Page images
PDF
EPUB

pass. The vain attempt to escape from fate, and the thereby falling into the performance of what he strove to avoid, reminds us of the complete and beautiful story of prince Agib in the Arabian Nights'. Both tempted futurity, and became murderers; both sought for knowledge which they were warned was dangerous, and both suffer sadly for their curiosity.

Among the subordinate characters of the piece, that of Jocasta is the most painfully drawn. Her arrogant levity and confidence almost breathe the ruin darkly hinted at by the chorus, and we feel that the curse of “blindness of heart” is upon her. She is moreover selfish in her very affection for Edipus. His anxiety for the dying people she shares not. Her religion is a blind belief of convenience, and she would even charge the mistakes of human seers to the blindness or inconsistency of the gods. Of her late husband she has so little thought, that the personal resemblance of Edipus never occurs to her. The questions concerning his death awaken no regrets, in short, she is as bad a widow as Steele could depict, even in the “Funeral.” Her death is fraught with no words of tenderness for her infant children, but is the deed of a wild, unholy frenzy. Edipus, on the contrary, toils out his term of woes, and meets death with manly composure. Though stern in his hatred towards his undutiful sons, his daughters claim his tenderest regard. In his wanderings, amidst beggary and wretchedness, a byeword for the scoffer, a proverbial vagabond, he is still “every inch a king." His philosophic moderation is shown at the beginning of the “Edipus Coloneus," where he tells us how sufferings, and lapse of time, and native nobleness had taught him to deem the beggar's pittance enough.

In this play, it has been well remarked that the poet appears as the panegyrist of Athens. And this is evident from the very commencement, where the description of the Furies' grove, so praised by Humboldt', and the subsequent character of Theseus, mark the power of the poet to blend local and picturesque with political interest. As the waters of the Ilissus were consecrated by the mystic love-lore of Socrates, so was the silent Cephisus made solemn by the last sojourn of Edipus whilst living. To the Lacedemonians nature was but the rude element of strife, their land was dear to them as a safeguard in war, not sweet with the remembrance of those who taught peace and cherished the arts of life. But to the Athenian's mind art had made nature a subject of contemplation, philosophy had associated nature with nature's causes, and religion had interwoven place with thought, and sanctified each village, stream, or grove, with the remembrance of the days when the gods walked the earth. The “Edipus at Colonus” could teach how the earlier ages of Athens retained a holy simplicity, when the rights of the suppliant or herald, though in an evil or forlorn cause, were equally respected: it could show reasons for hero worship, and from the glory of the past could awaken the listlessness of future generations. In short, Theseus, himself mythical, was the connecting link in political theory between the mythical and the real. His character possessed the glories of the one blended with the probability of the other.

1 See the “ Story of the third Royal Mendicant,” vol. I., p. 183—5. Lane's translation.

2 See Schlegel, p. 102.

In this play we find the character of Creon, which was of but little importance in the “King Edipus," ripened into the tyrannical and arbitrary disposition, which ascends to its highest pitch and subsequent fall in the “Antigone." Still, in all the three plays, Creon is but instrumental to the developement of other characters and the progress of the story. As in the first play, he brings out the petulant disposition of Edipus, and excites that curiosity which is to lead to the fatal discovery-as in the “Antigone" he is but a foil to set forth the mighty spirit of the heroine, so in the Edipus at

1 Cosmos, vol. II. p. 377 of Bohn's edition.

Colonus he leads to the generous intervention of Theseus, and hastens to bring gradual ruin upon his own house and city. Furthermore, it was necessary that Edipus should be tried to the fullest extent, in order that his gloomy fatalism might be thoroughly enhanced. Hence his paternal feelings are aroused to love, by the seizure and subsequent restoration of his daughters, and to hatred, by the intervention of the repentant but ill-fortuned Polynices.

The same remark applies to the selfish and insipid Ismene, who is twice placed in contradistinction to the warm-hearted and principled Antigone. Her position in the present play is but preparatory to her ripened selfishness in the third of these continuous dramas.

It has been objected that the self-justification of Edipus in this play is inconsistent with his despair in the first. But time, long-suffering, and the consciousness that an end of troubles was at hand, might well nerve the hapless old king to a sense of his unmerited woes. Moreover, 'tis in human nature to retort upon an unworthy accuser, though the charge be true. If Creon was the champion of rapine and tyranny, the good king of old times could ill plead his own unworthiness to such an accuser.

We now come to the ANTIGONE, a play almost as popular in modern times, as celebrated in antiquity. There can be little doubt that the character of Antigone is the gem of the Athenian stage; she is, as Bulwer observes, the Cordelia on whom Edipus leans--a Cordelia he has never thrust from him.” Her patient affection bears with the peevish complaints and desolate poverty of her father, and, at his death, her feelings of duty are transferred to the fulfilment of her brother's last entreaty. He had gone forth the predestined victim of the fight; his corse lay desecrated, and fear re, strained all from bestowing even a handful of dust upon the unhallowed dead. True to her promise, and reckless of the tyrant's mandate, Antigone dares to do the deed of piety, and seeks not to deny or excuse it. She has determined to encounter death itself on behalf of the dead. Neither the dissuading words of her timid and selfish sister, nor the hope of a royal marriage with a loved object, can retard her resolution. She is the victim of a good principle, as Creon is of a bad one. With him selfish aggrandizement is the main spring of action-with Antigone, to have forgotten self, is to have gained all things. She mourns the sun-light which is to be closed from her for ever, but finds a gleam of hope even in the murky dens of Hades. She has no fears for the future, and her spirit rises above the petty affections that bid her cling to life. Her magnificent and daring denunciation of Creon's boasted laws, and her sublime description of the eternal, unwritten code, sealed only in the tablets of time, is powerfully contrasted with her tender address to her dead relatives, and the swan-like dirges in which she bewails her untimely fate. I

may here take notice of the opinion relative to verse 572, which many commentators still assign to Ismene. Surely, if only upon grammatical grounds, the reply of Creon is sufficient to show that Antigone must have uttered the ejaculation:

“O dearest Hæmon, how thy father wrongs thee! A sudden burst of feminine tenderness is in no wise incon, sistent with the Grecian heroine. If Ismene had uttered it, we should feel at some loss for so sudden a warmth on the part of this young lady, who is generally as passionless and insipid as the best genteel comedy heroine of modern times.

It may be doubted whether the frequent success of Mendelssohn's “ Antigone,” with which Mr. Donaldson is somewhat merry in his clever and amusing preface, might not have proved instrumental in reviving a taste for the classic drama. But there is so general a deficiency in modern actors and audiences, that unless a sentiment is accompanied by a storm from Costa's band, it has little chance. Still, we even wish that “ Antigone” had been made a musical study for Viardot and Marini.

With some apology for this digression, we turn to the minor characters of the piece. Of Creon we have already spoken, but we may further observe the superstition to which, despite his boastful sternness, he is subject. Tiresias, who had in a manner befriended him when Edipus was living, can hardly command respect while present: but immediately he departs, the ill-omened words of his prophecy weigh heavily on the mind of the king, and he timorously obeys the advice of the chorus, and hearkens to those whom he had spurned with threats.

The character of Hæmon seems to have been framed to please the popular ear. He is a

He is a true Athenian pleader. Utility is his excuse for justice, justice the available consequence of utility. The voice of the people must be respected and this is the burthen of his speech. But although his arguments are scarcely solid, yet they are suited to the hearer, and are likely to prevail, where religion and tenderness would have little weight. Besides, there is much modesty and dutifulness in the first part of his address, and his devotion is fully shown in the catastrophe. His turning upon his father, sword in hand, was a mistake of the poet. Attempted parricide, how great soever the provocation, was an unnatural and revolting anticlimax to his previous behaviour.

The “ELECTRA” naturally follows the “Antigone” in a critical consideration of ethical developement. Both Electra and Antigone appear in behalf of the wronged dead, but in Electra, love has been sharpened into keen hatred, tenderness to a deceased father has hardened into vindictive wrath against his murderers, and Electra is a virago almost bereft of female feelings. There is, however, a selfishness in her grief that distinguishes itself from the noble and disinterested daring of Antigone. Constantly mourning her own misfortunes, her grief for her father is but for the sufferings his death has brought

« PreviousContinue »