100 Best Books for an Education

A Revision and Update of Will Durant's 100 Best Books for an Education

Note 36

 

Euripides the Human

 

 

We are in Greece, seated in the Theatre of Dionysius, ready for Euripides. We find row upon row of seats in stone semi-circles, rising in widening sweep up the hill that bears on its peak the Parthenon. Restless on them sit seventeen thousand Athenians; loose-togaed, passionate, talkative men, alive with feelings and ideas; the keenest audience that ever heard a poet or saw a play. Down towards the front, in chairs of carved and ornamented marble, are the officials of the city, and the priests of the tragic god. At the foot of the great amphitheatre is a small slab-paved stage; behind it the actor’s booth, the skênê or “scene.” Above it all, nothing but the sky and the unfailing sun. Far down, at the base of the hill, the blue Aegean smiles.

    It is the year 415 B.C. Athens is deep in the Peloponnesian War, a war of Greek with Greek, shot through with all the ferocity of relatives. The reckless dramatist has chosen for his theme another war, the siege of Troy; and his friends (among whom is Socrates, who goes only to Euripides’ plays) have whispered that it will reverse Homer, and show the Trojan War from the viewpoint of the defeated and destroyed. Suddenly all is quiet: from the actor’s booth a figure appears, representing the god of the Sea, Poseidon; he stands uplifted by high shoes, speaks through a resounding mask, and intones the keynote of the play:

 

How are ye blind,

Ye treaders down of cities, ye that cast

Temples to desolation, and lay waste

Tombs, the untrodden sanctuaries where lie

The ancient dead; yourselves so soon to die.

 

(Was it this prologue that Socrates, as story goes, applauded so long that the actor consented to repeat it?)

    The Greeks have killed Hector, and taken Troy; and Talthybius comes to take Hector’s wife Andromache, his sister the proud prophetess Cassandra, and his mother Hecuba, the white-haired Queen, to serve as slaves and mistresses to the Greeks. Hecuba beats her head in grief, and mourns:

 

Beat, beat the crownless head,

Rend the cheek till the tears run red!

A lying man and a pitiless

Shall be lord of me. . . .

Oh, I will think of things gone long ago,

And weave them to a song. . . .

O thou whose wound was deepest,

Thou that my children keepest,

Priam, Priam, O age-worn king,

Gather me where thou sleepest.*

 

Andromache tries to comfort her with the thought of suicide:

 

O mother, having ears, hear thou this word

Fear-conquering, till thy heart as mine be stirred

Without joy. To die is only not to be. . . .

And I—long since I drew my bow

Straight at the heart of good fame; and I know

My shaft hit; and for that I am the more

Fallen from peace. All that men praise us for,

I loved for Hector’s sake, and sought to win.

I knew that always, be there hurt therein

Or utter innocence, to roam abroad

Hath ill report for women; so I trod

Down the desire thereof, and walked my way

In my own garden. And light words and gay

Parley of women never passed my door.

The thoughts of mine own heart—I craved no more—

Spake with me, and I was happy. Constantly

I brought fair silence and a tranquil eye

For Hector’s greeting, and watched well the way

Of living, where to guide and where obey. . . .

O my Hector, best beloved,

That being mine, wast all in all to me,

My prince, my wise one, O my majesty

Of valiance! No man’s touch had ever come

Near me, when thou from out my father’s home

Didst lead me and make me thine. . . . And thou

art dead,

And I war-flung to slavery and the bread

Of shame in Hellas, over bitter seas!

 

    Hecuba reproves her, and suggests the hope that Hector’s child, Astyanax, may someday restore his fallen city. But at that moment Talthybius returns to say that the Council of the Greeks, for the security of Hellas, has decided that Astyanax must be flung to his death from the walls of Troy. Andromache, holding the child in her arms, bids it farewell:

 

Thou little thing

That curlest in my arms, what sweet scents cling

Around thy neck! Beloved, can it be

All nothing, that this bosom cradled thee

And fostered, all the weary nights wherethrough

I watched upon thy sickness, till I grew

Wasted with watching? Kiss me. This one time;

Not ever again. Put up thine arms, and climb

About my neck; now lass me, lips to lips . . .

Oh, ye have found an anguish that outstrips

All tortures of the East, ye gentle Greeks!

Quick; take him, drag him, cast him from the wall,

If cast ye will! Tear him, ye beasts, be swift!

God hath undone me, and I cannot lift

One hand, one hand, to save my child from death.

 

    Menelaüs enters, looking for Helen, and vowing to kill her on sight; but when she appears, proud and unafraid, still dia gunaikon, goddess among women, he is drunk at once with her beauty, forgets to murder her, and bids his slaves place her “in some chamber’d galley, where she may sail the seas.” Then Talthybius returns, bearing the dead body of Hector’s child. Hecuba swathes the mangled baby in burial robes, and speaks to it in lines realistic even in their sentiment:

 

Ah, what a death has found thee, little one! . . .

Ye tender arms, the same dear mould have ye

As his. . . . And dear proud lips, so full of hope

And closed forever! What false words ye said

At day-break, when ye crept into my bed,

Called me kind names, and promised, “Grandmother,

When thou art dead, I will cut close my hair

And lead out all the captains to ride by

Thy tomb.” Why didst thou cheat me so? ’Tis I,

Old, homeless, childless, that for thee must shed

Cold tears, so young, so miserably dead.

Dear God! the pattering welcomes of thy feet,

The nursing in my lap, and oh, the sweet

Falling asleep together! All is gone.

How should a poet carve the funeral stone

To tell thy story true? “There lieth here

A babe whom the Greeks feared, and in their fear

Slew him.” Aye, Greece will bless the tale it

tells! . . .

O vain is man,

Who glorieth in his joy and hath no fears;

While to and fro the chances of the years

Dance like an idiot in the wind! (She wraps the

child in the burial garments.)

Glory of Phrygian raiment, which my thought

Kept for thy bridal day with some far-sought

Queen of the East, folds thee for evermore. . . .

 

And over the scene of desolation the tones of the Chorus float in melancholy song:

 

Beat, beat thine head;

Beat with the wailing chime

Of hands lifted in time;

Beat and bleed for the dead,

Woe is me for the dead!

 

    Here is all the power of Shakespeare, without his range and subtlety, but with a social passion that moves us as nothing in all modern drama can, except the dying Lear. This is a man strong enough to speak out, brave enough, in the very fever of war, to show its futile bestiality; brave enough to show the Greeks, to the Greeks, as barbarians in victory, and their enemies as heroes in defeat. “Euripides the human,” denouncer of slavery, critic and understanding defender of women, doubter of all certainties and lover of all men: no wonder the youth of Greece declaimed his lines in the streets, and captive Athenians won their freedom by reciting his plays from memory. “If I were certain that the dead have consciousness,” said the dramatist Philemon, “I would hang myself to see Euripides.” He had not the classic calm and objectivity of Sophocles, nor the stern sublimity of Aeschylus; he bore the same relation to these as the emotional Dostoevsky to the impeccable Turgenev and the titanic Tolstoy. But it is in Dostoevsky that we find our secret hearts revealed, and our secret longing understood; and it is in Euripides that Greek drama, tired of Olympus, came down to earth and dealt revealingly with the affairs of men. “Have all the nations of the world since his time,” asked Goethe, “produced one dramatist worthy to hand him his slippers?” Just one.

 




* Translation of Gilbert Murray.