AESCHYLUS

525-456 B.C.

Greek tragic dramatist

* literary convention a practice or rule in drama, poetry, or other form of literature that has been agreed upon by custom

* aristocracy referring to the privileged upper class

* dynasty succession of rulers from the same family or group

* extant still existing, not lost or destroyed

* patron special guardian, protector or supporter

Aeschylus was the first of a trio of great Greek tragic dramatists of the 400s B.C.—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Together they wrote about 300 plays, 33 of which still exist. Of these, 7 were written by Aeschylus. The works of all three writers became classics soon after their deaths. Aeschylus became known to Athenians as the father of tragedy and established the scenic as well as the literary conventions* of tragedy.

Life and Times. Aeschylus’s father was a member of the old Athenian aristocracy* from the town of Eleusis in Attica. Aeschylus was about 15 when the Pisistratid dynasty* was expelled, and the Athenians restored a democratic government. Then in 490 B.C., he fought with the victorious Greek army in the Battle of Marathon against the Persians. In Aeschylus’s youth, Athenians began the tradition of holding competitions for local choral drama. In 484 B.C., six years after the Battle of Marathon, Aeschylus won his first competition.

From 480-479 B.C., Aeschylus lived through the Persian occupation of his homeland. His earliest extant* tragedy, Persians, dramatizes the impact of defeat on the Persian court in Susa. In 472 B.C., it was performed along with three other plays and won first prize. Aeschylus’s patron* was Pericles, who was then about 23 years old. In 468 B.C., four years after Aeschylus’s Persians was performed, Sophocles won a competition, apparently over Aeschylus, with his first drama. From then on, the two poets frequently competed against each other.

* tyrant absolute ruler

* satyr woodland deity that was part man and part goat or horse

* trilogy series of three dramatic works on a related subject or theme

* lyric poem expressing personal feelings, often similar in form to a song

* mortal human being; one who eventually will die

During his life, Aeschylus made at least two trips to Sicily, where he, along with the poet Pindar, enjoyed the patronage of Hieron, the tyrant* of Syracuse. Near the end of his life and following the production of his Oresteia in 458 B.C. in Athens, Aeschylus returned to Sicily. He died there at Gela two years later. The people of Gela buried him with many honors. If the story is correct that Aeschylus composed the inscription for his own gravestone, he chose to be remembered as a soldier rather than a poet.

The Plays of Aeschylus. Early Greek plays were written in the form of a tetralogy—a group of four plays designed to be performed one after another. The fourth play, called a satyr* play, was intended to provide comic relief from the three tragedies that had preceded it. Three of Aeschylus’s seven plays—Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, and Prometheus Bound- come from different tetralogies, most plays of which have been lost. Oresteia, which includes Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides, is most often considered a trilogy*. Sophocles discontinued the format, and among existing Greek tragedies the trilogy is unique to Aeschylus.

Aeschylus’s seven plays are in some ways very different from one another, but they all have a grandeur that is typical of his work. His characters and their actions are somewhat larger than life. His lyric* passages are longer than those in the plays of Sophocles and Euripides, and Aeschylus alone uses poetic narrative to present events that are essential to the story. Of all the Greek dramas, Aeschylus’s plays are closest to the grand language and stylistic devices of the epic. He uses a literary vocabulary and a dense, and sometimes obscure, language with multiple meanings. Visual aspects in his plays—often pageantry characterized by splendor- are designed to reinforce the action.

Persians describes the humiliating defeat of Xerxes and his Persian forces in Greece, partly through the eyes of Xerxes’ mother and his dead father, Darius I. Exposed for his folly and defiance of destiny, Xerxes loses his stature as a king and becomes a pitiable, ordinary mortal*.

Seven Against Thebes concerns the story of the house of Laius, father of Oedipus. The two sons of Oedipus fight over who shall inherit their father’s rule in Thebes. They kill each other, thus fulfilling their father’s curse.

In The Suppliants, the 50 daughters of Danaus have fled from Egypt and ask for sanctuary in Argos to avoid marriage with the 50 sons of their father’s brother, Aegyptus. In the myth—and presumably in the lost sequel by Aeschylus—49 of the daughters obey their father’s order to murder on their wedding night the husbands they have been forced to marry. Only one daughter, Hypermnestra, spares her husband, Lynceus, whom she loves.

In Prometheus Bound, Zeus’s continuance as ruler of the Olympians depends on avoiding marriage with a goddess fated to bear a son who will overthrow his father. Prometheus knows the identity of the bride-to-be but will disclose the name only in return for his release from bondage. Zeus causes a catastrophic end for Prometheus because of his defiant refusal to reveal the secret.

The tragedy Oresteia focuses on the legendary story of the family of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, the rulers of Argos. When Agamemnon returns home from the Trojan War and is murdered by his unfaithful wife, Clytemnestra, their daughter Electra sends her brother Orestes into hiding, because she fears for his life. Returning from exile, Orestes murders his mother and her lover, for which deed he is driven insane by the Furies*. When Orestes goes to Athens and is acquitted by a jury of Athenian citizens, the Furies threaten to destroy Athens. Only after being purified by Apollo is he able to go home to Argos to take his place as the rightful heir of Agamemnon. Parts of the story are also told in dramas by Sophocles and Euripides. (See also Drama, Greek; Persian Wars.)

* Furies female spirits of justice and vengeance

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