The Seven Against Thebes and The Phoenician Women Considered

Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes is an odd, archaic play. The bulk of the play is a long reflection and recital of the blazonry on a champion’s shield, during the backdrop of an impending duel between Oedipus’s two sons, Polynices and Eteocles -with Eteocles playing the main role. As David Grene (the play’s translator) notes, the play is extremely difficult to translate due to its archaism and its heroic prose-style. It was likely part three of a trilogy performed during Aeschylus’s lifetime, though much of its imagery is lost on the modern mind.

The Seven Against Thebes is the only surviving play by Aeschylus that covers a portion of the Oedipus story – recall Sophocles’s famous portrayal of Oedipus in his only surviving cycle in the modern era. As the story goes, when Oedipus discovers the truth of his fate, he blinds himself and is locked away in the castle at Thebes while his two sons battle for the throne of Thebes. However, both eventually kill each other as Thebes falls further into disarray.

In Euripides’s version of the play, The Phoenician Women, Eteocles is portrayed as a power-hungry and slightly more villainous son. However, in Aeschylus’s version we are exposed to Eteocles’s inner psychology, and his desire to do what is best for the city of “Cadmus,” or Thebes. Eteocles is more a hero in Aeschylus, more a villain in Euripides. However this is the common perspective in Euripides, inverting a hero, indeed in his play the Chorus is composed of young women traveling (i.e. Phoenician Women, hence the title), while in Aeschylus’s version the Chorus is composed of primarily elder women of the city. If it is true that the Chorus is intended to be a reflection of a relatable segment of the Greek populace for the audience, then Aeschylus held the view that the Greeks would relate most to an older and wiser Chorus of people, while Euripides held that the Greeks found companionship in a younger and more care-free group.

Polynices and Antigone by Nikiforos Lytras in 1846

At any rate, Aeschylus’s version of the Oedipus story is perhaps best understood as a kind of ritual – a reading of the traditional and religious imagery on the shield, as well as the daughters of Oedipus, Ismene and Antigone, mourning over the bodies of their brothers, Eteocles and Polynices. There is very little plot found in the play, aside from Eteocles decision to fight his brother, his death offstage, and the conclusion of the play in sorrow with the proper burial rites performed by his sisters (i.e. the conflict over whether or not one burial will be buried traditionally in the city or not). The Homeric obsession with right actions and appropriate burial ceremonies is ever-present in the play.

Unlike the graphic and tragic violence we see in Euripides, almost all of which is displayed onstage for the audience, in Aeschylus the point of the play is not to arouse excessive feelings of horror and tragic pity in the audience. Instead, the violence happens offstage, and the point of the play is to reflect on Greek traditions and showcase the psychology of a hero. To use a modern term there is no “shock-value” in an Aeschylean tragedy.

For this reading I used the remarkable translation by the late David Grene, a classical scholar from the University of Chicago who completed this series of translations of the complete surviving Greek tragedies with Richmond Lattimore.

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