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Art. I. The Comedies of Aristophanes. By T. MITCHELL, · A. M. late Fellow of Sidney-Sussex College, Cambridge. - Vol. I. London. John Murray, Albemarle-street, 1820.
pp. 454. NOTWITHSTANDING the great success of the Greek writers
in tragic composition, there were circumstances affecting the state of ancient Greece, very adverse to their efforts in that department of poetry. There was a clumsy, cumbrous, intricate Mythology,--within the mazes of which, when once involved, the poet could do little but fatigue himself, and weary his audience. There was a Religion, addressed so much to the senses, and so little to the heart or understanding, that at best it was but a gorgeous plaything to amuse, or a bugbear to terrify full-grown nurseries, and denied him all powerful topics of consolation or of terror. There was a restriction upon Female intercourse,-a confinement of the high-born dames of antiquity to little better than menjal offices, that obstructed or obscured all the more delicate workings of the female breast, and thus deprived him of one great charm of the modern drama. Women, it is true, are sometimes made the leading characters in Grecian tragedies; but they want the discriminating stamp of womanhood; and, for the most part, their feelings and expressions might with equal propriety be ascribed to persons of the other sex,-or, at any rate, thrown into a joint and common stock for almost indifferent use amongst themselves. There is hardly a shade of variation to break the sameness of this uniformity, or to distinguish the heroines from each other. The sacrificed daughter of one play, is the devoted wife of a second, and the pious sister of a third. Difference of circumstances makes little difference of language or of feeling. Polyxene
VOL. XXXIV. NO. 68.
might sit for the picture of Iphigenia, or Alcestis stand as the reflection of Antigone. Love, * so fruitful a source of interest with modern writers, is left uncultivated by the ancient dramatists. They have no Juliets, no Belvideras, no Ophelias.
They till a sterner soil, and are more successful in the delineation of jealousy or revenge. Medea is indeed the picture of a consummate artist-true to nature, and essentially female. She is in revenge what Lady Macbeth is in ambition, -as bold, as resolute, as bloody,--yet with one touch of tenderness to redeem her from abhorrence. The last smile of her childrenthe TarUSUTON yedd peal.com is to her what the resemblance in the sleeping Duncan to her father is to the other. But with this exception, the remark holds good. The poet could not perceive the defect, and of consequence could not remedy it. To supply the want of a poetical theology, he had two resources, of which unsparing use is made:he could resort to the Furics or the Fates. The first, in the hands of + Æschylus, were enough to frighten women into miscarriages, and children into fits; and even modern breasts may thrill at the invocations of # Edipus, or the agonies of n Orestes. The mysterious power of Destiny is made yet more potent and appalling. Leading its unconscious, helpless victim, through the dreary vicissitudes of madness, crime, and misery, to a catastrophe of undeserved but unavoidable horror, it makes the gradual development of the (Edipus Tyrannus the most heart-rending series of action that imagination can conceive. We drink the cup of agony by drops, and find it regularly increase in bitterness to the close. This masterpiece of Grecian tragedy stands single. It is as if the Muse had concentrated her whole strength to make one im
* Sophocles and Æschylus have pourtrayed, one the jealous an. xieties of a Dejanira, and the other the jealous revenge of a Clytemnestra ; but they have nothing like love in any of their plays. Eu. ripides introduced something like it, but it was in his hands a Kavyoos fpes, (Aristot. Rhetor. II. c. 6.)-the passion, not the sentiment ; not, in short, the kind of love which we evidently mean to signify in the text. See the Frogs of Aristophanes, v. 1044, and the Clouds, v. 1372.
t Aristophanes does not forget this circumstance. See the Plutus, v. 423, and the Scholiast upon it.
† (Edipus Coloneus, v. 84.
Hi There is nothing in poetry more truly overwhelming than the picture of the sufferings of Orestes under the persecution of these tremendous beings, as it is given in the Iphigenia in Tauris of Euri. pides.
mortal effort. But in general her productions fall very short of perfection. There are the marks of what might have been done. It is the outline, not filled up--the elements, but not in combination—the low, imperfect murmurs of Dodona, before her oaks were masters of their inspired articulation.
The Comic poet, on the contrary, had not to combat with any such obstacles as we have described; or rather, the very circumstances most inimical to the Tragic writer, were propitious to hiin. If he could not catch the finer lineaments of female character, which the nature of society in ancient times prevented from being fully developed-if, like Tilburina in the Critic, he could not see what was not yet in sight,-still there were certain gross, discriminating features, too marked and striking in the females of every age to be mistaken, that he could easily delineate for the amusement of his audience. * The heterogeneous attributes, perplexed relationships, and still more ambiguous characters of the Heathen deities, that clogged and dulled the spirit of the tragic chorusscs, supplied him with an exhaustless source of ridicule and merriment. A cowardly Bacchus, disguised, beaten, and derided; t a greedy, gormandizing Hercules, baffled in his projected gluttony; f or a diplomatic Neptune, and a gibbering Triballus ; ||--were treats too exquisite to be withbeld. The same profaneness, which in a grave tragedian or philosopher-man g Æscbylus or a Socrateswas visited with forfeiture or death, the fine or the hemlock, from Aristophanes or Eupolis, was welcomed with thunders of applause. Even from the Eleusinian mysteries of Ceres, the most solemn rites of the Grecian religion, the violation of which is esteemed by Horace as sufficient to excommunicate from all civil relations-even from these the audacious hand of the Comic poet tore the veil, and gave more than a glimpse to the uninitiated. The gods, the priests, the ceremonies,--the whole pa, raphernalia of Paganism,—were for him but a magazine on which to draw for blasphemous jests and impious buffooneries.
* Witness the Lysistrate, the Ecclesiazusæ, the Thesmophoriazusæ. + See the humours of Bacchus and Xanthias in the Frogs. | See again the Frogs, and the last act of the Birds.
|| See the last act of the Aves, a play in which, throughout, the most cutting sarcasms upon the Athenians are blended with the most daring mockery of the Gods.
Æschylus was condemned to death for some expressions of impious tendency in one of his plays. His brother Amynias saved him, by uncovering an arm, of which the hand had been cut off at Salainis. Of Socrates we shall presently have to speak.
Nor is it merely by ambushed attacks-side blows or sly inuendos--that this incessant warfare is maintained. The batteries are opened in due form, and with appropriate solemnity; and complete scenes, and acts,-nay almost entire plays, are levelled against the sacred institutions, of which these very representations formed a part. Aristophanes is a great master of this weapon. He can, indeed, where it suits his purposes, as in the latter scenes of the Clouds, where the atheism of the Sophists is to be brought into contempt and detestation, assume a far different tone, and vindicate, in glowing terms, the honours of Olympus. But, generally speaking, the powers of his keen satire, brilliant wit, and humorous imagination, are never so anxiously or so successfully exerted as when he has to expose the crafts of the priesthood, + ridicule the authority of the oracles, I or lash the vices of the celestial personages. || This, perhaps, as much as his elegance of style or purity of phrase, might recommend his works to the pillow of St Chrysostom; but we cannot but be struck with surprise at the inconsistency of a people, who could tolerate so unbounded a licentiousness in one class of writers, while they punished so severely the least freedom of the same sort in another.
We would not be supposed to assert, that the circumstances we have described were the sole or the chief causes which tended to favour the Comic writers, and to raise the Grecian Comedy, as we think it was raised, to a much higher pitch of perfection than Grecian Tragedy ever attained. The marked peculiarities of female character, and the wild absurdities which the most orthodox Pagan must have perceived in the heathen theology, were indeed, as we have remarked, of great weight to incline the balance to the side of the Comedian. But Greece, under every aspect in which it can be viewed, was the very land for Comedy,-a soil, selected and prepared, on which it might fasten and luxuriate. With Greece for the country,—Athens for the city,and Athenians for the audience, we cannot imagine a more happy combination for the Comic bard. We must consider the country,-- portioned out into a number of petty communities, all differing more or less in their habits, interests, dialects, s' and customs, each state conceiving itself the first in the world, and looking down upon its neighbours with unutterable loathing and disdain. We must add to this a city, split into innumerable factions, with its war party and its peace
+ Plutus. $ Plutus, Equites, &c., | Aves, &c.
$ The harsh pronunciation and strange idioms of a Megarensian er Bæotian,--the coarse fare or the pantofles of the Spartan,mas party,--its aristocratic and its popular,-its students of philosophy and its lovers of fun, --containing within the circuit of its walls characters the most eccentric, and modes of life the most extraordinary,--and offering, as the greatest naval power in Greece, a mart for the regular importation of all the follies, fashions, and vices that foreign countries could supply. * We must recollect the constitution of the audience :-the quick susceptibility of ridicule, the lively sensibility to humour, the eager appetite for novelty, that distinguished the Athenians,-and which, as they were a hearing and a seeing, not a reading public (according to the just observation of Mr Mitchell), were best and most easily gratified by the poet from the stage at the several festivals when the comedies were acted before them. Nor can we at all agree with Mr M. in considering this audience as usually made up of a mere “rabble,' ripe for nothing but the nonsense of holiday revelry,' and totally unfit to appreciate merit of an higher order. Indeed, Mr M. plainly contradicts himself on this head, -in one place characterizing the composition of the Clouds, as the · legitimate ridicule of a Dionysian, Festival,'t--while in another he asks, what possible connexion could exist between it and the Dionysian Festival, where every one came to be amused; where he who laughed loudest was the merriest; and he that laughed longest was the wisest?' I
well as the barbarous language of a Persian envoy or Triballian deity,
-were reckoned as good subjects of ridicule, and excited full as hearty laughter in an Athenian theatre, as the odd figure and broken English of a Canton or a Foigard may do upon our own stage. See the Acharnians, Wasps, &c. * Thucyd. Lib. II. c. 38.
+ Prelim. Disc. p. cl. | Ibid. p.cxv. We cannot see why the authority of Ælian should be alternately allowed and rejected as suits the purpose of the writer, (Prelim. Discourse, pp. cxvii. cxiii.); or why it should be laid down $0 decidedly, that the failure of the Clouds was owing to its matter being too grave for the taste of the audience. The Parabasis of the second Clouds (preserved in the first as it now stands), and the conclusion of that in the Wasps, the play of the succeeding year, are chiefly urgeâ in support of this opinion. But though we should not insist that the dvdges Qogfixo: (Nubes, v. 524.), on whom Aristophanes charges the crime of his discomfiture, might possibly be the xgitau or subsequent judges 1—(the Monkir and Nekir of Athenian theatricals,
$ This interpretation is the one given by Beck " in evde. Qoft. o judicibus imperitis pronunciantibus. Sic Latini sub judice : omnino“ que úno sub sic dicitur, ut in genere causam alicujus rei indicet.” Beckii Comment. in Nubes. The Scholiast gives the same meaning to the words.