Themes

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Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768

Anger and Hatred
Anger and hatred are emotions that can control the protagonist and blind him to his obligations and choices. Eteocles is a victim of his own anger. When told by the Scout of the planned attacks on the city gates, Eteocles quite rationally assigns one of his warriors to each gate, each matched to the skills of the attacker. But when the Scout relates that Polyneices is to attack the seventh gate, Eteocles assigned himself to defend that gate. The rational decisions, which provided the best possible defenses for the city, are forgotten in the hatred that he feels for his brother. Because Eteocles is blinded by his hatred, he and his brother die, and only the seventh gate is not successfully defended.

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Choice and Fate
Eteocles recognizes that the gods are in control of his destiny. When the Chorus begs Eteocles not to meet his brother, Polyneices, in battle, Eteocles says that fate has already determined his future: ‘‘Why kneel to Fate when sentenced to death already?’’ This surrendering to fate allows Eteocles a way to escape responsibility for his actions. He may make bad choices, as he does when he decides to fight his brother, but he is not responsible, since the he is only fulfilling his destiny. This approach to fate relegates the gods to little more than puppet masters, who simply pull man’s strings, and it means that man need not reason, need not be responsible, and need not search for a greater purpose in life. It is all decided by the gods anyway.

Death
Death has a significant role in Aeschylus’s play because death is the fulfillment of the curse that doomed Laius, Oedipus, Eteocles, and Polyneices. But death does not result in the end of the tragedy. Seven Against Thebes ends with the decree that Eteocles is to receive a hero’s funeral, but Polyneices, his brother, is to remain unburied, a target for the vultures to pick apart. His sister, Antigone will not allow the council’s edict to stand unchallenged, and follows her brother’s body offstage, where the audience knows she will attend to his burial. Antigone’s defiance of what she will call man’s law (to distinguish it from god’s law), will result in her death and the deaths of many more people. The deaths of Eteocles and Polyneices do not end the curse, as it should, but instead leads to more deaths and a continuation of the tragedy.

Human Laws versus Divine Laws
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is a powerful, though forgiving and beneficent creator. Man views his relationship with God in a cause and effect manner, in which good deeds and faith are rewarded with God’s grace. But early Greek men had a different relationship with their gods. There were many gods, and man’s relationship with these gods was marked by the arbitrary nature of each god. Whether or not a man was good, honest, or brave had no bearing on how the gods treated him. Instead, man’s treatment depended on how the gods were feeling at any given time. If the gods were warring amongst themselves, they would quite likely inflict some revenge upon men, rather than on the offending deity. This very arbitrary nature of the gods meant that men could not determine their own fates, nor could they even assume responsibility for their own behavior. The relationship with the gods was without rules and dependent solely on whim. This created a very unstable and precarious world in which to live. The effects are clearly seen in this play when the two sons of Oedipus are doomed, even though the initial curse that governs their lives was promised to their grandfather, Laius.

Honor
In Greek life honor is the virtue that governs man’s actions. As in the opening, Eteocles is calling upon all men, regardless of age, to join him in defending Thebes from the invaders. That all men would do so, unquestionably, is a function of honor. For Eteocles, honor is the one strength he thinks he possesses. He knows that the gods control his fate, and that the familial curse controls his destiny, but Eteocles finds his strength in honor, the only thing he can control. Eteocles’s reply to the Chorus’ pleadings against fighting Polyneices, is a statement that, ‘‘when misfortune and dishonor join as one, no worth fame results.’’ There is no dishonor, he says, when evil intervenes, but there is dishonor in not succeeding. Eteocles is willing to die for his honor, as were many other Greek heroes.

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Characters