Notes on Aeschylus

Often called the “father of tragedy”, Aeschylus is known for taking the tragic art to new heights by introducing a creative new approach to ancient theatron. Prior to Aeschylus, drama typically included one protagonist and a chorus, however Aeschylus minimizes the role of the chorus and introduces a crop of new characters. Aristotle later noted the importance of the plot for Aeschylus, more so than characters.

Aeschylus is rumored to have been born near Athens at Eleusis where he worked at a vineyard until the god Dionysus visited him in a dream and he began writing tragedies. He was a devoted supporter of the Greek cause, as it is generally believed he fought against the army of Darius at Marathon in 490 BC where his brother was killed. He is believed to have died in 455-456 BC at Gela on the coast of Sicily. A later comedian developed an amusing story of Aeschylus dying due to a bird dropping a tortoise onto his bald plate. His grave, which made no mention of his dramatic achievements, makes clear mention of his defense of the Greeks against the Persians.

Contemporary estimates suggest he wrote upwards of ninety plays, seven of which have survived. He is also believed to have won at least 13 first prizes at festival competitions, such as the Great Dionysia, a celebration of Dionysus. The oldest tragedy from the classical world is Aeschylus’s Persai written in 472, and it recounts the Persian defeat of Xerxes at Salamis as they return home to Susa dejected and unfavored by the gods for venturing too far beyond their bounds. It notable for being told from the Persian perspective. The Seven Against Thebes, is the third part, and only surviving part, of Aeschylus’s Oedipus trilogy. Part one apparently told of how Lauis transgressed the gods, having a son despite the oracle’s warnings, part two tells the story of Oedipus and how he killed his own father, and Seven Against Thebes tells of Oedipus’s two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, who battle one another for control of Thebes, ultimately killing one another and ending the curse on their family brought on by Laius. In the Suppliants, the Danaids have fled Egypt and are granted asylum by Pelasgus in Argos. The Oresteia is, of course, Aeschylus’s masterpiece and is unique for favoring human justice over divine retribution and fate. The last play is dubiously written by Aeschylus and is called Prometheus Bound, it tells of Prometheus who is bound on a rocky crag as several gods approach him wanting to know a secret that will destroy the tyrant Zeus. When Prometheus refuses, he is cast into Hades for more torture.

At one time in the classical world only one complete edition of his works survived and it was taken to Alexandria, Egypt to be reproduced, however the library burned and the complete edition of Aeschylus was lost forever.

His plays were performed at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens at the great festival. The backdrop of the plays was called the skene, where we derive the word “scene” or “scenery” from. On the first day of the festival, men and boys would sing dithyrambs, songs accompanied by a flute dedicated to the god Dionysus and recounting a certain part of his life. The next three days would each include a tragedian who would present a tragic cycle each day, and each would end with a burlesque, overtly sexual satyr play. The the sixth day of the festival comedies would be performed.

Aeschylus’s influence has been enormous. As recently as 1968, Bobby Kennedy quoted Edith Hamilton’s translation of Aeschylus while on the presidential campaign trail. He quoted it in the context of his own sorrow for losing John, but also as a plea for unity on the night of Martin Luther King jr.’s death. The quote was later inscribed on Kennedy’s gravestone.

For this reading I used the David Grene translation as part of his translations of the complete Greek tragedies with Richmond Lattimore.

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