In this severely simple drama, in which all the action is described by messengers, Aeschylus presents the third and closing episode in the tragic legend of the royal house of Thebes. The plays dealing with the fate of Laius and of his son Oedipus unfortunately did not survive, but in the extant drama the deaths of Eteocles and his brother Polynices, sons of Oedipus and grandsons of Laius, are the culmination of three generations of violence, bloodshed, and agony that arose from Laius’s ingratitude to Pelops. The delineation of the character of Eteocles in this play marks in Greek tragedy a new departure which was to be perfected by Sophocles and Euripides.
Seven Against Thebes was first produced as part of a Theban trilogy in 467 b.c.e., with which Aeschylus won first place in the Athenian drama competition. By then he had been writing tragedies for more than thirty years. Almost single-handedly he had fashioned an important art form out of the drama with his technical improvements and his gift for stirring dramatic poetry. Aeschylus was a very prominent playwright at that time, and younger men, such as Sophocles, were building on his achievements. Although Seven Against Thebes is a mature work, Aeschylus’s finest triumphs were still to come.
The two other plays in this Theban series have not survived. Apparently they dealt with the legends of Laius and of Oedipus, the grandfather and the father of Eteocles and Polynices. Seven Against Thebes shows Aeschylus grappling with the theme of the blood curse. Laius was cursed because of his gross ingratitude to Pelops. Oedipus was cursed because he slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta; and he in turn cursed his sons Polynices and Eteocles for begrudging him food. This is the background for the fratricidal strife between the two, and for Eteocles’ headstrong desire to fight his brother.
With Aeschylus a family curse is something almost palpable, a presence that hovers over a clan and works its doom. Each member of the family has free will, but that will is part of a whole that heads passionately for disaster. The audience sees this in Eteocles, a forerunner of the tragic hero; in Polynices; and in Antigone as she resolutely defies the edict of the Theban council by marching off to bury Polynices. Their fates are chosen,...
(The entire section is 971 words.)