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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 22/97 -


accordingly he indulges his vanity in introducing philosophical doctrines on all occasions; in my opinion, in a very imperfect manner, as we should not be able to understand these doctrines from his statements of them, if we were not previously acquainted with them. He thinks it too vulgar a thing to believe in the gods after the simple manner of the people, and he therefore seizes every opportunity of interspersing something of the allegorical interpretation of them, and carefully gives his spectators to understand that the sincerity of his own belief was very problematical. We may distinguish in him a twofold character: the _poet_, whose productions were consecrated to a religious solemnity, who stood under the protection of religion and who, therefore, on his part, was bound to honour it; and the _sophist_, with his philosophical _dicta_, who endeavoured to insinuate his sceptical opinions and doubts into the fabulous marvels of religion, from which he derived the subjects of his pieces. But while he is shaking the ground-works of religion, he at the same time acts the moralist; and, for the sake of popularity, he applies to the heroic life and the heroic ages maxims which could only apply to the social relations of his own times. He throws out a multitude of moral apophthegms, many of which he often repeats, and which are mostly trite, and not seldom fundamentally false. With all this parade of morality, the aim of his pieces, the general impression which they are calculated to produce is sometimes extremely immoral. A pleasant anecdote is told of his having put into the mouth of Bellerophon a silly eulogium on wealth, in which he declares it to be preferable to all domestic happiness, and ends with observing, "If Aphrodite (who bore the epithet _golden_) be indeed glittering as gold, she well deserves the love of Mortals:" which so offended the spectators, that they raised a great outcry, and would have stoned both actor and poet, out Euripides sprang forward, and called out, "Wait only till the end--he will be requited accordingly!" In like manner he defended himself against the objection that his Ixion expressed himself in too disgusting and abominable language, by observing that the piece concluded with his being broken on the wheel. But even this plea that the represented villany is requited by the final retribution of poetical justice, is not available in defence of all his tragedies. In some the wicked escape altogether untouched. Lying and other infamous practices are openly protected, especially when he can manage to palm them upon a supposed noble motive. He has also perfectly at command the seductive sophistry of the passions, which can lend a plausible appearance to everything. The following verse in justification of perjury, and in which the _reservatio mentalis_ of the casuists seems to be substantially expressed, is well known:

The tongue swore, but the mind was unsworn.

Taken in its context, this verse, on account of which he was so often ridiculed by Aristophanes, may, indeed, be justified; but the formula is, nevertheless, bad, on account of the possible abuse of its application. Another verse of Euripides: "For a kingdom it is worth while to commit injustice, but in other cases it is well to be just," was frequently in the mouth of Caesar, with the like intention of making a bad use of it.

Euripides was frequently condemned even by the ancients for his seductive invitations to the enjoyment of sensual love. Every one must be disgusted when Hecuba, in order to induce Agamemnon to punish Polymestor, reminds him of the pleasures which he has enjoyed in the arms of Cassandra, his captive, and, therefore, by the laws of the heroic ages his concubine: she would purchase revenge for a murdered son with the acknowledged and permitted degradation of a living daughter. He was the first to make the unbridled passion of a Medea, and the unnatural love of a Phaedra, the main subject of his dramas, whereas from the manners of the ancients, we may easily conceive why love, which among them was much less dignified by tender feelings than among ourselves, should hold only a subordinate place in the older tragedies. With all the importance which he has assigned to his female characters, he is notorious for his hatred of women; and it is impossible to deny that he abounds in passages descanting on the frailties of the female sex, and the superior excellence of the male; together with many maxims of household wisdom: with all which he was evidently endeavouring to pay court to the men, who formed, if not the whole, certainly the most considerable portion of his audience. A cutting saying and an epigram of Sophocles, on this subject, have been preserved, in which he accounts for the (pretended) misogyny of Euripides by his experience of their seductibility in the course of his own illicit amours. In the manner in which women are painted by Euripides, we may observe, upon the whole, much sensibility even for the more noble graces of female modesty, but no genuine esteem.

The substantial freedom in treating the fables, which was one of the prerogatives of the tragic art, is frequently carried by Euripides to the extreme of licence. It is well known, that the fables of Hyginus, which differ so essentially from those generally received, were partly extracted from his pieces. As he frequently rejected all the incidents which were generally known, and to which the people were accustomed, Le was reduced to the necessity of explaining in a prologue the situation of things in his drama, and the course which they were to take. Lessing, in his _Dramaturgie_, has hazarded the singular opinion that it is a proof of an advance in the dramatic art, that Euripides should have trusted wholly to the effect of situations, without calculating on the excitement of curiosity. For my part I cannot see why, amidst the impressions which a dramatic poem produces, the uncertainty of expectation should not be allowed a legitimate place. The objection that a piece will only please in this respect for the first time, because on an acquaintance with it we know the result beforehand, may be easily answered: if the representation be truly energetic, it will always rivet the attention of the spectator in such a manner that he will forget what he already knew, and be again excited to the same stretch of expectation. Moreover, these prologues give to the openings of Euripides' plays a very uniform and monotonous appearance: nothing can have a more awkward effect than for a person to come forward and say, I am so and so; this and that has already happened, and what is next to come is as follows. It resembles the labels in the mouths of the figures in old paintings, which nothing but the great simplicity of style in ancient times can excuse. But then all the rest ought to correspond, which is by no means the case with Euripides, whose characters always speak in the newest mode of the day. Both in his prologues and denouements he is very lavish of unmeaning appearances of the gods, who are only elevated above men by the machine in which they are suspended, and who might certainly well be spared.

The practice of the earlier tragedians, to combine all in large masses, and to exhibit repose and motion in distinctly-marked contrast, was carried by him to an unwarrantable extreme. If for the sake of giving animation to the dialogue his predecessors occasionally employed an alternation of single-line speeches, in which question and answer, objection and retort, fly about like arrows from side to side, Euripides makes so immoderate and arbitrary use of this poetical device that very frequently one-half of his lines might be left out without detriment to the sense. At another time he pours himself out in endless speeches, where he sets himself to shew off his rhetorical powers in ingenious arguments, or in pathetic appeals. Many of his scenes have altogether the appearance of a lawsuit, where two persons, as the parties in the litigation, (with sometimes a third for a judge,) do not confine themselves to the matter in hand, but expatiate in a wide field, accusing their adversaries or defending themselves with all the adroitness of practised advocates, and not unfrequently with all the windings and subterfuges of pettifogging sycophants. In this way the poet endeavoured to make his poetry entertaining to the Athenians, by its resemblance to their favourite daily occupation of conducting, deciding, or at least listening to lawsuits. On this account Quinctilian expressly recommends him to the young orator, and with great justice, as capable of furnishing him with more instruction than the older tragedians. But such a recommendation it is evident is little to his credit; for eloquence may, no doubt, have its place in the drama when it is consistent with the character and the object of the supposed speaker, yet to allow rhetoric to usurp the place of the simple and spontaneous expression of the feelings, is anything but poetical.

The style of Euripides is upon the whole too loose, although he has many happy images and ingenious turns: he has neither the dignity and energy of Aeschylus, nor the chaste sweetness of Sophocles. In his expressions he frequently affects the singular and the uncommon, but presently relapses into the ordinary; the tone of the discourse often sounds very familiar, and descends from the elevation of the cothurnus to the level ground. In this respect, as well as in the attempt (which frequently borders only too closely on the ludicrous,) to paint certain characteristic peculiarities, (for instance, the awkward carriage of the Bacchus-stricken Pentheus in his female attire, the gluttony of Hercules, and his boisterous demands on the hospitality of Admetus,) Euripides was a precursor of the new comedy, to which he had an evident inclination, as he frequently paints, under the names of the heroic ages, the men and manners of his own times. Hence Menander expressed a most marked admiration for him, and proclaimed himself his scholar; and we have a fragment of Philemon, which displays such an extravagant admiration, that it hardly appears to have been seriously meant. "If the dead," he either himself says, or makes one of his characters to say, "had indeed any sensation, as some people think they have, I would hang myself for the sake of seeing Euripides."--With this adoration of the later comic authors, the opinion of Aristophanes, his contemporary, forms a striking contrast. Aristophanes persecutes him bitterly and unceasingly; he seems almost ordained to be his perpetual scourge, that none of his moral or poetical extravagances might go unpunished. Although as a comic poet Aristophanes is, generally speaking, in the relation of a parodist to the tragedians, yet he never attacks Sophocles, and even where he lays hold of Aeschylus, on that side of his character which certainly may excite a smile, his reverence for him is still visible, and he takes every opportunity of contrasting his gigantic grandeur with the petty refinements of Euripides. With infinite cleverness and inexhaustible flow of wit, he has exposed the sophistical subtilty, the rhetorical and philosophical pretensions, the immoral and seductive effeminacy, and the excitations to undisguised sensuality of Euripides. As, however, modern critics have generally looked upon Aristophanes as no better than a writer of extravagant and libellous farces, and had no notion of eliciting the serious truths which he veiled beneath his merry disguises, it is no wonder if they have paid but little attention to his opinion.

But with all this we must never forget that Euripides was still a Greek, and the contemporary of many of the greatest names of Greece in politics, philosophy, history, and the fine arts. If, when compared with his predecessors, he must rank far below them, he appears in his turn great when placed by the side of many of the moderns. He has a particular strength in portraying the aberrations of a soul diseased, misguided, and franticly abandoned to its passions. He is admirable where the subject calls chiefly for emotion, and makes no higher requisitions; and he is still more so where pathos and moral beauty are united. Few of his pieces are without passages of the most ravishing beauty. It is by no means my intention to deny him the possession of the most astonishing talents; I have only stated that these talents were not united with a mind in which the austerity of moral principles, and the sanctity of religious feelings, were held in the highest honour.

LECTURE IX.

Comparison between the _Choephorae_ of Aeschylus, the _Electra_ of Sophocles and that of Euripides.

The relation in which Euripides stood to his two great predecessors, may be set in the clearest light by a comparison between their three pieces which we fortunately still possess, on the same subject, namely, the avenging murder of Clytemnestra by her son Orestes.


Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 22/97

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