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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 24/97 -

brother, testifies, as a stranger, his sympathy in her situation. The chorus seizes this opportunity of gratifying its curiosity about the fatal events of the city; and Electra, after describing her own misery, depicts the wantonness and arrogance of her mother and Aegisthus, who, she says, leaps in contempt upon Agamemnon's grave, and throws stones at it. The peasant returns from his work, and thinks it rather indecorous in his wife to be gossiping with young men, but when he hears that they have brought news of Orestes, he invites them in a friendly manner into his house. Orestes, on witnessing the behaviour of the worthy man, makes the reflection that the most estimable people are frequently to be found in low stations, and in lowly garb. Electra upbraids her husband for inviting them, knowing as he must that they had nothing in the house to entertain them with; he is of opinion that the strangers will be satisfied with what he has, that a good housewife can always make the most of things, and that they have at least enough for one day. She dispatches him to Orestes' old keeper and preserver who lives hard by them, to bid him come and bring something with him to entertain the strangers, and the peasant departs muttering wise saws about riches and moderation. The chorus bursting out into an ode on the expedition of the Greeks against Troy, describes at great length the figures wrought on the shield which Achilles received from Thetis, and concludes with expressing a wish that Clytemnestra may be punished for her wickedness.

The old guardian, who with no small difficulty ascends the hill towards the house, brings Electra a lamb, a cheese, and a skin of wine; he then begins to weep, not failing of course to wipe his eyes with his tattered garments. In reply to the questions of Electra he states, that at the grave of Agamemnon he found traces of an oblation and a lock of hair; from which circumstance he conjectured that Orestes had been there. We have then an allusion to the means which Aeschylus had employed to bring about the recognition, namely, the resemblance of the hair, the prints of feet, as well as the homespun-robe, with a condemnation of them as insufficient and absurd. The probability of this part of the drama of Aeschylus may, perhaps, admit of being cleared up, at all events one is ready to overlook it; but an express reference like this to another author's treatment of the same subject, is the most annoying interruption and the most fatal to genuine poetry that can possibly be conceived. The guests come out; the old man attentively considers Orestes, recognizes him, and convinces Electra that he is her brother by a scar on his eyebrow, which he received from a fall (this is the superb invention, which he substitutes for that of Aeschylus), Orestes and Electra embrace during a short choral ode, and abandon themselves to their joy. In a long dialogue, Orestes, the old slave, and Electra, form their plans. The old man informs them that Aegisthus is at present in the country sacrificing to the Nymphs, and Orestes resolves to steal there as a guest, and to fall on him by surprise. Clytemnestra, from a dread of unpleasant remarks, has not accompanied him; and Electra undertakes to entice her mother to them by a false message of her being in child-bed. The brother and sister now join in prayers to the gods and their father's shade, for a successful issue of their designs. Electra declares that she will put an end to her existence if they should miscarry, and, for that purpose, she will keep a sword in readiness. The old tutor departs with Orestes to conduct him to Aegisthus, and to repair afterwards to Clytemnestra. The chorus sings of the Golden Ram, which Thyestes, by the assistance of the faithless wife of Atreus, was enabled to carry off from him, and the repast furnished with the flesh of his own children, with which he was punished in return; at the sight of which the sun turned aside from his course; a circumstance, however, which the chorus very sapiently adds, that it was very much inclined to call in question. From a distance is heard a noise of tumult and groans; Electra fears that her brother has been overcome, and is on the point of killing herself. But at the moment a messenger arrives, who gives a long-winded account of the death of Aegisthus, and interlards it with many a joke. Amidst the rejoicings of the chorus, Electra fetches a wreath and crowns her brother, who holds in his hands the head of Aegisthus by the hair. This head she upbraids in a long speech with its follies and crimes, and among other things says to it, it is never well to marry a woman with whom one has previously lived in illicit intercourse; that it is an unseemly thing when a woman obtains the mastery in a family, &c. Clytemnestra is now seen approaching; Orestes begins to have scruples of conscience as to his purpose of murdering a mother, and the authority of the oracle, but yields to the persuasions of Electra, and agrees to do the deed within the house. The queen arrives, drawn in a chariot sumptuously hung with tapestry, and surrounded by Trojan slaves; Electra makes an offer to assist her in alighting, which, however, is declined. Clytemnestra then alleges the sacrifice of Iphigenia as a justification of her own conduct towards Agamemnon, and calls even upon her daughter to state her reasons in condemnation, that an opportunity may be given to the latter of delivering a subtle, captious harangue, in which, among other things, she reproaches her mother with having, during the absence of Agamemnon, sat before her mirror, and studied her toilette too much. With all this Clytemnestra is not provoked, even though her daughter does not hesitate to declare her intention of putting her to death if ever it should be in her power; she makes inquiries about her daughter's supposed confinement, and enters the hut to prepare the necessary sacrifice of purification. Electra accompanies her with a sarcastic speech. On this the chorus begins an ode on retribution: the shrieks of the murdered woman are heard within the house, and the brother and sister come out stained with her blood. They are full of repentance and despair at the deed which they have committed; increase their remorse by repeating the pitiable words and gestures of their dying parent. Orestes determines on flight into foreign lands, while Electra asks, "Who will now take me in marriage?" Castor and Pollux, their uncles, appear in the air, abuse Apollo on account of his oracle, command Orestes, in order to save himself from the Furies, to submit to the sentence of the Areopagus, and conclude with predicting a number of events which are yet to happen to him. They then enjoin a marriage between Electra and Pylades; who are to take her first husband with them to Phocis, and there richly to provide for him. After a further outburst of sorrow, the brother and sister take leave of one another for life, and the piece concludes.

We easily perceive that Aeschylus has viewed the subject in its most terrible aspect, and drawn it within that domain of the gloomy divinities, whose recesses he so loves to haunt. The grave of Agamemnon is the murky gloom from which retributive vengeance issues; his discontented shade, the soul of the whole poem. The obvious external defect, that the action lingers too long at the same point, without any sensible progress, appears, on reflection, a true internal perfection: it is the stillness of expectation before a deep storm or an earthquake. It is true the prayers are repeated, but their very accumulation heightens the impression of a great unheard-of purpose, for which human powers and motives by themselves are insufficient. In the murder of Clytemnestra, and her heart-rending appeals, the poet, without disguising her guilt, has gone to the very verge of what was allowable in awakening our sympathy with her sufferings. The crime which is to be punished is kept in view from the very first by the grave, and, at the conclusion, it is brought still nearer to our minds by the unfolding the fatal garment: thus, Agamemnon non, after being fully avenged, is, as it were, murdered again before the mental eye. The flight of Orestes betrays no undignified weakness or repentance; it is merely the inevitable tribute which he must pay to offended nature.

It is only necessary to notice in general terms the admirable management of the subject by Sophocles. What a beautiful introduction has he made to precede the queen's mission to the grave, with which Aeschylus begins at once! With what polished ornament has he embellished it throughout, for example, with the description of the games! With what nice judgment does he husband the pathos of Electra; first, general lamentations, then hopes derived from the dream, their annihilation by the news of Orestes' death, the new hopes suggested by Chrysothemis only to be rejected, and lastly her mourning over the urn. Electra's heroism is finely set off by the contrast with her more submissive sister. The poet has given quite a new turn to the subject by making Electra the chief object of interest. A noble pair has the poet here given us; the sister endued with unshaken constancy in true and noble sentiments, and the invincible heroism of endurance; the brother prompt and vigorous in all the energy of youth. To this he skilfully opposes circumspection and experience in the old man, while the fact that Sophocles as well as Aeschylus has left Pylades silent, is a proof how carefully ancient art disdained all unnecessary surplusage.

But what more especially characterizes the tragedy of Sophocles, is the heavenly serenity beside a subject so terrific, the fresh air of life and youth which breathes through the whole. The bright divinity of Apollo, who enjoined the deed, seems to shed his influence over it; even the break of day, in the opening scene, is significant. The grave and the world of shadows, are kept in the background: what in Aeschylus is effected by the spirit of the murdered monarch, proceeds here from the heart of the still living Electra, which is endowed with an equal capacity for inextinguishable hatred or ardent love. The disposition to avoid everything dark and ominous, is remarkable even in the very first speech of Orestes, where he says he feels no concern at being thought dead, so long as he knows himself to be alive, and in the full enjoyment of health and strength. He is not beset with misgivings or stings of conscience either before or after the deed, so that the determination is more steadily maintained by Sophocles than in Aeschylus; and the appalling scene with Aegisthus, and the reserving him for an ignominious death to the very close of the piece, is more austere and solemn than anything in the older drama. Clytemnestra's dreams furnish the most striking token of the relation which the two poets bear to each other: both are equally appropriate, significant, and ominous; that of Aeschylus is grander, but appalling to the senses; that of Sophocles, in its very tearfulness, majestically beautiful.

The piece of Euripides is a singular example of poetic, or rather unpoetic obliquity; we should never have done were we to attempt to point out all its absurdities and contradictions. Why, for instance, does Orestes fruitlessly torment his sister by maintaining his incognito so long? The poet too, makes it a light matter to throw aside whatever stands in his way, as in the case of the peasant, of whom, after his departure to summon the old keeper, we have no farther account. Partly for the sake of appearing original, and partly from an idea that to make Orestes kill the king and queen in the middle of their capital would be inconsistent with probability, Euripides has involved himself in still greater improbabilities. Whatever there is of the tragical in his drama is not his own, but belongs either to the fable, to his predecessors, or to tradition. In his hands, at least, it has ceased to be tragedy, but is lowered into "a family picture," in the modern signification of the word. The effect attempted to be produced by the poverty of Electra is pitiful in the extreme; the poet has betrayed his secret in the complacent display which she makes of her misery. All the preparations for the crowning act are marked by levity, and a want of internal conviction: it is a gratuitous torture of our feelings to make Aegisthus display a good- natured hospitality, and Clytemnestra a maternal sympathy with her daughter, merely to excite our compassion in their behalf; the deed is no sooner executed, but its effect is obliterated by the most despicable repentance, a repentance which arises from no moral feeling, but from a merely animal revulsion. I shall say nothing of his abuse of the oracle of Delphi. As it destroys the very basis of the whole drama, I cannot see why Euripides should have written it, except to provide a fortunate marriage for Electra, and to reward the peasant for his continency. I could wish that the wedding of Pylades had been celebrated on the stage, and that a good round sum of money had been paid to the peasant on the spot; then everything would have ended to the satisfaction of the spectators as in an ordinary comedy.

Not, however, to be unjust, I must admit that the _Electra_ is perhaps the very worst of Euripides' pieces. Was it the rage for novelty which led him here into such faults? He was truly to be pitied for having been preceded in the treatment of this same subject by two such men as Sophocles and Aeschylus. But what compelled him to measure his powers with theirs, and to write an _Electra_ at all?

Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 24/97

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