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Act 2. Scene 1.
The old men now become birds, and magnificently fledged, after laughing a while at the new and awkward figure they make, consult about the name which they shall give to their rising city, and fix upon that of Nephelococcygia: and while one goes to superintend the workmen, the other prepares to sacrifice for the prosperity of the city, which is growing apace.
They begin a solemn prayer to all the birds of Olympus, putting the swan in the place of Apollo, the cock in that of Mars, and the ostrich in that of the great mother Cybele, &c.
A miserable poet, having already heard of the new settlement, comes with some lyrick poetry which he has composed on this great occasion. Pisthetærus knows his errand from his looks, and makes them give him an old coat; but not contented with that, he begs to have the waistcoat to it, in the elevated style of Pindar; they comply, and get rid of him.
The sacrifice is again interrupted by a begging prophet, who brings a cargo of oracles, partly relating to the prosperity of the city of Nephelococcygia, and partly to a new pair of shoes, of which he is in extreme want. Pisthetærus loses patience, and cuffs him and his religious trumpery off the stage.
Meto, the famous geometrician, comes next and offers a plan, which he has drawn, for the new buildings, with much importance and impertinence: he meets with as bad a reception as the prophet.
Act 2. Scene 6 and 7.
An ambassador, or licensed spy from Athens, arrives, and a legislator with a body of new laws. They are used with abundance of indignity, and go off threatening every body with a prosecution. The sacred rites being so often interrupted, they are forced to remove their altar, and finish them behind the scenes. The chorus rejoice in their own increasing power; and (as about the time of the Dionysia it was usual to make proclamation against the enemies of the republick) they set a price upon the head of a famous poulterer, who has exercised infinite cruelties upon their friends and brethren: then they turn themselves to the judges and spectators, and promise, if this drama obtain the victory, how propitious they will be to them.
Act 3. Scene 1.
Pisthetærus returns, and reports, that the sacrifice appears auspicious to their undertaking: a messenger then enters with an account how quick the works advance, and whimsically describes the employments allotted to the several birds, in different parts of the building.
Another messenger arrives in a violent hurry, to tell
how somebody from heaven has deceived the vigilance of the jack-daws, who were upon guard, and passed through the gates down into the lower air; but that a whole squadron of light-winged forces were in pursuit of this insolent person, and hoped to fetch him back again. The birds are in great perturbation, and all in a flutter about it.
This person proves to be Iris, who in her return is stopped short, and seized by order of Pisthetarus. He examines her, where is her passport? Whether she had leave from the watch? What is her business? Who she is? in short, he treats her with great authority. She tells her name, and that she was sent by Jove with orders to mankind, that they should keep holiday, and perform a grand sacrifice: she wonders at their sauciness and madness, and threatens them with all her father's thunder. The governour of Nephelococcygia returns it with higher menaces, and with language very indecent indeed for a goddess and a maid to hear: however, with much-ado, she carries off her virginity safe, but in a terrible passion.
Act 3. Scene 4.
The herald, who had been dispatched to the lower world, returns with an account that all Athens was gone bird-mad; that it was grown a fashion to imitate them in their names and manners; and that shortly they might expect to see a whole convoy arrive, in order to settle among them. The chorus run to fetch
a vast cargo of feathers and wings to equip their new citizens, when they come.
The first, who appears, is a profligate young fellow, who hopes to enjoy a liberty, which he could not enjoy so well at home, the liberty of beating his father. Pisthetærus allows it indeed to be the custom of his people; but at the same time informs him of an ancient law preserved among the storks, that they shall maintain their parents in their old age. This is not at all agreeable to the youth: however in consideration of his affection for the Nephelococcygians, Pisthetærus furnishes him with feather for his helmet, and a cock's spur for a weapon, and advises him, as he seems to be of a very military turn, to go into the army in Thrace.
The next is Cinesias, the dithyrambick writer, who is delighted with the thought of living among the clouds, amidst those airy regions, whence all his poetical flights are derived; but Pisthetærus will have no such animal among his birds: he drives him back to Athens with great contempt.
Act 3. Scene 7.
He then drives away also (but not without a severe whipping) an informer, who, for the better dispatch of business, and to avoid highwaymen and bad roads, comes to beg a pair of wings to carry him round the islands and cities subject to Athens, whose inhabitants
he is used to swear against for an honest livelihood, as did, he says, his fathers before him. The birds, in the ensuing chorus, relate their travels, and describe the strange things and strange men they have seen in them.
Act 4. Scene 1.
A person in disguise, with all the appearance of caution and fear, comes to enquire for Pisthetærus, to whom he discovers himself to be Prometheus, and tells him (but first he makes them hold a large umbrella over his head for fear Jupiter should spy him) that the gods are all in a starving miserable condition: and, what is worse, that the barbarian gods (who live no one knows where, in a part of heaven far beyond the gods of Greece) threaten to make war upon them, unless they will open the ports, and renew the intercourse between mankind and them, as of old. He advises Pisthetærus to make the most of this intelligence, and to reject all offers boldly, which Jupiter may make him, unless he will consent to restore to the birds their ancient power, and give him in marriage his favourite attendant, Basilèa.1 This said, he slips back again to heaven, as he came. The chorus continue an account of their travels.
Act 4. Scene 2.
An embassy arrives from heaven consisting of Hercules, Neptune, and a certain Triballian god. As they approach the city walls, Neptune is dressing and scold
1 i.e. Sovereignty.