Aeschylus, the first of three eminent Greek playwrights, created about 70 tragedies, only 7 of which were kept until the present: The Suppliants, The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, Prometeus Bound, and the trilogy The Oresteia. Aeschylus was not the first author of the Greek tragedies: the names of six playwrights who lived before him are known today, and names of twenty tragedies which were performed earlier than the ones by Aeschylus were presented to the public. The first well-known tragedian was Thespis in the 6th century B.C.
Aeschylus lived in the days of the Greek-Persian wars and as an ordinary soldier protected the native land from newcomers in three most known fights: at Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea.
In the days of Aeschylus childhood and youth, the concept of drama received a contesting character. Poets competed between themselves on Dionysia holidays with their dramas to get a award: each of them presented three tragedies and one satirical drama. Aeschylus took part in the same competitions later. After Thespis and other poets made the first successful attempts to enrich the art of drama, Aeschylus, the father of tragedy, created the original Greek theatrical concept, having added chorus and one more actor who played some roles as well as the first one. Therefore, the possibility of proper dialogue and coherent action was created. From that time on, the progression of action in dialogue became the major part of drama, while the lyrical element of chorus was limited and reduced by Aeschylus reform, remaining however closely connected to the dialogue. In such a way, an integrally coherent drama was created.
At first, Aeschylus, just like his predecessor Pratina, put on stage only separate plays which did not have internal relation to one another in the beginning. However, subsequently, he made an important innovation: he started to perform the so-called trilogies, i.e., three tragedies connected between themselves according to the contents and the plan. With introduction of the satirical drama, the content of which was borrowed from the same cycle of legends, the tetralogy, four plays connected between themselves by unity of the contents, was formed.
Processing the plots, Aeschylus tries to first of all present evidently any general religious or moral idea which was a conclusion of myth content. Therefore, Aeschylus does not pay attention to various complications and the confused intrigue, and his direct epic simplicity conducts action to advance the object in view. Nevertheless, the action in his tragedies is majestic and strong, and the actors characters are depicted with heroic boldness of the idea. The gravity of tone and height of speech usually dominate in the works of Aeschylus. The echo of heroic spirit of the brave marathon fighter is heard.
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The love to freedom and the native land, which lived in the hearts of courageous and fair citizens of that generation, became the power which created all the greatness of the Athenian state during the epoch of shine of Athens, which began soon after the Marathon Fight. The tragedies of Aeschylus, the strongest and warmest expression of that patriotic spirit that Athenian people got during the Persian wars, the glory that lit up Athens in these wars, and the epoch followed them. Aeschylus used sword for the protection of freedom of fatherland; and with the help of his creative imagination, he contributed to the poetic glory of Athens. Aeschylus became one of those artists whose works made the capital of his fatherland an example for the contemporaries and posterities in regard to fine arts and poetry. The Persian wars excited the feeling of the national Greek patriotism in Aeschylus. The marvelous celebration of Greeks above Persians was inspired by its religious feelings, which wakened his thoughts about the connection between the divine and terrestrial world. In all the Aeschylus tragedies, one can notice an idea of struggle between the primitive deities, which personify the forces of nature, and deities which personify moral forces. Participation of Aeschylus in great historical events strengthened his moral courage, energy of the character, and philosophic views. These qualities are shown in thoughtful speeches of the characters of his dramas and in the courageous and raised choruses. The gloom of human life is clarified by the influence of the ultimate force, powerful and wise, ruling the world. Aeschylus characters are majestic. Their titanic energy wakens in spectators an idea about enigmatic forces which dominate people. All dramas by Aeschylus are full of awe to gods, respect for ancient establishments, and pride of great soul. The nature of ideas is raised; the language is solemn, often passionate; long complex words are used.
Aeschylus won 13 competitions of playwrights. Soon after the appearance of The Persians, Aeschylus wrote his tragedy The Suppliants with a very simple content, which was performed by only two actors. Later, Aeschylus made use of one more actor on stage. The Suppliants was the first part of the trilogy, the second part of which was The Egyptians, and the third was The Danaides.
The Danaides are the daughters of Danaus; they run from their cousins, sons of their uncle Aegyptus, escaping from the undesirable marriage:
Zeus! Lord and guard of suppliant hands
Look down benign on us who crave
Thine aid-whom winds and waters drave
From where, through drifting shifting sands,
Pours Nilus to the wave.
From where the green land, god-possest,
Closes and fronts the Syrian waste,
We flee as exiles, yet unbanned
By murder’s sentence from our land;
But-since Aegyptus had decreed
His sons should wed his brother’s seed,-
Ourselves we tore from bonds abhorred,
From wedlock not of heart but hand,
Nor brooked to call a kinsman lord! (Burian, P, p. 12)
They look for refuge in Argos and sit as the suppliants before the city. Pelasgus, the king of Argos, doubts if he should protect the suppliants as he is afraid of the attack of the Danaides cousins. On the other hand, the king thinks of the anger of gods in case he does not help the suppliants:
Lo, with bowed heads beside our city shrines
Ye sit ‘neath shade of new-plucked olive-boughs.
Our distant kin’s resentment Heaven forefend!
Let not this hap, unhoped and unforeseen,
Bring war on us: for strife we covet not. (Burian, P, p. 14)
The entreaty of Danaus daughters and the decision of national assembly of Argos triumph over his hesitations. Pelasgus accepts the Danaides under Argos protection. The grooms, who have landed on the coast of the city, send the herald of Aegyptus requiring that girls be given to them. The herald wants to take the girls away. Pelasgus does not allow this to happen. The herald leaves, threatening with war. The Danaides, forming chorus, thank gods for their new fatherland rescuing them from hated grooms.
However, the outcome of the drama work is not reached by this. Threats of the herald at the end of The Suppliants cause an oppressive, disturbing presentiment:
Methinks we stand on some new edge of war:
Be strength and triumph on the young men’s side! (Burian, P, p.47)
It served as a transition to the following part of the drama trilogy, The Egyptians, where the tragedian, developing all the same myth, represents the Danaus daughters, given violently out to the sons of Aegyptus. At the very first marriage night, they kill their husbands. Only one of Danaids, Hypermnestra, spares her spouse. In the third part of this trilogy, the dissatisfied sisters organize court against their sister. But it justified her as the goddess of love, the Aphrodite, protected her. In antiquity, Hypemnestra was considered the foremother of the Argive kings (Hogan, C, 1984).
According to Raeburn and Thomas (2011), this Aeschylus tragedy had mostly the national character rather than the moral one. In The Suppliants, the songs of Danaides chorus, who stays close to altars as shy pigeons threatened by the hawk, are excellent. According to the plan of Aeschylus, the praises to Argos people, stated by the Danaides, had political value. Danaides ask gods to protect Argos from military disasters, from fire, illnesses, and contentions since the government always wisely cared about the state and rendered patronage to the foreigners, protecting them from the insults. Just at this time, about 462 B.C., the Athenians concluded the union with Argos and started war against Persians in Egypt. The tragedy The Suppliants was possibly put on stage at the time of all these events. Creating it, Aeschylus wanted to tighten the friendship of Athens and Argos.
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The tragedy The Seven Against Thebes was put on stage for the first time in 467 B.C. It was a part of the tetralogy which did not remain to nowadays. The plot of The Seven against Thebes is based on an ancient myth about a campaign of seven well-known heroes of this Greek city. It was headed by the son of Oedipus, Polynices, who ran away from Thebes. He struggled with another son of Oedipus, Eteocles, who expelled his brother from the city to reign there individually. After the aggressively patriotic speech of Eteocles, we get acquainted with seven symmetrically located parts of Aeschylus tragedy. Each of them consists of the report of the scout about the offensive of the enemy close to one or another gate of Thebes, the assignment by Eteocles of the military leader for the given gate, and a small refrain of chorus:
Eteocles, high king of Cadmus’ folk,
I stand here with news certified and sure
From Argos’ camp, things by myself descried.
Seven warriors yonder, doughty chiefs of might,
Into the crimsoned concave of a shield
Have shed a bull’s blood, and, with hands immersed
Into the gore of sacrifice, have sworn
By Ares, lord of fight, and by thy name,
Blood-lapping Terror, Let our oath be heard-
Either to raze the walls, make void the hold
Of Cadmus-strive his children as they may-
Or, dying here, to make the foemen’s land
With blood impasted. (Torrance, I, p. 45)
The last, seventh gate Eteocles guards on his own. The Seven Against Thebes comes to an end with the message of mutual murder of Eteocles and Polynices and a great funeral procedure:
Let those who hold our city’s sway
Wreak, or forbear to wreak, their will
On those who cry, Ah, well-a-day!
Lamenting Polynices still!
We will go forth and, side by side
With her, due burial will provide!
Royal he was; to him be paid
Our grief, wherever he be laid!
The crowd may sway, and change, and still
Take its caprice for justice’ will
But we this dead Eteocles,
As Justice wills and Right decrees,
Will bear unto his grave! (Torrance, I, p.169)
This tragedy of Aeschylus is undoubtedly written under the strongest effect of the Greek-Persian wars; in particular, the city under attack can easily be associated with Athens, which were burnt by the Persians during the war (Lloyd, 2007).
According to his usual manner, Aeschylus considers great historical accidents in The Seven Against Thebes, i.e., the end of the common-patrimonial regime, mythologically: Oedipus father, Laiua, perishes because of a curse of the father of the child who was stolen by him; and Oedipus with his sons perishes too because of this patrimonial curse. This is where the ideological sense of the tragedy The Seven Against Thebes comes from. The patrimonial organization perishes; instead of it, there is a new unconditional authority, a policy, the state-city, for the protection and prosperity of which all possible victims can be sacrificed. Therefore, Eteocles and Polynices perish themselves for the city. The genre of The Seven Against Thebes contains a lot of innovations. It is not just a frenetic oratorio but also a frenziedly aggressive oratorio where those who attack Thebes and those who protect the city express with huge force the pathetic nature of war. Besides, the novelty of this tragedy consists also in the fact that by creating the character of Eteocles, Aeschylus performs the first truly dramatic character.
The Seven Against Thebes is the first of the known Greek tragedies in which the part of the actor resolutely prevails over the choral part. Other feature is that there are no bright individual images in the play, except for the image of Eteocles. The second actor is used for the role of the scout. However, the progress of the plot in The Seven Against Thebes continues to remain epic according to former playwrights manner. There are no actions on stage; only stories about them or different experiences connected with them are given. But it does not mean that action here does not develop in any way. In some cases, it is spoken about preparation for action; sometimes the horrible story with crying, which is considered the action, is given, which invariable develops and moves forward to action in The Seven Against Thebes. Even seven stages with towers contain a constant forcing action because with enemy coming to this or that tower, the action is coming to an end. An obvious crisis of action arises after the message of the scout on death of the brothers.
The trilogy Oresteia consists of dramas Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. It was performed for the first time at the Dionysia festival in Athens in 458 B.C. and won the first prize there.
In the first drama, the king of Argos Agamemnon is killed by his wife Clytemnestra after his coming back home from the Trojan War. In the second part of the trilogy, the Agamemnon and Clytemnestras son, Orestes, kills his mother, avenging the death of his father. In the third tragedy, Orestes trial and his justification is represented. Therefore, the first tragedy is the drama of the murder; the second is the drama of revenge; the third presents the drama of remission.
Clytemnestra hates Agamemnon because ten years ago he killed their daughter Iphigenia. Her death was a sacrifice for gods to send a fair wind for Agamemnons departure to Troy:
And then the elder monarch spake aloud-
Ill lot were mine, to disobey!
And ill, to smite my child, my household’s love and pride!
To stain with virgin blood a father’s hands, and slay
My daughter, by the altar’s side!
‘Twixt woe and woe I dwell-
I dare not like a recreant fly,
And leave the league of ships, and fail each true ally;
For rightfully they crave, with eager fiery mind,
The virgin’s blood, shed forth to lull the adverse wind-
God send the deed be well! (The Oresteia by Aeschylus, p.10)
Clytemnestras hate is also supported with personal objectives now: while the husband was at war, the queen has a romantic relationship with his cousin Aegisthus. However, Aeschylus emphasizes that Agamemnon is not the victim of his wife: his life is in danger because gods want it to be that way. Agamemnon belongs to the anathematized generation of murderers and sinners. He is the great-grandson of Tantalum, who killed his son Pelops. He is a grandson of Pelops who artfully killed Mirtylus. He is a son of Atreus who murdered his brothers children. The heavy burden of heredity presses on Agamemnons shoulders. However, it is important to notice here that this drama by Aeschylus is not only the drama of the triumph of fatality. Aeschylus shows that Agamemnon deserved his punishment because of his deeds. His destiny would not have destroyed him, if he did not sin:
Thus on his neck he took
Fate’s hard compelling yoke;
Then, in the counter-gale of will abhorr’d, accursed,
To recklessness his shifting spirit veered-
Alas! that Frenzy, first of ills and worst,
With evil craft men’s souls to sin hath ever stirred! (The Oresteia by Aeschylus, p.69)
And so he steeled his heart-ah, well-a-day-
Aiding a war for one false woman’s sake,
His child to slay,
And with her spilt blood make
An offering, to speed the ships upon their way! (The Oresteia by Aeschylus, p.59)
When gods were not giving the fair wind, they asked to choose between the fame of warrior and his parental love.
Although being considered as a tragedy, The Oresteia practically ends on a relatively positive tone, which may seem surprising as people usually expect a tragic ending. In fact, the Greek tragedy does not mean that the ending should be bad as people are used to think. The choruses of The Oresteia coincide morewith the action than ones of the other tragedians. In The Eumenides, the chorus plays an important role as it consists of the Erinyes, and their telling after some time becomes the main part of the performance.
In his The Oresteia, Aeschylus takes advantage of symbols and naturalistic metaphors, such as birth and death, solar and lunar cycles, storms, and winds, to convey the variable nature of human being (birth and death, sorrow and happiness, good and evil).
One of the themes of the tragedy is the absence of barriers between good and evil. Each of the characters can be understood and justified by the spectators.
Besides, Aeschylus raises the question of relationship between old and new gods and the problem of inheritance.
One can also notice a metaphorical aspect to the whole tragedy: historical transition from personal revenge to more civilized ways of justice, justice by trial. This can symbolize the development of the society from the primitive desire to kill to more humane forms of conflict solving.
As a conclusion, it can be said that Aeschylus believed in fate, in the power of gods, and in constant divine intervention in the destinies of humans. At the same time, he assumed that the offspring were obliged to pay the debt for the sins of their fathers. Moreover, he emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility of an individual for every deed. The innovation of Aeschylus cannot be overestimated. He was the first playwright who increased the number of actors from one to two. Besides, he changed the chorus sections. Also, the dialogue gained a greater importance in the tragedy.