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F" 'tis true that a good play needs no epilogue," a prologue to classic drama would seem equally superfluous. In this introduction, therefore, the writer will merely touch upon some of the salient features of each play, and point out various matters of incidental interest concerning the dramatists represented in this collection.
The plays presented all treat of different themes, and they have been carefully gleaned from the whole realm of dramatic literature. It is not contended that there are not other plays of equal merit that might have been selected. It is merely claimed that the plays that have been selected are all representative plays of great dramatists. Shakespeare, the greatest of all dramatists, has been omitted for the reason that his plays have been issued in innumerable editions, and are to be found in nearly every private library throughout the land. Shakespeare's dramatic method, moreover, partakes of such infinite variety that it would have been well-night impossible to determine which of his plays would best represent him. His comprehensive wisdom and his profound knowledge of human nature make him seem almost superhuman. He surpassed all his predecessors in the drawing of his characters, which range over almost every type of humanity furnishing a suitable subject for the tragic or the comic art. Indeed, he has never been approached by any of his competitors in any branch of the drama illustrated by his genius.
The three great writers of tragedy in ancient Greece were Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. To schylus, who led in the van of dramatic enterprise, as he did in the field of Marathon, the sanction of antiquity has ascribed unrivalled powers over the realms of astonishment and terror. He was a poet of the highest order, confident that he addressed an audience prompt to kindle at the heroic scene which he placed before
them. We know that he composed seventy plays, and that he gained the prize for dramatic excellence thirteen times. Of the seventy plays, only seven complete tragedies are extant. His moral tone is pure, and his dramatic power, as exhibited in some parts of " Prometheus Bound," is not surpassed in point of sublimity by any of his famous successors. "Prometheus Bound" is the representation of constancy under suffering, and the triumph of subjection was never celebrated in more glorious strains.
Sophocles, who was called the " Bee of Attica" by his countrymen, entered into competition with Eschylus, and obtained the first prize. His success occasioned the veteran's retreat to Sicily, where he died, commanding that his epitaph should make mention of his share in the victory of Marathon, but should contain no allusion to his dramatic triumphs. Sophocles is considered the most skilful dramatist, and, next to Eschylus, the greatest of the Greek tragic poets. It was the object of Sophocles to move sorrow and compassion rather than to excite indignation and terror. He studied the progress of action with more attention than Eschylus. His subjects are more melancholy and less sublime than those of his predecessor, and he preferred to depict heroes in their forlorn rather than in their triumphant fortunes. He is said to have written about one hundred plays, of which only seven have come down to us. Among these seven is "Edipus Rex," which, in subtlety of structure, is the masterpiece of the Greek drama. The horror in Edipus, occasioned by a sudden and overwhelming reverse, is an exquisite study of the human soul, and the whole play is a terrible exhibition of the iron course of Fate.
Euripides is said to have written ninety-two dramas. The names of seventy-five of them were engraved on the pedestal of an extant statue of the dramatist. Only eighteen of these plays have reached posterity-that is, if we exclude the "Rhesus," which is of doubtful authorship. "Medea" was brought out 431 B.C. The whole interest turns upon the delineation of the furious passion of Medea, and her devices to punish those who have offended her. The scene in which she has resolved to sacrifice her innocent children for the purpose of torturing her faithless husband is one of the most affecting scenes in the annals of tragedy. Medea's alternation between jealous fury
and tearful pity, between outraged wifehood and motherly love, touches a responsive chord in human nature that has given this play a permanent place in dramatic literature. Although the ancients accorded the pre-eminence in tragedy to either Æschylus or Sophocles,-Euripides has been found more popular with posterity than either of his two great predecessors. The passion of love predominates in his plays, and he appears to have been the first Greek dramatist who paid tribute to the tender passion, a sentiment that has been made the moving cause of so many modern plays.
Aristophanes was for nearly forty years the great burlesque critic of Athenian life, political, intellectual, moral, and social. Of the fifty-four comedies which he is said to have written there are only eleven extant. In "The Knights" he uses unrestricted license of satire, and continues his attack (begun in the "Babylonians") on the demagogue, Cleon. Demagogues were his abomination, but he exaggerated the case against Cleon, because he happened to be his enemy. Though his indecency and the offensive and indiscriminate scurrility of his satire deserve censure, Aristophanes, from the richness of his fancy, and his gayety of tone, has fully deserved the title of the "Father of Comedy." Furthermore he possessed the poetic faculty in a pronounced degree, and in his plays he occasionally introduced lyric strains of entrancing sweetness. Indeed, Aristophanes was not only a great satirist, but a great poet.
The glory of the Spanish drama reached its height in the plays of Calderon. In Calderon's best plays we see the Spanish drama in its utmost exuberance of life, and we may fully enjoy what Ticknor refers to as "its inimitable beauty, the freshness of its inventions, the charm of its style, the flowing naturalness of its dialogue, the marvellous ingenuity of its plots, the ease with which everything is at last adjusted and explained; the brilliant interest, the humor, the wit, that mark every step as we advance.” “Life a Dream" is one of Calderon's most striking and original plays. It is in the nature of a philosophic drama. The theme is the self-conquest of a bad-tempered prince, and it sets forth that human free-will can conquer the most adverse influences of the stars. At the conclusion of the play the prince declares that having learned "how dreamwise human glories come and go," he wishes to make a right use of life while it