To see a commentary note, click on a blue square. To see the Latin text, click on a green square.
A NURSE, alone
She carries glowing coals onto the stage. What savage pain burns the queen’s mind! Where will her anger discharge its burden, and her great turmoil? For since the time the guilt of this confessed murder has been exposed, Oeneus’ wife has paced about like a madwoman, issuing threats, as a tigress, bereft of her cubs, horribly roars against the cowering herd. Now she grows pale, now her wrath makes her eyes glow fiercely red. At one moment her expression that of someone threatening I don’t know what kind of dire barbarous act, at the next you’d think she wants to be merciful. When she grieves she is still close to anger, but when the wild ardor of her mind dries her tears with hatred, still she weeps. And as a skiff on the high seas, gripped by the South wind, is borne in one direction by the breeze, another by the tide, so she is uncertain which route to take. Thus the queen wanders in her emotions, thus in turn she sets aside and renews her anger’s threats. She bade me place faggots and pine-chips on the fire, saying “Let some sacrifice be placed on the altar to satisfy my brothers’ insubstantial shades, so that my present sorrow may depart.” She kindles the wood on an altar constructed on one side of the stage.
And see, dementedly she rushes outside. See how she bears the signs of frantic madness, wholly assuming the symptoms peculiar to this disease. [Enter Althaea, from Diana’s temple.]
ALTH. If you ask what limit to place on my hatred for you, produce my brothers. Should I allow them to be given over to death without exacting vengeance? Will this crime go scot-free? Shall Oeneus enjoy a son, so that my Thestius might lack the both of his? How better for both to mourn! Where goes this troop of Furies, sent from Hell? Whose ghost is this with a stab-wound in his side? It’s brother Toxeus, do you see? Or do I alone see him? And look, here comes the furious specter of Plexippus. What do my brothers want? What do you want? Hey, you seek punishment? I shall grant it. You ghosts may go to the Netherworld in confidence. Go away, brothers, what are you seeking? I say I shall give it. Stop, I beg. I have fallen to my knees. I shall give it. Leave me to myself, this hand will suffice, and this log.
NURSE What at last are you preparing to do? What weapon is your great sorrow to use?
ALTH. Look at this log, it is a sufficient weapon. This is punishment in abundance, consider it life and death. Meleager himself lurks within this log. When I lay after giving birth to his unholy mass, a crew of Fates entered my bedchamber and placed this log on the fire, at the same time drawing his life’s thread on their distaff. “Oh newborn child,” they said, “we give you and this wood the same span of life.” Having issued this prophecy the goddesses left the house. But in my terror I sprang up out of my bedclothes and doused it with water. Since then it has long been preserved and has preserved him (oh, the sorrow!) far too long. I alone knew this, I always concealed it from my husband, and until now my vision has been kept from everyone. But the same hand that snatched it up will retrieve it. I have lost the name of sister, but that of mother remains. But with that name lost, why does my hand hesitate so long?
NURSE Queen, bright light of your family, banish these unspeakable things from a mother’s heart, think what you are attempting. You are burning your son, almost innocent, all but innocent, whose first and last day have known praise, to whom (next to the gods) our entire nation credited its safety when the boar was slain. Lo, you are making ready to consign him to the flames. Because all mortals are ignorant of this log, are you so foolish as to think that you can conceal such a crime from the all-seeing gods? But suppose the gods should let thfree of fear? You are wrong. what about this place itself, aware of the deed? What about your mind, filled with horror, mistrusting itself, dreading everything? What about your very numbness, the pale cast of your countenance? What about the menaces of sleep and the night? Suppose this act is hidden from everyone: it will not be hidden from your mind. Hence there will be a thousand witnesses in your breast, here is sufficient punishment. Look here, the ferocious ghost of your dead son will be present everywhere, and when night has fallen on the day his savage shade will come, armed with torches, and will hound you with Furies. I beg you by your people’s glory, the splendor of your nation, the laws of motherhood, by your nine months’ heavy task of bearing him in the womb, by your children’s kisses, by the kingdom’s scepter, by the dwellings of the Blessed, by the regions of Hell reserved for sinners, and finally by all in your life that was, is, or will be dear to your heart, extinguish the flames, drop the log, and show yourself a gentle mother to your son.
ALTH. Your talk has filled my ears to no good purpose. Should I tolerate such a crime without gaining vengeance? Death must be expiated by death, killing by killing, madness by madness, crime must be repaid by a crime. Let this unspeakable house collapse, full of wailing. Why cast this old woman’s foolishness in my teeth? She who previously scorned to die has come to have contempt for these things. I shall be called a bloody mother, but a loyal sister, I shall bear the name of champion of this house. I shall gain a reputation for exacting punishment on a malefactor and for having given satisfaction to my brothers’ grim ghosts, and indeed it will give me pleasure to have fulfilled my intention with dutiful revenge. This name gained for piety is enough for me, sufficient for my reputation this inscription on my tomb: “You see the grave of a pious sister, though an impious mother. This is the noble sepulchre of Althaea the avenger.” Why am I delaying the rites?
NURSE Does no piety move you?
ALTH. All piety, depart. Let the Thracian consort come to mind. As your sister, , Philomela, I must imitate Procne, and a similar cause demands a similar deed.
NURSE Do you imagine this victim will satiate your brother’s grim shades? When has a man been devoted to the Underworld for the benefit of another man? When has a nephew been sacrificed for his uncles? When has a son been sacrificed by his mother? You seem to be burdening your brothers with odium, whom you worship in this wicked way. Rather, as a mother, rejoice in your son, for he is alive and will appreciate your favor, but your brothers are dead.
ALTH. Yet they will feel my favor.
NURSE They lack feeling.
ALTH. Why shouldn’t he also lack feeling, thanks to whom they lack it?
NURSE But beforehand your brothers provided a grave cause for this murder.
ALTH. He nonetheless earned an even graver punishment.
NURSE But he’s your son.
ALTH. But they were my brothers.
NURSE But being a sister is a lesser thing than being a mother.
ALTH. I confess a mother is a better thing than a bad sister, but she is equally pious. You search for that mother of yours. This is what I am and want to be called.
NURSE Be the one and the other.
ALTH. Foolish woman, who can be pious both to him and them?
NURSE But why more to them?
ALTH. When the claims of both are equal and the claims of loyalty are in doubt, then you can choose whichever you want.
NURSE It is not doubtful, nor do both claims press you equally. Who can deny a son is dearer than a brother?
ALTH. Perhaps than one brother, but nobody could imagine he is dearer than two.
NURSE Is there none of the gods whom your madness fears?
ALTH. Don’t you see I am going to perform Diana’s rites?
NURSE You are preparing rites for our enemy?
ALTH. Even if she is, she’s still divine. To show myself acceptable to one goddess, NURSE I am furnishing her rites, suffices.
NURSE But this piety is impious.
ALTH. It is nonetheless piety.
NURSE Douse the flames of your headlong wrath, I beg, and banish this dire wickedness from a mother’s mind.
ALTH. Do you persist in making noise? Base woman, you will be sent to Hell together with my vile son, unless you approve my rites and keep quiet about my undertakings. I myself admit that the greatest misdeed is being committed, but my grief bids it occur, and now I am too slothful in wreaking punishment. (On her knees she prays at the altar.) I pray to the Stygian sisters, and you savage gods, chaos, and the crew of Zeus of the Underworld, and whatever soul is commanded to suffer tortures by Destiny’s law, hasten to my son’s pyre, its punishment revoked. This rite requires your hand, your help. You too, Diana, come hither from among the gods above, this day summons you, and no greater victim can be offered to you. (She raises herself.) I take vengeance, see how I take vengeance, and this pyre will burn my entrails. But you who were lately my brothers, let your shades feel the pledge of love in this act and, I pray, accept these funeral rites worthy of your pious sister. Now they are offered. But what’s this? My hand does not want to obey, the log swells, weighs down my hand, the flames shrink back, the fire shudders at the crime. Do you hesitate, ungrateful woman? My mind, why be afraid at this late date? Devote yourself to the punishment, why are you paralyzed? Be brave, begin. Could you, a mother, visit an unspeakable death on your son? Could you throw him on the pyre alone, wretched, moaning? I could, I shall bear it, I shall allow it, as long as by his death I can placate my brothers’ piteous shades. But could you? Ah, mad sorrow, speak better, speak better. Let your madness, which does not want to be governed, finally learn to bear the yoke against its will. Where am I being carried? Alas for me, brothers, I pray that you pardon my undertakings and forgive a mother. I confess he has deserved death, and his death is pleasing to me; but I am displeased at the one doing the killing, a mother responsible for the death of her son.
NURSE Oh gentle mother’s heart! Oh what a kingdom you rule, Nature! No power is greater than yours. She dreads killing her son, although she desires that he be killed, and shudders at the crime she has undertaken at its very outset.
ALTH. Will he therefore live, and proudly govern the Aetolian nation, swollen with the very impunity of his crime? Will he wield a scepter in his hand? Will they lie as a pinch of an ash in an urn, as chill ghosts? For my part, I shall not allow this, let this wicked man die too, let him drag along with him the hopes of his father and kingdom, the collapse of his nation. Would that the former pyre had burned him as an infant, and that I had tolerated it. You lived to this age as a gift from me, but now you must die, your just deserts. Receive your dire deed’s reward, and either return to your mother the life given you at birth and by the snatching of the log, or add your mother to her brothers. Lo, my mind shudders, horror strikes my heart, my limbs grow numb. My anger departs its place, and the mother returns wholly, the brothers banished.
NURSE So why should we not go elsewhere? People are less apt to sin when the opportunity is far removed.
ALTH. Coward, are you afraid? Although you are safe, are you terrified at my plans? What if you were preparing to burn down the palace? Tear your son into a thousand pieces? Serve him up at his father’s table? All these things which would be done in the open are worse crimes in appearance than what you are now preparing, a furtive deed. In your madness you imagine you are burning a log. Tell that vain story that the Fates gave it, but this was only the hallucination of a difficult birth. Will this log bring death? So let it be burned — are you afraid of a burning log? I want to, I can’t, I’m terrified of what I’m preparing to do, and two words inflame my single breast, mother and sister. Yield to the mother, sister. Why not yield to the sister, mother? Thus my piety moves me. You are wrong. Both are true, piety moves me in both directions.
NURSE I pray the gods long keep you in this opinion.
ALTH. Uncertain what to do, I am pulled various ways. Now the mother breaks off her anger and sets aside her threats. Now I think of my brothers’ fresh wounds, the image of such a murder. And though he calls me his mother, why should they call me sister any the less? They will both call out to me, and again my grief swells, my hatred boils. Hasten, I shall follow where you lead. Let all considerations of justice disappear, banish your womanly fear while you are still a-boil, while the recent crime impels you, and adopt a heart of flint, be of triple steel. Brothers, by whatever means you prevail with me, see how you do prevail. I shall do the duty that is at once yours and my own. [Enter Meleager and Philemon out of the palace, on the other side of the stage.]
MEL. Philemon, two great opposites trouble me at once: my enduring, ardent love and my mother’s hatred. But what’s this? Suddenly my head burns with aching, my hair cannot bear to be covered. My brain is suddenly overwhelmed by a great burning, my face is inflamed, my fiery cheeks are burning, my eyes are ablaze. Behold, the fire descends down my sides, deep within my guts and bowels.
PHIL. I suppose you are totally afire with love for Atalanta.
MEL. Scarcely that, Philemon. The evil is greater, greater. The flame is ravaging my limbs, with my liver scorched, the fibers of my lungs are burning, while the liver itself is distended and swollen, and a creeping mist licks at my parched blood. Tear the garments from my body, for my clothing retains the great heat within. Oh, the vast evil!
PHIL. Resist a brief while, for things that suddenly arise end suddenly, and perhaps sleep will soon overcome your pain.
MEL. This immense burning will give no time or occasion for sleep. This bane is nourished and grows, burning me within. As the vapor overflows the cavern of Aetna, thus it rages. Alas, what Scorpio, abandoning heaven’s tract, or parching Crab is burning my vitals? Oh thrice blessed, whom the fortunes of war have consigned to oblivion! I die, but pierced by no sword. Thus did the Fates want to expend my life? Are they pleased thus to squander my death and let it pass through such shameful spindles? In what way am I dying in my misery?
PHIL. At least restrain your complaints and stifle your cares, showing an indomitable heart amidst these evils.
MEL. Alas, what end is there for my glory? Is this the fruit of my efforts? Is this my final day? Would that the savage pestilence of Oetea had sported with my blood. How near I lately stood to meeting a glorious fate! So often I have wretchedly avoided a decent death. For I would gladly have perished by any evil, as long as shameful pain and vile disease do not condemn me to death.
PHIL. Behold how his high-minded courage does not fear the day of death. He is ashamed of its most ignoble cause. (Althaea draws out the brand.)
MEL. What’s this? The disease is abating, the heat has lost much of its of force, and does not remain as it had been. What should I believe this to be? A poison? Or should I rather think myself bewitched? Or is there another kind of evildoing? Is the blood of the newly-killed monster fighting against me? Perhaps that bane we destroyed is ruining me. The boar inflicts these punishments on me, the goddess takes revenge for the killing of the boar. Alas, spare me at length. Goddess, it is enough. Why persecute me with great hatred when I have been zealous for my country, as I ought? What crime have I committed against you?
PHIL. Whatever it was, I rejoice that it ended quickly, and I humbly pray all the gods lest it return. (She puts it back in.)
MEL. You pray in vain. See, again it burns my guts, the heat returns. Is the fire of the heat-bringing dog-star so great, when the sun weighs on the Lion’s back? Is Lemnos’ fire so great? Or that of the torrid zone? Let me be plunged in the very sea, into deep whirlpools and mid-rivers! What Danube is sufficient for my burning, what Nile, or what world-encircling Ocean? No amount of liquid will quench my burning, all the water will run dry.
PHIL. To the extent this evil is acute, so will it be short. Great force is accustomed to be counterbalanced by brevity.
MEL. Philemon, I think the boar is wandering through my innards, and a hundred beasts with him — spears, dogs, the lot — but it is nothing. At length forgive me, mother. I am paying the penalty to both your brothers. Although you are inflamed, irate, menacing, perhaps you would wish me rescued from these evils.
PHIL. Poor Philemon, such things are oppressing Meleager, and the unfair Fates are not making me a partner in this suffering?
MEL. But behold, what’s this sound of whips? The avenging goddesses are here, come from deepest Tartarus. And a greater marvel: see, Plexippus and Toxeus are kindling torches, and are goading on the very Furies to hatred, teaching them heavy punishments. They are urging amazing ones, calling them too slow. Do ghosts nurse grudges even in death? Do my uncles still live to my destruction? Do they still resist me? Oh my hand, too light! Megaera, why pursue me with your savage torch? Alas, spare me at length, hold your Stygian hand, allow them to come to blows with me, so that I may twice send them to Tartarus’ caverns. Let the sword be drawn, bare hands will suffice. Let one of them appear among your throng, let both appear. You flee in your cowardice. I shall follow. [Exit.]
PHIL. Where is he rushing at a mad dash? Alas, pain has driven mind and sense out of the poor man. This pain is madness. Follow; why stand here now, wretch? [Exit.] Let there be a delay in burning the brand, so that decorum might be preserved in Meleager’s death.
ALTH. It is well, it is done. I have accomplished justice, he has enough, enough. What are you saying? Is it safe to kill my brothers? My mind, why are you suddenly numb? Vengeance has been taken. Alas, I abhor my deed. What have I done in my misery? Wretched, now I am regretful, too late. I have acted. The one thing yet absent from the crime is that you attack yourself. Let this evildoing be crowned by your death.
NURSE Queen, restrain the impulse of your unbridled mind, control your thoughts. Now enough has been devoted to wrongdoing.
ALTH. My death has been decreed, and also my death’s manner. I want that bloody dagger in my bedchamber, that blade by which my brothers died. My hand demands it, it is proper I perish by that steel, the one weapon by which I am pleased to die. Lo, I shall finally gratify my son. Rejoice, Meleager. I shall pay the penalty by your blade. He is with me, he shall do the crime, wherever he is. You, faithful nurse, conceal my undertaking. [Exeunt.]
What an immense number of menacing rages preoccupy a woman when once aroused, after pain has unleashed her madness! Out of control, she is swept along like a whirlwind, piety and shame are banished far away. Scylla and Charybdis are milder, there is no wild beast less gentle than she. No dire poison’s power is greater. In her rage Nature’s tight bonds do not restrain her, nor the laws of motherhood. No scourge of heaven is more violent, whether rains descend or snow mixed with hail, or swift winds, or when the battlements and ancient beech-trees blaze with the greater weapon of lightning. No sea-storm is more savage, when the howling Nor’easter threatens the North wind and the gales snatch the sea from its bed. Now the swelling sea touches the stars, now it sinks, is thrust down towards the Underworld.
Go to Act V