On the principles of this latter age rests the whole character of Euripides. Far from approving the destructive tendencies of the time, he held aloof from public life on principle, and his private life was blameless; but he was permeated through and through with that spirit of boundless subjectivity and the skeptical moral paralysis resulting from it, which was the special characteristic of the age of ochlocracy. He was a keen observer of human life and its ceaseless whirl of passions. In art he was a consistent realist.
Sophocles, in a pregnant sentence which has already been quoted, points out the contrast between Euripides and himself; the one paints men as they are, the other as they should be. On this account Euripides was rarely able in his creations to rise to the level of the idealistic conceptions of his predecessors. Nor, indeed, did he wish it. His object was rather to take as the theme of poetry and of tragedy, which is the highest manifestation of poetry, the actual every-day world in which he lived and which his keen artistic eye searched to the depths, although he but half understood the connection of the things which he saw. Unfortunately, he was in tragedy tied down to the conventional treatment of the myths of gods and heroes, and though he altered them in certain cases to suit his purposes, he dared not abandon them altogether. This involved him in a dilemma; for he was compelled to introduce events of every-day life as the actions of mythological characters belonging to an ideal world. It was on this incongruity that he was so often wrecked, in spite of his great gifts as a dramatist. It is indeed the source of almost all his literary faults. His determination was to make of tragedy an instrument to work upon the minds of his time. He was always seeking after new guides to the solution of ethical problems which confronted him daily, and thus it came about that in his poetry the fullness of thought and idea was often too much for clearness of form and artistic composition.
That which Euripides saw in a vision, but with the artistic means of his time could not possibly realize, has become the very substance of modern poetry. Our tragic writers have a better material, a long series of interesting historical characters, whom they can depict at the momentous crises of their lives, and who may be made to represent, in ever-changing combinations, the common traits of human nature. Euripides is unsurpassed in his representation of actual human passion, and in depicting the casuistical sophistry with which men seek to palliate themselves or others offenses against the moral law. It is in this sense that his treatment of tragedy has been said to be "pathological." He made a special study of the nature of women, and their "dæmonic" possession by passionate love, against which the voice of reason is utterly powerless. But, in order to reproduce in his plays the actual passions of every-day life, he was compelled to bring down his heroes from those ideal heights of plot and passion on which Sophocles had left them, and to place them on the ordinary level of common human nature. Indeed, he does not hesitate to put in their mouths all the questions, thoughts and problems which were then wildly surging through the brains of his fellow Athenians and himself. It is indeed very strange to hear heroes and demi-gods, who live in daily converse with gods and goddesses, debating like so many sophists the very existence of divine beings, or criticising their actions according to the moral standards of the age of Socrates, or unceremoniously upbraiding them with their many vices. Thus Heracles, after killing his wife and children in a fit of insanity, determines to take his own life, and explains to Theseus the reason which led him to this resolve. "Zeus, whoe'er he be," he says, "begat me to be Hera's foe." Then he goes on to speak of Hera thus:
"Let her triumph, then, the haughty wife of Zeus, and tread proudly on sandalled foot throu Olympian halls. For she has had her will, and with stress and trouble has utterly undone the greatest man in Greece. Who would honor such a goddess as she is, who for a woman's sake, grudging the love of Zeus, has destroyed the savior of Greece for no guilt of his?"
Theseus answers that plainly it is no other than Hera who has undone Heracles.
"But," he says, "no mortal man may go unscathed, nay, nor god either, if poets' tales be true. Have they not wedded whom it was not meet? Have they not laid chains upon a father to win a throne? Yet do they dwell in Olympus and repent not of their deeds."
But Heracles concludes:
"I cannot think that the gods wed whom they may not, nor have I ever held, nor ever will, that they bind those whom it is not meet, nor that one god is lord of another. For a god, if he be indeed god, has need of naught. These are but slandering poets' tales."
In the same way Euripides brings on the stage many characters from the heroic world who are heretical respecting the just government of the gods, who cannot recognize the hand of any controlling providence in the pain and misery of this world, and who, in fact, deny the very existence of the divine. This attempt of the poet to humanize the legendary figures of mythology, and to represent them not as mere types of immeasurable antiquity, but as living men and women of flesh and blood, has led him into some strange confusions, of which his treatment of the Electra legend affords a striking example. It was this, too, that compelled him to preface his plays with an introductory prologue, which should prepare the audience for changes he intended to make in the myth.
After what has been said it will occasion little surprise to find that Euripides, in his character of a zealous democrat, seems purposely to draw his kings as rude tyrants, without either honor or dignity. His heroes are seldom heroic, except when heroism is free from danger. Thus in the Orestes, when Orestes and Pylades murder Helen, the cowardly pair gain admittance to her chamber by a subterfuge, having previously got her servants away, and then carry off Hermione, the daughter of Menelaus, as security against punishment. So again in the Andromache, Orestes with equal cowardice rids himself of his rival, Neoptolemus, at Delphi, where he rouses the people against him by a lying story. In the Helena Menelaus cheats Theoclymenus by a stratagem, and thus recovers his wife. In the Hecuba Odysseus offers coarse insults to the unhappy lady who is his prisoner.
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