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RHESUS

an analysis of the play by Euripides

The following essay on Rhesus was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 284-5.

There appears to be no doubt that a play called Rhesus was composed and exhibited by Euripides, and that it was one of his earliest productions. But the existing Rhesus differs so widely in tone and character from all the rest of his tragedies, that its authenticity has often been called in question. Some of the ancient critics thought it was more like the work of Sophocles; their opinion, however, has found little favour in recent times. Modern scholars have suggested that it was written by the younger Euripides, or by an Attic poet of the fourth century, or by some grammarian of the Alexandrian age. Whichever of these theories we adopt, we should have to suppose that the genuine Rhesus had disappeared in the course of the fifth century, and that the spurious drama was substituted in its place. This hypothesis is not in itself very probable, and it is open to doubt whether the objections to the authenticity of the play are really insurmountable. Arguments founded on the fact that the action takes place by night, or that the chorus leave the orchestra for a short interval, hardly deserve to be mentioned. The formal pomp of the versification, and the prevalence of archaic words and epic usages, are qualities to be expected in the first efforts of a youthful poet, writing under the influence of Aeschylus. The active prominence of the chorus is explicable on the same grounds. The superficiality of the plot, the lack of force and pathos, and the absence of the usual prologue, and of the customary displays of rhetoric and sententious reflection, may likewise be ascribed to the immaturity of the poet, whose individual characteristics were not yet fully developed. On the whole, then, until weightier considerations are adduced on the other side, it seems safer to follow many of the ancient commentators, who had no hesitation in assigning the play to Euripides.

The Rhesus has little claim to depth or impressiveness. The story of a night assault upon a camp, and of the successful slaughter of an enemy, is a subject better adapted for epic than dramatic poetry; it fails to excite that moral interest which is essential to a great drama. The merits of the play lie rather in its rapid movement, and in the picturesque and lively exhibition of the operations of war. The night alarm, the strange fires, and the general perplexity in the Trojan camp; the gradual approach of dawn, heralded by the songs of birds and the lowing of cattle; the weariness of the sentinels, the stealthy entry of Odysseus, and his narrow escape from capture in the dim morning light -- all these vicissitudes are vividly represented in a series of spirited and exciting scenes. The story is taken in most of its details from the Iliad; but there is one important difference. Odysseus and Diomed have heard nothing about Rhesus when they enter the Trojan lines, and it is Athene who supplies the information. Her appearance in the midst of the darkness and confusion seems to have been contrived in order to give a sort of supernatural air to the piece, and to import some of that grandeur and dignity which it otherwise lacks.

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