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Aeschylus

Aeschylus

The Greek playwright Aeschylus (524-456 B.C.) is the first European dramatist whose plays have been preserved. He is also the earliest of the great Greek tragedians, and more than any other he is concerned with the interrelationship of man and the gods.

Aeschylus was born at the religious center of Eleusis. His father, Euphorion, was of a noble Athenian family. In 499 B.C. Aeschylus produced his first tragedy, and in 490 he is reputed to have taken part in the Battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians defeated the Persian invaders.

In 484 Aeschylus won first prize in tragedy in the annual competitions held in Athens. In 472 he took first prize with a tetralogy, three tragedies with a connecting theme and a comic satyr play. It embraced Phineus, The Persians, Glaucus of Potniae, and the satyr play Prometheus, the Fire Kindler. Defeated in one dramatic competition by Sophocles in 468, Aeschylus later won first prize with another tetralogy: Laius, Oedipus, The Seven against Thebes, and the satyr play The Sphinx. In 463 he won first prize with the tetralogy now known as The Suppliants, The Egyptians, The Danaids, and the satyr play The Amymone. In 458 he gained his last victory with the trilogy Oresteia. The date of another trilogy, the Prometheia, is unknown, but it was probably produced sometime between The Seven against Thebesand the Oresteia. Only 7 of the perhaps 90 plays that Aeschylus wrote are preserved. Aeschylus was acquainted with the Greek poet lon of Chios, and he may also have known Pindar, Greece's greatest lyric poet. Aeschylus's son and the descendants of Aeschylus's sister also wrote tragedies. The legend that Aeschylus stood trial for divulging the Eleusinian Mysteries but was acquitted on the grounds that he was never initiated may be simply a reflection of his religious environment. He was greatly influenced by the poet Homer, describing his own works as "slices of Homer."

Aeschylus retired to Sicily, and tradition says that he was ignominiously killed by an eagle which, in its desire to split open a turtle it was carrying, mistook his bald head for a boulder. His tomb at Gela in Sicily became a shrine, and his own epitaph recorded his military, not his literary, exploits.

Contributions, Style, and Philosophy

Because Aeschylus was writing for the Greek theater in its formative stages, he is credited with having introduced many features that became associated with the traditional Greek theater. Among these were the rich costumes, decorated cothurni (a kind of footwear), solemn dances, and possibly elaborate stage machinery. Aeschylus also added parts for a second and a third actor; before his time plays were written for only one actor and a chorus. He is said to have acted in his own plays and designed his own choral dances.

Aeschylus is a master of the grand style. His language is ingeniously elaborate. He loves to impress his audience, and he does not hesitate to display his geographic knowledge in long, pompous descriptions. His character drawing is handled chiefly through contrast. The chorus is not always more intelligent than the characters, but its importance is formidable. Some have said that the style of Aeschylus is more lyric than epic.

Corresponding with his grand style are his grand ideas. Mighty themes and mighty men cross his stage. Aeschylus has been described as a great theologian who attempts to present a purified conception of the godhead and who is deeply interested in the problem of theodicy, or vindicating the justice of a god in permitting evil. In a real sense, in the figure of the supreme Greek deity, Zeus, Aeschylus completes the concept of henotheism, concerned with the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods and developed by Hesiod and Solon.

The Plays

Modern scholarship has shown that the first of Aeschylus's plays was The Persians (The Suppliants was formerly thought to be the earliest because of its heavily lyric content). The Persians is the only play on a historical subject that survived from Greek drama. The play is set at the Persian capital soon after the Battle of Salamis. The queen, Atossa, is disturbed by a dream which portends disaster for her son Xerxes, who is on an expedition against the Greeks. A messenger arrives and announces terrible losses and defeat for the Persians. The ghost of Darius, father of Xerxes, warns against any further invasions of Greece.

This play is seen from a Persian point of view, and not a single Greek is mentioned. Aeschylus does not seek to glorify the Greeks but to show how an entire people can be guilty of national hubris, or pride. The gods are credited with the victory. Overweening hubris and imprudence can lead to destruction.

In The Suppliants the chorus is the protagonist. There are 50 sons and 50 daughters and only three characters: Danaus, Pelasgus, and the Egyptian herald. Pursued by the 50 sons of Aegyptus, the 50 daughters of Danaus seek refuge with Pelasgus, King of Argos. The Danaids do not want to marry the sons of Aegyptus, who are their cousins, and Pelasgus, after a democratic consultation, decrees that the State will protect them. The action ends with prayer and supplication to Zeus. Whether the theme of this play is abhorrence of incest is not clear; what is clear is the emphasis placed on Zeus as the upholder of justice.

Aeschylus was probably the first to dramatize the Oedipus story in The Seven against Thebes. The play concentrates on Eteocles, son of Oedipus and king of Thebes. The city is attacked by Polynices, Eteocles's brother, and six other warriors, and the brothers die at each other's hands. Eteocles is the first real character in Greek drama. This is the first play with a prologue and the chorus is less important. There is little action but considerable stiff stylization.

Prometheus Bound has often been described as a static play because the main character, Prometheus, is chained to a mountain peak and cannot move. He is being punished for defying the authority of the newly established cosmic ruler, Zeus, by bringing fire to mankind. Prometheus bemoans his lot and proclaims that he will be freed by a descendant of lo—Heracles—13 generations later. He indicates clearly that he has saved mankind from destruction and is the source of all knowledge. Zeus is depicted as an absolute tyrant and Prometheus as a suffering but defiant rebel. Both are guilty of hubris. Both must learn through suffering: Zeus to exercise power with mercy, understanding, and justice, and Prometheus to respect authority. Absolute power is no more acceptable than absolute defiance. Reason (Prometheus) and power (Zeus) must be balanced to promote a harmonious society.

Aeschylus's masterpiece is the Oresteia, the only extant trilogy from Greek drama. The three plays—Agamemnon, The Choephori, and The Eumenides—though they form separate dramas, are united in their common theme of dikeμ, or justice. King Agamemnon returns to his home in Argos after the Trojan War only to be murdered by his scheming wife, Clytemnestra, in collusion with her paramour, Aegisthus. Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, is in exile; he is enjoined by Apollo to wreak vengeance on his mother and Aegisthus. Orestes' sister Electra assists him in carrying out the vengeance. For the killing of his mother Orestes is pursued by the blood deities, the Furies. On his flight he reaches Athens, where he is tried and acquitted by the tribunal, called the Areopagus. The Furies are gradually transformed into the "Kindly Ones," the Eumenides.

The Oresteia is concerned with the problem of evil and its compounding. The evil of the Trojan War brings on evil at home, which in turn must be avenged. In the act of vengeance another evil is also committed, for the ancient law says that "unto him that doeth it shall be done." How can this seemingly endless chain of evil be broken? Aeschylus proclaims that Zeus is the answer to this problem of theodicy. Aeschylus believes that suffering is an innate part of the pattern of the universe and that through suffering emerges a positive good.

Albin Lesky has noted (1965) that "Aeschylean tragedy shows faith in a sublime and just world order, and is in fact inconceivable without it. Man follows his difficult, often terrible path through guilt and suffering, but it is the path ordained by god which leads to knowledge of his laws. All comes from his will."

Further Reading

A good study of the plays of Aeschylus is Herbert Weir Smyth, Aeschylean Tragedy (1924). Another treatment, which includes other writers' views on Aeschylus, is Leon Golden, In Praise of Prometheus: Humanism and Rationalism in Aeschylean Thought (1966). More specialized studies of Aeschylus are Gilbert Murray, Aeschylus: The Creator of Tragedy (1940); Friedrich Solmsen, Hesiod and Aeschylus (1949); J. H. Finley, Jr., Pindar and Aeschylus (1955); and Anthony J. Podlecki, The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy (1966). Peter D. Arnott, An Introduction to the Greek Theatre (1959), includes scholarly background material as well as an in-depth treatment of Aeschylus and the Agamemnon.

Chapters discussing various aspects of Aeschylus's works are contained in the following books: Gilbert Norwood, Greek Tragedy (1920; 4th ed. 1953); H. D. F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study (1939; 3d ed. 1961), Form and Meaning inDrama: A Study of Six Greek Plays and of Hamlet (1956; 2d ed. 1968), and Poiesis: Structure and Thought (1966); William Chase Greene, Moira: Fate, Good, and Evil in Greek Thought (1944); and D. W. Lucas, The Greek Tragic Poets (1955; 2d ed. 1959). A fine work, which includes discussions of Aeschylus and his times, is Albin Lesky, Greek Tragedy (1938; trans. 1965; 2d ed. 1967). □

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Aeschylus

Aeschylus

Born: 524 b.c.e.
Eleusis, Greece
Died: 456 b.c.e.
Gela, Italy

Greek playwright

The Greek playwright Aeschylus was the first European dramatist whose plays were preserved. He was also the earliest of the great Greek tragedians (writers of serious drama involving disastrous events), and was concerned with the common connection between man and the gods more than any of the other tragedians.

Early life

Aeschylus was born to a noble and wealthy Athenian family in the Greek town of Eleusis. His father was Euphorion, a wealthy man of the upper class. Aeschylus's education included the writings of Homer (Greek poet who lived during the 800s b.c.e. and wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey ). In fact it was Homer who proved most inspiring to Aeschylus when he began to write as a teen. He entered his tragedies into the annual competition in Athens and won his first award as a young adult in 484 b.c.e. Aeschylus' writings were strongly Athenian and rich with moral authority. He carried home the first place award from the Athens competition thirteen times!

As a young man Aeschylus lived through many exciting events in the history of Athens. Politically the city underwent many constitutional reforms resulting in a democracy. Aeschylus became a soldier and took part in turning back a Persian invasion at the Battle of Marathon (490 b.c.e.). Nevertheless, Aeschylus's plays left a bigger mark in Greek history than any of his battle accomplishments.

Contributions, style, and philosophy

Because Aeschylus was writing for the Greek theater in its beginning stages, he is credited with having introduced many features that are now considered traditional. Formerly plays were written for only one actor and a chorus. Aeschylus added parts for a second and a third actor as well as rich costumes and dance.

Corresponding with his grand style were his grand ideas. Mighty themes and mighty men crossed his stage. Aeschylus has been described as a great theologian (a specialist in the study of faith) because of his literary focus on the workings of the Greek gods.

The plays

Modern scholarship has shown that the first of Aeschylus's plays was The Persians. It is also the only play on a historical subject that has survived in Greek drama. This play is seen from a Persian point of view. His theme sought to show how a nation could suffer due to its pride. Of his ninety plays only seven are still preserved.

Prometheus Bound is perhaps Aeschylus' most well-known tragedy because of his depiction of the famous Prometheus, who is chained to a mountain peak and cannot move. He is being punished for defying the authority of the god Zeus by bringing fire to mankind. Zeus is depicted as a bully and Prometheus as a suffering but defiant rebel. Both are guilty of pride. Both must learn through suffering: Zeus to exercise power with mercy and justice, and Prometheus to respect authority.

Aeschylus' masterpiece is the Oresteia, the only preserved trilogy from Greek drama. The three plays are Agamemnon, The Choephori, and The Eumenides. Though they form separate dramas, they are united in their common theme of justice. King Agamemnon returns to his home after the Trojan War (490480 b.c.e.; a war in which the Greeks fought against the Trojans and which ended with the destruction of Troy) only to be murdered by his scheming wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover. The king's children seek revenge that ultimately leads to their trial by the gods. The theme of evil compounding evil is powerfully written.

Albin Lesky has noted, "Aeschylean tragedy shows faith in a sublime [splendid] and just [fair] world order, and is in fact inconceivable [unthinkable] without it. Man follows his difficult, often terrible path through guilt and suffering, but it is the path ordained [designed] by god which leads to knowledge of his laws. All comes from his will."

According to legend, Aeschylus was picked up by an eagle who thought he was a turtle. The eagle had been confused by Aeschylus's bald head. Aeschylus was killed when the eagle realized its mistake and dropped him.

For More Information

Beck, Robert Holmes. Aeschylus: Playwright, Educator. The Hague: Nijhoff, 1975.

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

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

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Aeschylus

Aeschylus (ĕs´kĬləs, ēs´–), 525–456 BC, Athenian tragic dramatist, b. Eleusis. The first of the three great Greek writers of tragedy, Aeschylus was the predecessor of Sophocles and Euripides.

Aeschylus fought at Marathon and at Salamis. In 476 BC he went to Sicily to live at the court of Hiero I, and he died at Gela. He wrote perhaps 90 plays (7 survive in full) and won 13 first prizes at the Greater Dionysia, the spring dramatic festival in which each dramatist submitted four connected plays—a tragic trilogy and a lighter satyr play.

Achievements and Characteristics

Prior to Aeschylus, tragedy had been a dramatically limited dialogue between a chorus and one actor. Aeschylus added an actor, who often took more than one part, thus allowing for dramatic conflict. He also introduced costumes, stage decoration, and supernumeraries. In addition, Aeschylus also appeared in his own plays.

In the sophisticated theology of his tragedies, human transgressions are punished by divine power, and humans learn from this suffering, so that it serves a positive, moral purpose. At their best, his choral lyrics are rivals of the odes of Pindar. The choruses, more important in Aeschylus than in his successors, both comment on the action as well as present it. Vivid in its character portrayal, majestic in its tone, and captivating in its lyricism, Aeschylus' tragic poetry is esteemed among the greatest of all time. He alone of Greek tragedians was honored at Athens by having his plays performed repeatedly after his death.

The Plays

The extant plays of Aeschylus are hard to date. The earliest is probably The Suppliants, simple in plot (concerning the 50 daughters of Danaüs) and with only one actor besides the chorus. The Persians (472? BC), glorifying the Athenian victory over Persia at Salamis, has two actors, but the new form is still unpolished. The Seven against Thebes can be dated to 467. Prometheus Bound (see Prometheus), of uncertain date, is striking for its bald attack on the vengefulness of the gods toward man, but the later two parts of its trilogy, which are lost, may have portrayed Zeus as just.

The last three tragedies of Aeschylus compose the only extant ancient trilogy, called the Oresteia, a history of the House of Atreus, with which the poet won first prize in 458. The three plays are Agamemnon, The Choëphoroe (The Libation Bearers), and The Eumenides; in each play three actors are used—an innovation borrowed from Sophocles. Because of its scope, complexity, and the profundity of its themes (the significance of human suffering and the true meaning of justice), the Oresteia as a whole is considered by many to be the greatest Attic tragedy. Browning's Agamemnon is a poetic translation of the first play, and Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra is an American reworking of the trilogy. The translation by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore in The Complete Greek Tragedies is one of many English translations of his plays.

Bibliography

See studies by G. Murray (1940), M. H. McCall, ed. (1972), T. G. Rosenmeyer (1982), R. P. Winnington-Ingram (1983), and J. Herington (1986).

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Aeschylus

Aeschylus (525?–456 bc) Earliest of the great Greek dramatists. Aeschylus is said to have been responsible for the development of tragedy as a dramatic form through his addition of a second actor and reduction of the role of the chorus. He was also the first to introduce scenery. His best-known work is the trilogy Oresteia, which comprises Agamemnon, The Choephori, and The Eumenides.

http://classics.mit.edu/Browse/browse-Aeschylus.html

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Aeschylus

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