Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 971
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, willed by themselves in full knowledge of the consequences, and yet they fit a broad pattern of calamity in the Theban Dynasty.
Seven Against Thebes falls into three sections, which diminish progressively in length. The first part handles Eteocles’ preparations for battle, the second tells of the war’s end and shows the mourning for the sons of Oedipus, while the third deals with Antigone’s rebellion against the edict.
In the first section, the audience watches Eteocles in action as an effective leader in defending Thebes. His military address to the troops, his means of getting information about the enemy plans from seer and spy, the way he quells the panicky prayers of the Theban matrons, the type of men he chooses to defend the city gates, and his own willingness to fight, all point to an excellent general. If his right to rule Thebes is questionable, there is no doubt about the quality of his leadership in defending Thebes.
He is manly and disdainful of women who endanger the city through fright and weakness. Eteocles is not impious, for he sees the value of masculine piety in war, but he feels that men should rely chiefly on their own strength. There is, however, a barrier between him and heaven—the curse his father laid on him. He knows that he is doomed, but he takes every precaution to save Thebes. The patriotism of Aeschylus shines through the character of Eteocles. If it were not for his willful sin of fratricide, Eteocles might be an authentic tragic hero.
The second section underscores the idea of the blood curse, announces the Theban victory, and shows the mourning for Eteocles and Polynices. In the final section, with Antigone’s defiance of the city elders, the audience realizes that the family curse does not end. Antigone is making a new crisis in burying her outcast brother. There is an echo of the brothers’ feud in the way she leaves with Polynices’ body while Ismene, following the edict, exits with the corpse of Eteocles.
It is significant that the audience sees the conflict between the brothers from the Theban point of view—from inside the city. The attackers are depicted as evildoers, as boastful, impious adventurers largely, each intent on sacking and burning the city and carrying off the women as slaves. The audience can understand the panic of the Theban chorus. Aeschylus knew from his experience in the Greek and Persian wars how it felt to be assaulted by foreign troops who want to enslave one’s homeland. He lived in a heroic era, and his dramas convey the grandeur of Periclean Athens.
Among other things, Seven Against Thebes is a rousing martial poem with a wide variety of poetic and rhetorical techniques. There is the military pep talk, the dithyrambic invocation of the gods, invective, choral odes, antithesis in choosing defenders, the dirge, stichomythia in the mourning of Antigone and Ismene, and debate between Antigone and the herald. From a poetic point of view the play is a tour de force.
This drama is usually seen as a prelude to Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777), Aeschylus’s greatest dramas, in which he again takes up the theme of the blood curse. Seven Against Thebes is a great work, and if it is not considered of the highest quality, the reason is that readers have the later plays of Aeschylus and the finest plays of Sophocles and Euripides for comparison.