A GENIUS is an accused man. As long as Aeschylus lived, his life was in strife. His genius was contested, then he was persecuted: a natural progression. According to Athenian practice, his private life was unveiled; he was traduced, slandered. A woman whom he had loved, Planesia, sister of Chrysilla, mistress of Pericles, has dishonored herself in the eyes of posterity by the outrages that she publicly inflicted on Aeschylus. Unnatural amours were imputed to him; for him, as for Shakespeare, a Lord Southampton was found. His popularity was broken down. Then everything was charged to him as a crime, even his kindness to young poets who respectfully offered to him their first laurels. It is curious to see this reproach constantly reappearing. Pezay and St. Lambert repeat in the eighteenth century: "Why, Voltaire, in all thy notes to the authors who address thee with complimentary verses, dost thou reply with excessive praises?"
Aeschylus, while alive, was a kind of public target for all haters. Young, the ancient poets, Thespis and Phrynicus, were preferred to him; old, the new ones, Sophocles and Euripides, were placed above him. At last he was brought before the Areopagus, and -- according to Suidas, because the theatre had fallen during the performance of one of his pieces; according to Aelian, because he had blasphemed, or, what is the same thing, had revealed the mysteries of Eleusis -- he was exiled. He died in exile.
Then Lycurgus the orater cried: "We must raise to Aeschylus a statue of bronze."
Athens, which had expelled the man, raised the statue.
This glory, which was to have in the course of ages its phases, its eclipses, its vanishings, and its returns, was then dazzling. Greece remembered Salamis, where Aeschylus had fought. The Aeropagus itself was ashamed. It felt that it had been ungrateful toward the man who, in THE ORESTEIA, had paid to that tribunal the supreme honor of summoning before it Minerva and Apollo. Aeschylus became sacred. All the phratries had his bust, wreathed at first with fillets, afterward crowned with laurels. Aristophanes made him say in THE FROGS, "I am dead, but my poetry liveth." In the great Eleusinian days, the herald of the Areopagus blew the Tyrrhenian trumpet in honor of Aeschylus. An official copy of his ninety-seven dramas was made at the expense of the Republic, and placed under the special care of the recorder of Athens. The actors who played his pieces were obliged to go and collate their parts with this perfect and unique copy. Aeschylus was made a second Homer. Aeschylus had, like Homer, his rhapsodists, who sang his verses at the festivals, holding in their hands a branch of myrtle.
He had been right, the great and insulted man, to write in his poems this proud and mournful dedication:
There was no more said about his blasphemy: it was enough that this blasphemy had caused him to die in exile; it was as though it had never been. Besides, one does not know where to find the blasphemy. Palingenius sees it an in ASTEROPE, which, in our opinion, existed only in imagination. Musgrave seeks it in THE EUMENIDES. Musgrave was probably right; for THE EUMENIDES being a very religious piece, the priests must have chosen it for the purpose of accusing him of impiety.
Let us note an odd coincidence. The two sons of Aeschylus, Euphorion and Bion, are said to have recast THE ORESTEIA, exactly as, two thousand three hundred years later, William Davenant, Shakespeare's illegitimate son, recast MACBETH. But in the face of universal respect for Aeschylus after his death, such impudent tamperings were impossible; and what is true of Davenant is evidently untrue of Bion and Euphorion.
The renown of Aeschylus filled the world of those days. Egypt, feeling with reason that he was a giant and somewhat Egyptian, bestowed on him the name of "Pimander," signifying "Superior Intelligence." In Sicily, whither he had been banished, and where they sacrificed he-goats before his tomb at Gela, he was almost an Olympian. Afterward he was almost a prophet for the Christians, owing to the prediction of Prometheus, which they thought to apply to Jesus.
Strangely enough, it is this very glory which has wrecked his work.
We speak here of the material wreck; for, as we have said, the mighty name of Aeschylus survives.
The disappearance of these poems is indeed a drama, and an extraordinary drama. A king has stupidly plundered the human mind.
Let us tell the story of this larceny.
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