Aeschylus Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

0111201627-Aeschylus.jpg Aeschylus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

A few surviving epigrams and elegiac fragments show that Aeschylus did not limit himself to drama but also experimented with other forms of poetic expression. The ancient Life of Aeschylus mentions that the playwright lost a competition with the poet Simonides to compose an elegy for the heroes of Marathon. Although Aeschylus’s entry was judged to lack the “sympathetic delicacy” of that of Simonides, the elegy, fragments of which were discovered in the Athenian agora in 1933, projects the dignity and the majesty that mark Aeschylus’s dramatic style. It is doubtful that Aeschylus’s surviving tombstone inscription is autobiographical, despite such ancient authorities as Athenaeus and Pausanias, because the epigram mentions the place of Aeschylus’s death.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The earliest of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose work is extant, Aeschylus made major contributions to the development of fifth century b.c.e. Athenian tragedy . According to Aristotle’s De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705), it was Aeschylus who “first introduced a second actor to tragedy and lessened the role of the chorus and made dialogue take the lead.” This innovation marks a principal stage in the evolution of Greek tragedy , for although one actor could interact with the chorus, the addition by Aeschylus of a second actor made possible the great dramatic agons, or debates between actors, for which Greek tragedy is noted.

Aeschylus also is the probable inventor of the connected trilogy/tetralogy. Before Aeschylus, the three tragedies and one Satyr play that traditionally constituted a tragic production at the festival of the Greater Dionysia in Athens were unconnected in theme and plot, and Aeschylus’s earliest extant play, The Persians, was not linked with the other plays in its group. All the other surviving plays of Aeschylus were almost certainly part of connected groups, although the Oresteia, composed of the extant Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides, is the only connected tragic trilogy that survived intact. However, the loss of the Oresteia’s satyr play, Proteus, makes observations on Aeschylus’s use of connected tetralogies (three tragedies and one satyr play) nearly impossible. In fact, there is no certain evidence that Aeschylus always used the connected group in his later productions, and imitations of this dramatic form by other fifth century b.c.e. playwrights are not firmly documented. The triadic form of the Oresteia, however, has certainly had a great influence on the development of modern dramatic trilogies.

Aeschylus’s brilliant use of the chorus as protagonist in The Suppliants may have been another significant innovation. Until the discovery in 1952 of a papyrus text, this play was universally considered the earliest surviving Greek tragedy, and the central place of the chorus of Danaids was thought to reflect the choral role of early tragedy. As a result of the play’s revised dating to 463 b.c.e., The Suppliants’ chorus is now viewed as...

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Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

What aspects of Aeschylus’s background prepared him to be the first major tragic dramatist in ancient Athens?

What sets The Persians apart from other Greek tragedies?

Explain Aeschylus’s contributions to the staging of tragedies.

What does it mean to assert that Aeschylus’s view was “panoramic”?

Aeschylus’s plays are probably performed less often for modern audiences than those of Sophocles and Euripides. Considering the merits of his work, what might account for this situation?

Speculate: Why does only the Oresteia survive as an ancient Greek trilogy?


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Further Reading:

Conacher, D. J. Aeschylus: The Earlier Plays and Related Studies. Buffalo, N.Y.: University of Toronto Press, 1996. A study of the Greek dramatist’s earlier works, with particular emphasis on his technique. Includes bibliography.

Goldhill, Simon. Aeschylus: “Oresteia.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Discusses the city of Athens, plot, revenge, language, divine frame, and political rhetoric in the most famous of Aeschylus’s plays.

Goward, Barbara. Telling Tragedy: Narrative Technique in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. London: Duckworth, 1999. The author examines the function of narrative in the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Includes bibliography and index.

Griffith, M. The Authenticity of “Prometheus Bound.” New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Discusses the question of whether Aeschylus wrote Prometheus Bound.

Harrison, Thomas E. H. The Emptiness of Asia: Aeschylus’ “Persians” and the History of the Fifth Century. London: Duckworth, 2000. An examination of Aeschylus’s The Persians from the historical perspective. Includes bibliography and index.

Herington, C. J. Aeschylus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. An excellent introduction to Aeschylus for the general reader. One chapter is devoted to biography with a short annotated bibliography and a table of dates.

Herington, C. J. “Aeschylus in Sicily.” Journal of Hellenic...

(The entire section is 701 words.)