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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The Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides by Aeschylus (trans. Richard Lattimore)

Greek Tragedies were always performed as quadrologies with three tragic works connected thematically and one burlesque satyr play at the end. Aeschylus’s Oresteia is our only surviving example of a complete Greek trilogy, although we have since lost the satyr play, Proteus, which goes along with it. While often Agamemnon or The Libation Bearers are taught independently in many college courses around the country, the intact trilogy allows us to also consider the importance of reading the plays as a set rather than as individual parts.

    Agamemnon

The play opens with a watchman waiting for a signal to come from Troy that the city has fallen. His first words bemoan his fate and asks the gods for relief from these burdensome duty. This pessimistic gloomy attitude sets the mood for the rest of the play. Overall, the play is rather simple; the plot consisting of Agamemnon’s return from Troy with Cassandra, and then Clytemnestra kills him.

    The Libation Bearers

This is the play that has the most developed plot. Orestes returns home and conspires with Electra to kill his mother, Clytemnestra, in retribution for his father’s death. The back-and-forth conversation at the end of the play between Clytemnestra and Orestes is some of my favorite dialogue in all of literature.

    The Eumenides

The final play in the trilogy has the furies chasing after Orestes as punishment for the murder of his mother. He goes before Athena in the land of Attica for aid. A trial is held with men from the land voting on the case. After a tie, Athena’s final vote acquits Orestes of any wrong doing. Athena then tries to appease the enraged furies, which serves as a ritual explanation for their worship in Athens, and all of this ends with a poetic homage to the glory of the city. To put it more cynically, he panders to his audience!

    Concluding Thoughts

Aeschylus relies on mood and poetic dialogue to create a tragic atmosphere. My impression is that his plots are relatively simple compared to Sophocles, while Euripides seems superior to both in really exploring the depths of a character. From A Handbook of Classical Drama by Philip Whaley Harsh (1944): “Though held in the very highest esteem throughout the fifth century, Aeschylus as a dramatist gradually faded out of the practical theater, and during the fourth century, Euripides and Sophocles were far more popular. His dramatic virtues were too simple, and his poetry was too ornate and difficult. Hence in later times, he was always regarded as a great poet but not as a dramatist compared with his two eminent successors.” Many critics consider Sophocles the superior dramatist in that he is better at constructing engaging dramatic plots, while naming Aeschylus the superior poet.

Still, drama owes a lot to Aeschylus’s innovations. During the time period of these plays, there was generally only two speaking parts and other characters might appear in silent roles. It must have been a huge surprise to the audience when Cassandra whose initial silence sets her up as one of these silent “background” characters suddenly breaks out into speech.

Taken together the plays consider how sin builds upon sin in the cursed House of Atreus. Aeschylus seems to be thinking about how one can be both justified in an act such as murder as an act of revenge for a previous crime, while simultaneously committing new offense against the gods and overturning basic morality. It explores the intricate conflict of loyalties and strained social responsibilities. On the one hand, Agamemnon is sworn to protect his daughter, Iphigenia, from harm. On the other, he is sworn to aid his brother, Menelaus, and wage war on Troy who broke the sacred guest-right by stealing Helen. This is the background for the plays. Do you sacrifice the daughter so you can help your brother or do you protect your daughter at the expense of your brother’s honor and the loss of respect in front of the assembled Greek armies? The point here is that one can perform an act that is morally right by Greek standards, even obligatory, while still doing a moral wrong by that same moral code and by extension forbidden. It is obligatory and morally necessary that Orestes’s avenges his father, it is forbidden and morally wrong to kill his own mother. The problem, of course, is that it is his mother who killed his father. The play unveils the contradictory and paradoxical positions inherent in revenge-driven and blood feud social systems.

This leads to the other major theme of the trilogy, which is about the movement away from monarchy and blood feuds to democracy and trial by rule of law and one’s peers. Justice cannot exist in a monarchy where revenge, violence, and power, acts as the law. Only with the rise of Athens in the final plays does justice flourish and the cycle of revenge that plagues the House of Atreus is finally ended. When the furies are incorporated into the state of Athens, it is symbolic; the furies, who are divine representations of justice and punishment, are being brought under the rule of the state of Athens. Athenian democracy now holds sway over dealing out justice and punishment, not violent furies who punish moral transgressions. Likewise, the final plays emphasis on the furies representing the old laws and Zeus, Athena, and the rest of the newer Olympian gods substantiating the new moral order further mirrors this movement of the new replacing the old. The furies brand of justice is outdated, old-fashioned, monarchical; it’s only value is to be appropriated by the democratic state’s true and balanced form of justice.

Lastly, Aeschylus shows a strong concern for the proper role of women in the Greek world. Clytemnestra in the first play is often described by the chorus and other characters as acting masculine; her lust for power, her ability to rule without her husband, her cuckoldry, and even the sexual imagery used to describe her orgasmic joy at killing her husband likely would have come across as excessively masculine qualities to the original Greek audience. Unlike Sophocles’ Electra who seems to lust a little too much for blood, this Electra seems to lust a little too much for her dead father with no thought towards marriage proposals or the future. The females in the play express values at odds with the Greek social norms. Only Athena who explicitly sides with “male” justice over “feminine” justice embodied by the furies, can restore the balance to the patriarchal order. Once more the play shows a thematic progression from Clytemnestra’s rebellion against the masculine in the first play to Athena’s reaffirmation of male rule and wisdom in the final play.