Euripides and His Age
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Title: Euripedes and His Age
Author: Gilbert Murray
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HOME UNIVERSITY LIBRARYOF MODERN KNOWLEDGE
EURIPIDES AND HIS AGE
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Sources for a Life of Euripides: Memories remaining in the Fourth Century: Youth: Athens after the Persian War: the great Sophists
What is a Greek Tragedy? Euripides' early Plays up to 438 b.c.,"Alcestis" and "Telephus"
Beginning of the War: the Plays of Maturity from "Medea"to "Heracles"
Full Expression: the Embittering of the War:Alcibiades and the Demagogues: the "Ion": the "Trojan Women"
After 415: Euripides' last years in Athens: from"Andromeda" and "Iphigenia" to "Electra" and "Orestes"
After 408: Macedonia: "Iphigenia in Aulis": "Bacchae"
The Art of Euripides: Traditional Form and Living Spirit:the Prologue, the Messenger, the "God from the Machine"
The Art of Euripides, continued: The Chorus:Conclusion
Note on the Pronunciation of Names
EURIPIDES AND HIS AGE
Most of the volumes of this series are occupied with large subjects andsubjects commonly recognized as important to great masses of people atthe present day. In devoting the present volume to the study of a singlewriter, remote from us in time and civilization and scarcely known bymore than name to many readers of the Library, I am moved by the beliefthat, quite apart from his disputed greatness as a poet and thinker,apart from his amazing and perhaps unparalleled success as a practicalplaywright, Euripides is a figure of high significance in the history ofhumanity and of special interest to our own generation.
Born, according to the legend, in exile and fated to die in exile,Euripides, in whatever light one regards him, is a man of curious andironic history. As a poet he has lived[Pg 8]through the ages in anatmosphere of controversy, generally—though by no means always—lovedby poets and despised by critics. As a thinker he is even to this daytreated almost as a personal enemy by scholars of orthodox andconformist minds; defended, idealized and sometimes transformed beyondrecognition by various champions of rebellion and the free intellect.The greatest difficulty that I feel in writing about him is to keep inmind without loss of proportion anything like the whole activity of themany-sided man. Recent writers have tended to emphasize chiefly his workas a destructive thinker. Dr. Verrall, the most brilliant of all moderncritics of Euripides, to whose pioneer work my own debt is greater thanI can well express, entitled one of his books "Euripides theRationalist" and followed to its extreme limit the path indicated bythis particular clue. His vivid and interesting disciple ProfessorNorwood has followed him. In Germany Dr. Nestlé, in a sober and learnedbook, treating of Euripides as a thinker, says that "all mysticism wasfundamentally repugnant to him"; a view which is certainly wrong, sincesome of the finest expressions of Greek mysticism known to us are taken[Pg 9]from the works of Euripides. Another good writer, Steiger, draws anelaborate parallel between Euripides and Ibsen and finds the one key toEuripides in his realism and his absolute devotion to truth. Yet anolder generation of Euripides-lovers felt these things quitedifferently. When Macaulay proclaimed that there was absolutely nothingin literature to equal The Bacchae, he was certainly not thinkingabout rationalism or realism. He felt the romance, the magic, the sheerpoetry. So did Milton and Shelley and Browning. And so did the olderEnglish scholars like Porson and Elmsley. Porson, while admitting thatthe critics have many things to say against Euripides as compared, forinstance, with Sophocles, answers in his inarticulate way "illumadmiramur, hunc legimus"—"we admire the one, but we read the other."Elmsley, so far from regarding Euripides as mainly a thinker, remarks inpassing that he was a poet singularly addicted to contradicting himself.To Porson and Elmsley the poetry of Euripides might or might not be goodon the highest plane, it was at any rate delightful. Quite differentagain are the momentous judgments pronounced upon him as a writer oftragedy[Pg 10]by two of the greatest judges. Aristotle, writing at a periodwhen Euripides was rather out of fashion, and subjecting him to muchserious and sometimes unintelligent criticism, considers him still "themost tragic of the poets." And Goethe, after expressing his surprise atthe general belittling of Euripides by "the aristocracy of philologists,led by the buffoon Aristophanes," asks emphatically: "Have all thenations of the world since his time produced one dramatist who wasworthy to hand him his slippers?" (Tagebüchern, November 22, 1831.) Wemust try, if we can, to bear duly in mind all these different lines ofapproach.
As a playwright the fate of Euripides has been strange. All through along life he was almost invariably beaten in the State competitions. Hewas steadily admired by some few philosophers, like Socrates; he enjoyedimmense fame throughout Greece; but the official judges of poetry wereagainst him, and his own people of Athens admired him reluctantly andwith a grudge.
After death, indeed, he seemed to come into his kingdom. He held thestage as no other tragedian has ever held it, and we hear of[Pg 11]his playsbeing performed with popular success six hundred years after they werewritten, and in countries far removed from Greece. He influenced all thehigher forms of Greek writing, both in prose and poetry. He is morequoted by subsequent writers than any other Greek tragedian; nay, if weleave out of count mere dictionary references to rare words, he is morequoted than all the other tragedians together. And nineteen of his playshave survived to our own day as against seven each of Aeschylus andSophocles. This seems enough glory for any man. Yet the fate thatgrudged him prizes in his lifetime contrived afterwards to spread aveneer of commonplaceness over the success which it could not prevent.To a great extent Euripides was read because he was, or seemed, easy;the older poets were neglected because they were difficult. Attic Greekin his hands had begun to assume the form in which it remained for athousand years as the recognized literary language of the east of Europeand the great instrument and symbol of civilization. He was atreasure-house of Attic style and ancient maxims, and eminently usefulto orators who liked quotations. Meantime the melody and meaning of hislyrics[Pg 12]were lost, because men had forgotten the pronunciation offifth-century Greek and could no longer read lyrics intelligently. Theobviously exciting quality of his plays kept its effect; but there wasno one to understand the subtlety of his craftsmanship, the intimatestudy of character, the skilful forging of links and clashes betweenscenes, the mastery of that most wonderful of Greek dramaticinstruments, the Chorus. Plays had practically ceased to be written.They were thought of either as rhetorical exercises or as spectacles forthe amphitheatre. Something similar happened to the whole inward spiritin which he worked, call it philosophy or call it religion. Its meaningbecame obscured. It had indeed a powerful influence on the philosophersof the great fourth century schools: they probably understood at leastone side of him. But the sayings of his that are quoted broadcast andrepeated through author after author of the decadence are mostlythoughts of quite the second rank, which have lost half their value bybeing torn from their context, often commonplace, often—as is naturalin fragments of dramas—mutually contradictory, though almost alwayssimply and clearly expressed.[Pg 13]
It was this clear expression which the late Greeks valued so highly."Clarity"—saphêneia—was the watchword of style in Euripides' own dayand remained always the foremost aim of Greek rhetoric. Indeed what aGreek called "rhetorikê" often implied the very opposite of what we call"rhetoric." To think clearly, to arrange your matter under formal heads,to have each paragraph definitely articulated and each sentence simplyand exactly expressed: that was the main lesson of the Greek rhetor. Thetendency was already beginning in classical times and no classicalwriter carried it further than Euripides. But here again Fate has beenironical with him. The ages that were incapable of understanding himloved him for his clearness: our own age, which might at last understandhim, is instinctively repelled by it. We do not much like a poet to bevery clear, and we hate him to be formal. We are clever readers, quickin the up-take, apt to feel flattered and stimulated by a littleobscurity; mystical philosophy is all very well in a poet, but clear-cutintellect—no. At any rate we are sharply offended by "firstlys,secondlys and thirdlys," by divisions on the one hand and on the otherhand.[Pg 14] And all this and more Euripides insists on giving us.
It is the great obstacle between him and us. Apart from it we have onlyto exercise a little historical imagination and we shall find in him aman, not indeed modern—half his charm is that he is so remote andaustere—but a man who has in his mind the same problems as ourselves,the same doubts and largely the same ideals; who has felt the samedesires and indignations as a great number of people at the present day,especially young people. Not because young people are cleverer than old,nor yet because they are less wise; but because the poet or philosopheror martyr who lives, half-articulate, inside most human beings is apt tobe smothered or starved to death in the course of middle life. As longas he is still alive we have, most of us, the key to understandingEuripides.
What, then, shall be our method in approaching him? It is fatal to flystraight at him with modern ready-made analogies. We must see him in hisown atmosphere. Every man who possesses real vitality can be seen as theresultant of two forces. He is first the child of a particular age,society, convention; of what we may call in one word a tradition. He[Pg 15] issecondly, in one degree or another, a rebel against that tradition. Andthe best traditions make the best rebels. Euripides is the child of astrong and splendid tradition and is, together with Plato, the fiercestof