This short play needs rather a long introduction. It has had the bad fortune to become a literary problem, and almost all its few readers are so much occupied with the question whether it can be the work of Euripides — and if not his, whose? — that they seldom allow themselves to take it on its merits as a stirring and adventurous piece, not particularly profound or subtle, but always full of movement and life and possessing at least one or two scenes of great and penetrating beauty.
The outlines of the Rhesus Question are these. — The Rhesus appears in the MSS. of Euripides; we know from the Athenian Didascaliae, or Records of Performances, that Euripides wrote a play of the name; some passages in it are quoted by early Alexandrian writers as from “the Rhesus of Euripides;” no passage is quoted under any other name. This seems about as strong as external evidence need be. Yet the ancient introduction to the play mentions that “some think the play spurious,” and expresses the odd opinion that “it suggests rather the Sophoclean style.” Further, it tells us that, besides the present opening scene, there were extant two different prologues, one of which was “quite prosy and perhaps concocted by the actors.” This seems to show that the Alexandrian scholars who tried for the first time to collect the complete works of Euripides, some two centuries after his death, found this play current as “Euripides’ Rhesus,” but that it was credited with three different openings and that its style was felt to be somehow peculiar.
The peculiarity of style is incontestable. It does not to our judgment suggest Sophocles. It suggests a young man imitating Aeschylus, and it has a great number of Euripidean expressions. Hermann, who collected what he took to be “imitations” of early poets in the Rhesus, noted only 25 of Sophocles, 38 of Aeschylus, and 84 of Euripides.
Is it, then, the work of a somewhat imitative fourth-century poet, naturally influenced by his great forerunners? Hardly: because, with a few exceptions, the verse and diction of the Rhesus, are markedly early in character, the verse severe and smooth, the diction direct and rather grandiose, the choral lyrics strictly relevant. In Euripides’ later years Drama was moving rapidly away from all these things and, as far as we can judge, continued so moving after his death. If the Rhesus is a post-classical play it can hardly be honest fourth-century work: it must be deliberately archaistic, a product of the Alexandrian spirit if not actually of the Alexandrian age. This is what Hermann believed. But unfortunately it is not a bit more like our fragments of Alexandrian tragedy than it is like the Medea; and, further, if it is an Alexandrian pseudo-classic tragedy, how did it succeed in deceiving the Alexandrian critics, detectives specially trained for this kind of work?
Let us try quite a different hypothesis, and begin by accepting the external evidence as true. The famous critic, Crates, of the second century B.C., happens to mention — in excuse of what he took to be a slip in the poet’s astronomy — that the Rhesus of Euripides was a youthful work. Now the earliest dated tragedy of Euripides that we possess is the Alcestis, B.C. 438, written when he was about forty-six. His style may well have been considerably different fifteen or twenty years earlier, and must certainly have been much under the influence of Aeschylus. So far, so good. Then what of the other difficulties, the three different opening scenes and the few passages of late phrasing or technique? One obvious explanation suits both. The three different openings pretty clearly imply that the play was reproduced more than once after the poet’s death and adapted by the producer for each occasion. This happened to many plays of Euripides, and in one case we even know the name of the producer; he was Euripides the Younger, son of the poet. Among other things we have reason to believe that he wrote some parts of the Iphigenia in Aulis. And in this connexion we can hardly help noticing that the Iphigenia in Aulis, like the Rhesus and like no other Greek tragedy, has two alternative openings, one a dull prologue and one a lyrical scene in anapaests under the stars. The general style of the two plays is utterly different; the Iphigenia is most typically late Euripidean; but one would not be surprised to learn that they had both passed at some time through the same revising hand.
This hypothesis seems to work well. But one difficulty remains.
We have so far gone on the supposition that Euripides at twenty-five or thirty perhaps wrote very differently from Euripides at forty-six, and that the manner we call Euripidean is only the manner of his later life. There is nothing improbable in this suggestion, but have we any evidence? Yes, a very little, and unfortunately it does not say what we want. We have some fragments — twenty lines altogether — preserved from the Peliades, with which Euripides won his first victory in the year 455, seventeen years before the Alcestis, and as far as they go they are just in his ordinary manner — a good deal more so, in fact, than much of the Alcestis is. Let us face this difficulty.
The ordinary style of Euripides is full, flexible, lucid, antithetic, studiously simple in vocabulary and charged with philosophic reflection. If we look in his extant remains for any trace of a style, like that of the Rhesus, which is comparatively terse, rich, romantic, not shrinking from rare words and strong colour and generally untinged by philosophy, we shall find the nearest approach to it in the Cyclops. Next to the Cyclops I am not sure what play would come, but the Alcestis would not be far off. It has especially several Epic forms which cannot be paralleled in tragedy. Now the conjunction of these two plays with the Rhesus is significant. The three seem to be three earliest of the extant plays; they are also — if we count the Heraclidae as mutilated — the three shortest. But, what is more important, the Cyclops is not a tragedy but a satyr-play, and the Alcestis is a tragedy of a special sort, written to take the place of a satyr-play. It is a tragedy with some half grotesque figures and a fantastic atmosphere.
This is no place for a close analysis of the diction of the various works of Euripides; but taking one rough test, just for what it is worth, we may try to count the number of words in each play which are not found elsewhere in Euripides. The Medea, a central sort of play, has in its 1419 lines 103 such words. The Alcestis, with 1163 lines, has 122; the Rhesus, with less than 1000 lines, has 177; the Cyclops, with only 701 lines, has actually 220. This calculation is doubtless slightly inexact: in any case it is worth very little until it is carefully analysed. But on the whole it accords with my general impression that the Rhesus in its variation from the Euripidean norm goes further than the Alcestis, and not so far as the Cyclops, and goes in very much the same direction. I feel in the Rhesus a good deal of that curious atmosphere, not exactly comic, but wild and extravagant, which the Greeks felt to be suited to the Satyr horde; the atmosphere normally breathed by the one-eyed Giant of the cavern on volcanic Aetna, or the drunken and garlanded Heracles who wrestles with Death and cracks his ribs for him at midnight among the tombs. The whole scene and setting of the Rhesus; the man-wolf crawling away into the darkness and his two enemies presently crawling in out of the same darkness with his bloody spoils; the divine Thracian king with his round targe that shines by night and his horses whiter than the snow; the panic of the watch, the vaunting of the doomed chieftain, the goddess disguised as another goddess, the thrilling half-farcical scene where the spy Odysseus is actually caught and befools his captors: these things are not of course comic, like some incidents in the Cyclops. They belong to tragedy; but they are near the outside limit of the tragic convention, and would perhaps be most at home in a prosatyric tragedy like the Alcestis.
In the upshot I see no adequate reason for rejecting the external evidence which makes this play a work of Euripides, if we suppose it to be an early pro-satyric play which was produced again after the poet’s death by Euripides the Younger or some contemporary. Most scholars, however, prefer to think it simply an archaistic work of the fourth century.
On this theory the Alexandrians when looking for the Rhesus of Euripides found an anonymous play called Rhesus and accepted it for what it was worth. The Prologues mentioned in the argument would perhaps belong to other plays of the same name; one, no doubt, to the real play of Euripides. The rich and severe style may, for all we know — for direct evidence fails us — be the natural mark of some reactionary archaistic school about the time of Plato or Aristotle. The same date might well be indicated by the great interest our play takes in the Iliad, and by its almost “Alexandrian” use of the gods as ornamental machinery. I cannot call such a theory improbable; but it really amounts to rejecting the external evidence in order to place the Rhesus in a period of tragic style of which we happen to know nothing. It is certainly not confirmed by the scanty fragments we possess of Theodectes or Chairemon.
And, if one is to venture into more speculative and subjective arguments, I find it rather hard to think of any lyric poet except Euripides who could have written the Adrasteia chorus or the lines about the Nightingale in the Watchers’ Song; of any playwright except Euripides who would have ended a play of gallant martial adventure with the vision of a solitary mother clasping her dead son. There are many other passages, too, like the mysterious sobbing in the dark that heralds the entry of the wounded Thracian, and the final passing out of the army to its certain defeat, which seem to me more like undeveloped genius than common imitative mediocrity. If a nameless fourth-century poet wrote this play, I think we should have heard more of him.