Aeschylus (c. 525/524 BC – c. 456/455 BC) was the first of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived, the others being Sophocles and Euripides. Aeschylus's work was greatly respected by the Athenians during his lifetime and he won many awards.
The roots of Greek drama are in religious festivals for the gods, chiefly Dionysus. During Aeschylus's lifetime, dramatic competitions became part of the City Dionysia. Aeschylus entered many of these competitions and various ancient sources attribute between seventy and ninety plays to him.
Only seven tragedies have survived intact: The Persians, Seven against Thebes, The Suppliants, the trilogy known as The Oresteia, consisting of the three tragedies Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides, together with Prometheus Bound (whose authorship is disputed). With the exception of this last play –all of Aeschylus's extant tragedies are known to have won first prize at the City Dionysia. Even after his death, his were the only tragedies allowed to be restaged in later Dionysia competitions. Aeschylus's popularity is evident in the praise the comic playwright Aristophanes gives him in The Frogs, produced some half-century after Aeschylus's death.
It is thought by historians that three other of his extant plays were components of connected trilogies: Seven against Thebes being the final play in an Oedipus trilogy, and The Suppliants and Prometheus Bound each being the first play in a Danaid trilogy and Prometheus trilogy, respectively. Scholars have moreover suggested several completely lost trilogies derived from known play titles. A number of these trilogies treated myths surrounding the Trojan War. One, collectively called the Achilleis, comprised the titles Myrmidons, Nereids and Phrygians (alternately, The Ransoming of Hector).
Fragments of some of his other plays have survived by being quoted in other people’s works and more continue to be discovered on Egyptian papyrus. In the Republic, for example, Plato quotes a line from Niobe "God plants a fault in mortals when he wills to destroy a house utterly." And the 1952 publication of Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2256 fr. 3 confirmed a long-assumed (because of The Suppliants' cliffhanger ending) Danaid trilogy, whose constituent plays are generally agreed to be The Suppliants, The Egyptians and The Danaids.
These days we accept without question that plays involve dialogues between the actors and include all sorts of genres from comedy to tragedy, but Aeschylus appears to have been instrumental in helping to expand the ways plays were constructed.
According to Aristotle, for example, Aeschylus not only expanded the number of characters in plays, but also constructed dialogues between them involving conflict and argument, thus allowing for forms of debate within the play. Previously characters had only interacted with the chorus. In The Eumenides, for example, the final play of The Oresteia the goddess Athena organises a trial, a vehicle which enables Aeschylus to provide a dialogue which covers a range of moral issues. He uses Apollo to argue Orestes' case and includes judges. He also uses Athena as a means of expressing his own ideas on the importance of reason in the development of laws, and, as in The Suppliants, the ideals of a democratic city.
Not only did Aeschylus expand the cast, he used scene-decoration, more elaborate and dramatic costumes for the actors, and ‘had his actors wear platform boots (cothurni)’, which incidentally is symbolic and is not as some commentators report “to make them more visible to the audience”. According to a later account of Aeschylus's life, as the actors walked on stage in the first performance of the Eumenides, “the chorus of Furies were so frightening in appearance that they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labour”.
His plays were written in verse, no violence was performed on stage, and the plays had a remoteness from daily life in Athens, that made them wonderful escape or fantasy vehicles. He used the gods extensively, often to present strong moral and spiritual views. Aeschylus was a believer in the Great Work and incorporated this belief extensively in his plays. In Seven against Thebes (Hepta epi Thebas), for example, which was performed in 467 BC, the principle theme is the interference of the gods in human affairs.
Thus through Aeschylus the play became an important means by which ideas and new directions could be presented to the people in a form – entertainment – that made them memorable, more understandable and palatable. We see his influence in all our great playwrights from Goethe to Shakespeare, but given that this mechanism is still in use, in soap operas, TV programmes and films, his influence is being felt even today.
Another departure from the then norm, was dialogue composed through direct experience, which must have added a vividness and excitement to his plays quite unknown before. The Persians, for example, was written from direct experience of war. In 490 BC, Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus fought to defend Athens against Darius I's invading Persian army at the Battle of Marathon. The Athenians emerged triumphant, however, Cynegeirus died in the battle, receiving a mortal wound. In 480, Aeschylus was called into military service again, this time against Xerxes I's invading forces at the Battle of Salamis. Salamis holds a prominent place in The Persians, which was performed in 472 BC and won first prize at the Dionysia. Upon his death, around 456 BC, his epitaph commemorated his participation in the Greek victory at Marathon rather than his success as a playwright.
As with all very new departures from some accepted norm, some of his plays caused him considerable problems when they were performed:
“Heracleides of Pontus asserts that the crowd watching the play tried to stone Aeschylus. He then took refuge at the altar in the orchestra of the Theater of Dionysus. When he stood trial for his offense he pleaded ignorance. He was acquitted, with the jury sympathetic to the wounds that Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus suffered at Marathon”.
I think we can therefore see that Aeschylus was not just a good playwright. He was innovative, aimed to present moral issues and spiritual ideas in an easily digested form and was quite brave in his attempts to do so, given the reactions of the crowds to his plays. From where did he get his inspiration?
The Mysteries. Aeschylus was an Adept.
He was one of many Greeks who had been initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries. And according to the 2nd-century AD geographer Pausanias, “the god Dionysus visited him in his sleep and commanded him to turn his attention to the nascent art of tragedy”. The dream had an effect, as Aeschylus’s first tragedy, was performed in 499 BC, when he was only 26 years old.
As with all the Mysteries, Adepts were sworn under the penalty of death not to reveal anything about the Mysteries to non-initiates. Nevertheless, according to Aristotle some thought that Aeschylus had revealed some of the cult's secrets in his plays, as such these become a fascinating source of information on the Eleusinian Mysteries.
Some of the other titles of the plays for which we have names but no content are truly intriguing, for example, The Weighing of Souls, The Soul-raisers, The Sphinx and The Bone-gatherers, as well as The Net-draggers. All of these titles contain symbolic references indicating they did indeed contain Mystery information. Perhaps equally intriguing is the indication that the Egyptian Mysteries had a very direct influence on the content of the Greek Mysteries, and what was lost in Egypt may have been preserved until much later in Greece.
We know very little about his private life other than that he was married and had two sons who themselves became poets, but the fact he lost his brother in battle shows his life was not without its own tragedy. As he wrote
“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
So possibly a little of his inspiration, like that of Shakespeare, came from pain rather than happiness.
In 458 BC, he returned to Sicily for the last time, visiting the city of Gela where he died in 456 or 455 BC. “It is claimed that he was killed by a tortoise that fell out of the sky when dropped by an eagle.”
I have a sneaking suspicion that this is meant to be symbolic.
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- Aeschylus - Agamemnon - A Prayer for freedom
- Aeschylus - Agamemnon - Age wendeth propped its journey drear
- Aeschylus - Agamemnon - Fates goal guides all, in its appointed wise
- Aeschylus - Agamemnon - On the problems of Prophecy
- Aeschylus - Agamemnon - Precious as silver, of the purple dye
- Aeschylus - Agamemnon - The dreams of grief
- Aeschylus - Agamemnon - The plant is like the seed, Hurt returns
- Aeschylus - Agamemnon - Tis Zeus alone who shows the perfect way