Seven against Thebes

by Aeschylus

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Places Discussed

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*Thebes (theebz). Largest city in the ancient Greek region of Boeotia. In Greek mythology, Thebes is a central location in tales of Oedipus, Antigone, Pentheus, and Teiresias and is particularly important as a location of meetings connecting mortals and the gods. Thebes had unusual connections with the East, as its founder, Cadmus, was believed to have come from Phoenicia. In drama, Thebes is often marked by archetypal conflicts between gods and humans, young and older generations, brothers, and, most notably, between self and other, inside and outside.

Throughout Seven Against Thebes, Thebes is presented as a ship buffeted by a storm at sea, despite its actual physical distance from the sea. Eteocles strives to retain control of the ship of state but ultimately fails in the face of more powerful forces. As in most plays by Athenian poets, such as Aeschylus, the city of Thebes is on many levels a substitute for Athens, and the drama presents issues of philosophical and intellectual concern to citizens of the Athenian democracy.


*Agora. Greek term for a city’s central business and meeting area. The agora of Thebes is the place where King Eteocles plans the defense of his city and explains his actions to the citizens. In this play, the agora is the site of battle-planning, an unusual activity for a place normally associated with ordinary business matters.

*Seven Gates

*Seven Gates. Entrances to Thebes. In ancient culture, the number seven had ritual and religious significance and the seven gates of Thebes represent the portals to power. It is only when Eteocles and Polyneices clash at the seventh gate that the royal House of Laius finally falls. The gates are like holes in the ship of state, as more are opened, the doom of Eteocles and his city is assured.

Historical Context

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Theater was an important part of Greek life, since it illustrated for the audience important lessons about morality and the function of the gods. The time during which Aeschylus was writing was known as the High Classical Period. During this period, the Greek city-states flourished, although war was a constant factor of Greek life. The Persian Wars, which occurred in 490 B.C. (First Persian War) and 480 B.C. (Second Persian War), were a contemporary event in Aeschylus’s life, who had fought during the wars himself. The victory of Athens over the invading Persians was an important one, since the Persian force was significantly larger. The Athenian naval victory over the Persians provided the basis of Aeschylus’s play, But most theater was based on the ancient myths and the conflicts between man and gods. The theater was considered an important enough feature of Athenian life that the state paid the actor’s salaries. Wealthy patrons paid for the other expenses, staging the production and feeding everyone associated with the play. There were government officials to maintain order, but the audience attended because it was a serious civic obligation to attend. Of course, the plays were very entertaining, as was the competition between playwrights, which was also important.

Theater had its beginnings in Athens at religious festivals, which later began to include public competitions in drama. The drama contests were held outside in huge amphitheaters, with the Dionysus competition being held in a theater that seated 17,000 people. In this competition, considered to be the largest and most prestigious, three playwrights were chosen to present a total of twelve plays. The playwrights, actors, and choruses all competed for prizes. Women were involved only as spectators, boys played women’s roles and men wrote the plays. Originally, theater began with just choruses that sang hymns...

(This entire section contains 725 words.)

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or narrative lyrics. Over time, the first actor appeared. He was masked and entered into a dialogue with the chorus. Aeschylus introduced a second actor to the play, and this enabled him to create a more complex plot. The chorus, which consisted of six to twelve young men, wearing long, flowing robes and identical masks, also joined the actors. The two actors wore different masks, and oftentimes, elaborate costumes. They also wore platform shoes that made them taller and more imposing. Costumes were decorated and sometimes revealed the social status or position of the character. The sources for plays were past and sometimes more recent wars, but might also include familiar Homeric epics and stories of how gods treated mankind. Oftentimes, there was an emphasis on the power of gods, as well as their ability to use trickery. Other topics included man’s response to fate or the hopelessness of man’s dreams in the face of gods’ desires. The story of Oedipus and his sons tells of how one mistake with a god can lead to disaster for all subsequent generations.

Plagues and famines were frequent problems for people of the ancient eastern Mediterranean world. These disasters were usually blamed on the gods, since people had no real understanding of how weather patterns functioned or of the earth’s geological movement. Early Greeks believed that the gods were responsible for weather disasters, outbreaks of disease, or the occasional volcano erupting, and they believed these events signaled a punishment from the gods. The Greeks believed in an orderly world, one in which the gods determined their well-being or success. When a significant disaster occurred, these early Greeks looked toward the one thing they could control, their behavior, for answers. In the Oedipus myth, Laius defied the gods. It was appropriate that he was punished, and it was not unusual for this punishment to be extended to all his offspring. Their acceptance of the punishment is seen in Eteocles’s acceptance of his forthcoming death. It is determined by the gods as a fit punishment. It does not matter that Eteocles was not even born when his grandfather received the god’s curse. The injustice of his death is not even a factor for the audience. This is the way Greek life functioned. Everyone in the audience would be aware of this story cycle, and they would be acutely aware that their own survival depended on pleasing the gods. Eteocles is fulfilling his duty and fulfilling a destiny determined long before his birth.

Literary Style

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Audience is the people for whom a drama is performed. Authors usually write with an audience in mind. Aeschylus writes for an audience interested in drama as entertainment, but this is also an audience that would expect the playwright to include important lessons about life. Aeschylus also views this moral lesson as an important role for the dramatist and so he emphasizes important lessons in his plays. In there are lessons about the role of honor and of destiny, as well as lessons about hatred and facing death.

A character is a person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multifaceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. ‘‘Characterization’’ is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. In the characters have names that depict their characters. For instance, Polyneices means ‘‘full of strife,’’ a name that reveals his role in the play.

In ancient Greek drama, a chorus consisted of a group of actors who interpreted and commented on the play’s action and themes, most often singing or chanting their lines. Initially the chorus had an important role in drama, as it does in Seven Against Thebes , but over time its purpose was diminished, and as a result, the chorus became little more than commentary between acts. Modern theater rarely uses a chorus.

A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. Seven Against Thebes is a traditional Greek drama, and as such, provides important lessons for men about their relationship with the gods.

Genre is a French term that means ‘‘kind’’ or ‘‘type.’’ Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. Seven Against Thebes is a Greek tragedy.

This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. The plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of is the battle for Thebes, which results in the deaths of two brothers. But the theme is how fate and destiny and the will of the gods must be fulfilled.

The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The primary location for is the battle for Thebes. The action occurs within the city as Eteocles prepares his city for the impending attack.

Compare and Contrast

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c. 467 B.C.: The Greeks triumph over the Persians and defeat the invasion of their country. The Persian force was significantly larger than the Athenian forces, and this victory infuses the Greeks with pride.

Today: Greece, which has been dominated by military coups and turmoil with neighboring Turkey since the end of World War II, is no longer considered a dominant military force.

c. 467 B.C.: The Greek poet Pindar moves to Thebes, where he composes lyric odes to celebrate triumphs at the Olympic games.

Today: Today’s athletes are also celebrated for their victories, but the celebrations often focus on advertising contracts and endorsement contracts that make the athletes very wealthy. Few have poems written about them.

c. 467 B.C.: Alfalfa is grown by the Greeks, who were introduced to this grain by the Persians, and use this grain to feed their livestock.

Today: Grain is still useful as a by-product of war. Although the United States spent many years seeking military and economic victory over the Russians, when victory was assured, the United States began shipping wheat to the Russians to supplement their meager harvests.

c. 467 B.C.: The dramatist Sophocles becomes a major competitor of Aeschylus for the annual drama prizes at the Dionysus competition. The prizes are sought after, and for several years both dramatists will continue to challenge the other for the greatest plays.

Today: Drama competition continues with prizes for film and theater eagerly sought each spring. Winners of the Best Film at the Academy Awards or the Best Play at the Critic Circle Awards are assured of accolades and monetary rewards that will ease the production of subsequent work.

Media Adaptations

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There are no specific film productions of Seven Against Thebes. However, Seven Against Thebes does have a central role in an Italian film from 1998, Rehearsal For War, directed by Mario Martone. In this film, which depicts the war in Yugoslavia, theater rehearsals of Aeschylus’s tragedy serve to illustrate the tragedy that is unfolding in the streets outside the theater.

The Oresteia, is a film production of Aeschylus’s trilogy, consisting of three videocassettes (230 minutes). It was directed by Peter Hall for the National theater of Great Britain and was a production of Channel 4 (1990, 1983).

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Conacher, D. J., Aeschylus: The Earlier Plays and Related Studies, University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Davidson, John, review of ‘‘Aeschylus’s Septem,’’ in Didaskalia Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1997.

Martin, Tomas R., Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, 1996.

Slavitt, David R., and Palmer Bovie, Aeschylus, 2, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

Zeitlin, Froma L., ‘‘Language, Structure, and the Son of Oedipus,’’ in Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus’s ‘‘Seven Against Thebes,’’ Edizioni dell’Atenceo, 1982, pp. 13-52.

Further Reading
Ashby, Clifford, Classical Greek theater: New Views of an Old Subject, University of Iowa Press, 1999. This text is an examination of Greek theater, based on architectural evidence. The author has traveled extensively and examined many of the remaining theater sites in Greece, Southern Italy, and the Balkans.

Bovie, Palmer, and Frederick Raphael, eds., Sophocles, 1: ‘‘Ajax,’’ ‘‘Women of Trachis,’’ ‘‘Electra,’’ ‘‘Philoctetes,’’ University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. This book provides original and fresh translations of several of Sophocles’ tragedies. The Penn Greek Drama Series intends that their new translations should make reading Greek drama accessible to any reader.

Gressler, Thomas H., Greek Theater in the 1980s, McFarland & Company, 1989. This is a study of theater in modern Greece. The author focuses on the social and cultural influences on theater, discusses the history of theater, and provides a look at productions and the restoration of theaters.

Griffith, R. Drew, The Theater of Apollo: Divine Justice and Sophocles’s ‘‘Oedipus the King,’’ McGill Queens University Press, 1996. This is a reinterpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex that focuses on Apollo’s role in bringing about this tragedy. This book also attempts to recreate the play’s original staging.

Rehm, Rush, Greek Tragic Theater, Routledge, 1994. This book is helpful to readers who want to understand how Greek tragedy works. This author looks at performances of several plays and encourages readers to consider the context in which the plays were performed.

Walton, J. Michael, Living Greek Theater, Greenwood, 1987. This text focuses on the staging and performance of Greek theater. The author attempts to integrate classical theater and modern theater, while providing a great deal of information about a number of the most important plays from this period.

Wise, Jennifer, Dionynsus Writes: The Invention of Theater in Ancient Greece, Cornell University Press, 1998. This author discusses the relationship between literature and theater by examining the influences of a newly emerging literary world on drama. This text also provides some interesting ideas about the role of the oral tradition on theater.

Zelenak, Michael X., Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy, Peter Lang, 1998. This book offers some insight into the status of women in Greek culture and theater and provides interesting analysis of many women characters from Greek drama.


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Cameron, H. D. Studies on the “Seven Against Thebes” of Aeschylus. The Hague: Mouton, 1971. One of the few books to concentrate specifically on this early and often slighted work of Aeschylus. Not a good starting place.

Herington, John. Aeschylus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986. An excellent starting point. Stresses how the play depicts the conflict of two active principles by means of the struggle between Eteocles and Polynices. Notes that the play helped establish tragedy as a form.

Podlecki, Anthony J. The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1966. Relates the action of the play, which concerns conflicts between two would-be leaders of a Greek city-state, to the political disputes occurring in the Athens of Aeschylus’ own time. Occasionally dated, crude analysis, but offers insights not readily available in other sources.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas. The Art of Aeschylus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Examines the play from a linguistic, stylistic, and aesthetic standpoint. Does not require any knowledge of ancient Greek to profit from its insight.

Winnington-Ingram, R. P. Studies in Aeschylus. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Contains a compelling description of Eteocles as the “first man” of the European stage. Sheds light on Aeschylus’ transmutation of his mythological sources and examines the conflict between the playwright’s temperamental conservatism and the theme of conflict in the play. Occasionally abstruse and specialized.


Critical Essays


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