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William Shakespeare

by Victor Hugo

Part I -- Book 4: The Ancient Shakespeare
Chapter 3

A genius is an accused man. As long as Æschylus lived, his life was a strife. His genius was contested, then he was persecuted,--a natural progression. According to Athenian practice, his private life was unveiled; he was traduced, slandered. A woman whom he had loved, Planesia, sister of Chrysilla, mistress of Pericles, has dishonoured herself in the eyes of posterity by the outrages that she publicly inflicted on Æschylus. People ascribed to him unnatural loves; people gave him, as well as Shakespeare, a Lord Southampton. His popularity was knocked to pieces. Then everything was charged to him as a crime, even his kindness to young poets, who respectfully offered to him their first laurels. It is curious to see this reproach constantly re-appearing. Pezay and St. Lambert repeat it in the eighteenth century:--

"Pourquoi, Voltaire, a ces auteurs
Qui t'adressent des vers flatteurs,
Répondre, en toutes tes missives,
Par des louanges excessives?"

Æschylus, living, was a kind of public target for all haters. Young, the ancient poets, Thespis and Phrynichus, were preferred to him. Old, the new ones, Sophocles and Euripides, were placed above him. At last he was brought before the Aeropagus, and, according to Suidas, because the theatre tumbled down during one of his pieces; according to Ælian, because he had blasphemed, or, which is the same thing, had related the mysteries of Eleusis, he was exiled. He died in exile.

Then Lycurgus the orator cried, "We must raise a statue of bronze to Æschylus."

Athens had expelled the man, but raised the statue.

Thus Shakespeare, through death, entered into oblivion; Æschylus into glory.

This glory, which was to have in the course of ages its phases, its eclipses, its ebbing and rising tides, was then dazzling. Greece remembered Salamis, where Æschylus had fought. The Aeropagus itself was ashamed. It felt that it had been ungrateful toward the man who, in the "Orestias," had paid to that tribunal the supreme honour of bringing before it Minerva and Apollo. Æschylus became sacred. All the phratries had his bust, wreathed at first with banddolets, later on crowned with laurels. Aristophanes made him say in the "Frogs": "I am dead, but my poetry liveth." In the great Eleusinian days, the herald of the Aeropagus blew the Tyrrhenian trumpet in honour of Æschylus. An official copy of his ninety-seven dramas was made at the expense of the repubilc, and placed under the special care of the recorder of Athens. The actors who played his pieces were obliged to go and collate their parts by this perfect and unique copy. Æschylus was made a second Homer. Æschylus had, likewise, his rhapsodists, who sang his verses at the festivals, holding in their hands a branch of myrtle.

He had been right, the great and insulted man, to write on his poems this proud and mournful dedication, "To Time."

There was no more said about his blasphemy: it had caused him to die in exile; it was well; it was enough; it was as though it had never been. Besides, one does not know where to find the blasphemy. Palingenes searched for it in "Asterope," which, in our opinion, existed only in imagination. Musgrave sought it in the "Eumenides." Musgrave probably was right, for the "Eumenides" being a very religious piece, the priests could not help of course choosing it to accuse him of impiety.

Let us point out a whimsical coincidence. The two sons of Æschylus, Euphorion and Bion, are said to have re-cast the "Orestias," exactly as, two thousand three hundred years later, Davenant, Shakespeare's bastard, re-cast "Macbeth." But in the presence of the universal respect for Æschylus after his death, such impudent tamperings were impossible; and what is true of Davenant, is evidently untrue of Bion and Euphorion.

The renown of Æschylus filled the world of those days. Egypt, feeling with reason that he was a giant and somewhat Egyptian, bestowed on him the name of Pimander, signifying "Superior Intelligence." In Sicily, whither he had been banished, and where they sacrificed he-goats before his tomb at Gela, he was almost an Olympian. Later on, he was almost a prophet for the Christians, owing to the prediction in "Prometheus," which some people thought to apply to Jesus.

Strange thing! it is this very glory which has wrecked his work.

We speak here of the material wreck: for, as we have said, the mighty name of Æschylus survives.

It is indeed a drama, and an extraordinary drama, the disappearance of those poems. A king has stupidly robbed the human mind.

Let us relate this robbery.

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