« AnteriorContinuar »
A COMPARISON BETWEEN THE ELECTRA OF SOPHOCLES AND THE HAMLET OF SHAKESPEARE.
SOPHOCLES, as the greatest among the tragic writers of classic antiquity, stands on an eminence nearly equal to that which Shakespeare holds with regard to the romantic drama. Dissimilar in the style and the form of their plays, these two mighty authors resembled each other in this, that they were both of surpassing, lasting, and wonderful excellence. Æschylus and Euripides by some are regarded as coming in close concurrence with Sophocles. Shakespeare is unquestionably without a rival; and, indeed, the world in general bows to the acknowledged supremacy of both Sophocles and Shakespeare. They are the masters of that beautiful art which—under whatever shape, classic or romantic-has made history and fiction alive, and has afforded, through ages and ages, a kind of endless and ever varying gratification to mankind. Often and often, yet never to satiety, have the merits of these two writers been separately demonstrated, discussed, and lauded; each has innumerable times been the theme of admiration, eloquence, and erudition, to the student, the critic, and the scholar; but it has seldom or never occurred, that they should have been considered together, and that an approximation should have been made between the peculiar attributes of either of them. Such a comparison must, however, be curious and interesting, and well worthy the attention of the student, especially as they themselves have, on one occasion at least, afforded a fair opportunity for it, in having chosen for the display of their dramatic powers a somewhat similar subject. The tale which forms the plot of the Electra (a master-piece of antiquity), has close affinity to the story of that greater master-piece of modern time, the tragedy of Hamlet. Adultery, and murder, and vengeance fill alike the scenes of these two terrible plays; and in the one, as in the other, the incidents are rendered still more appalling by the energy of the language and the magnificence of the verse. How earnestly here did these authors write! How grandly, how gloriously! as if their souls were on fire and yet, excellent as they both are, how evident, on close inspection, is the surpassing genius of Shakespeare. To fully judge of this, let us first take the Electra.
The plot of this famous tragedy is simply this :-
After Agamemnon had been assassinated by his wife Clytemnestra and her paramour Ægisthus, Orestes, then an infant, was preserved from a participation in the same fate by his sister, Electra, who privately conveyed him to the court of Strophius, king of Phocis, who treated him with the utmost kindness, and educated him with his son, Pylades, with whom he contracted an indissoluble friendship. On attaining years of maturity, Orestes, together with his companion, visited the city of Mycenæ in disguise, and, by the assistance of his governor, deluded the adulterous pair into a fatal security, by a report which he propagated of his death. Having at length discovered himself to Electra, who willingly co-operated with him in the prosecution of his revenge, he slew his mother during the absence of the tyrant, who, on his return received the just punishment of his atrocious guilt.
The whole course and conduct of the drama are, moreover, eloquently detailed, as follow, by M. Schlegel :
The scene of the Electra of Sophocles is laid before the palace of Agamemnon. At break of day Pylades, Orestes, and the guardian by whom he was preserved when his father was slain, enter the stage as arriving from another country. The tutor who acts as his guide commences with a description of his native city, and he is answered by Orestes, who mentions the commission of Apollo, and the manner in which he means to carry it into execution, after which the young man puts up a prayer to his domestic gods and his father's house. Electra is heard complaining within; Orestes is desirous of greeting her without delay, but the old man leads him away to perform a sacrifice at the grave of his father. Electra then appears, and pours out her sorrow in a pathetic address to heaven, and her unconquerable desire of revenge in a prayer to the infernal deities. The chorus, which consists of native virgins, endeavours to console her; and, in an interchange of hymns and conversation, Electra discloses her deep sorrow, the ignominy and oppression under which she suffers, and her hopelessness from the delay of Orestes, whom she has frequently admonished; and she turns a deaf ear to all the grounds of consolation adduced by the chorus. Chrysothemis, the younger daughter of Clytemnestra, whose yieldingness of disposition naturally renders her the favourite of her mother, approaches with a mortuary offering which she is carrying to the grave of her father. An altercation arises between the two sisters respecting their difference of sentiment, and Chrysothemis mentions to Electra that Ægisthus, whom she sets at defiance, and who is at that time absent in the country, has determined to adopt the most severe measures towards her. She then learns that Clytemnestra dreamt of the return of Agamemnon to life, of his having planted his sceptre in the ground on which the house stood, which grew up to a tree that overshadowed the whole land; and, alarmed at this, that she has commissioned Chrysothemis to carry an oblation to his grave. Electra counsels her not to execute the commands of ler audacious mother, but to put up a prayer for herself and her sister, and for the return of Orestes to revenge her father, when she reaches the grave; she adds to the oblation her own girdle and a lock of her hair. Chrysothemis goes off, promising obedience to her wishes. The chorus predicts from the dream, that retaliation is at hand, and connects the crimes in the house of Pelops, with the first enormity committed by that ancestor. Clymenestra rebukes
her daughter, against whom, however, she is milder than usual, probably from the effect of the dream; she defends her murder of Agamemnon, Electra condemns her for it, but yet no violent altercation takes place. Clytemnestra then proffers a prayer at the altar before the house to Apollo for health and long life, and in secret for the death of her son. The guardian of Orestes arrives, and, as the messenger of a Phocean friend, announces the death of Orestes, and minutely enumerates all the circumstances which attended his being killed in a chariot-race at the Pythian games. Clytemnestra can scarcely conceal her triumphant joy, although she is at first visited by the feelings of a mother, and she invites the messenger to partake of their hospitality. Electra, in affecting speeches and hymns, gives herself up to her grief, and the chorus in vain endeavours to console her. Chrysothemis returns from the grave, full of joy in the assurance that Orestes is in the vicinity: she has found his lock of hair, his libation, and garland. The despair of Electra is now renewed; she recounts to her sister the gloomy relation of the supposed messenger, and exhorts her, as all their hopes are at an end, to join in the daring deed of destroying Ægisthus, a determination which Chrysothemis, who does not possess resolution enough, rejects as foolish; and after a violent altercation she enters the house. The chorus now bewails Electra, who is thus left altogether destitute. Orestes returns with Pylades and several servants bearing an urn with the pretended ashes of the deceased. Electra supplicates him for the urn, and laments over it in the most affecting language, which agitates Orestes to such a degree that he can no longer conceal himself: after some preparation he discloses himself to her, and confirms his account by the production of the seal-ring of their father. She gives expression to her boundless joy in speeches and odes, till the guardian comes out, and reprimands both of them for their want of consideration. Electra, with some difficulty, recognises in him the faithful servant. to whom she had entrusted the care of Orestes, and expresses her gratitude to him. At the suggestion of the guardian, Orestes and Pylades accompany him with all speed into the house, that they may surprise Clytemnestra while still alone. Electra offers up a prayer for them to Apollo; the choral ode announces the moment of retaliation. We hear in the house the cries of the affrighted Clytemnestra, her short prayer, her wailings, when she feels herself wounded. Electra from without stimulates Orestes to complete the deed, and he comes out with bloody hands; as the chorus however sees Ægisthus advancing, he re-enters the house in haste for the purpose of surprising him. Ægisthus inquires into the death of Orestes, and is led to believe, from the ambiguous language of Electra, that his corpse is in the palace. He commands all the gates to be thrown open immediately, for the purpose of convincing those inhabitants who yielded obedience with reluctance to his sovereignty, that they had no longer any hopes in Orestes. The middle entrance opens, and exhibits in the interior of the palace a body lying on the bed covered over: Orestes stands beside the body, and invites Egisthus to uncover it; and he now beholds the bloody corpse of Clytemnestra, and concludes himself lost beyond remedy. He requests to be allowed to speak, but this is opposed by Electra. Orestes constrains him to enter the house, that he may kill him on the very spot where his own father was murdered.
In this tragedy, the position of Electra resembles that of Hamlet:
she has nearly the same sorrows as his to undergo, and the same wrongs to vindicate. A loved father has been murdered, and his wife is married to the murderer. Yet how different is the character of Electra from that of Hamlet. Endowed with a mind of unbounding determination and courage, the classic heroine is majestic and terrible in her grief. She has resolved to revenge her father's death, and she never for an instant swerves from her purpose: all the gentler nature of woman-all filial feeling for her mother is cast aside; vengeance and vengeance alone, holds possession of her every faculty. The soliloquy in the first act displays her full intent.
O sacred light! and, O, thou ambient air!
I pour'd before you; what at eve retired
I felt of anguish, my sad couch alone
Never, O! never like the nightingale,
Whose plaintive song bewails her ravish'd brood ;
Here will I still lament my father's wrongs,
And teach the echo to repeat my moan.
O ye infernal Deities! and thou,
The chorus laud her for her firmness of purpose.
Bid the sad Atridæ mourn,
Their house by cruel faction torn ;
Fearless of death, and every human ill,
Was ever child so good, or piety so great?
In beautiful contrast to this dark picture of Pagan vengeance come the Christian anguish and Christian vacillation of Shakespeare's hero. Hamlet's sorrow is caused by a crime even greater than the murder of Agamemnon. It is his own uncle who has slain the king, and formed an incestuous marriage with the queen. True, Gertrude, unlike Clytemnestra, is innocent of the actual death of her husband; yet the guilt, in the union she has made, is very great. But Hamlet obeys the warning
he has received from the
Howsoever thou pursu'st this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
To goad and sting her.
In the moments of his greatest excitement, Hamlet confines his conduct towards his mother to exhortation
Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past;-avoid what is to come.
Soft-now to my mother.
O! heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
Let me be cruel-not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
In either play, Electra and Hamlet are alike infuriate against the principal offender; yet the softness of humanity will ever and anon creep over Hamlet's sterner mission. In him, the executioner sinks before the philosopher and scholar, until, as he says himself, "the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." Electra allows naught to stand between her and the consummation of her object: from the first act to the last, her eye, like that of the constrictor, is fixed in deadly glare upon her victims; as the boa, she watches for the moment to leap upon them, and when it occurs, her rage bursts forth in uncontrolable exultation. When the sword of her brother Orestes is at the throat of Ægysthus, and the dying miscreant implores, in his agony, one word of the prince, how terrible is her exclamation :—
No, not a word. What can a moment's space
We can be free and happy.
Such, indeed, is the whole tenor of this master-piece of antiquity; terror, and terror alone, predominates throughout-one rises from its perusal struck with the vigour and violence of its action.
Yet an un