Study Guide

Aeschylus

Aeschylus Essay - Aeschylus

Aeschylus

Introduction

Aeschylus 525 b.c.-456 b.c.

(Also transliterated as Aischylos)

The earliest of the principal dramatists of the Golden Age of Athens, Aeschylus is widely regarded as the father of tragedy because he established the paradigm for that genre in Western literature. His tragedies, exemplified by such works as Persians, Prometheus Bound, and the Oresteia trilogy, have been universally respected as reflective, profoundly moving translations of religious and ethical concerns into the sublime language of poetry.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Little is known for certain about Aeschylus's life, but, according to ancient biographies, he was born at Eleusis, near Athens, in 525 b.c. and was descended from an aristocratic family. He took part in the Persian Wars, fighting in the battle of Marathon in 490 b.c., and probably at Salamis a decade later. While the young Aeschylus experienced the immediate Persian threat to Athens, his maturity coincided with the city's Golden Age, which witnessed the triumph of early Greek democracy and the consolidation of political and cultural power. Aeschylus probably began to write in his youth; some scholars date his first production, Persians, as early as the year 499 b.c. He entered the annual Athenian drama contest, the Dionysia, twenty times and was the victor on thirteen occasions. Legend has it that at some point in his career, he was prosecuted (but never convicted) for divulging the mysteries of the Eleusian religious cult during a theatrical performance. Aeschylus made several visits to Sicily at the invitation of its ruler, Hieron I, and it was at Gela in Sicily that he died in 456 b.c. According to a popular myth he was killed by an eagle who dropped a tortoise's shell on the dramatist's bald head, believing it to be a stone. The Athenian government honored Aeschylus posthumously by granting the use of a chorus to anyone who wished to produce his dramas, thereby bestowing special status on the playwright and his works.

MAJOR WORKS

Aeschylus composed more than eighty tragedies and satyr plays, seven of which survive in their entirety, while references to others are found in papyrus fragments and other ancient writings. Aeschylus's earliest play, Persians, is unusual in that it is the first account by a great poet of a significant historical event in which he himself had participated. It recounts in extraordinarily vivid detail, the defeat of Persian King Xerxes' forces as Salamis. Aeschylus attributes the overthrow to Persian hubris, a type of human arrogance that offends the gods and, according to the dramatist, inevitably leads to disaster. The same theme serves as the basis for the Oresteia, which scholars regard as one of the greatest achievements of Greek drama. Derived from a variety of myths surrounding the house of Agamemnon, the trilogy chronicles a relentless cycle of divine animosity and human revenge. In Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy, Clytemnestra murders her husband, Agamemnon, king of Argos, upon his triumphant return from the Trojan War. Since Agamemnon is a descendent of the divinely accursed houses of Tantalus and Atreus, he is automatically a target for the gods's wrath. Clytemnestra, however has her own reasons for the crime: she must avenge the death of her daughter Iphegenia, whom Agamemnon had sacrificed in order to enable the Greek fleet to sail to Troy. The chain of revenge continues in Libation Bearers, which relates the terrible dilemma of Agamemnon's children, Orestes and Electra, when they are commanded by Apollo to avenge their father's murder by killing their mother. Their matricide, a violation of one of the most sacred Greek laws, evokes the wrath of the Furies, chthonic (earth-based) demons who traditionally punish offenses against blood relatives. The cycle of guilt and punishment concludes with the last play of the trilogy, Eumenides, which some commentators have regarded as a theological work exhibiting Aeschylus's representation of the shift in Greek religious inclination from earth-based to heavenly divinities. The play commences at Apollo's shrine at Delphi, where Orestes has fled to seek refuge from the Furies. Eventually he is ordered to stand trial in Athens before the temple of Athena. Since the court is unable to reach a verdict, Athena—like Apollo a divinity of light and virtue—must cast the deciding vote, and she adjudicates in Orestes' favor. Athena even persuades the Furies to change their nature and serve her as Eumenides, or Kindly Spirits.

Many Aschylean dramas concern humanity's unwillingness to bend to divine authority. In the first play of his Prometheus trilogy, Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus recounts the heroic efforts of Prometheus, Zeus's cousin, to save humanity from the god's decision to punish human disrespect by total annihilation. Because of his opposition to Zeus's tyranny, Prometheus is chained to a rock on Mount Caucasus. The trilogy—parts two and three (Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bearer) of which survive only in fragments—ends with Prometheus's liberation and reconciliation with Zeus. The same theme pervades Suppliants. Here, the fifty daughters of Danaus defy Aphrodite by refusing to wed their Egyptian cousins. Although the other two plays that formed this trilogy have been lost, scholars surmise that the cycle most likely concluded with the daughters being reunited with Aphrodite by overcoming their aversion to marriage. Another drama concerned with human freedom and divine compulsion is Seven against Thebes, the last of a trilogy recounting the story of the royal house of Thebes. It concerns the siege of Thebes, in which the two sons of Oedipus, fighting on opposite sides, kill each other, thereby carrying out a divine curse and bringing to an end the horrors of the house of Laius which began when Laius defied the gods.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Scholars have lauded the clarity, grandeur, and surpassing beauty of Aeschylus's language and have found his spare, unencumbered linear narratives the ideal vehicle for the dramatic depiction of human catastrophe. Aeschylus consistently interwove the colloquial Greek of his time with the formal poetic diction of such earlier writers as Hesiod and Solon; he was especially indebted to the works of Homer, and, as Greek scholar Athanaeus recounted, Aeschylus "used to say that his tragedies were slices from Homer's great banquets." Fascinated by Aeschylus's extraordinary command of the resources of the Greek language, commentators have admired his inventive use of compound words, lavish epithets, and bold metaphors to fashion panoramic battle scenes and moments of excruciating human anguish. Strong images recur in his plays, with symbols like the eagle, the net, and the snake growing in significance through repetition, Critics have observed that Aeschylean characters are drawn simply; usually they are not individually delineated but, rather, are universal archetypes serving as embodiments of ethical principles or ideals. The hero Prometheus, for instance, represents the phenomenon of an individual's self-sacrifice for a group's benefit. Aeschylus's choruses of eager elders, fiery virgins, and vengeful Furies likewise function to explain the importance of dramatic events at hand. One notable exception is the poet's last work, the Oresteia, where such characters as Clytemnestra and Cassandra are distinctive individuals depicted in all their frenzy and pathos. While many of Aeschylus's contemporaries decried his style as bombastic, pretentious, weighty, and dated, modern critics have extolled the lyrical elegance of his verse, praising his dramas as masterpieces of detailed imagery, intense emotion, and intellectual exploration.

Aeschylus's tragedies, particularly his treatments of human destiny and the myths of Prometheus and of Agamemnon's family, are counted among the greatest dramas ever written. He has influenced the entire history of Western drama, providing a technical and literary frame of reference for generations of playwrights. Aeschylean characters such as Prometheus, Clytemnestra, and Orestes have remained appealing and intriguing to the widest variety of readers throughout the history of Western civilization. As critics and dramatists agree, Aeschylus's oeuvre endures because it constitutes a singularly powerful view of the most profound universal human concerns.

Principal Works

EXTANT PLAYS

Persae [Persians] 472 b.c.

Septem contra Thebas [Seven against Thebes] 467 b.c.

Supplices [The Suppliants; also translated as Suppliant Women] 463 b.c.

*Agamemnon 458 b.c.

*Choephoroe [The Libation Bearers] 458 b.c.

*Eumenides 458 b.c.

Prometheus vinctus [Prometheus Bound] (date unknown)

*These works comprise the Oresteia trilogy. The accompanying satyr play, Proteus, is lost.

†Aeschylus's authorship of this work is disputed by some scolars.

Overviews And General Studies

Richard S. Caldwell (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "The Pattern of Aeschylean Tragedy," in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 101, 1970, pp. 77-94.

[In the following essay, Caldwell discerns an "oedipal pattern" operating in all of Aeschylus' plays. The "effect of a father upon his children," he claims, is "the most important single element in the total work of Aeschylus."]

A major obstacle in the way of an inclusive, unified appreciation and criticism of the work of Aeschylus has been the tendency to study the plays (or trilogies) as discrete entities, related to the other plays only by distance and...

(The entire section is 24756 words.)

Persians

Gilbert Murray (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "The War Plays, Persae, and Seven against Thebes, in Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy, Clarendon Press, 1940, pp. 111-43.

[In the excerpt below, Murray surveys the structure and themes of Persians.]

[The Persae] is not only a play: it is a direct historical record of one of the great events that have decided the destiny of Europe, the repulse of the invasion of Greece by Xerxes. It gives a detailed account of a great sea-battle fought more than two thousand four hundred years ago by one who was not only an eyewitness but a combatant, and one who, besides his Greek sense of...

(The entire section is 4628 words.)

Seven Against Thebes

Thomas G. Rosenmeyer (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Seven Against Thebes: The Tragedy of War," in The Masks of Tragedy: Essays on Six Greek Dramas, University of Texas Press, 1963, pp. 7-48.

[In the following essay, Rosenmeyer conducts a scene-by-scene analysis of Seven against Thebes.]

This is a play about war, a play "full of Ares," as an ancient critic put it. Perhaps we should say: a play about a war, for the attack of the Argive champions on Thebes, the struggle of Greek against Greek, brother against brother, is a particular chapter in history. Aeschylus does all he can to remind us of the uniqueness of the event. But the nature...

(The entire section is 14629 words.)

Suppliants

Richmond Lattimore (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Aeschylus: The Suppliant Maidens, in The Poetry of Greek Tragedy, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1958, pp. 11-27.

[In the essay below, Lattimore examines how Aeschylus creates dramatic action out of the static situation presented in Suppliants (here translated as The Suppliant Maidens).]

Io, daughter of Inachus and princess of Argos, was loved by Zeus and hated by Hera. Transformed into a cow and harried by the stinging fly which was the ghost of the herdsman Argos, she fled across the world to Egypt. There Zeus stroked her with his hand, and she conceived and bore a son, Epaphus (meaning...

(The entire section is 4236 words.)

Oresteia

Harry L. Levy (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "The Oresteia of Aeschylus," in Drama Survey, Vol. 4, Summer, 1965, pp. 149-58.

[In this essay, which was originally delivered as an address in 1963, Levy analyzes the problem of good and evil as presented in the Oresteia.]

The unending fascination of Greek drama, both in its original form and in modern adaptations, is constantly confirmed here in the United States and abroad by stage presentations. As countless lectures, symposia, and articles attest, the ancient Greek drama off-stage serves as a plentiful source of serious discourse for scholars and thinkers of our own time. The reason is...

(The entire section is 10167 words.)

Prometheus Bound

David Grene (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "Promethus Bound, " in Classical Philology, Vol. 35, No. 1, January, 1940, pp. 22-38.

[In the essay below, Grene delineates the "dramatic de-sign" of Prometheus Bound.]

In the eighteenth century the critics knew what they thought about the Prometheus of Aeschylus and knew why they thought it. It was a bad play because the structure was episodic, the characters extravagant and improbable, the diction uncouth and wild. Their handbook of criticism was the Poetics of Aristotle, either directly or indirectly drawn upon. And it is plain that the Aeschylean plan does not measure...

(The entire section is 6282 words.)

Further Reading

OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES

de Romilly, Jacqueline. "Time in Aeschylus." In Time in Greek Tragedy, pp. 59-85. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1968.

Analyzes the concept of time and its relation to divine retribution in the plays of Aeschylus.

Driver, Tom F. The Sense of History in Greek and Shakespearean Drama. New York: Columbia University Press, 1960, 232 p.

Examines the treatment of history in plays by Aeschylus and other Greek dramatists alongside its treatment in plays by Shakespeare. Driver compares Persians with Richard III and the Oresteia with Hamlet.

Fowler, B....

(The entire section is 1351 words.)