Suppliant Maidens and Other Plays by Aeschylus - HTML preview

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The surviving dramas of Aeschylus are seven in number, though he is believed to have written nearly a hundred during his life of sixty-nine years, from 525 B.C. to 456 B.C. That he fought at Marathon in 490, and at Salamis in 480 B.C. is a strongly accredited tradition, rendered almost certain by the vivid references to both battles in his play of The Persians, which was produced in 472. But his earliest extant play was, probably, not The Persians but The Suppliant Maidens--a mythical drama, the fame of which has been largely eclipsed by the historic interest of The Persians, and is undoubtedly the least known and least regarded of the seven. Its topic--the flight of the daughters of Danaus from Egypt to Argos, in order to escape from a forced bridal with their first-cousins, the sons of Aegyptus--is legendary, and the lyric element predominates in the play as a whole. We must keep ourselves reminded that the ancient Athenian custom of presenting dramas in Trilogies- --that is, in three consecutive plays dealing with different stages of one legend--was probably not uniform: it survives, for us, in one instance only, viz. the Orestean Trilogy, comprising the Agamemnon, the Libation-Bearers, and the Eumenides, or Furies. This Trilogy is the masterpiece of the Aeschylean Drama: the four remaining plays of the poet, which are translated in this volume, are all fragments of lost Trilogies-that is to say, the plays are complete as poems, but in regard to the poet's larger design they are fragments; they once had predecessors, or sequels, of which only a few words, or  lines, or short paragraphs, survive. It is not certain, but seems probable, that the earliest of these single completed plays is The Suppliant Maidens, and on that supposition it has  been placed first in the present volume. The maidens, accompanied by their father Danaes, have fled from Egypt and arrived at Argos, to take sanctuary there and to avoid capture by their pursuing kinsmen and suitors. In the course of the play, the pursuers' ship arrives to reclaim the maidens for a forced wedlock in Egypt. The action of the drama  turns on the attitude of the king and people of Argos, in view of this intended abduction. The king puts the question to the popular vote, and the demand of the suitors is unanimously rejected: the play closes with thanks and gratitude on the part of the  fugitives, who, in lyrical strains of quiet beauty, seem to refer the whole question of their marriage to the subsequent decision of the gods, and, in particular, of Aphrodite.

Of the second portion of the Trilogy we can only speak conjecturally. There is a passage in the Prometheus Bound (ll. 860-69), in which we learn that the maidens were somehow reclaimed by the suitors, and that all, except one, slew their bridegrooms on the wedding night. There is a faint trace, among the Fragments of Aeschylus, of a play called Thalamopoioi,--i.e. The Preparers of the Chamber,--which may well have referred to this tragic scene. Its grim title will recall to all classical readers the magnificent, though terrible, version of the legend, in the final stanzas of the eleventh poem in the third book of Horace's Odes. The final play was probably called The Danaides, and described the acquittal of the brides through some intervention of Aphrodite: a fragment of it survives, in which the goddess appears to be pleading her special prerogative. The legends which commit the daughters of Danaus to an eternal penalty in Hades are, apparently, of later origin. Homer is silent on any such penalty; and Pindar, Aeschylus' contemporary, actually describes the once suppliant maidens as honourably enthroned (Pyth. ix. 112: Nem. x. ll. 1-10). The Tartarean part of the story is, in fact, post-Aeschylean.

The Suppliant Maidens is full of charm, though the text of the part which describes the arrival of the pursuers at Argos is full of uncertainties. It remains a fine, though archaic, poem, with this special claim on our interest, that it is, probably, the earliest extant poetic drama. We see in it the tendency to grandiose language, not yet fully developed as in the Prometheus: the inclination of youth to simplicity, and even platitude, in religious and general speculation: and yet we recognize, as in the germ, the profound theology of the Agamemnon, and a touch of the political vein which appears more fully in the Furies. If the precedence in time here ascribed to it is correct, the play is perhaps worth more recognition than it has received from the countrymen of Shakespeare.

The Persians has been placed second in this volume, as the oldest play whose date is certainly known. It was brought out in 472 B.C., eight years after the sea-fight of Salamis which it commemorates, and five years before the Seven against Thebes (467 B.C.). It is thought to be the second play of a Trilogy, standing between the Phineus and the Glaucus. Phineus was a legendary seer, of the Argonautic era--"Tiresias and Phineus, prophets old"--and the play named after him may have contained a prophecy of the great conflict which is actually described in The Persae: the plot of the Glaucus is unknown. In any case, The Persians was produced before the eyes of a generation which had seen the struggles, West against East, at Marathon and Thermopylæ, Salamis and Plataea. It is as though Shakespeare had commemorated, through the lips of a Spanish survivor, in the ears of old councillors of Philip the Second, the dispersal of the Armada.

Against the piteous want of manliness on the part of the returning Xerxes, we may well set the grave and dignified patriotism of Atossa, the Queen-mother of the Persian kingdom; the loyalty, in spite of their bewilderment, of the aged men who form the Chorus; and, above all, the royal phantom of Darius, evoked from the shadowland by the libations of Atossa and by the appealing cries of the Chorus. The latter, indeed, hardly dare to address the kingly ghost: but Atossa bravely narrates to him the catastrophe, of which, in the lower world, Darius has known nothing, though he realizes that disaster, soon or late, is the lot of mortal power. As the tale is unrolled, a spirit of prophecy possesses him, and he foretells the coming slaughter of Plataea; then, with a last royal admonition that the defeated Xerxes shall, on his return, be received with all ceremony and observance, and with a characteristic warning to the aged men, that they must take such pleasures as they may, in their waning years, he returns to the shades. The play ends with the undignified reappearance of Xerxes, and a melancholy procession into the palace of Susa. It was, perhaps, inevitable that this close of the great drama should verge on the farcical, and that the poltroonery of Xerxes should, in a measure, obscure Aeschylus' generous portraiture of Atossa and Darius. But his magnificent picture of the battle of Salamis is unequalled in the poetic annals of naval war. No account of the flight of the Armada, no record of Lepanto or Trafalgar, can be justly set beside it. The Messenger might well, like Prospero, announce a tragedy by one line--

  Sit still, and hear the last of our sea-sorrow.

Five years after The Persians, in 467 B. C., the play which we call the Seven against Thebes was presented at Athens. It bears now a title which Aeschylus can hardly have given to it for, though the scene of the drama overlooks the region where the city of Thebes afterwards came into being, yet, in the play itself, Thebes is never mentioned. The scene of action is the Cadmea, or Citadel of Cadmus, and we know that, in Aeschylus' lifetime, that citadel was no longer a mere fastness, but had so grown outwards and enlarged itself that a new name, Thebes, was applied to the collective city. (All this has been made abundantly clear by Dr. Verrall in his Introduction to the Seven against Thebes, to which every reader of the play itself will naturally and most profitably refer.) In the time of Aeschylus, Thebes was, of course, a notable city, his great contemporary Pindar was a citizen of it. But the Thebes of Aeschylus' date is one thing, the fortress represented in Aeschylus' play is quite another, and is never, by him, called Thebes. That the play received, and retains, the name, The Seven against Thebes, is believed to be due to two lines of Aristophanes in his Frogs (406 B.C.), where he describes Aeschylus' play as "the Seven against Thebes, a drama instinct with War, which any one who beheld must have yearned to be a warrior." This is rather an excellent description of the play than the title of it, and could not be its Aeschylean name, for the very sufficient reason that Thebes is not mentioned in the play at all. Aeschylus, in fact, was poetizing an earlier legend of the fortress of Cadmus. This being premised, we may adopt, under protest as it were, the Aristophanic name which has accrued to the play. It is the third part of a Trilogy which might have been called, collectively, The House of Laius. Sophocles and Euripides give us their versions of the legend, which we may epitomize, without, however, affirming that they followed exactly the lines of Aeschylus Trilogy--they, for instance, speak freely of Thebes. Laius, King of Thebes, married Iokaste; he was warned by Apollo that if he had any children ruin would befall his house. But a child was born, and, to avoid the threatened catastrophe, without actually killing the child he exposed it on Mount Cithaeron, that it should die. Some herdsmen saved it and gave it over to the care of a neighbouring king and queen, who reared it. Later on, learning that there was a doubt of his parentage, this child, grown now to maturity, left his foster parents and went to Delphi to consult the oracle, and received a mysterious and terrible warning, that he was fated to slay his father and wed his mother. To avoid this horror, he resolved never to approach the home of his supposed parents. Meantime his real father, Laius, on his way to consult the god at Delphi, met his unknown son returning from that shrine--a quarrel fell out, and the younger man slew the elder. Followed by his evil destiny, he wandered on, and found the now kingless Thebes in the grasp of the Sphinx monster, over whom he triumphed, and was rewarded by the hand of Iokaste, his own mother! Not till four children--two sons and two daughters--had been born to them, was the secret of the lineage revealed. Iokaste slew herself in horror, and the wretched king tore out his eyes, that he might never again see the children of his awful union. The two sons quarrelled over the succession, then agreed on a compromise; then fell at variance again, and finally slew each other in single combat. These two sons, according to one tradition, were twins: but the more usual view is that the elder was called Eteocles, the younger, Polynices.

To the point at which the internecine enmity between Eteocles and Polynices arose, we have had to follow Sophocles and Euripides, the first two parts of Aeschylus' Trilogy being lost. But the third part, as we have said, survives under the name given to it by Aristophanes, the Seven against Thebes: it opens with an exhortation by Eteocles to his Cadmeans that they should "quit them like men" against the onslaught of Polynices and his Argive allies: the Chorus is a bevy of scared Cadmean maidens, to whom the very sound of war and tramp of horsemen are new and terrific. It ends with the news of the death of the two princes, and the lamentations of their two sisters, Antigone and Ismene. The onslaught from without has been repulsed, but the male line of the house of Laius is extinct. The Cadmeans resolve that Eteocles shall be buried in honour, and Polynices flung to the dogs and birds. Against the latter sentence Antigone protests, and defies the decree: the Chorus, as is natural, are  divided in their sentiments.

It is interesting to note that, in combination with the Laius and the Oedipus, this play won the dramatic crown in 467 B.C. On the other hand, so excellent a judge as Mr. Gilbert Murray thinks that it is "perhaps among Aeschylus' plays the one that bears least the stamp of commanding genius." Perhaps the daring, practically atheistic, character of Eteocles; the battle-fever that burns and thrills through the play; the pathetic terror of the Chorus--may have given it favour, in Athenian eyes, as the work of a poet who-- though recently (468 B.C.) defeated in the dramatic contest by the young Sophocles--was yet present to tell, not by mere report, the tale of Marathon and Salamis. Or the preceding plays, the Laius and the Oedipus, may have been of such high merit as to make up for defects observable in the one that still survives. In any case, we can hardly err in accepting Dr. Verral's judgment that "the story of Aeschylus may be, and in the outlines probably is, the genuine epic legend of the Cadmean war."

There remains one Aeschylean play, the most famous--unless we except the Agamemnon--in extant Greek literature, the Prometheus Bound. That it was the first of a Trilogy, and that the second and third parts were called the Prometheus Freed, and Prometheus the Fire-Bearer, respectively, is accepted: but the date of its performance is unknown.

The Prometheus Bound is conspicuous for its gigantic and strictly superhuman plot. The Agamemnon is human, though legendary the Prometheus presents to us the gods of Olympus in the days when mankind crept like emmets upon the earth or dwelt in caves, scorned by Zeus and the other powers of heaven, and--still aided by Prometheus the Titan--wholly without art or science, letters or handicrafts. For his benevolence towards oppressed mankind, Prometheus is condemned by Zeus to uncounted ages of pain and torment, shackled and impaled in a lonely cleft of a Scythian precipice. The play opens with this act of divine resentment enforced by the will of Zeus and by the handicraft of Hephaestus, who is aided by two demons, impersonating Strength and Violence. These agents if the ire of Zeus disappear after the first scene, the rest of the play represents Prometheus in the mighty solitude, but visited after a while by a Chorus of sea nymphs who, from the distant depths of ocean, have heard the clang of the demons' hammers, and arrive, in a winged car, from the submarine palace of their father Oceanus. To them Prometheus relates his penalty and its cause: viz., his over tenderness to the luckless race of mankind. Oceanus himself follows on a hippogriff, and counsels Prometheus to submit to Zeus. But the Titan who has handled the sea nymphs with all gentleness, receives the advice with scorn and contempt, and Oceanus retires. But the courage which he lacks his daughters possess to the full; they remain by Prometheus to the end, and share his fate, literally in the crack of doom. But before the end, the strange half human figure of Io, victim of the lust of Zeus and the jealousy of Hera, comes wandering by, and tells Prometheus of her wrongs. He, by his divine power, recounts to her not only the past but also the future of her wanderings. Then, in a fresh access of frenzy, she drifts away into the unknown world. Then Prometheus partly reveals to the sea maidens his secret, and the mysterious cause of Zeus' hatred against him--a cause which would avail to hurl the tyrant from his power. So deadly is this secret, that Zeus will, in the lapse of ages, be forced to reconcile himself with Prometheus, to escape dethronement. Finally, Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, appears with fresh threats, that he may extort the mystery from the Titan. But Prometheus is firm, defying both the tyrant and his envoy, though already the lightning is flashing, the thunder rolling, and sky and sea are mingling their fury. Hermes can say no more; the sea nymphs resolutely refuse to retire, and wait their doom. In this crash of the world, Prometheus flings his final defiance against Zeus, and amid the lightnings and shattered rocks that are overwhelming him and his companions, speaks his last word, "It is unjust!"

Any spectacular representation of this finale must, it is clear, have roused intense sympathy with the Titan and the nymphs alike. If, however, the sequel-plays had survived to us, we might conceivably have found and realized another and less intolerable solution. The name Zeus, in Greek, like that of God, in English, comprises very diverse views of divine personality. The Zeus in the Prometheus has little but the name in common with the Zeus in the first chorus of the Agamemnon, or in The Suppliant Maidens (ll. 86-103): and parallel reflections will give us much food for thought. But, in any case, let us realize that the Prometheus is not a human play: with the possible exception of Io, every character in it is an immortal being. It is not as a vaunt, but as a fact, that Prometheus declares, as against Zeus (l. 1053), that "Me at least He shall never give to death."

A stupendous theological drama of which two-thirds has been lost has left an aching void, which now can never be filled, in our minds. No reader of poetry needs to be reminded of the glorious attempt of Shelley to work out a possible and worthy sequel to the Prometheus. Who will not echo the words of Mr. Gilbert Murray, when he says that "no piece of lost literature has been more ardently longed for than the Prometheus Freed"?

But, at the end of a rather prolonged attempt to understand and translate the surviving tragedies of Aeschylus, one feels inclined to repeat the words used by a powerful critic about one of the greatest of modern poets--"For man, it is a weary way to God, but a wearier far to any demigod." We shall not discover the full sequel of Aeschylus' mighty dramatic conception: we "know in part, and we prophesy in part." The Introduction (pp. xvi.-xviii.) prefixed by Mr. A. O. Prickard to his edition of the Prometheus is full of persuasive grace, on this topic: to him, and to Dr. Verrall of Cambridge--lucida sidera of help and encouragement in the study of Aeschylus--the translator's thanks are due, and are gratefully and affectionately rendered.

       E. D. A. M.