Aeschylus (Writer)


(ca. 525-456 b.c.) tragedian

Aeschylus was born in Eleusis, a Greek coastal city not far from Athens that was the center for the worship of Demeter, goddess of the harvest. His father, Euphorion, was descended from nobility, but little else is known about Aeschylus’s family and early years.

In 499 b.c., Aeschylus began competing in Athenian dramatic contests, which were popular at the time. His initial victory was achieved in 484 b.c., and he went on to win first prize in a dozen more contests during his career. In 490 b.c., Aeschylus fought at Marathon against the Persian Empire in its attempt to conquer Greece, a battle that claimed his brother, Cynegirus. Aeschylus also fought the Persians at Salamis, Plataea, and other battles. Military valor had such a cachet in Aeschylus’s day that his self-written epitaph, according to Greek scholar Edith Hamilton, describes his “glorious courage [on the] hallowed field of Marathon” but makes no mention of his stunning achievements as a playwright.

Aeschylus twice visited the court of Hieron of Syracuse, who was also patron of the poet pindar, in Sicily. Several of Aeschylus’s productions were performed there. In 476 b.c., Aeschylus composed a play commemorating the king’s founding of the new city of Aetna; he died during his second visit. An official Greek ruling later honored Aeschylus by providing that the city of Athens would fund the revival of any of his plays.

Some critics would profess that the art of tragedy is Aeschylus’s creation. His plays incorporate genuine dramatic power and tension, startling and profoundly poetic imagery, and grand, eloquent language. His subject matter, always lofty, particularly explores the relationship between humans and God. Aeschylus was the first tragedian to supplement the chorus, a group of singers and dancers who performed the drama, with dialogue and interaction between individual actors. He was also the first playwright to enhance the spectacle with elaborate costumes and stage sets.

Aeschylus penned some 90 plays, of which only seven remain. His work was powerfully influenced by the Persian conflict, in which Greece challenged the ruling world power in order to become a cultural and political empire in its own right. Accordingly, The Persians, which won first prize at the Great Dionysia festival of 472 b.c., dramatizes the defeat of Athens’s bitter enemy. It is a tribute to the humanity of the playwright that he portrays the characters, including Xerxes, king of the Persian Empire, in a sympathetic light. In The Persians, he also gives voice to the universal hopes and fears that characterize life during wartime. The play is one of the few surviving Greek tragedies based on contemporary rather than mythological or historical events.

Seven Against Thebes, part of a trilogy that has not survived, was awarded first prize in the dramatic contests in 467 b.c. In it, Eteocles, king of the ancient Greek city of Thebes, thwarts an attempt by his brother Polyneices and six warriors to seize the throne. Both brothers are killed, and order is restored.

The Suppliant Maidens, written in the 460s b.c., is the first play of a lost trilogy in which the 50 daughters of Danaus have escaped from the 50 sons of Egyptus who want to marry them against their wishes. The maidens have no right to refuse their suitors under Egyptian law, so they flee to Argos. There, King Pelasgus, after a democratic conference with his people, agrees that the State will provide sanctuary. The play ends with a prayer and a depiction of the god Zeus as the ultimate guardian of justice, highlighting the conflict between human, natural, and divine law.

Aeschylus’s final triumph at the Great Dionysia took place in 458 b.c. with the Oresteia, a tale of a familial curse upon an aristocratic household. Each of the three plays that comprise it—Agamemnon, The Choephori (also called The Libation Bearers), and The Eumenides—can be seen as one great act of a complete drama.

Prometheus Bound, produced after the playwright’s death, was an early part of a trilogy featuring the ancient hero Prometheus. Prometheus was the divine being who stole fire from the gods to give it to man and was therefore condemned by Zeus to be shackled to a cliff. In Richmond Latti-more’s translation, Prometheus laments this error he made on behalf of humankind: “You see me a wretched God in chains, the enemy of Zeus, hated of all the Gods that enter Zeus’s palace hall, because of my excessive love for Man.” But he is ever rebellious and defiant, and the play concludes with an aggravated Zeus plunging Prometheus into the underworld amid a splendid display of thunder and lightning.

Critical Analysis

The Oresteia trilogy is today the most-studied of Aeschylus’s works. Several important historical events take place before the first play opens. Aeschylus’s audience was familiar with the legend of the ancestral curse upon the noble House of Atreus, which impelled generation after generation to perform unspeakable acts. King Pelops’s sons Atreus and Thyestes quarreled over the kingdom and became enemies; Thyestes seduced and betrayed Atreus’s wife; and, in retaliation, Atreus fed Thyestes’ own children to him in a grisly feast. This was the legacy inherited by Atreus’s sons Menelaus and Agamemnon, who became king. When Menelaus’s wife, the beautiful Helen, fled to Troy with Paris, Agamemnon coordinated an expedition to retrieve her. Before sailing, Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods and cause favorable winds to blow. The mission to fetch Helen escalated into the Trojan War. After 10 years of combat, Troy was captured and the Greeks began to make their way home. This is where the Oresteia begins.

In Agamemnon, the first play of the trilogy, the king’s wife Clytaemnestra, aggrieved by the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia, takes as her lover Aegisthus, son of Thyestes. Together they plot to assassinate Agamemnon upon his return from Troy, and they succeed. In the second play, The Libation Bearers, orestes and Electra, son and daughter of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra, slay their mother and Aegisthus to avenge their father’s murder. orestes states that his was an act of justice, but when he spies the spirits of retribution known as the Furies, he knows there is more anguish to come.

In The Eumenides, the third and final play, orestes is besieged by the Furies. They are determined to avenge the crime of matricide whether or not it was justifiable. orestes seeks refuge with the god Apollo, who purifies him of his misdeed, but the Furies are not appeased. Orestes is then tried and absolved by a jury in a court set up by the goddess Athena, but the Furies are enraged that their authority has been usurped. Lattimore translates their lamentation:

Gods of the younger generation, you have ridden down the laws of the elder time, torn them out of my hands. I, disinherited, suffering, heavy with anger shall let loose upon the land the vindictive poison dripping deadly out of my heart upon the ground.

To mollify the Furies, Athena offers them honorable positions as tutelary goddesses. “No household shall be prosperous without your will,” she promises. “So we shall straighten the lives of all who worship us.” Thus, the curse on the House of Atreus is no more.

The Oresteia dramatizes both the conflict between barbarian ways, represented by the curse and the Furies, and Hellenism, or the civilization and culture of ancient Greece that developed and flourished over Aeschylus’s lifetime. Only Athena, who represents wisdom and reason as well as the city of Athens, can persuade the bloodthirsty, ruthless, and childish Furies to relinquish their ancient system of punishment in favor of one in which the law is the instrument of justice.

Aeschylus portrays ordinary men as heroic, with indomitable spirit, and life itself as a peculiar combination of suffering and joy, misery, and optimism. He presents conflicts between and within individuals that are universal and enduringly relevant. The Romantic poets Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge all wrote about Aeschylus’s Prometheus in the 19th century. The 20th-century playwrights Eugene O’Neill and T. S. Eliot recast Orestes’ tragedy in Mourning Becomes Electra and The Family Reunion, respectively.

“The strange power tragedy has to present suffering and death in such a way as to exalt and not depress is to be felt in Aeschylus’s plays as in those of no other tragic poet,” writes Edith Hamilton in The Greek Way. “He was the first tragedian; tragedy was his creation, and he set upon it the stamp of his own spirit.”

English Versions of Works by Aeschylus

Aeschylus I: Oresteia. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. Aeschylus II: The Complete Greek Tragedies. Edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound. Translated by Paul Roche. Wauconda, 1ll.: Bolchazy-Carducci, 1997.

Orestes Plays of Aeschylus. Translated by Paul Roche. New York: New American Library, 1962.

Works about Aeschylus

Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.

Herington, John. Aeschylus. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

Rosenmeyer, Thomas G. The Art of Aeschylus. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Spatz, Lois. Aeschylus. Boston: Twayne Publishers 1982.

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