« PreviousContinue »
and Agathon: none but second-rate tragedians remained. Bacchus misses Euripides, and determines to fetch him back from the infernal world. In this he imitates Hercules, but, though equipped with that hero's lion-hide and club, he is very unlike him in character, and as a dastardly voluptuary, affords much to laugh at. Here one may see the audacity of the comedian in the right point of view; he must have a fling at even the guardian god of his own art, to whose honour the play was exhibited. It was thought the gods understood fun as well, if not better, than men. Bacchus rows himself over the Acherusian lake, where the frogs pleasantly greet him with their unmelodious "quack, quack.” The proper Chorus, however, consists of the Shades of the Initiated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, and wonderfully beautiful odes are put in their mouth. Æschylus has heretofore occupied the tragic throne in the lower world, but now Euripides wants to thrust him off it. Pluto, proposes that Bacchus should decide this great quarrel; the two poets, the sublimely wrathful Æschylus, the subtle, vain Euripides, stand opposite each other, and submit specimens of their art; they sing, they declaim against each other, and all their peculiarities are characterized in masterly style. At last a balance is brought, on which each lays a verse; but let Euripides rack himself ever so much to produce ponderous lines, a verse of Æschylus instantly jerks up the scale of his antagonist. At last the latter gets tired of the contest, and tells Euripides he may mount into the balance himself with all his works, his wife, children, Cephisophon, and all, and he will lay against them only two verses. Bacchus, in the meantime, has become a convert to Æschylus, and though he had sworn to Euripides that he would take him back with him from the lower world, he sends him about his business with an allusion to his own verse from the Hippolytus, “My tongue hath sworn, but Æschylus is the man for me.” Æschylus accordingly returns to the living world, and resigns the tragic throne to Sophocles during his absence.
The remark which I made upon occasion of the “Peace,” concerning changes of scene, may be repeated with respect to “the Frogs." The scenes at first lies in Thebes, of which place Bacchus and Hercules were natives. Afterwards the stage, though Bacchus has not left it, changes at once into the hither
shore of the Acherusian lake, represented by the sunken space of the orchestra, and not until Bacchus lands at the other end of the logeum does the scenery change to the Infernal Regions, with the palace of Pluto in the background. Let not this be taken for mere conjecture; the ancient Scholiast testifies as much expressly.
“The Wasps” is in my judgment the weakest of Aristophanes' plays. The subject is too confined, the mania it exhibits appears as a strange weakness without satisfactory general significance, and in the treatment it is spun out too long. In this instance, the poet himself speaks modestly of his means of entertainment, and will not promise immeasurable laughter.
On the contrary, “The Birds” sparkles with the most daring and rich invention in the province of the fantastically marvellous : it is a joyous, winged, gay-plumed creation. I cannot agree with the ancient critic, who conceives the main purport of the work to consist in the most universal, most undisguised satire on the corruption of the Athenian state, nay, of all human society. Rather say, it is a very harmless hocus pocus, with a hit at every thing, gods as well as man, but without any where pressing towards any particular object. All that was remarkable in the stories about birds in natural history, in mythology, in the lore of augury, in Æsop's Fables, or even in proverbial expressions, the poet has ingeniously drawn into his sphere; he goes back as far as the Cosmogony, and shows how first black-winged Night laid a wind-egg, whence lovely Eros with golden pinions (beyond all doubt a bird) soared aloft, and then gave birth to all things. Two runagates from the human species find their way into the domain of the birds, who are determined to avenge themselves upon them for the many hostilities they have suffered from man ; the captives
l save themselves by proving to demonstration, that the Birds are pre-eminent above all creatures, and advise them to collect their scattered powers into one enormous State ; thus the marvellous city, Cloudcuckootown (Nepelokokkvyía) is built above the earth ; all sorts of unbidden guests, priests, poets, sooth
1 sayers, geometers, lawgivers, sycophants, want to feather their nests in the new state, but are bid go their ways; new gods are ordained, of course after the image of birds, as mankind conceived theirs as human beings; the frontier of Olympus is
walled up against the old gods, so that no savour of sacrifice can reach them, whereby they are brought into great straits, and send an embassy, consisting of the voracious Hercules, Neptune, (who in the usual phrase, swears “By Neptune !") and a Thracian god who is no adept at Greek, but talks an odd gibberish: these, however, are compelled to put up with whatever terms the Birds please to offer, and to the Birds is left the sovereignty of the world. However like a farcical fairy-tale all this may seem, there is nevertheless a philosophical significance in thus taking, for once in a while, a sort of bird's-eye view of the sum of all things, seeing that most of our conceptions are true only for a human station of view after all.
The ancient critics pronounced Cratinus strong in keen straightforward satire, but deficient in pleasantry and humour: also that he wanted skill to develop a striking plot to the best advantage, and to fill up his plays with the proper detail. Eupolis, they tell us, was diverting in his mirth, and ingenious in covert insinuation and double-meaning, so that he had no need of Parabases to say all that he wished; but he wanted satiric power. Aristophanes, they add, in a happy medium, unites the excellencies of both; satire and merriment being blended together in his poetry most completely, and in the most attractive proportions. From these statements I hold myself justified in assuming that of the plays of Aristophanes, “The Knights” is most in the style of Cratinus; “The Birds," in that of Eupolis; and that he had their respective manners immediately in view, when he composed these plays. For though he boasts of his independence and originality, and of his never borrowing any thing from others, yet there could not fail to be a reciprocal influence at work among such distinguished contemporaries. If this statement be well grounded, we have to deplore the loss of Cratinus' works, perhaps rather on account of their bearing upon the history of Athenian manners, and the insight they would have afforded us into the Athenian constitution; and Eupolis, rather in respect of the comic form.
Plutus is a new edition of an earlier work of Aristophanes, but in its extant form one of his latest. In respect of its essence, it belongs to the Old Comedy, but in sparingness of personal satire, and in its pervading lenity of tone, it seems to
verge towards the Middle Comedy. The Old Comedy, indeed, received its death-blow from a formal enactment, but even before that event it was perhaps every day becoming more hazardous to exercise the democratic privilege of the old comedian in its full extent. We are even told, (but probably only on conjecture, for others have denied the story,) that Alcibiades had Eupolis drowned on account of a play which that poet had directed against him. Against such perils no zeal in the cause of Art will stand its ground: it is but fair that one whose calling it is to amuse his fellow-citizens should at least be secure of his life.
Whether there existed a Middle Comedy, as a distinct species ? Origin of New
Comedy, or Comedy in the Modern sense of the word. It is a mixed species. Its prosaic side. Is versification essential to Comedy ? Subordinate species. The Play of Character, and the Play of Intrigue. The Comic of observation, the Comic of self-consciousness, and the Comic of caprice. Morality of Comedy. Plautus and Terence, in defect of the originals which they imitated, taken into consideration, and characterized. Motive of the Attic Comedy derived from manners and society. Portrait-statues of two comedians.
BETWEEN the Old and New Comedy, the ancient critics assume the existence of a Middle Comedy. Its distinctive features are differently assigned. By one, its peculiarity is said to be merely that it abstains from personal satire and introduction of real persons; by another, that it has no Chorus. The introduction of real persons was never an indispensable requisite. In several plays of Aristophanes, we find personages nowise historical, but purely fictitious, with expressive names, in the manner of the New Comedy; and personal satire is applied only at whiles. The right to this was indeed essential to the more ancient species, as I have already shown, and by the loss of the privilege the poets were incapacitated from giving a comic representation of public life and state-affairs. But so soon as they confined themselves to private life, the significance of the Chorus was at an end. Yet there was also an accidental circumstance that led to the abolition of the Chorus. It was a great expense to furnish and to instruct the band of choristers : now as Comedy, together with its political character, had lost also its festal dignity, and was degraded into a mere amusement, the poet no longer found any rich patrons who would have undertaken to furnish the Chorus.
Platonius assigns a third criterion of the Middle Comedy. The comedians, he says, by reason of the danger there was in meddling with political subjects, had directed their satire against all serious poetry, whether epic or tragic, to expose