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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 30/97 -


which are contained in the piece, its purpose, when stript of these, is upon the whole very innocent: the longing for the enjoyment of domestic joys, so often interrupted by the absence of the husbands, is to be the means of putting an end to the calamitous war by which Greece had so long been torn in pieces. In particular, the honest bluntness of the Lacedaemonians is inimitably portrayed.

The _Ecclesiazusae_ is in like manner a picture of woman's ascendency, but one much more depraved than the former. In the dress of men the women steal into the public assembly, and by means of the majority of voices which they have thus surreptitiously obtained, they decree a new constitution, in which there is to be a community of goods and of women. This is a satire on the ideal republics of the philosophers, with similar laws; Protagoras had projected such before Plato. The comedy appears to me to labour under the very same fault as the _Peace_: the introduction, the secret assembly of the women, their rehearsal of their parts as men, the description of the popular assembly, are all handled in the most masterly manner; but towards the middle the action stands still. Nothing remains but the representation of the perplexities and confusion which arise from the different communities, especially the community of women, and from the prescribed equality of rights in love both for the old and ugly, and for the young and beautiful. These perplexities are pleasant enough, but they turn too much on a repetition of the same joke. Generally speaking, the old allegorical comedy is in its progress exposed to the danger of sinking. When we begin with turning the world upside down, the most wonderful incidents follow one another as a matter of course, but they are apt to appear petty and insignificant when compared with the decisive strokes of fun in the commencement.

The _Thesmophoriazusae_ has a proper intrigue, a knot which is not loosed till the conclusion, and in this possesses therefore a great advantage. Euripides, on account of the well-known hatred of women displayed in his tragedies, is accused and condemned at the festival of the Thesmophoriae, at which women only were admitted. After a fruitless attempt to induce the effeminate poet Agathon to undertake the hazardous experiment, Euripides prevails on his brother-in-law, Mnesilochus, who was somewhat advanced in years, to disguise himself as a woman, that under this assumed appearance he may plead his cause. The manner in which he does this gives rise to suspicions, and he is discovered to be a man; he flies to the altar for refuge, and to secure himself still more from the impending danger, he snatches a child from the arms of one of the women, and threatens to kill it if they do not let him alone. As he attempts to strangle it, it turns out to be a leather wine-flask wrapped up like a child. Euripides now appears in a number of different shapes to save his friend: at one time he is Menelaus, who finds Helen again in Egypt; at another time he is Echo, helping the chained Andromeda to pour out her lamentations, and immediately after he appears as Perseus, about to release her from the rock. At length he succeeds in rescuing Mnesilochus, who is fastened to a sort of pillory, by assuming the character of a procuress, and enticing away the officer of justice who has charge of him, a simple barbarian, by the charms of a female flute-player. These parodied scenes, composed almost entirely in the very words of the tragedies, are inimitable. Whenever Euripides is introduced, we may always, generally speaking, lay our account with having the most ingenious and apposite ridicule; it seems as if the mind of Aristophanes possessed a peculiar and specific power of giving a comic turn to the poetry of this tragedian.

The _Clouds_ is well known, but yet, for the most part, has not been duly understood or appreciated. Its object is to show that the fondness for philosophical subtleties had led to a neglect of warlike exercises, that speculation only served to shake the foundations of religion and morals, and that by the arts of sophistry, every duty was rendered doubtful, and the worse cause frequently came off victorious. The Clouds themselves, as the chorus of the piece (for the poet converts these substances into persons, and dresses them out strangely enough), are an allegory on the metaphysical speculations which do not rest on the ground of experience, but float about without any definite shape or body, in the region of possibilities. We may observe in general that it is one of the peculiarities of the wit of Aristophanes to take a metaphor literally, and to exhibit it in this light before the eyes of the spectators. Of a man addicted to unintelligible reveries, it is a common way of speaking to say that he is up in the clouds, and accordingly Socrates makes his first appearance actually descending from the air in a basket. Whether this applies exactly to him is another question; but we have reason to believe that the philosophy of Socrates was very ideal, and that it was by no means so limited to popular and practical matters as Xenophon would have us believe. But why has Aristophanes personified the sophistical metaphysics by the venerable Socrates, who was himself a determined opponent of the Sophists? There was probably some personal grudge at the bottom of this, and we do not attempt to justify it; but the choice of the name by no means diminishes the merit of the picture itself. Aristophanes declares this play to be the most elaborate of all his works: but in such expressions we are not always to take him exactly at his word. On all occasions, and without the least hesitation, he lavishes upon himself the most extravagant praises; and this must be considered a feature of the licence of comedy. However, the _Clouds_ was unfavourably received, and twice unsuccessfully competed for the prize.

The _Frogs_, as we have already said, has for its subject the decline of Tragic Art. Euripides was dead, as well as Sophocles and Agathon, and none but poets of the second rank were now remaining. Bacchus misses Euripides, and determines to bring him back from the infernal world. In this he imitates Hercules, but although furnished with that hero's lion- skin and club, in sentiments he is very unlike him, and as a dastardly voluptuary affords us much matter for laughter. Here we have a characteristic specimen of the audacity of Aristophanes: he does not even spare the patron of his own art, in whose honour this very play was exhibited. It was thought that the gods understood a joke as well, if not better, than men. Bacchus rows himself over the Acherusian lake, where the frogs merrily greet him with their melodious croakings. The proper chorus, however, consists of the shades of those initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries, and odes of surpassing beauty are put in their mouths. Aeschylus had hitherto occupied the tragic throne in the world below, but Euripides wants to eject him. Pluto presides, but appoints Bacchus to determine this great controversy; the two poets, the sublimely wrathful Aeschylus, and the subtle and conceited Euripides, stand opposite each other and deliver specimens of their poetical powers; they sing, they declaim against each other, and in all their peculiar traits are characterised in masterly style. At last a balance is brought, on which each lays a verse; but notwithstanding all the efforts of Euripides to produce ponderous lines, those of Aeschylus always make the scale of his rival to kick the beam. At last the latter becomes impatient of the contest, and proposes that Euripides himself, with all his works, his wife, children, Cephisophon and all, shall get into one scale, and he will only lay against them in the other two verses. Bacchus in the mean time has become a convert to the merits of Aeschylus, and although he had sworn to Euripides that he would take him back with him from the lower world, he dismisses him with a parody of one of his own verses in _Hippolytus_:

My tongue hath sworn, I however make choice of Aeschylus.

Aeschylus consequently returns to the living world, and resigns the tragic throne in his absence to Sophocles.

The observation on the changes of place, which I made when mentioning _Peace_, may be here repeated. The scene is first at Thebes, of which both Bacchus and Hercules were natives; afterwards the stage is changed, without its ever being left by Bacchus, to the nether shore of the Acherusian lake, which must have been represented by the sunken space of the orchestra, and it was not till Bacchus landed at the other end of the logeum that the scenery represented the infernal world, with the palace of Pluto in the back-ground. This is not a mere conjecture, it is expressly stated by the old scholiast.

The _Wasps_ is, in my opinion, the feeblest of Aristophanes' plays. The subject is too limited, the folly it ridicules appears a disease of too singular a description, without a sufficient universality of application, and the action is too much drawn out. The poet himself speaks this time in very modest language of his means of entertainment, and does not even promise us immoderate laughter.

On the other hand, the _Birds_ transports us by one of the boldest and richest inventions into the kingdom of the fantastically wonderful, and delights us with a display of the gayest hilarity: it is a joyous- winged and gay-plumed creation. I cannot concur with the old critic in thinking that we have in this work a universal and undisguised satire on the corruptions of the Athenian state, and of all human society. It seems rather a harmless display of merry pranks, which hit alike at gods and men without any particular object in view. Whatever was remarkable about birds in natural history, in mythology, in the doctrine of divination, in the fables of Aesop, or even in proverbial expressions, has been ingeniously drawn to his purpose by the poet; who even goes back to cosmogony, and shows that at first the raven-winged Night laid a wind-egg, out of which the lovely Eros, with golden pinions (without doubt a bird), soared aloft, and thereupon gave birth to all things. Two fugitives of the human race fall into the domain of the birds, who resolve to revenge themselves on them for the numerous cruelties which they have suffered: the two men contrive to save themselves by proving the pre-eminency of the birds over all other creatures, and they advise them to collect all their scattered powers into one immense state; the wondrous city, Cloud-cuckootown, is then built above the earth; all sorts of unbidden guests, priests, poets, soothsayers, geometers, lawyers, sycophants, wish to nestle in the new state, but are driven out; new gods are appointed, naturally enough, after the image of the birds, as those of men bore a resemblance to man. Olympus is walled up against the old gods, so that no odour of sacrifices can reach them; in their emergency, they send an embassy, consisting of the voracious Hercules, Neptune, who swears according to the common formula, by Neptune, and a Thracian god, who is not very familiar with Greek, but speaks a sort of mixed jargon; they are, however, under the necessity of submitting to any conditions they can get, and the sovereignty of the world is left to the birds. However much all this resembles a mere farcical fairy tale, it may be said, however, to have a philosophical signification, in thus taking a sort of bird's-eye view of all things, seeing that most of our ideas are only true in a human point of view.

The old critics were of opinion that Cratinus was powerful in that biting satire which makes its attack without disguise, but that he was deficient in a pleasant humour, also that he wanted the skill to develope a striking subject to the best advantage, and to fill up his pieces with the necessary details. Eupolis they tell us was agreeable in his jokes, and ingenious in covert allusions, so that he never needed the assistance of parabases to say whatever he wished, but that he was deficient in satiric power. But Aristophanes, they add, by a happy medium, united the excellencies of both, and that in him we have satire and pleasantry combined in due proportion and attractive manner. From these statements I conceive myself justified in assuming that among the pieces of Aristophanes, the _Knights_ is the most in the style of Cratinus, and the _Birds_ in that of Eupolis; and that he had their respective manners in view when he composed these pieces. For although he boasts of his independent originality, and of his never borrowing anything from others, it was hardly possible that among such distinguished contemporary artists, all reciprocal influence should be excluded. If this opinion be well founded, we have to lament the loss of the works of Cratinus, perhaps principally on account of the light they would have thrown on the manners of the times, and the knowledge they might have afforded of the Athenian constitution, while the loss of the works of Eupolis is to be regretted, chiefly for the comic form in which they were delivered.

_Plutus_ was one of the earlier pieces of the poet, but as we have it, it is one of his last works; for the first piece was afterwards recast


Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 30/97

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