The Suppliant Maidens, The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus

As I transfer over posts from my old blog, I thought I would collect the remaining plays of Aeschylus, which I read in 2008, in one post. Like the Oresteia, each of these plays were part of a larger trilogy, but unlike the Oresteia we only have the individual plays themselves and not their entire trilogy.

The Suppliant Maidens by Aeschylus (trans. Seth G. Benardete)

Scholars once believe that The Suppliants was the earliest extant play in Greek drama, but later modified that view after the discovery of a papyrus at Oxyrhynchus that suggests that the play was first produced in 470 B.C. rather than circa 490 B.C. as originally believed. It is part of a tetralogy whose other parts are now lost.

The fifty daughters of Danaus, descended from the Greeks through the Argive, Io, flee from Egypt when their Egyptian cousins attempt to marry them. They return to their ancestral homeland and beg Pelasgus, the King of Argos, to take them in and protect them from the Egyptians. Pelasgus must decide whether to help them or not, knowing the price for saving them will be war with the Egyptians.

The Suppliants offers us a view into what early Greek drama was like with the chorus itself functioning as the protagonist of the play–a feature of early dramas that changed over time. It also provides us with some insight into how Greeks viewed foreigners and how they thought of the contemporary civilizations to the East.
As I suggested in my post on The Oresteia, it is always better to possess the full trilogy, which gives context to the rest of the parts. Some efforts have been made to reconstruct the lost plays. It is believed that in the second play, the maidens marry their cousins and swear an oath to kill them in their sleep. All do so, except for Hypermnestra. The third play deals with the trial of Hypermnestra for breaking her oath to kill her husband, ending with Aphrodite coming down to defend her and the power of love. If I had to venture a tentative guess what Aeschylus’s motivations might be for writing this play, especially with the little bit we know about the lost plays, it seems that the central concern is the place of foreigners in relation to Greece: Who counts as a true Greek? Who may a Greek marry? What is Greece’s relationship to the other nations of the world? Who should be included as citizens of the polis?

The Persians by Aeschylus (trans. Seth G. Benardete)

The Persians is another play that explores Greek attitudes towards foreigners, except this time the story concerns their sworn enemies, the Persians. Despite being produced in 472 B.C., only eight years after the naval Battle of Salamis, a decisive battle against the Persians, Aeschylus manages to avoid propaganda and vainglory. He depicts the Persians as real people and accomplishes this by telling the story of the battle from their point-of-view. Philip Whaley Harsh in his Handbook of Classical Drama suggests that Aeschylus told the aftermath from their perspective to avoid excessive boastfulness about the victory. The Greeks were concerned with controlling hubris and bragging.

By choosing this point-of-view, Aeschylus transforms real history into great literature. The Chorus’s cries at the defeat and loss are moving. The Queen’s fear for Xerxes’s life is palpable. The ghost of the late king Darius’s disdain for the foolish path his country has taken is damning. I found the play to be an extremely moving portrait of the fears, deflation, loss, and pain a country experiences when they lose a war.

Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus (trans. David Greene)

“Do you wish to reap as harvest a brother’s blood?” – Chorus

Aeschylus adopts the last part of the Oedipus cycle hinted at in Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus. Oedipus’s two sons, Eteocles and Polynieces, murder each other when Polynieces returns from banishment and tries to invade the city of Thebes. This event fulfills their father’s curse as punishment for his banishment enacted by his own sons. As usual Aeschylus writes with characteristically beautiful language and offers some real snappy rejoinders in the dialogue:

Chorus: But it was to the images of the gods
the ancient images I ran, trust in the gods,
when the stony snowflakes crashed upon our gates:
nay, then I was lifted up with force and betook me to prayer to the Blessed Ones, for our city,
that they may make their strength its protection.

Eteocles: For protection pray that our towers
hold off the enemy’s spears.

Chorus: And shall not that be
as the gods dispose?

Eteocles: The gods, they say,
of a captured town desert her.

Despite the beautiful language and witty dialogue, the quote also reveals the play’s biggest flaw: a lack of plot movement. The majority of the play features people standing around talking about the battle happening around them without much plot movement. The worst section has to be the long-winded description of the six champions sent off to defend the gates of Thebes. Only at the end when Eteocles’s decides to go fight his brother is there any real plot development, which of course leads to his death. Not really one of Aeschylus’s better plays, in my opinion.

Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (trans. David Greene)

As the introduction to my translation points out eighteenth century critics condemned Prometheus Bound as a bad play because it could not measure up to Aristotle’s standards for tragedy that he laid out in the Poetics: full of “uncouth and wild” diction, an episodic structure, and highly improbable characters. The Romantic tradition which followed led to the breakdown of “classical” rules and reappraised the play positively, which appealed to their love of the whimsical and their hatred of tyranny that features so prominently in the story.

The play recasts Hesiod’s myth about the time Prometheus disobeyed Zeus and stole fire from the gods. The play begins after these events with Hephaestus nailing Prometheus to the mountain as punishment for his deed. The rest of the play consists of episodes in which Prometheus recounts his act of rebellion and predicts Zeus will need him in the future to warn him of an ill-fated marriage that has the potential to end the god’s reign. Somewhere in all this, Io, an unwilling lover of Zeus and a girl suffering from physical curses inflicted by a jealous Hera, arrives to converse with Prometheus about her future, and she also tells us her own story of torment thanks to Zeus’s unsolicited attention; later, Hermes shows up and tries to find out Prometheus’s secret about which marriage Zeus should avoid in order to defend his rule from usurpers.

As can be seen from this description there isn’t a plot with a central conflict so much as a bunch of loosely connected episodes attached together by a central theme or opposition. Everyone’s troubles from Prometheus to Io’s revolve around the tyrannical behavior of Zeus. This play is critical of the excesses of tyranny.

New scholarship has questioned whether Aeschylus actually wrote this play; like these critics I, too, noticed that the writing and structure and themes felt stylistically different from the other plays of Aeschylus that I have read, but it’s hard to judge in translation. Well, whoever may have written the play, I really enjoyed it.

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2 thoughts on “The Suppliant Maidens, The Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus

  1. Great reviews, as always! I have been so remiss in commenting on your blog, but only because your posts are so insightful I usually have to mull over them for a day or so and I’ve been so busy with my courses! It’s been crazy. My Dante course finished a couple of days ago and my Shakespeare one doesn’t end for another two weeks, but at least I now have some breathing room. I wanted so say how much I appreciate your posts on Greek and Roman literature because you’re probably the only person I’ve found who reads in this period (except for me, of course). Keep posting! I’m reading, if not commenting much, and I’ll be back soon! 🙂

    • I always appreciate your responses and I’m glad you find my posts worth thinking about. I usually read them and think, “man, I need to re-read this work at some point in the future to see how my reactions have changed.”

      I always mean to comment on your blog more too. It’s good to see someone likes all the Greek and Roman posts. That is an astute observation about other bloggers not covering that period very often.

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