Authors: Aeschylus

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Greek playwright

Author Works

Drama:

Of the more than eighty known plays of Aeschylus, only seven tragedies survive in more or less complete form: Persai, 472 b.c.e. (The Persians, 1777)

Hepta epi Thēbas, 467 b.c.e. (Seven Against Thebes, 1777)

Hiketides, c. 463 b.c.e. (The Suppliants, 1777)

Oresteia, 458 b.c.e. (English translation, 1777; includes Agamemnōn [Agamemnon], Choēphoroi [Libation Bearers], and Eumenides)

Prometheus desmōtēs, date unknown (Prometheus Bound, 1777)

Biography

Aeschylus (EHS-kuh-luhs) was the earliest of the great tragic poets and dramatists of Athens, the predecessor of Euripides and Sophocles. He was the first dramatist whose tragedies (seven out of some eighty to ninety) have been preserved. He was the son of Euphorion, a well-born landowner of Eleusis, the city of the mysteries of Demeter. He fought in the battle of Marathon, 490 b.c.e., and possibly at Salamis. He won fame at Athens because of his tragedies and more than once visited Hiero, the king of Syracuse, to produce tragedies there. One tragedy, Women of Aetna, he produced to celebrate Hiero’s refoundation of Etna, which had been destroyed in the volcanic eruption of Mount Etna in 475 b.c.e. He died at Gela about 455, during his last visit to Sicily.{$I[AN]9810000666}{$I[A]Aeschylus}{$I[geo]GREECE;Aeschylus}{$I[tim]0525 b.c.e.;Aeschylus}

Aeschylus

(Library of Congress)

Aeschylus’s predecessors had developed, from choral songs in honor of gods, a primitive drama with one actor taking the part of all characters in the myth narrated in the song. He spoke to the chorus to carry on the story. This form became popular and was established as a regular part of the festival of Dionysus at Athens. Poets competed for prizes; they submitted three poems each, as well as a farcical after-piece called a satyr play.

Aeschylus entered this competition first around 499 b.c.e. with an unknown trilogy. His first prize was won in 484, again with unknown works. The entrance of Aeschylus into competition is a great event in literary history. He transformed tragedy completely. Aristotle tells of two technical innovations Aeschylus made that had a profound effect. He reduced the number of chorus members from fifty to twelve, and he began using a second actor. This latter change made possible a more flexible drama; two persons of the play could now appear together and converse. The former change signalized the shift to an emphasis on dramatic interplay. Aeschylus also invented the trilogy of plays on one theme.

More important, however, than technical improvements was Aeschylus’s change of the tone of tragedy. Partly because of the greater dramatic possibilities that his improvements allowed, Aeschylus fashioned a means of using the old myths to express fundamental questions of human life. He had the imagination to present these themes through characters of grandeur and power, and he possessed the poetic gifts to dress them in language of dignity and grace. His powers needed greater scope than a single play provided. Therefore he usually presented true trilogies, three plays based on the same myth.

The seven of his plays that have been preserved give a good view of his development as a dramatist and the range of his imagination. The Suppliants tells the story of the fifty daughters of Danaus who flee with their father from the land of the Nile to Argos, home of their ancestor, Io, to escape unwanted marriage with their fifty cousins, the sons of Danaus’s brother, Aegyptus. With hesitation, and after consulting the citizens, the king of Argos agrees to take the suppliants under his protection. The herald of Aegyptus arrives, makes melodramatic threats to persuade the girls to return with him, tries to use force, and is finally driven away by the king of Argos. The story is an old and naïve folktale, and the dramatic action is slight. Except for a few scenes there is but a single actor on the stage at any one time, yet the work’s pathos–and the lovely verse of the choral odes, with their rich tapestry of mythological allusion–show the hand of a major poet.

Patriotism dominates The Persians. This play is unique among extant tragedies in having a plot drawn not from myth but from recent history, the glorious victory of the Persian war. It is also unusual among Aeschylus’s works in not being part of a trilogy but complete in itself. Aeschylus achieves the detachment necessary for tragedy by setting the scene in Persia and having the chorus and all the characters be Persians: Atossa, the mother of Xerxes; the ghost of Darius, her husband; the unfortunate Xerxes himself; and the chorus of Persian elders. Beginning with their forebodings, the play moves on to reveal in grand verse the catastrophes that befall the invincible army. Through the lamentations of their enemies, the Athenian audience relives their god-favored victory. For once in tragedy, the spectacle of hubris bringing the downfall of the mighty is seen without fear, though Aeschylus achieves the tremendous feat of infusing a sense of pity for the fallen, enemies though they are.

Seven Against Thebes tells the story of the battle for the throne of Thebes between the two sons of Oedipus, Polynices and Eteocles, who perish in single combat, while the six other Theban champions defeat and kill the Argive leaders who joined Polynices in his attempt to regain the throne. The great stories of Oedipus and Antigone are recalled and foreshadowed, but the play concentrates on the pageantry of the battle. The play is archaic, static: One sees groupings rather than movement. However, the hold of the Theban story on the imagination of Greeks shines upon it, and one senses the patriotic feelings that made the Greek polis so vital a culture.

Aeschylus’s imagination grew more powerful as he progressed in his art. In Prometheus Bound he raised tragedy to a cosmic level. The old legend of the god who stole fire from Olympus to give to humankind and thus save humankind from extinction becomes in Aeschylus’s treatment a complex drama of guilt and punishment in which, because the persons of the play are immortal, the mitigating power of death is absent. It portrays the Greek legend as analogous to the Christian doctrine of original sin and atonement. The latter theme is the subject of the lost Prometheus Unbound, which followed the extant play in the trilogy. The setting, the chorus, and the action all emphasize the stark aloneness of Prometheus, defying the ineluctable power of Zeus. The one human character, Io, portrays the misery of the human condition, with only a hint of the relief to follow in the fullness of time. In this play the essence of tragedy, abstracted from all human complexities, is most clearly revealed.

The last surviving work of Aeschylus, produced in 458 b.c.e., two years before his death, is the trilogy Oresteia, consisting of Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides. It is the only trilogy preserved and shows the master’s ability to develop a theme through three separate dramas, each complete in itself. In bare outline, Agamemnon enacts the murder of the conqueror of Troy by his faithless wife, Clytemnestra, and her paramour, Aegisthus; Libation Bearers, the murder of the two by Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, impelled by the old law of vengeance; and Eumenides, the justification of Orestes’ deed against the claims of vengeance for matricide. Agamemnon is poetically the richest, with its brooding odes dwelling on the cycles of guilt of the house of Atreus, giving a magnificent portrait of the man-hearted queen and the prophetic Cassandra. The second play portrays the agony of Orestes, caught in the contradictory rules of ancient blood-feud. The third play raises the action to the level of the gods, who must find a solution that will reestablish justice for humankind on the basis of a rational order that finds its expression in the polis and brings humankind from barbarism to civilization.

Those final plays show Aeschylus influenced by Sophocles in their greater variety of characters and complexity of scenes. On the other hand, they remain true to Aeschylus’s bold simplicity of imagination. His characters are larger and simpler than life. They are moved to what they do by external forces and yet act of their own wills.

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 Studies 87 (1967): 74-85. This discussion of the evidence for Aeschylus’ trips to Sicily gives a chronology as well as a citation of the ancient evidence in Greek.Ireland, S. Aeschylus. Greece and Rome: New Surveys in the Classics 18. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1986.Lefkowitz, Mary. The Lives of the Greek Poets. London: Duckworth, 1981. A translation and analysis of the Hellenistic biography of Aeschylus, otherwise unavailable in English, can be found in this book, which also includes a bibliography.Lesky, Albin. Greek Tragedy. Translated by H. A. Frankfort. 3d ed. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979. A scholarly introduction to Aeschylus’s dramaturgy, with a brief summary of his life. A bibliography is included.Lesky, Albin. A History of Greek Literature. Translated by James Willis and Cornelis de Heer. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996. Aeschylus’s place in the literature of ancient Greece can be traced in this standard history, which includes biographical information and a bibliography.McCall, Marsh, Jr., ed. Aeschylus: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972.Murray, Gilbert. Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940. Written by one of the most important scholars of Greek tragedy in the twentieth century, this book begins with a biography of the poet but does not include the revision to Aeschylus’ chronology required by the papyrus find.Podlecki, Anthony J. The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy. 2d ed. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1999. Contains an excellent life of Aeschylus in the first chapter and an interesting appendix on Aeschylus’s description of the Battle of Salamis.Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. The Art of Aeschylus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Primarily a literary study, this work contains a short but good appendix on the life and times of Aeschylus. There is also an excellent “comparative table of dates and events” as well as a select bibliography.Smethurst, Mae J. The Artistry of Aeschylus and Zeami: A Comparative Study of Greek Tragedy and No. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. An intriguing comparison of Greek and Japanese theater.Smyth, Herbert Weir. Introduction to Aeschylus: Plays and Plays and Fragments with an English Translation. 2 vols. New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1922-1926. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1963. Smyth’s biography of Aeschylus, found in the introduction to volume 1, is still excellent despite being published prior to the discovery of the papyrus redating The Suppliants.Spatz, Lois. Aeschylus. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Good starting place that discusses the background of the plays, dramatic conventions, style, characters, and chorus.Sullivan, Shirley Darcus. Aeschylus’s Use of Psychological Terminology: Traditional and New. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997. Sullivan examines the psychological aspects of the language used in Aeschylus’s tragedies. Includes bibliography and index.Taplin, Oliver. The Stagecraft of Aeschylus: The Dramatic Use of Exits and Entrances in Greek Tragedy. Reprint. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989. Taplin focuses on Aeschylus’s stagecraft, particularly his use of dramatic visual devices.Vellacott, Philip. The Logic of Tragedy: Morals and Integrity in Aeschylus’ “Oresteia.” Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1984. A good study of the major conflicts in the trilogy.
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