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.

The Oresteia: An Affirmation of the Noble Lie

In Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers, we are first introduced to Orestes, the son of the late and betrayed Agamemnon. He appears, hidden, before the grave of his father as his sister Electra is making libations in her father’s honor. This second part of the trilogy takes place an unknown number of years after the murder of Agamemnon. Orestes has been exiled for most of his life in central Greece, in Phocis.

Orestes Pursued by the Furies by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1862

Like Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca, Orestes disguises himself as a wanderer, or a beggar with news of the death of Orestes. In doing so, he is welcomed into the home of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. Why does he put them through this elaborate ruse if he is only going to kill them? In disguise, one is capable of acquiring greater knowledge -as in the case of Gyges the lydian (recall in Book I of Herodotus’s History), or Odysseus in The Odyssey, or even Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Orestes is looking for knowledge. He wants to hear from the words of Aegisthus, the usurper, and his own mother Clytemnestra about the state of the house and the death of his father. As was customary in Greek theatre, the acts of violence occur offstage -first Aegisthus is killed when Orestes reveals himself and then Clytemnestra rushes to the scene to discover that he is, indeed, her son. The Libation Bearers concludes with Orestes being haunted by the furies, or the “Eumenides”, as he is forced to flee his own family’s palace.

In the closing part of the trilogy, The Eumenides, a chorus of furies confronts Orestes as he stands before the temple of Athena in Athens (though the play curiously opens with a confrontation between Apollo and Clytemnestra). The Chorus argues that Orestes should be found guilty or else everyone who commits the crime of matricide in the future will be found innocent, Apollo comes to testify on behalf of Orestes, and Orestes leaves his fate up to Athena. In making her proclamation at the end of the trial, Athena states:

“No anarchy, no rule of a single master. Thus
I advise my citizens to govern and to grace,
and not to cast fear utterly from your city. What
man who fears nothing at all is ever righteous?”

“These words I have unreeled for my citizens,
advice into the future. All must stand upright
now, take each man his ballot in his hand, think on
his oath, and make his judgment. For my word is said”
(The Eumenides 690-710).

In addition, upon reading the verdict that Orestes is found innocent, the Chorus of Furies responds by letting loose the tight hand of vengeance, though not gently:

“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 on the land
the vindictive poison
dripping deadly out of my heart upon the ground…”

Orestes was found innocent, by an evenly cast ballot which is deemed fair by Athena.

In Aeschylus, the chief characteristic of the tragedy is the action and the backdrop. The tragic component is a function of the war in Ilium, and the curse that has been brought upon the house of Atreus for it. The Oresteia is a play about the end of the cycle of vengeance -revenge and requital are replaced by a Republican form of judicial accounting -wherein a formal trial decides the fate of someone. However, Aeschylus reaffirms Greek mythos by installing the arbiter of justice as the god Athena, not a mortal man. Justice is still divine and super human, but it is also attainable to man on earth. In presenting it in this way, Aeschylus gives a hopeful, redemptive work of art that reinforces the Athenian way of justice and life.

In the place of self-destructive furies, Athena praises the future of the city of Athens, capable of self-governance, bound by reason rather than vindictiveness. In doing so, Aeschylus reaffirms a noble lie about the birth of the democratic sensibilities of Athens. Unlike Sophoclean, or even Euripidean tragedy, Aeschlyus’s tragedies engage the background and the plot as primary -in other words, the fate of Agamemnon, Orestes, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, Electra or any other one individual is not the ultimate subject of the play, instead it gives way before the story of the transformation of a people from vengeful to upright and judicial. It concludes with a cautionary hope for the future of democratic man.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.