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enabled their voices to be heard clearly at the back of the immense theatre in the open air. They wore buskins, large boots with soles almost like stilts, which gave them an appearance of more than human height, and because of this dress and because of the fact that the story was told by dialogue rather than by obvious action they moved hardly at all across the stage. Below, in the orchestra, grouped round the altar of Dionysus in the middle, was the chorus, motionless while the actors were speaking, and, when their time came, chanting their odes to the rhythmic movements of a dance in which every part of the body had its share, and chanting them not altogether, but in two divisions, so that the verse sung by one half would be answered by a following verse sung by the other. In the telling of the story certain conventions were generally observed. There was usually a prologue explaining the circumstances before the action began. The crisis, as we have said, almost always took place “off,” and was always narrated to the audience by a messenger, whose speech generally is the culmination of a play. The play ended, at any rate in the developed technique of Euripides, though not so generally in the two preceding dramatists, with the appearance of some god who summed up in a few words of comfort or reconciliation the tragic passion of the drama and sent the spectators away with a sense
§ 3 Æschylus
There is a striking resemblance, both in the novelty of their achievement and the circumstances of their lives, between the writers of the wonder century of Greece—the fifth century B.C. -and the English writers of the Elizabethan era, like Spenser and Raleigh. Æschylus, the eldest of the three great Greek dramatists, was a soldier. He was born in 525 B.C., and he fought in the Athenian army that defeated the Persians at the famous battle of Marathon. This decisive victory of a small people over a mighty empire had an immense effect on the character of
Æschylus and of his work. His plays were written in a heroic age when men were stimulated by unexpected and almost unhoped for national success, just as the Elizabethans were stimulated by the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
The first play of Æschylus was produced when he was twenty-six, in the first year, that is, of the wonder century—the 5th B.c. Like Shakespeare, he acted in his own dramas and though only seven of them are extant, he is supposed to have written ninety. There is a legend that he was killed by an eagle dropping on his bald head, which it mistook for a rock, a tortoise the shell of which the bird had been unable to break.
Religious fervour joined in Æschylus with pride of country and race, the result of the glory of Marathon. He was born at Eleusis (in 525 B.c.), the home of those religious mysteries the nature of which the modern world knows very little. As a boy he must have seen scores of pilgrims troubled in spirit, seeking explanation of life's problems or maybe release from trouble, and he grew up obsessed with the conviction of the impossibility of escape from the fates and furies that pursue the steps of men.
For the plots of his plays he went to the myths of his people. He himself said that his tragedies were “morsels from the banquet of Homer.”
What are the qualities of Æschylus that have given his plays immortality and that cause them to be read with eager interest and enjoyment two thousand four hundred years after they were written? Perhaps their character can best be explained by comparing Æschylus to an Elizabethan, Marlowe, and a modern, Victor Hugo. Like Marlowe, Æschylus was, to use Swinburne's phrase, “a daring and inspired pioneer.” In his music there is no echo of any man's before him. Read Marlowe's History of Dr. Faustųs and you are in touch with the qualities of Æschylusthe horror, the tremendous power, the excited passion. Aristophanes, the Athenian writer of comedies, denounced Æschylus as “bombastic,” and it is interesting to note that this is the adjec
tive frequently applied by critics to Victor Hugo, who, in a less degree than Marlowe, possessed some of the characteristics of the Greek poet.
There is never any love interest in the Æschylus plays. He was interested in elemental forces, and he gave Fate and Fear, Justice and Injustice the same individual personality as Bunyan gave to similar qualities in his Pilgrim's Progress. In his dramas, as J. A. Symonds said, “mountains were made to speak.” So tremendous was the power of Æschylus, that the Greeks believed that he must have written under the immediate inspiration of the gods. One story says that, when he was a boy, he was sent to watch the clusters of grapes in a vineyard, and fell asleep. While he slept the god Dionysus came to him and ordered him to write tragedies. When he awoke he made his first attempt and succeeded at once. Sophocles said of his great rival: “He did what he ought to do, but did it without knowing.” Certain of his contemporaries asserted that he wrote his tragedies while drunk with wine. The fact seems to have been that his originality and genius were so astounding that his fellows were forced to find some superhuman explanation for them.
Of the seven plays of Æschylus that have been preserved, Prometheus Bound is perhaps the most interesting for us from the fact of Shelley's Prometheus Unbound. It was the second of a trilogy of plays, the first of which was called Prometheus the Fire-Bearer, and the third Prometheus Unbound. Both of these have been lost, although a portion of the third translated into Latin by Cicero remains to us. A summary of the play may give some idea of the mind and manner of the dramatists.
A Summary of "Prometheus Bound"
At the beginning of the drama, Prometheus, who has offended Zeus, is chained to a rock by Hephæstus, the god who corresponds to the Latin Vulcan. Zeus has recently established his dynasty in Heaven and has determined to destroy the human
race and to populate the earth with a finer creation. Prometheus is the typical benefactor of mankind. He has prevented the god's proposed destruction by giving man the gift of fire, the most ancient of all arts, and subsequently teaching him carpentry, husbandry, medicine, and seamanship. And for this rebellion Zeus has decreed his dreadful punishment. While he is being bound Prometheus remains proudly silent, but when Hephæstus has left him he cries out to the Earth and the Sun to see how he, a god, is wronged by other gods:
You see me prisoned here, a god ill-starred,
He is visited by the Ocean Nymphs, and to them he emphasises his services to mankind:
'Twas I that first to yoke and collar tamed
One satisfaction is left to Prometheus. He knows, and he alone, that a dire fate awaits Zeus himself—“It shall hurl him down from power supreme to nothing." His prophecy is repeated to the god, who sends Hermes to Prometheus to demand details of the threatened danger. He refuses to speak. Hermes reminds him of the punishment which has already followed rebellion, and he replies:
I would not change it for thy servitude.
Better to grieve than be a lackeying slave.
gnaw at his flesh; the earth opens, and the rock to which Prometheus is chained sinks into the abyss. There has been considerable discussion as to the religious meaning that Æschylus attached to his story, and it is suggested that in the third of the plays, one of the two that are lost, Prometheus and Zeus are reconciled. The moral of the trilogy is that the gods “learned the stern spirit of the law, but tempered the disposition with their natural sympathy for humanity. So arose the new order, the rule of reasonable law.”
Apart from Prometheus, the most interesting character that Æschylus created was Clytemnestra in the mighty drama Agamemnon. Clytemnestra has been compared to Lady Macbeth, but she is really made of harder metal, ready, as J. A. Symonds says, to “browbeat truth before the judgment seat of gods or men.” When she has killed Agamemnon there is no weakening, no regret. She is the minister of Fate, the minister of Justice, the typical “Fury” of the Greeks. Agamemnon is an unattractive character, and the hatred of his wife is not unreasonable. Nothing, however, can excuse Clytemnestra's crime or ward off her punishment. Her son, Orestes, becomes the avenger of his father, and in the Choephori, the sequel to the Agamemnon, Orestes kills his mother. He is pursued by the Erinnyes, the daughters of the night and the ministers of punishment. In a third play, the Eumenides, Orestes after great tribulation is forgiven by the gods. Here, as elsewhere, Æschylus insists that sin must be paid for before it can be forgiven.
Æschylus died in 456 B.c. in Sicily, where he is said to have gone in dudgeon at the fact that the first prize at one of the great dramatic contests at Athens had been awarded to his younger rival, Sophocles.
§ 4 Sophocles
Sophocles was one of the sunniest-natured great writers in the history of literature. He was born in 495 B.C., and was thirty