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- Specimens of Greek Tragedy - 2/44 -

for expression in the speeches of Thucydides.

The trio of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides has been compared with that of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Beaumont and Fletcher, and with that of Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire. The parallel will hardly hold good except as an illustration of the course of youth, perfection, and decay through which every art or product of imagination seems to run, unlike science, which continually advances. The epoch of the Athenian three, like that of the Elizabethan three, like that of the great Spanish dramatists, was one of national achievement, and their drama was thoroughly national; whereas the French drama was the highly artificial entertainment of an exclusive Court.

Aeschylus (B.C. 525-456) was the heroic poet of Athens. He had fought certainly at Marathon, and, we may be pretty sure, at Salamis, so that the narrative of the battle of Salamis in "The Persae" is probably that of an eye-witness; and that he had fought at Marathon, not that he had won the prize in drama, was the inscription which he desired for his tomb. He is of the old school of thought and sentiment, full of reverence for religion and for eternal law. The growing scepticism had not touched him. His morality is lofty and austere. In politics he was a conservative, of the party of Cimon, opposed to the radically democratic party of Pericles; and his drama, especially the Oresteian trilogy, teems with conservative sentiment and allusion. His characters are of heroic cast. He deals superbly with the moral forces and destiny; though it may be that more philosophy has been found in him, especially by his German commentators, than is there, and that obscurity arising from his imperfect command of language has sometimes been mistaken for depth. His "Agamemnon" is generally deemed the masterpiece of Greek tragedy. His language is stately and swelling, in keeping with the heroic part of his characters; sometimes it is too swelling, and even bombastic. Though he is the greatest of all, art in him had not arrived at technical perfection. He reminds us sometimes of the Aeginetan marbles, rather than the frieze of the Parthenon.

In Sophocles (B.C. 495-405) the dramatic art has arrived at technical perfection. His drama is regarded as the literary counterpart of the Parthenon. Its calm and statuesque excellence exactly met the requirements of the taste which we call classic, and seems to correspond with the character of the dramatist, which was notably gentle, and with his form, which was typically beautiful. His characters are less heroic, and nearer to common humanity than those of Aeschylus. He appeals more to pity. His art is more subtle, especially in the treatment, for which he is famous, of the irony of fate. In politics, social sentiment, and religion, while he is more of the generation of Pericles than Aeschylus, he is still conservative and orthodox. If he belongs to democracy, it is a democracy still kept within moral bounds, and owning a master in its great chief, with whom he seems to have been personally connected. Nor does he ever court popularity by bringing the personages of the heroic age down to the common level. He, as well as Aeschylus, is dear to Aristophanes, the satiric poet of conservatism, while Euripides is hateful.

Euripides (B.C. 480-406) perhaps slightly resembles Voltaire in this, that he belongs to a different historic zone from his two predecessors, from Sophocles as well as from Aeschylus, in political and social sentiment, though not in date. He belongs to a full-blown democracy, and is evidently the dramatic poet of the people. To please the people he lays dignity and stateliness aside, brings heroic characters down to a common level, and introduces characters which are unheroic. He gives the people plenty of passion, especially of feminine passion, without being nice as to its sources, or rejecting such stories as those of Phaedra and Medea, which would have been alien to the taste, not only of Aeschylus, but of Sophocles. He gives them plenty of politics, plenty of rhetoric, plenty of discussion, political and moral, plenty of speculation, which in those days was novel, now and then a little scepticism. His "Alcestis" is melodrama verging on sentimental comedy, and heralding the sentimental comedy of Menander known to us in the versions of Terence. The chord of pathos he can touch well. His degradation, as the old school thought it, of the drama of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and what they deemed his pandering to vulgar taste, brought upon him the bitter satire of Aristophanes. Yet he did not win many prizes. Perhaps the vast theatre and the grand choric accompaniments harmonised ill with his unheroic style. He is clearly connected with the Sophists, and with the generation the morality of which had been unsettled by the violence of faction and the fury of the Peloponnesian war. Still there is no reason for saying that he preached moral scepticism or impiety. Probably he did not intend to preach anything, but to please his popular audience and to win the prize. The line quoted against him, "My lips have sworn, but my mind is unsworn," read in its place, has nothing in it immoral. Perhaps he had his moods: he was religious when he wrote "The Bacchae." As little ground is there for dubbing him a woman-hater. If he has his Phaedra and Medea, he has also his Alcestis and Electra. He seems to have prided himself on his choric odes. Some of them have beauty in themselves, but they are little relevant to the play.

A full and critical account of the plays will not be expected in the Preface to a series of extracts; it will be found in such literary histories as that of Professor Mahaffy. Nor can it be necessary to dilate on the merit of the pieces selected. The sublime agony of Prometheus Bound, the majesty of wickedness in Clytaemnestra, the martial grandeur of the siege of Thebes, or of the battle of Salamis, in Aeschylus; the awful doom of Oedipus, his mysterious end, the heroic despair of Ajax, the martyrdom of Antigone to duty, in Sophocles; the passion of Phaedra and Medea, the conjugal self-sacrifice of Alcestis, the narratives of the deaths of Polyxena and the slaughter of Pentheus by the Bacchae, in Euripides, speak for themselves, if the translation is at all faithful, and find their best comment in the reader's natural appreciation.

The number of those who do not read the originals will be increased by the dropping of Greek from the academical course. To give them something like an equivalent for the original in English is the object of a translation. As prose can never be an equivalent for poetry, and as the thoughts and diction of poetry are alien to prose, it is necessary to run the risks of a translation in verse. To translate as far as possible line for line, is requisite in the case of the Greek dramatists, if we would not lose the form and balance which are of the essence of Greek art. It is necessary also to preserve as much as possible the simplicity of diction, and to avoid words and phrases suggestive of very modern ideas. After all, it is difficult, with a material so motley and irregular as the English language, to produce anything like the pure marble of the Greek. There are translations of Greek tragedies or parts of them by writers of high poetic reputation, which are no doubt poetry, but are not Greek art.

The lyric portions of the Greek Drama are admired and even enthusiastically praised by literary judges whose verdict we shall not presume to dispute. To translation, however, the choric odes hardly lend themselves. Their dithyrambic character, their high-flown language, strained metaphors, tortuous constructions, and frequent, perhaps studied, obscurity, render it almost impossible to reproduce them in the forms of our poetry. Nor perhaps when they are strictly analysed will much be found, in many of them at least, of the material whereof modern poetry is made. They are, in fact, the libretto of a chant accompanied by dancing, and must have owed much to the melody and movement. In attempting to render the grand choric odes of the "Agamemnon," moreover, the translator is perplexed by corruptions of the text and by the various interpretations of commentators, who, though they all agree as to the moral pregnancy and sublimity of the passage, frequently differ as to its precise meaning. A metrical translation of these odes in English is apt to remind us of the metrical versions of the Hebrew Psalms. A part of one chorus in Aeschylus, which forms a distinct picture, has been given in rhythmical prose; three choruses of Sophocles and two of Euripides have, not without misgiving, been rendered in verse.

The spelling of proper names is in a state of somewhat chaotic transition which makes it difficult to take a definite course. The precisians themselves are not consistent: they still speak of Troy, Athens, Plato, and Aristotle. In the versions themselves the Greek forms have been preferred, though a pedantic extreme has been avoided. In the Preface and Introduction the forms familiar to the English reader have been used.

For Aeschylus and Euripides, the editions of Paley in the _Bibliotheca Classica_ have been used; for Sophocles, that of Mr. Lewis Campbell.






Prometheus is brought in by the Spirits of Might and Force, Hephaestus accompanying them. Lines 1-113

The Sin of Prometheus. Lines 444-533

Prometheus defies Zeus. Lines 928-1114



Atossa's Dream. Lines 1478-216

The Battle of Salamis and the Destruction of the Persian Fleet. Lines 251-473



The Champions. Lines 370-673



The Fall of Troy announced at Mycenae. Lines 1-39

The Chorus recounts the Sacrifice of Iphigenia. Lines 177-240

The Meeting of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra. Lines 828-947

Specimens of Greek Tragedy - 2/44

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