Imágenes de página
PDF
ePub

little better than semibarbarians.* The plot of the Lysistrata turns upon a proposal so gross, that we shall not insult our readers with it; and though the effects of it upon the dramatis persona are ludicrous in the extreme, the poet deserves no indulgence for his shameless and unparalleled effiontery. The marginal references of some of our old moralities, and even mysteries, are sufficiently significant; but they are purity itself when compared with the licentiousness of the Athenian stage.

The grossness of the comic theatre of Greece forms a singular contrast with the gravity, the decorum, and the sustained elegance of the tragic poets of the same period; and we can scarcely conceive it possible that the same people who had listened with the warmest enthusiasm to the wild sublimities of Æschylus and the moral pathos of Euripides, could have not only endured, but encouraged and insisted upon the buffoonery and ribaldry of the comic writers. We can ascribe this depravity of taste to no cause so much as the little intercourse which subsisted between the two sexes, and the partial exclusion of women, that is, women of virtue, (for the restriction did not extend to the profligate part of the sex, from entertainments of the theatre. Mr. Dunster has suggested, that the grossness of Aristophanes was merely an artifice, and that it served him as a sort of battery for making his assaults upon the vices of his countrymen with more effect. True, indeed, it is, that the higher the object which he has in view, and the greater the danger of bringing it before the audience, so much the lower frequently is the ribaldry to which he descends. When by the most ridiculous buffoonery he has put his audience entirely off their guard, then it is that he suddenly strikes the deadliest blow. To the better part of his audience his admonitions might have the ludicrous appearance of a Bacchus preaching sobriety from a tub; but to the vitious no reproof comes so home as that which they hear from persons who appear to think as little of virtue as themselves. After all, this post is scarcely tenable; the poet seems voluntarily to wallow in his filth ; and if his muse is not an absolute prostitute, she at least seems always willing to meet the public half way.

Besides the embarrassments to which we have alluded, the unlearned reader will be encumbered with a new set of dramatis persona, called the chorus, whom he will find possessed of a most persevering attachment to the stage, never forsaking the performers, and diving into every thought, which is within the conception and intention of the actors. To add to this seeming absurdity, he will find this exalted post allotted to creatures of a very inferior situation in the comic poets; to Frogs, to Wasps, to

We must not, however, conclude too generally. It is well known that the phi. losophers rarely frequented the comic theatres, and their example, no doubt, was followed by the more respectable part of the citizens.

Birds, and even to Clouds. We might enlarge upon this topic; but enough, we think, has been premised to make it clear that Aristophanes was not a comic poet according to our ideas of that character: he may rather be termed a writer upon criticism, ethics and politics; and unless the reader come with these impressions to the perusal of him, he is not likely to make a fair estimate of his merits, or to imbibe that relish for his writings, which all true scholars feel.

Having endeavoured to throw some light upon the character of the dramatist, we shall add a few words on the materials from which he had to draw his comic pictures. There is no source of humour so fertile as vanity; in other words, as the affectation of pretending to be what we are not, and assuming a part for which we are not fitted either by fortune or nature. The endless subdivisions of employment in modern life must, from this cause, produce a never failing succession of fit subjects for the dramatist and the satirist. But in the earlier days of Greece, when Aristophanes wrote, this plentiful crop of pretenders did not exist. The Athenians had, it is true, like other people, their artisans, their hinds, and their merchants; but the collective character of the nation was that of soldiers and statesmen. They had no standing army, for which they paid their quota, nor a militia, for which they previded substitutes: every man was in his turn a soldier. Again, the Athenians did not express their political opinions once in seven years, and then leave them to be promulgated by the mouth of a representative; but every man was called upon continually to give his voice in the deliberative assembly himself. Such were the two great and leading occupations of the Athenians; upon these would all their ideas mainly turn, and to these would the productions of the stage, which always follows the public feeling, be directed. Accordingly, we find the plays of Aristophanes perpetually turning upon one or other of these topics, and more particularly upon that part of their civil jurisprudence which allotted the judicial situation to all ranks indiscriminately, and paid them a certain salary for their trouble. After the feelings more immediately connected with these pursuits, the Athenians were distinguished by a predominant passion for the amusements of the stage. The bounty of nature had bestowed upon them a triumvirate of tragic poets, whom it has been the pride of modern times to own as their masters; and a crowd of comic writers, whose wit seems to have been as powerful in exciting the gayer feelings, as the pathos and sublimity of the former in raising the grander emotions. These productions were got up with all the magnificence of which the age could boast. The whole expenses of the Peloponnesian war, it is said, did not cost more than the exhibition of three of the tragedies of Sophocles. The emulation of the writers kept pace with the generosity of the managers. Plays were not then contracted for, as at present, by the gross; neither was the successful candidate rewarded merely by a benefit. The applauses and distinctions, which accompanied success, were so flattering, that some of their writers espired under them. Such were the people to whom the drama of Aristophanes was submitted, and we ought to have a proper idea of his audience, in order to judge of his merits. We are apt to view the Athenians, as they did themselves, through the magnifying glasses of Marathon and Platæa; but a more odious people, as to their internal economy, never existed. They were open to the grossest flattery; they were credulous, not like Englishmen, from an unsuspecting honesty, but, like Frenchnien, to whom their character is very similar, from vanity and self-conceit. They were fickle and inconstant in their tempers, melting one night into tears over the tragedies of Euripides, and the next, dying with laughter at the parodies of his incessant persecutor, Aristophanes. Of a high-wrought susceptibility, they set a fine upon Phrynicus, because his dialogue was too pathetic, and starved Anaxandrides because his invectives were too severe. Too acute to be insensible of high talents, and too envious to allow them their due sway, they persecuted the virtue which they could not but admire, and exalted the vice which they ridiculed and contemned: the vilest tyrants where they dared, and that was chiefly with the meritorious and the virtuous; and the meanest slaves to the bullies and blockheads, who ruled them by consulting their tempers, and administering to their favourite passions--praise of themselves and abuse of others. Such are some of the traits of the incomprehensible Athenians; the people who deserted Alcibiades, in the midst of a grave oration, to run after a bird; who erected a monument to Cratinus for his talents, and recorded nothing upon it but that he was a drunkard ; who drove Aristides into banishment, because he was just, and rewarded the children of Chceriphilus with the freedom of their city, because their father sold excellent salt fish: the people, in short, who first listened with admiration to the precepts of Socrates, then allowed him to be made a public jest, then murdered, and last of all deified him. Such, we say, were the people whose amusements, morals, and politics, Aristophanes undertook to criticise, to amend, and to direct. It was a hazardous task; but of this he seems well aware. To arraign them seriously and severely was dangerous; to bend and crouch before them scarcely less so. Whenever, therefore, he has any important object in view-a sophist to expose-a public defaulter to arraign--a war to condemn--a peace to recommend, he generally commences with a scene of low buffoonery, or introduces some of their great people in a ludicrous situation, such as was peculiarly acceptable to the levelling disposition of the Athenians. Having thus prepared his audience, he opens his battery; and the boldness with which he directs his assault, when we consider the powers of those subjected to his lash, places him on very high ground indeed. It is here that we feel the character of sublimity in our author, which Longinus applies only to the apt collocation of his words and sentences. His undaunted denunciations of public villany; his bold appeals in favour of his own patriotic intentions; his sudden and unexpected turns of wit, drawn from new and peculiar sources; bis pointed, short and resistless sarcasm, are among the finest specimens of moral reprehension. The addresses of Dicæus and Adicus in the Clouds, are both grand in their display; the cutting satire with which the former gives up the contest, and throws himself upon the audience as a universal mass of villany, is more than grand; it is a stroke of true sublimity.

Of those who suffered from this writer's ridicule, there are three 80 conspicuous, that we cannot avoid saying a few words on each; we mean Socrates, Euripides, and Cleon. His motives for attacking the former are not sufficiently clear. The idle story of his being suborned by Melitus to write the comedy of the Clouds, and thus to pave the way for the death of Socrates, is refuted by the dates of his pieces, from which it appears that that event did not take place till more than twenty years after the performance of the play in question. Besides, though Aristophanes had a strong turn for the ridiculous, he does not seem to have had much malice in him: bis satirical strokes are in general short and pointed; he sometimes fastens, indeed, upon the tender parts, but he exhibits none of the marks of a determined and cold-blooded satirist; he does not coolly gaze upon the wound which he has laid open, nor watch the agonies which he has excited. To a man who, like Aristophanes, saw things on the side of ridicule only, Socrates might easily appear little more than an officious meddler. The nature of his discourses too, which regarded ends more than means, and not unfrequently pleaded what was fallacious, in order to illicit what was true, laid him very open to witty mistake and misrepresentation. The aphorism of Donne respecting scriptural texts may not unaptly be applied to the Socratici sermones: " sentences in scripture, says he, "like hairs in horse-tails, concur in one root of strength and beauty ; but being plucked out one by one, serve only for springes and snares." We have the greatest veneration for the name of Socrates; but we cannot see that personality in the Clouds which some have ascribed to it. It appears to us that the play was principally intended to retort the indignity thrown upon the comic stage by the sophists, in restraining its exhibitions ; and that the character of Socrates (however petulantly and unjustly assumed) was little more than a name for the whole body of them collectively. The audience, who knew the men, appropriated the re

[ocr errors]

spective charges, and while they appeared to be amused with the buffooneries of the great philosopher, were, perhaps, laughing at the follies and impieties of Hippo of Thrace, Democritus, Protagoras, &c.

The character of Euripides we must imagine to have particularly excited the spleen of Aristophanes. He is the cushion on which his wit reposes at all times.

The poet seems to have considered him as a piece of private property, always at hand. The warmest admirer of Euripides must be amused with the attacks of his witty and unwearied assailant. This mighty master of the drama, inferior to Shakespear only in those powerful touches which go at once to the heart, and to Racine for knowledge of his art, had yet points that laid him very open to ridicule. He was at times languid and affected; finical in his expressions and conceited in his ideas : he seemed to write too with a lofty contempt of his audience, and to demand their acquiescence as a master, and not their suffrages as a candidate for favour. His perverse morality, and diseased state of religious sentiment; his prolix, though eloquent messengers; his interminable prologues, preventing curiosity and anticipating surprise; his affectation of deep thinking, (visible even in the lowest of his dramatis personæ,) together with the occasional meanness of his phraseology, and the snip-snap of his dialogue, which is sometimes continued for a page or two together, all become in their turn the property of Aristophanes, who puts them in a thousand ridiculous lights. He is not, indeed, blind to his merits, but he is more than eagle-eyed to his defects; and he that has not Euripides at his finger-ends, must be content to lose a great share of the wit of Aristophanes.

of all the characters whom our author brought upon the stage, none seems to have excited his detestation so sincerely as Cleon; and the glee with which he records his victory over this turbulent demagogue, comes from his very heart. The following picture of him seems to have pleased Aristophanes, for he has repeated it in two of his comedies, the Wasps, and the Peace.

When first your poet undertook this trade
Of dealing out instruction, men were not
His game, but monsters; huge leviathans
That ask'd the mettle and appliances
Of Hercules, to quell them: first he grappled
With that fell portent, that huge, saw-toothed beast,
Licked into fashion by the slavering tongues
Of sycophants accurst; whose eyes shot fire
Fierce as the flames of Cynna, and whose voice
Rose lroarser than the raging whirlpool's, when
The birth-pains of the coming storm are on it.

« AnteriorContinuar »