequal: frequently he has passages of overpowering beauty, but at other times he sinks into downright mediocrity. With all his faults he possesses an admirable ease, and a certain insinuating charm.

These preliminary observations I have judged necessary, since otherwise, on account of what follows, it might be objected to me that I am at variance with myself, having lately, in a short French essay, endeavoured to show the superiority of a piece of Euripides to Racine's imitation of it. There I fixed my attention on a single drama, and that one of the poet's best; but here I consider everything from the most general points of view, and relatively to the highest requisitions of art; and that my enthusiasm for ancient tragedy may not appear blind and extravagant, I must justify it by a keen examination into the traces of its degeneracy and decline.

We may compare perfection in art and poetry to the summit of a steep mountain, on which an uprolled load cannot long maintain its position, but immediately rolls down again the other side irresistibly. It descends according to the laws of gravity with quickness and ease, and one can calmly look on while it is descending; for the mass follows its natural tendency, while the laborious ascent is, in some degree, a painful spectacle. Hence it is, for example, that the paintings which belong to the age of declining art are much more pleasing to the unlearned eye, than those which preceded the period of its perfection. The genuine connoisseur, on the contrary, will hold the pictures of a Zuccheri and others, who gave the tone when the great schools of the sixteenth century were degenerating into empty and superficial mannerism, to be in real and essential worth, far inferior to the works of a Mantegna, Perugino, and their contemporaries. Or let us suppose the perfection of art a focus: at equal distances on either side, the collected rays occupy equal spaces, but on this side they converge towards a common effect; whereas, on the other they diverge, till at last they are totally lost.

We have, besides, a particular reason for censuring without reserve the errors of this poet; the fact, namely, that our own age is infected with the same faults with those which procured for Euripides so much favour, if not esteem, among his contemporaries. In our times we have been doomed to witness a number of plays which, though in matter and form they are far inferior to those of Euripides, bear yet in so far a resemblance to them, that while they seduce the feelings and corrupt the judgment, by means of weakly, and sometimes even tender, emotions, their general tendency is to produce a downright moral licentiousness.

What I shall say on this subject will not, for the most part, possess even the attraction of novelty. Although the moderns, attracted either by the greater affinity of his views with their own sentiments, or led astray by an ill-understood opinion of Aristotle, have not unfrequently preferred Euripides to his two predecessors, and have unquestionably read, admired, and imitated him much more; it admits of being shown, however, that many of the ancients, and some even of the contemporaries of Euripides, held the same opinion of him as myself. In _Anacharsis_ we find this mixture of praise and censure at least alluded to, though the author softens everything for the sake of his object of showing the productions of the Greeks, in every department, under the most favourable light.

We possess some cutting sayings of Sophocles respecting Euripides, though he was so far from being actuated by anything like the jealousy of authorship, that he mourned his death, and, in a piece which he exhibited shortly after, he did not allow his actors the usual ornament of the wreath. The charge which Plato brings against the tragic poets, as tending to give men entirely up to the dominion of the passions, and to render them effeminate, by putting extravagant lamentations in the mouths of their heroes, may, I think, be justly referred to Euripides alone; for, with respect to his predecessors, the injustice of it would have been universally apparent. The derisive attacks of Aristophanes are well known, though not sufficiently understood and appreciated. Aristotle bestows on him many a severe censure, and when he calls Euripides "the most tragic poet," he by no means ascribes to him the greatest perfection in the tragic art in general, but merely alludes to the moving effect which is produced by unfortunate catastrophes; for he immediately adds, "although he does not well arrange the rest." Lastly, the Scholiast on Euripides contains many concise and stringent criticisms on particular pieces, among which perhaps are preserved the opinions of Alexandrian critics--those critics who reckoned among them that Aristarchus, who, for the solidity and acuteness of his critical powers, has had his name transmitted to posterity as the proverbial designation of a judge of art.

In Euripides we find the essence of the ancient tragedy no longer pure and unmixed; its characteristical features are already in part defaced. We have already placed this essence in the prevailing idea of Destiny, in the Ideality of the composition, and in the significance of the Chorus.

Euripides inherited, it is true, the idea of Destiny from his predecessors, and the belief of it was inculcated in him by the tragic usage; but yet in him fate is seldom the invisible spirit of the whole composition, the fundamental thought of the tragic world. We have seen that this idea may be exhibited under severer or milder aspects; that the midnight terrors of destiny may, in the courses of a whole trilogy, brighten into indications of a wise and beneficent Providence. Euripides, however, has drawn it down from the region of the infinite; and with him inevitable necessity not unfrequently degenerates into the caprice of chance. Accordingly, he can no longer apply it to its proper purpose, namely, by contrast with it, to heighten the moral liberty of man. How few of his pieces turn upon a steadfast resistance to the decrees of fate, or an equally heroic submission to them! His characters generally suffer because they must, and not because they will.

The mutual subordination, between character and passion and ideal elevation, which we find observed in the same order in Sophocles, and in the sculpture of Greece, Euripides has completely reversed. Passion with him is the first thing; his next care is for character, and when these endeavours leave him still further scope, he occasionally seeks to lay on a touch of grandeur and dignity, but more frequently a display of amiableness.

It has been already admitted that the persons in tragedy ought not to be all alike faultless, as there would then be no opposition among them, and consequently no room for a complication of plot. But (as Aristotle observes) Euripides has, without any necessity, frequently painted his characters in the blackest colours, as, for example, his Menelaus in _Orestes_. The traditions indeed, sanctioned by popular belief, warranted him in attributing great crimes to many of the old heroes, but he has also palmed upon them many base and paltry traits of his own arbitrary invention. It was by no means the object of Euripides to represent the race of heroes as towering in their majestic stature above the men of his own age; he rather endeavours to fill up, or to build over the chasm that yawned between his contemporaries and that wondrous olden world, and to come upon the gods and heroes in their undress, a surprise of which no greatness, it is said, can stand the test. He introduces his spectators to a sort of familiar acquaintance with them; he does not draw the supernatural and fabulous into the circle of humanity (a proceeding which we praised in Sophocles), but within the limits of the imperfect individuality. This is the meaning of Sophocles, when he said that "he drew men such as they ought to be, Euripides such as they are." Not that his own personages are always represented as irreproachable models; his expression referred merely to ideal elevation and sweetness of character and manners. It seems as if Euripides took a pleasure in being able perpetually to remind his spectators--"See! those beings were men, subject to the very same weaknesses, acting from the same motives as yourselves, and even as the meanest among you." Accordingly, he takes delight in depicting the defects and moral failings of his characters; nay, he often makes them disclose them for themselves in the most _naive_ confession. They are frequently not merely undignified, but they even boast of their imperfections as that which ought to be.

The Chorus with him is for the most part an unessential ornament; its songs are frequently wholly episodical, without reference to the action, and more distinguished for brilliancy than for sublimity and true inspiration. "The Chorus," says Aristotle, "must be considered as one of the actors, and as a part of the whole; it must co-operate in the action-- not as Euripides, but as Sophocles manages it." The older comedians enjoyed the privilege of allowing the Chorus occasionally to address the spectators in its own name; this was called a Parabasis, and, as I shall afterwards show, was in accordance with the spirit of comedy. Although the practice is by no means tragical, it was, however, according to Julius Pollux, frequently adopted by Euripides in his tragedies, who so far forgot himself on some of these occasions, that in the _Danaidae_, for instance, the chorus, which consisted of females, made use of grammatical inflections which belonged only to the male sex.

This poet has thus at once destroyed the internal essence of tragedy, and sinned against the laws of beauty and proportion in its external structure. He generally sacrifices the whole to the parts, and in these again he is more ambitious of foreign attractions, than of genuine poetic beauty.

In the accompanying music, he adopted all the innovations invented by Timotheus, and chose those melodies which were most in unison with the effeminacy of his own poetry. He proceeded in the same manner with his metres; his versification is luxuriant, and runs into anomaly. The same diluted and effeminate character would, on a more profound investigation, be unquestionably found in the rhythms of his choral songs likewise.

On all occasions he lays on, even to overloading, those merely corporeal charms which Winkelmann calls a "flattery of the gross external senses;" whatever is exciting, striking--in a word, all that produces a vivid effect, though without true worth for the mind and the feelings. He labours for effect to a degree which cannot be allowed even to the dramatic poet. For example, he hardly ever omits an opportunity of throwing his characters into a sudden and useless terror; his old men are everlastingly bemoaning the infirmities of age, and, in particular, are made to crawl with trembling limbs, and sighing at the fatigue, up the ascent from the orchestra to the stage, which frequently represented the slope of a hill. He is always endeavouring to move, and for the sake of emotion, he not only violates probability, but even sacrifices the coherence of the piece. He is strong in his pictures of misfortune; but he often claims our compassion not for inward agony of the soul, nor for pain which the sufferer endures with manly fortitude, but for mere bodily wretchedness. He is fond of reducing his heroes to the condition of beggars, of making them suffer hunger and want, and bringing them on the stage with all the outward signs of it, and clad in rags and tatters, for which Aristophanes, in his _Acharnians_, has so humorously taken him to task.

Euripides was a frequenter of the schools of the philosophers (he had been a scholar of Anaxagoras, and not, as many have erroneously stated, of Socrates, with whom he was only connected by social intercourse): and


Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 21/97

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