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.
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.
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."
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 in Drama: 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).