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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 23/97 -

The scene of the _Choephorae of Aeschylus_ is laid in front of the royal palace; the tomb of Agamemnon appears on the stage. Orestes appears at the sepulchre, with his faithful Pylades, and opens the play (which is unfortunately somewhat mutilated at the commencement,) with a prayer to Mercury, and with an invocation to his father, in which he promises to avenge him, and to whom he consecrates a lock of his hair. He sees a female train in mourning weeds issuing from the palace, to bring a libation to the grave; and, as he thinks he recognises his sister among them, he steps aside with Pylades in order to observe them unperceived. The chorus, which consists of captive Trojan virgins, in a speech, accompanied with mournful gestures, reveals the occasion of their coming, namely, a fearful dream of Clytemnestra; it adds its own dark forebodings of an impending retribution of the bloody crime, and bewails its lot in being obliged to serve unrighteous masters. Electra demands of the chorus whether she shall fulfil the commission of her hostile mother, or pour out their offerings in silence; and then, in compliance with their advice, she also offers up a prayer to the subterranean Mercury and to the soul of her father, in her own name and that of the absent Orestes, that he may appear as the avenger. While pouring out the offering she joins the chorus in lamentations for the departed hero. Presently, finding a lock of hair resembling her own in colour, and seeing footsteps near the grave she conjectures that her brother has been there, and when she is almost frantic with joy at the thought, Orestes steps forward and discovers himself. He completely overcomes her doubts by exhibiting a garment woven by her own hand: they give themselves up to their joy; he addresses a prayer to Jupiter, and makes known how Apollo, under the most dreadful threats of persecution by his father's Furies, has called on him to destroy the authors of his death in the same manner as they had destroyed him, namely, by guile and cunning. Now follow odes of the chorus and Electra; partly consisting of prayers to her father's shade and the subterranean divinities, and partly recapitulating all the motives for the deed, especially those derived from the death of Agamemnon. Orestes inquires into the vision which induced Clytemnestra to offer the libation, and is informed that she dreamt that she had given her breast to a dragon in her son's cradle, and suckled it with her blood. He hereupon resolves to become this dragon, and announces his intention of stealing into the house, disguised as a stranger, and attacking both her and Aegisthus by surprise. With this view he withdraws along with Pylades. The subject of the next choral hymn is the boundless audacity of mankind in general, and especially of women in the gratification of their unlawful passions, which it confirms by terrible examples from mythic story, and descants upon the avenging justice which is sure to overtake them at last. Orestes, in the guise of a stranger, returns with Pylades, and desires admission into the palace. Clytemnestra comes out, and being informed by him of the death of Orestes, at which tidings Electra assumes a feigned grief, she invites him to enter and partake of their hospitality. After a short prayer of the chorus, the nurse comes and mourns for her foster-child; the chorus inspires her with a hope that he yet lives, and advises her to contrive to bring Aegisthus, for whom Clytemnestra has sent her, not with, but without his body guard. As the critical moment draws near, the chorus proffers prayers to Jupiter and Mercury for the success of the plot. Aegisthus enters into conversation with the messenger: he can hardly allow himself to believe the joyful news of the death of Orestes, and hastens into the house for the purpose of ascertaining the truth, from whence, after a short prayer of the chorus, we hear the cries of the murdered. A servant rushes out, and to warn Clytemnestra gives the alarm at the door of the women's apartment. She hears it, comes forward, and calls for an axe to defend herself; but as Orestes instantaneously rushes on her with the bloody sword, her courage fails her, and, most affectingly, she holds up to him the breast at which she had suckled him. Hesitating in his purpose, he asks the counsel of Pylades, who in a few lines exhorts him by the most cogent reasons to persist; after a brief dialogue of accusation and defence, he pursues her into the house to slay her beside the body of Aegisthus. In a solemn ode the chorus exults in the consummated retribution. The doors of the palace are thrown open, and disclose in the chamber the two dead bodies laid side by side on one bed. Orestes orders the servants to unfold the garment in whose capacious folds his father was muffled when he was slain, that it may be seen by all; the chorus recognise on it the stains of blood, and mourn afresh the murder of Agamemnon. Orestes, feeling his mind already becoming confused, seizes the first moment to justify his acts, and having declared his intention of repairing to Delphi to purify himself from his blood-guiltiness, flies in terror from the furies of his mother, whom the chorus does not perceive, but conceives to be a mere phantom of his imagination, but who, nevertheless, will no longer allow him any repose. The chorus concludes with a reflection on the scene of murder thrice-repeated in the royal palace since the repast of Thyestes.

The scene of the _Electra of Sophocles_ is also laid before the palace, but does not contain the grave of Agamemnon. At break of day Pylades, Orestes, and the guardian slave who had been his preserver on that bloody day, enter the stage as just arriving from a foreign country. The keeper who acts as his guide commences with a description of his native city, and he is answered by Orestes, who recounts the commission given him by Apollo, and the manner in which he intends to carry it into execution, after which the young man puts up a prayer to his domestic gods and to the house of his fathers. Electra is heard complaining within; Orestes is desirous of greeting her without delay, but the old man leads him away to offer a sacrifice at the grave of his father. Electra then appears, and pours out her sorrow in a pathetic address to heaven, and in a prayer to the infernal deities her unconquerable desire of revenge. The chorus, which consists of native virgins, endeavours to console her; and, interchanging hymn and speech with the chorus, Electra discloses her unabatable sorrow, the contumely and oppression under which she suffers, and her hopelessness occasioned by the many delays of Orestes, notwithstanding her frequent exhortations; and she turns a deaf ear to all the grounds of consolation which the chorus can suggest. Chrysothemis, Clytemnestra's younger, more submissive, and favourite daughter, approaches with an offering which she is to carry to the grave of her father. Their difference of sentiment leads to an altercation between the two sisters, during which Chrysothemis informs Electra that Aegisthus, now absent in the country, has determined to adopt the most severe measures with her, whom, however, she sets at defiance. She then learns from her sister that Clytemnestra has had a dream that Agamemnon had come to life again, and had planted his sceptre in the floor of the house, and it had grown up into a tree that overshadowed the whole land; that, alarmed at this vision, she had commissioned Chrysothemis to carry an oblation to his grave. Electra counsels her not to execute the commands of her wicked mother, but to put up a prayer for herself and her sister, and for the return of Orestes as the avenger of his father; she then adds to the oblation her own girdle and a lock of her hair. Chrysothemis goes off, promising obedience to her wishes. The chorus augurs from the dream, that retribution is at hand, and traces back the crimes committed in this house to the primal sin of Pelops. Clytemnestra rebukes her daughter, with whom, however, probably under the influence of the dream, she is milder than usual; she defends her murder of Agamemnon, Electra condemns her for it, but without violent altercation. Upon this Clytemnestra, standing at the altar in front of the house, proffers a prayer to Apollo for health and long life, and a secret one for the death of her son. The guardian of Orestes arrives, and, in the character of a messenger from a Phocian friend, announces the death of Orestes, and minutely enumerates all the circumstances which attended his being killed in a chariot-race at the Pythian games. Clytemnestra, although visited for a moment with a mother's feelings, can scarce conceal her triumphant joy, and invites the messenger to partake of the hospitality of her house. Electra, in touching speeches and hymns, gives herself up to grief; the chorus in vain endeavours to console her. Chrysothemis returns from the grave, full of joy in the assurance that Orestes is near; for she has found his lock of hair, his drink-offering and wreaths of flowers. This serves but to renew the despair of Electra, who recounts to her sister the gloomy tidings which have just arrived, and exhorts her, now that all other hope is at an end, to join with her in the daring deed of putting Aegisthus to death: a proposal which Chrysothemis, not possessing the necessary courage, rejects as foolish, and after a violent altercation she re-enters the house. The chorus bewails Electra, now left utterly desolate. Orestes returns with Pylades and several servants bearing an urn with the pretended ashes of the deceased youth. Electra begs it of them, and laments over it in the most affecting language, which agitates Orestes to such a degree that he can no longer conceal himself; after some preparation he discloses himself to her, and confirms the announcement by producing the seal-ring of their father. She gives vent in speech and song to her unbounded joy, till the old attendant of Orestes comes out and reprimands them both for their want of consideration. Electra with some difficulty recognizes in him the faithful servant to whom she had entrusted the care of Orestes, and expresses her gratitude to him. At the suggestion of the old man, Orestes and Pylades accompany him with all speed into the house, in order to surprise Clytemnestra while she is still alone. Electra offers up a prayer to Apollo in their behalf; the choral ode announces the moment of retribution. From within the house is heard the shrieks of the affrighted Clytemnestra, her short prayer, her cry of agony under the death-blow. Electra from without stimulates Orestes to complete the deed, and he comes out with bloody hands. Warned however by the chorus of the approach of Aegisthus, he hastily re-enters the house in order to take him by surprise. Aegisthus inquires into the story of Orestes' death, and from the ambiguous language of Electra is led to believe that his corpse is in the palace. He commands all the gates to be thrown open, immediately, for the purpose of convincing those of the people who yielded reluctant obedience to his sovereignty, that they had no longer any hopes in Orestes. The middle entrance opens, and discloses in the interior of the palace a body lying on the bed, but closely covered over: Orestes stands beside the body, and invites Aegisthus to uncover it; he suddenly beholds the bloody corpse of Clytemnestra, and concludes himself lost and without hope. He requests to be allowed to speak, but this is prevented by Electra. Orestes constrains him to enter the house, that he may kill him on the very spot where his own father had been murdered.

The scene of the _Electra of Euripides_ is not in Mycenae, in the open country, but on the borders of Argolis, and before a solitary and miserable cottage. The owner, an old peasant, comes out and in a prologue tells the audience how matters stand in the royal house, with this addition, however, to the incidents related in the two plays already considered, that not content to treat Electra with ignominy, and to leave her in a state of celibacy, they had forced her to marry beneath her rank, and to accept of himself for a husband: the motives he assigns for this proceeding are singular enough; he declares, however, that he has too much respect for her to reduce her to the humiliation of becoming in reality his wife.--They live therefore in virgin wedlock. Electra comes forth before it is yet daybreak bearing upon her head, which is close shorn in servile fashion, a pitcher to fetch water: her husband entreats her not to trouble herself with such unaccustomed labours, but she will not be withheld from the discharge of her household duties; and the two depart, he to his work in the field and she upon her errand. Orestes now enters with Pylades, and, in a speech to him, states that he has already sacrificed at his father's grave, but that not daring to enter the city, he wishes to find his sister, who, he is aware, is married and dwells somewhere near on the frontiers, that he may learn from her the posture of affairs. He sees Electra approach with the water-pitcher, and retires. She breaks out into an ode bewailing her own fate and that of her father. Hereupon the chorus, consisting of rustic virgins, makes its appearance, and exhorts her to take a part in a festival of Juno, which she, however, depressed in spirit, pointing to her tattered garments, declines. The chorus offer to supply her with festal ornaments, but she still refuses. She perceives Orestes and Pylades in their hiding-place, takes them for robbers, and hastens to escape into the house; when Orestes steps forward and prevents her, she imagines he intends to murder her; he removes her fears, and gives her assurances that her brother is still alive. On this he inquires into her situation, and the spectators are again treated with a repetition of all the circumstances. Orestes still forbears to disclose himself, and promising merely to carry any message from Electra to her

Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 23/97

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