Page images



I. 1. The Agamemnon is the first play in the Trilogy called 'Opeotela, acted B.C. 458, Ol. 80, 2, in the archonship of Philocles, three years before the death of Aeschylus. The other two tragedies which follow it are the Choephoroe and Eumenides: with them was acted the Satyric drama Proteus, probably at the great Dionysia (τα κατάστυ); and the prize was awarded to our poet. He had a patriotic motive, arising from his strong conservative opinions, for the constitution of the plot of the third play. The authority of the ancient court of Areopagus was menaced with diminution, if not extinction, by a law which Ephialtes brought forward, on the instigation of Pericles, who led the democratic party in opposition to Kimon, the son of Miltiades. Aeschylus, a stern aristocrat, desired by his Eumenides to support the dignity and power of this venerable institution, which he there represents as holding a solemn trial of Orestes under the presidency of Pallas Athene, the tutelar of Athens.

2. These three tragedies must be regarded as constituting one great whole; three acts, as it were, of one plot. In the first play, the Agamemnon, is 'the Crime.' The victorious king, returning from Troy, is murdered by his wicked wife Clytaemnestra with the help of her paramour Aegisthus. In the second, the Choephoroe, is 'the Vengeance. Orestes returns from his retreat in Phokis, circumvents Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus, and puts both to death: but, having thus contracted the guilt of matricide, he becomes a victim to the haunting torture of the Furies (Erinyes or Eumenides). In the third—the Eumenides-we have the Avenger's Trial.' Orestes Aies to Delphi, there obtains the protection of Apollo, who procures for him a trial before the ancient court of Areopagus, under the presidency of Pallas. The Furies plead against him, Apollo speaks for the defence : at the close Orestes is acquitted by the casting vote of the goddess, restored to his civil rights, and freed from the persecuting power of the Furies, whom Pallas consoles with the promise of a grove and sacred rites at Colonus near Athens.

II. 1. Aeschylus, like his contemporary Pindar, is a strictly religious pagan. But his religion is of a sterner and gloomier cast than Pindar's; probably chequered by his philosophic studies in the schools of Sicily and Italy. He may well be called a pessimist, nay, the very patriarch and first preacher of pessimism. Look at his Prometheus. In that drama, man born to trouble, as the sparks fly upwards (450 &c., Tåv Bpotois anuata K.T.N.), has gained through Prometheus all that is to raise him from his low estate ; natural science, letters, numbers, medicine, arts, with their ministers, fire and metals :

βραχεί δε μ'θω πάντα συλλήβδην μάθε,

πάσαι τέχναι βροτοίσιν εκ Προμηθέως. And with what issue? For these benefactions to men

the benefactor is expelled from heaven, chained on Caucasus, and tormented by command of the divine ruler Zeus. True it is, a hope is held out of better things (521 &c.), but a very distant, a very indefinite one. Art, says Prometheus, is weaker than Necessity. Who, asks the Chorus, guides the rudder of Necessity ? --The Fates and the Furies. Is Zeus then weaker than these?-He cannot escape Destiny.-What is destined for him, but to reign for ever? To this question Prometheus refuses a reply: the season is not come. The IIpound eus avóuevos is lost, and we cannot take the answer from the modern voice of Shelley.

2. The supreme power then, according to Aeschylus, in human affairs, is Moipa, TTET Pwuévov, Fate or Destiny. In the Prometheus he expands this power into that mythic trinity (Moipal tpiuoppou, Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos) which Rome adopted with the title of Parcae, but also with that of Fata, afterwards Fatae, from whom we get our Fays or Fairies. Again, he recognises them in the Choephoroe, ô ueryára. Moipai (304); and thrice in the Eumenides, where he calls them half-sisters of the Furies : and makes the latter reproach Apollo with having ruined or destroyed (801oas) the antique Fates by receiving Orestes at Delphi (1165), and again with having persuaded the Fates to make mortals immortal by the restoration to life of Alcestis (694). But, in the Agamemnon, Fate (Μοίρα or το πεπρωμένον) is spoken of only in the singular, except perhaps, in one remarkable passage (947), which will be considered when we reach it. In short, Aeschylus believes in predestination as strongly as the author of the Koran or the great Genevese interpreter of the Bible,

3. But, as the Furies, avengers of Crime, are so near akin to the Fates, and co-operate with these, Aeschylus has a theory too on this subject, which acts an important part in this play, being often brought forward, especially in the choral ode which begins 640, and again in the scenes with Cassandra, and in the conclusion of the drama. The most pregnant word in Aeschylus on the subject is 'Atn. We can cite no place in which åtn simply means a crime (this is rather duaptía) or even wickedness in the abstract (this is rather dvoo éßela or

ßpus): but it often means the madness attending crime, as in Homer (’Areçávdpov évek’ümns) and, oftener, the woe and the curse consequent on crime, and propagating it. This sense we repeatedly see in the Agamemnon. Again, "Atn is deified as being, along with the Furies, an avenger of crime: that is, while the Erinyes torment the criminal by the horrors of conscience, Ate drives him on to add crime to crime, thus intensifying his guilt and his punishment. And so his apótapxos ämn (1117) entails upon him a úotepórolvos "ATn (Choeph. 377). See Ag. 1495.

4. And this "Aty attaches herself not only to the individual, but also to a family, to a house, which by the guilt of one progenitor may contract a clinging Woe, a Familiar Curse, pursuing it from generation to generation. Such is the Woe of Oedipus and his race, shown in the three plays of Sophocles, and finding its climax in the Antigone. Such, in the Oresteia of Aeschylus, is the Curse attaching to the Atreidan house, whether we are to derive it from the earliest sinner Tantalus (which may fairly be argued from Agam. 1398 &c.) or refer it only to the later deeds of Atreus and Thyestes, as

« PreviousContinue »