What wilt thou ? And whither on thine angry road ?
Back to the darkness whence my race began 1
These be the words of any common man !
HERACLES (taken aback).
Aye, thou art scathless. Chide me at thine ease !
Is this He of the Labours, Heracles ?
Of none like this, if one dare measure pain !
The Helper of the World, the Friend of Man ?
HERACLES (with a movement).
Crushed by Her hate ! How can the past assuage
This horror. . . .
Thou shalt not perish in thy rage 1
Greece will not suffer it.
The passage illustrates not only nobility of feeling in
Theseus, but, in a way very characteristic of Euripides,
the fact that this nobility is based on religious reflection,
on genuinely " free " thought, Theseus dares the con-
THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES 67
tagion for the sake of his friendship. He also does not
believe in the contagion. He does not really think for a
moment that he will become guilty of a crime because he
has touched some one who committed it. He is in every
sense, as Herodotus puts it, " further removed from primitive
But this play also shows, and it is probably the very
last of Euripides' plays which does show it, a strong serenity
of mind. The loss of this serenity is one of the most signi-
ficant marks of the later plays of Euripides as contrasted
with the earlier. We must not overstate the antithesis.
There was always in Euripides a vein of tonic bitterness,
a hint of satire or criticism, a questioning of established
things. It is markedly present even in the Alcestis, in
the scene where Adme'tus is denounced by his old father ;
it is present in a graver form in the Hippolytus. Yet
the general impression produced by those two plays when
compared, for instance, with the Elecira and the Troades,
is undoubtedly one of serenity as against fever, beauty
as against horror. And the same will nearly always hold
for the comparison of any of his early plays with any later
one. Of course not quite always. If we take the Troades,
in the year 415, as marking the turning-point, we shall
find the Hecuba very bitter among the early plays, the
Helena bright and light-hearted, though a little harsh,
among the later. This is only natural. There is always
something fitful and irregular in the gathering of clouds,
There is one cloud even in the Suppliants, possibly a
mark of the later retouching of that play. The Theban
herald is an unsympathetic character, whose business is
to say hard, sinister things, and be confuted by Theseus.
These unsympathetic heralds are common stage characters.
They stalk in with insulting messages and " tyrannical "
sentiments, are surrounded by howling indignation from
the virtuous populace, stand their ground motionless,
defying any one to touch their sacred persons, and go off
with a scornful menace. But this particular herald has
some lines put in his mouth which nobody confutes, and
which are rather too strongly expressed for the situation.
68 THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES
Theseus is prepared for his chivalrous war, and the
people clamour for it. The herald says (v. 484) :
Oh, it were well
The death men shout for could stand visible
Above the urns ! Then never Greece had reeled
Blood-mad to ruin o'er many a stricken field.
Great Heaven, set both out plain and all can tell
The False word from the True, and 111 from Well,
And how much Peace is better ! Dear is Peace
To every Muse ; she walks her ways and sees
No haunting Spirit of Judgment. Glad is she
With noise of happy children, running free
With corn and oil. And we, so vile we are,
Forget, and cast her off, and call for War,
City on city, man on man, to break
Weak things to obey us for our greatness' sake !
If it is true that the Suppliants was rewritten, that must
be one of the later passages. Athens had had ten years of
bitter war by the time the lines were actually spoken.
Let us again take a few typical passages from the historians
to see the form in which the clouds gathered over Athens.
The first and most obvious will be from that curious
chapter in which Herodotus, towards the end of his life,
is summing up his conclusions about the Persian war, of
which Athens was so indisputably the heroine. He observes
(vii. 139) : " Here I am compelled by necessity to express
an opinion which will be offensive to most of mankind.
But I cannot refrain from putting it in the way that I
believe to be true. . . . The Athenians in the Persian
wars were the saviours of Hellas." By the time that
passage was written, apologies were necessary if you wished
to say a good word for Athens !
The Athenian League, that great instrument of freedom,
had grown into an Empire or Arch6. Various allies had
tried to secede and failed ; had been conquered and made
into subjects. The greater part of Greece was seething
with timorous ill-feeling against what they called " The
Tyrant City." And by the opening of the Peloponnesian
war, Athens herself had practically ceased to protest
against the name. It is strange to recall such words as,
THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES 6
for instance, the Spartans had used in 479, when it was
rumoured, falsely, that Athens thought of making terms
with Persia (Hdt. viii. 142) : " It is intolerable to imagine
that Athens should ever be a party to the subjection of
any Greek state ; always from the earliest times you have
been known as the Liberators of Many Men." It is strange
to compare those words with the language attributed to
Pericles in 430 in attacking the " philosophic radicals "
of that day (Thuc. ii. 63 ) x :
" Do not imagine that you are fighting about a simple
issue, the subjection or independence of certain cities.
You have an empire to lose, and a danger to face from those
whom your imperial rule has made to hate you. And
it is impossible for you to resign your power if at this
crisis some timorous and inactive spirits are hankering
after righteousness even at that price ! For by this time
your empire has become a Despotism (' Tyrannis '), a
thing which in the opinion of mankind is unjust to acquire,
but which at any rate cannot be safely surrendered. The
men of whom I was speaking, if they could find followers,
would soon ruin the city. If they were to go and found a
state of their own, they would soon ruin that ! "
It would not be relevant here to appraise this policy of
Pericles, to discuss how far events had really made it
inevitable, or when the first false step was taken. Our
business, at the moment, is merely to notice the extraordin-
ary change of tone. It comes out even more strongly in a
speech made by Cleon, the successor of Pericles, in the
debate about the punishment of rebel Mitylfinfi a debate
remarkable as being the very last in which the side of
clemency gained the day (Thuc. iii. 37) :
" I have remarked again and again that a Democracy
cannot govern an empire ; and never more clearly than
now, when I see you regretting your sentence upon the
Mitylenaeans. Living without fear and suspicion among
yourselves, you deal with your allies upon the same principle ;
1 These speeches were revised as late as 403, and may well be coloured
by subsequent experience. But this particular point is one on which
Thucydides may be absolutely trusted. He would not attribute the
odious sentiments of Cleon to his hero Pericles without cause.
70 THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES
and you do not realize that whenever you make a concession
to them out of pity, or are misled by their specious reports,
you are guilty of a weakness dangerous to yourselves, and
you receive no gratitude from them. You must remember
that your empire is a Despotism exercised over unwilling
subjects who are always conspiring against you. They
do not obey in return for any kindness you do them ; they
obey just so far as you show yourselves their masters."
" Do not be misled," he adds a little later (iii. 40), " by
the three most deadly enemies of empire, Pity and the
Charm of Words and the Generosity of Strength ! "
It is a change indeed ! A change which the common
run of low men, no doubt, accepted as inevitable, or even
as a matter of course ; which the merely clever and practical
men insisted upon, and the more brutal " patriots " delighted
in They had never loved or understood the old ideals !
Some great political changes can take place without much
effect upon men's private lives. But this change was a
blight that worked upon daily conduct, upon the roots
of character. Thucydides, writing after the end of the
war, has two celebrated and terrible chapters (iii. 82, 83)
on that side of the question. Every word is apposite
to our point ; but we may content ourselves with a few
sentences here and there.
" In peace and prosperity both states and men," he says,
" are free to act upon higher motives. They are not caught
up by coils of circumstance which drive them without
their own volition. But War, taking away the margin
in daily life, is a teacher who educates by violence ; and
he makes men's characters fit their conditions. ..."
The later actors in the war " determined to outdo the
report of those who had gone before them by the ingenuity
of their enterprises and the enormity of their reprisals. ..."
The meaning of words, he notices, changed in relation to
things. Thoughtfulness, prudence, moderation, generosity
were scouted and called by the names of various vices :
recklessness and treachery were prized. " Frantic energy
was the true quality of a man. ..."
" Neither side cared for religion, but both used it with
enthusiasm as a pretext for various odious purposes. ..."
THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES 71
" The cause of all these evils was the lust of empire,
originating in avarice and ambition, and the party spirit
which is engendered from such circumstances when men
settle themselves down to a contest."
" Thus Revolution gave birth to every kind of wicked-
ness in Hellas. The simplicity which is so large an element
in a noble nature disappeared in a burst of derision. An
attitude of mistrustful antagonism prevailed everywhere.
No power existed to soften it, no cogency of reason, no bond
of religion." ..." Inferior characters succeeded best. The
higher kinds of men were too thoughtful, and were swept
Men caught up in coils of circumstance that drive them
without their own volition ; ingenious enterprises ; enor-
mous revenges ; mad ambition ; mistrust ; frantic energy ;
the abuse of religion ; simplicity laughed out of the world :
it is a terrible picture, and it is exactly the picture that
meets us in the later tragedies of Euripides. Those plays
all, as Dr. Verrall has acutely remarked, have an extra-
ordinary air of referring to the present and not the past,
of dealing with things that " matter," not things made
up or dreamed about. And it is in this spirit that they
deal with them. Different plays may be despairing like
the Troades, cynical like the Ion, deliberately hateful like
the Electra, frantic and fierce like the Orestes ; they are
nearly all violent, nearly all misanthropic. Amid all
their poetical beauty there sounds from time to time
a cry of nerves frayed to the snapping point, a jarring
note of fury against something personal to the poet and
not always relevant to the play. Their very splendours,
the lines that come back most vividly to a reader's mind,
consist often in the expression of some vice. There are
analyses or self-revelations, like the famous outburst of
the usurping Prince Eteoclfis in the Phoenissae :
These words that them wilt praise
The Equal and the Just, in all men's ways
I have not found them ! These be names, not things.
Mother, I will unveil to thee the springs
That well within me. I would break the bars
Of Heaven, and past the risings of the stars
72 THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES
Climb, aye, or sink beneath dark Earth and Sea,
To clasp my goddess-bride, my Sovranty !
This is my good, which never by mine own
Will shall man touch, save Eteocles alone !
There are flashes of cruel hate like the first words of
old Tyndareus to the doomed and agonized Orestes, whose
appearance has been greeted by Menelaus with the words :
Who cometh ghastly as the grave ? . . .
The snake ! The snake, that drank his mother's blood,
Doth hiss and flash before the gates, and bow
The pestilence-ridden glimmer of his brow.
I sicken at him ! Wilt thou stain thy soul
With speech, Menelaus, of a thing so foul ?
Above all, there is what I will not venture to illustrate,
the celebrated Euripidean " pathos," that power of insight
into the cruelty of suffering : the weakness and sensitive-
ness of the creatures that rend one another ; that piteous-
ness in the badness of things which makes them half lovable.
This is the one characteristic of Euripides' world which is
not present in that of Thucydides. The grimly reticent
historian seldom speaks of human suffering ; the tragedian
keeps it always before our eyes.
This gradual embitterment and exacerbation of thought
in Euripides, as shown by the later plays compared with
the earlier, is, I believe, generally recognized. I will
choose in illustration of it a scene from the Hecuba, a
tragedy early in date, but in tone and spirit really the first
of the late series. 1
The Hecuba deals with the taking of Troy, the great
achievement in war of the heroic age of Greece. And the
point in it that interests Euripides is, as often, the reverse
of the picture the baseness and, what is worse, the un-
interestingness of the conquerors ; the monstrous wrongs
1 I am the more moved to select this particular scene because I find
that the text and punctuation of my edition, which I owe to a remark
of Dr. Verrall's, confirmed by a re-examination of the Paris MSS., has
caused difficulties to some scholars;
THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES 78
of the conquered ; the moral degradation of both parties,
culminating in the transformation of Hecuba from a grave
oriental queen into a kind of she-devil. Among the heroes
who took Troy were, as every Athenian knew, the two
sons of Theseus. The Athenian public would, of course,
insist on their being mentioned. And they are mentioned
once ! A young princess is to be cruelly murdered by a
vote of the Greek host. One wishes to know what these
high Athenians had to say when the villain Odysseus
consented to her death. And we are told. " The sons
of Theseus, the branches of Athens, made orations contra-
dicting each other " so like them at their worst ! " but
both were in favour of the murder ! " Small wonder that
Euripides' plays were awarded only four first prizes in
fifty years !
In the scene which I select (vv. 795 ff.), the body of
Hecuba's one remaining son, Polydorus, has just been washed
up by the sea. He, being very young, had been sent away
to the keeping of a Thracian chieftain, an old friend, till
the war should be over. And now it proves that the
Thracian, as soon as he saw that the Trojan cause was
definitely lost, has murdered his charge ! Hecuba appeals
to her enemy Agamemnon for help to avenge the murder.
The " King of Men " is, as usual in Euripides, a poor
creature, a brave soldier and kindly enough amid the
havoc he makes, but morally a coward and a sensualist.
The scene is outside Agamemnon's tent. Inside the tent
is Hecuba's one remaining daughter Cassandra, a prophetess
vowed to virginity or to union only with the God ; she is
now Agamemnon's concubine !
Observe how the nobler part of the appeal fails, the baser
succeeds. Hecuba shows Agamemnon her son's body,
and tells how the Thracian slew him :
And by a plot
Slew him ; and when he slew him, could he not
Throw earth upon his bones, if he must be
A murderer ? Cast him naked to the sea ?
O King, I am but one amid thy throng
Of servants ; I am weak, but God is strong,
God, and that King that standeth over God,
Law ; who makes gods and unmakes, by whose rod
74 THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES
We live dividing the Unjust from the Just ;
Whom now before thee standing if thou thrust
Away if men that murder guests, and tear
God's house down, meet from thee no vengeance, where
Is Justice left in the world ? Forbid it, thou !
Have mercy ! Dost not fear to wrong me now ? . . .
Hate me no more. Stand like an arbiter
Apart, and count the weight of woes I bear.
I was a Queen once, now I am thy slave ;
I had children once ; but not now. And my grave
Near ; very old, broken and homeless. . . . Stay ;
[Agamemnon, painfully embarrassed, has moved
towards the tent.
God help me, whither dost thou shrink away ? . . .
It seems he does not listen ! . . .
. . . So, 'tis plain
Now. I must never think of hope again. . . .
Those that are left me are dead ; dead all save one ;
One lives, a slave, in shame. . . . Ah, I am gone ! . . .
The smoke ! Troy is on fire ! The smoke all round !
[She swoons. Agamemnon comes back. Her
fellow-slaves tend her. . . . She rises again
with a sudden thought.
What ? . . . Yes, I might ! . . . Oh, what a hollow sound,
Love, here ! But I can say it ! ... Let me be ! ...
King, King, there sleepeth side by side with thee
My child, my priestess, whom they call in Troy
Cassandra. Wilt thou pay not for thy joy ?
Nothing to her for all the mystery,
And soft words of the dark ? Nothing to me
For her ? Nay, mark me ; look on these dead eyes 1
This is her brother ; surely thine likewise !
Thou wilt avenge him ?
This desperate and horrible appeal stirs him. He is
much occupied with Cassandra for the moment. But he
is afraid. " The King of Thrace is an ally of the Greeks,
the slain boy was after all an enemy. People will say he
is influenced by Cassandra. If it were not for that. ..."
She answers him in words which might stand as a motto
over most of the plays of this period as they might over
much of Tolstoy :
Faugh ! There is no man free in all this world !
Slaves of possessions, slaves of fortune, hurled
This way and that. Or else the multitude
THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES 75
Hath hold on him ; or laws of stone and wood
Constrain, and will not let him use the soul
Within him I ... So thou durst not ? And thine whole
Thought hangs on what thy herd will say ? Nay, then.
My master, I will set thee free again.
She arranges a plan which shall not implicate him. The
Thracian chieftain is allowed to visit her. On the pretence
of explaining to him where a treasure is hidden, she entices
him and his two children " it is more prudent to have
them present, in case he should die ! " inside the tent
of the captive Trojan women. The barbarian women make
much of the children, and gradually separate them from
their father. They show interest in his Thracian javelins
and the texture of his cloak, and so form a group round
him. At a given signal they cling to him and hold him
fast, murder his children before his face, and then tear his
eyes out. Agamemnon, who knew that something would
happen, but had never expected this, is horrified and
impotent. The blinded Thracian comes back on to the
stage, crawling, unable to stand. He gropes for the bodies
of his children ; for some one to help him ; for some one
to tear and kill. He shrieks like a wild beast, and the
horrible scene ends.
We will not go farther into this type of play. More
illustrations would, of course, prove nothing. It is the
business of a tragedian to be harrowing. It is a dangerous
and a somewhat vulgar course to deduce from a poet's
works direct conclusions about his real life ; but there is
on the one hand the fact of progressive bitterness in Euripides'
plays, and, on the other, as we have noticed above, there
is the peculiar impression which they make of dealing
with living and concrete things. But it is not really any-
thing positive that chiefly illustrates the later tone of
Euripides. It is not his denunciations of nearly all the
institutions of human society of the rich, the poor, men,
women, slaves, masters, above all, of democracies and
demagogues ; it is not even the mass of sordid and unbal-
anced characters that he brings upon the scene trembling
slaves of ambition like Agamemnon ; unscrupulous and
heartless schemers like Odysseus ; unstable compounds of
76 THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES
chivalry and vanity like Achilles in the second Iphigenia;
shallow women like Helen and terrible women like Electra
in the Orestes a play of which the Scholiast naively remarks
that " the characters are all bad except Pylades," the
one exception being a reckless murderer who was at least
faithful to his friends. It is not points like these that are
most significant. It is the gradual dying off of serenity
and hope. I think most students of Euripides will agree
that almost the only remnant of the spirit of the Alcestis
or the Hippolytus, the only region of clear beauty, that can
still be found in the later tragedies, lies in the lyrical element.
There are one or two plays, like the Andromeda, which
seem to have escaped from reality to the country of Aristo-
phanes' Birds, and read like mere romance; and even in
the Electra there are the songs. Euripides had prayed
some twenty years before his death: "May I not live if
the Muses leave me ! " And that prayer was heard. The
world had turned dark, sordid, angry, under his eyes, but
Poetry remained to the end radiant and stainless.
It is this state of mind and a natural development from
it which afford in my judgement the best key to the under-
standing of The Bacchae, his last play, not quite finished
at his death. It was written under peculiar circumstances.
We have seen from Thucydides what Athenian society
had become in these last years of the death-struggle. If
to Thucydides, as is possible, things seemed worse than
they were, we must remember that to the more impulsive
nature and equally disappointed hopes of Euripides they
are not likely to have seemed better. We know that he
had become in these last years increasingly unpopular in
Athens ; and it is not hard, if we examine the groups and
parties in Athens at the time, to understand his isolation.
Most of the high-minded and thoughtful men of the time
were to some extent isolated, and many retired quietly
from public notice. But Euripides was not the man to
be quiet in his rejected state. He was not conciliatory,
not silent, not callous. At last something occurred to make
his life in Athens finally intolerable. We do not know
exactly what it was. It cannot have been the destruction
of his estate; that had been destroyed long before. It
THE BACCHAE OF EURIPIDES 77
cannot have been his alleged desertion by his wife ; she
was either dead or over seventy. It may have been some-
thing connected with his prosecution for impiety, the charge
on which Socrates was put to death a few years after.
All that we know is one fragmentary sentence in the ancient
Life of Euripides : " He had to leave Athens because of
the malicious exultation over him of nearly all the city."
Archelaiis, King of Macedon, had long been inviting
him. The poet had among his papers a play called A rchelaus,
written to celebrate this king's legendary ancestor, so he
may before this have been thinking of Macedonia as a
possible refuge. He went now, and seems to have lived
in some wild retreat on the northern slopes of Mount
Olympus, in the Muses' country, as he phrases it :
In the elm-woods and the oaken,
There where Orpheus harped of old.
And the trees awoke and knew him.
And the wild things gathered to him,
As he sang amid the broken
Glens his music manifold.
The spirit of the place passed into his writings. He
had produced the Orestes in 408. He produced nothing,
so far as has been made out, in 407. He died in 406. And
after his death there appeared in Athens, under the manage-
ment of his son, a play that held the Greek stage for five
centuries, a strange and thrilling tragedy, enigmatical,
inhuman, at times actually repellent, yet as strong and as
full of beauty as the finest work of his prime.
Two other plays were produced with it. Of one, Akmaeon
in Corinth, we know nothing characteristic ; the second,
iphigenia in Aulis, is in many ways remarkable. The ground-
work of it is powerful and bitter ; in style it approaches
the New Comedy ; but it is interspersed with passages and
scenes of most romantic beauty ; and, finally, it was left
at the poet's death half finished. One could imagine that
he had begun it in Athens, or at least before the bitter taste
of Athens had worn off ; that he tried afterwards to change
the tone of it to something kindlier and more beautiful ;
that finally he threw it aside and began a quite new play