Edward Selwyn Hoernle.

The problem of the Agamemnon : being a criticism of Dr. Verrall's theory of the plot of Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Dr. Verrall's reply online

. (page 1 of 4)
Online LibraryEdward Selwyn HoernleThe problem of the Agamemnon : being a criticism of Dr. Verrall's theory of the plot of Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Dr. Verrall's reply → online text (page 1 of 4)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook









B M 033 TDM





Being a Criticism of

Dr Verrall's Theory of the Plot of

Aeschylus' Agamemnon; and

Dr Verrall's Reply


sometime scholar of WINCHESTER AND

Author of ^ Notes on the Text of Aeschylus'


Price Two Shillmgs net

^y the same ^Author

Notes on the Text of

\s. bd. 7tet




Being a Criticism of

Dr Verrall's Theory of the Plot of

Aeschylus' Agamemnon; and

Dr Verrall's Reply


sometime scholar of WINCHESTER AND

Author of ^ Notes on the Text of Aeschylus'






Oax^ ^^^OJJj^


IT WAS never my good fortune to meet Dr Verrall; but
the spell ot his personality must have struck to the heart of
all who have read his essays. Whatever the historians of
scholarship may finally decide as to the tenability of his theo-
ries or the value of his methods of criticism, one thing is cer-
tain. He was a great and moving force. He must have brought
home to many for the first time, as with the shock of a new
discovery, that the works of the Greek dramatists are not a
matter of text and grammar, of moods and tenses, but real
literature, to be read and criticised as such. W^here formerly
editors gave us readings, he gave us ideas.

It is now twelve years since I submitted to him an essay
challenging his interpretation of the plot of the Agamemnon,
and putting forward a new solution. I did so with some little
hesitation. He was one of the toremost scholars of the day, and
I a particularly undistinguished undergraduate of a university
not his own. In the interest of examining his views and of pro-
pounding my own, I had expressed my self freely, and yet when
1 tried to rewrite my paper in less forcible terms, I could not
do it. Dr Verrall was, I felt, a scholarwho challenged criticism,
and revelled in it. I always think of him as of some strong
swimmer battling in the breakers, borne upon the wave-crests,
and shouting with the delight of combat. His mission was to
inspire, not to convince, and I believed that, if my essay
showed that he had aroused my interest, he would forgive any
crudity of expression. And so, when, moved by an impulse
which I could not check, I send him my essay, I was not dis-

I had not, however, been prepared for the full extent of his
generosity. I had thought that perhaps he would acknowledge
my letter in a few kind words. It would have been easy for him,
and I could not expect him to do more than, to say that he
hoped, if I came to Cambridge, I would call and see him. He
might have written a few short criticisms of my work and said




a few brief words of encouragement. He might, with very
good cause, have pleaded the pressure of work, and excused
himself from any but the briefest comment. He might, with
still better reason, have pleaded the infirmity which made it
difficult for him to write at all.

He did none of these things. Actually he read my essay with
the greatest care, and, at a time when he used a pen with pain
and difficulty, sent me ten large foolscap sheets covered with
small writing. He received my criticisms, he advanced his
own, with a perfect courtesy which, when our respective
positions are remembered, was wonderful. I am proud, and I
think not without reason, that I was able to arouse his interest.
But his reply is a monument not to my effiDrts but to his own
greatness of heart.

I had one or two other short letters from him, and I hoped
to avail myself of his generous invitation to visit him at
Cambridge. We were not able to continue our discussion on
paper. He had to prepare a course of lectures on English
Poetry, I to work for an examination in Oriental studies new
to me. Other causes set a check to my hopes ot an interview,
and I left England for India with the resolution that, on my
return, I would visit him on the first opportunity. The news of
his death came to me with a sense of personal loss.

I had hoped to reconsider my views in the light of his
criticisms, to argue the difficulties further, and, if not to reach
agreement, at least to arrive at that point where we must agree
to differ. Now he has gone into the great silence. Whether he
could have convinced me, or I him, cannot be known. But I
feel that what interested him may interest some of those who
loved him. The essay is, so far as I know, the most detailed
criticism of his handling of the Agamemnon problem. His
reply contains points which can hardly fail to be of interest.

There are parts of my essay which under other circum-
stances I would prefer to rewrite. But the discussion between
us is, as I have said, a monument not to my labours but to his
generosity. I wish, therefore, to show just what work it was to



which hegavc so gracious and kind consideration. Accordingly,
save for altering a tew phrases which did not correctly express
my meaning, and omitting a few passages of no real impor-
tance to the argument, I have reproduced my paper as it was
originally written.

1 would give much to be able to thank him. This is, perhaps,
the best thanks still left to me to offer.




THE PLOT of the Agamemnon is, according to tradi-
tion, briefly as follows:
I. The play opens with a watchman on the roof of
Agamemnon's palace. For a year past he has been watching
for a beacon light which is to announce that his master, now
ten years absent, has at last taken Troy. The light is seen, and
he announces the news to the Queen Klytaimnestra.

2. 1. 49. Soon after dawn, the elders of the State march to the
palace singing of the expedition to Troy and the sacrifice of
Iphigeneia, slain at Aulis to propitiate the angry winds which
barred its passage across the sea. The Queen enters, and they
explain that they have come to hear what news has been an-
nounced that all the altars are blazing with sacrifices.

3.1. 264. The Queen tells them 'Troy is fallen.' When.^*
they ask. ' This very night,' she announces. ' What messenger
could come so swiftly.'*' they protest. She replies with a de-
scription of a chain of beacons passing by stages from Mount
Ida near Troy to Mount Arachnaeus, which is within sight of
the palace roof at Argos. One link in the chain is from Mount
Athos to Euboea.

They express a doubt as to the trustworthiness of such a
message. The Queen then speaks of the sufferings of the host
before Troy, and suggests that the army is now sleeping peace-
fully in the city^ its labour done. May it avoid angering the gods
by any sacrilege and so win a safe return. The elders now give
thanks to the gods for punishing the sins of Paris and Helen.

4. 1. 475. They are still discussing the news — 'Can any but a
woman put faith in such a message .'' ' — when a herald arrives and
announces that Agamemnon has returned! He confirms the fear
that the army have committed sacrilege. 'The gods' shrines



are utterly destroyed.' The elders welcome him and hint that
all is not well at home but then bid him continue his tale, and
he recites the hardships suffered by the army.

5.1. 588. Klytaimnestra enters, makes only a passing refer-
ence to the beacons and to the elders' disbelief, and bids the
herald welcome the King and assure him of her loyalty. She
then goes out, but the herald instead of taking her message
describes how the rest of the fleet have been scattered by
storm, so that Agamemnon has returned alone.

6. The elders again sing of Helen and of the dangers of
pride. Agamemnon enters, and they hail him as loyal citizens,
but may he watch those whose loyalty is but feigned. Agamem-
non speaks as though he were fully conscious of troubles in
the State, but proceeds to glorify his own achievements.

Klytaimnestra now enters, and speaks of her loneliness and
how at last the goal of her hope is in sight. After a cold reply
from Agamemnon, she persuades him to enter the palace on
crimson carpets. As he does so he recommends Kassandra —
the captive princess of Troy and as we are to learn his mistress
— to his wife's keeping! As he goes in, Klytaimnestra kneels
before the statue of Zeus and prays for the accomplishment
of her prayers.

(Save for a slight ambiguous reference in her long opening
speech, neither he nor she makes any mention of the beacon

7. 1. 975. The elders, who feel that the Queen 'sprayer bodes
no good to the King, have just sung of their fears, when she
comes out of the palace again and bids Kassandra enter. The
latter answers not a word, and the Queen, believing that she
cannot understand Greek, hastens off the stage, for she has no
time to waste.

8. 1. 1072. She has barely gone in, when Kassandra cries
aloud upon Apollo in Greek. Her mood of prophecy is upon
her, and she tells in frenzied language of the coming death of
the King. At last she turns and goes into the palace,and almost
immediately the King's death-cries are heard.



9. 1. 1 342. The elders are wildly debating what to do when
the Queen appears and justifies her deed in the name of the
murdered Iphigencia and of her own wounded honour. But,
she declares, it is not she, but the curse of Atreus' race, that is
responsible for the King's death.

10. 1. I 577. At last — and not till now — Aegisthus enters.
Exulting over his fallen enemy, ' It is I,' he cries, ' who wove
the whole plot.' The elders taunt him with dragging the Queen
into his crime. Why did he not do the murder himself.''

She at last calls on them to end their wrangling. There has
been enough of bloodshed. Let them rule the land in peace.


SU C H is the plot of the Agamemnon. We have to con-
sider now two main questions:
a. Is Agamemnon represented as arriving in the morning
of the night in which the beacon message is received.^
_ b. What is the part played by Aegisthus?

Let us take the first. It will be well at the outset to elucidate
the geography of the play.

The matter is of some importance, because, if some editors
are inclined to disregard the distance from Troy to Argos,
others, notablyDrVerralI,over-estimate it. The shortest route,
it will be seen {vide map i), is well under 300 miles. An
Athenian audience composed of men accustomed to sail from
the Piraeus would be inclined, if anything, to under-estimate
it. Dr Verrall is therefore quite wrong in suggesting that they
must naturally think of the journey as taking many days.

We happen to have a good record of the time in which it
could actually be made. After the battle of Aegospotami Ly-
sander despatched one Theopompos to announce the news to
Sparta, ^nd he arrived on the third day (or, as loe should say,
j the day after the morrow). Vide Xen. Hell. II. 1. 30.
Though the battle took place in the morning, he cannot have
. set out before noon, and he seems to have reached Sparta be-
fore nightfall two days later. From Aegospotami to the coast



of Laconla is 400 miles, from the coast to Sparta is well over
twenty. The whole journey took therefore roughly sixty
hours, and his mean speed works out at about seven miles an
hour. (This speed is confirmed by calculations from Thucy-
dides, cf. also Berard, Les Pb^niciens et FOdyssee.) At this
rate of speed the same vessel could have travelled from Troy
to Argos in about forty hours. Granting that Theopompos
was making special haste, enough has been said to indicate the
dangers of such incautious phrases as Dr Verrall's 'wafting a
fleet 500 miles in five minutes,' and the unfairness of his Lake
Nyanza to London parallel.

[Since I corresponded with Dr Verrall a more cogent par-
allel has come to my notice. Herodotus says (ii, 1 1 7) h> piiv yap

To'iQ KvirpioKTi iipi]rai

1 3 4

Online LibraryEdward Selwyn HoernleThe problem of the Agamemnon : being a criticism of Dr. Verrall's theory of the plot of Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Dr. Verrall's reply → online text (page 1 of 4)