Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: AESCHYLUS


Foreword

Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 series intends to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the Greek Tragedies rooted in sixth century B.C. The fundamental purpose of this series is to present a detailed informative background and understanding of the elements of Greek tragedy as well as its prominent tragedians.


Ancient Greek Tragedy 101 is divided into Six Chapters:

1. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: The Introduction

2. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Aristotle’s Six Elements on Tragedy

3. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: AESCHYLUS

4. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: EURIPIDES

5. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: SOPHOCLES

6. Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Tragedy & Shakespearian Tragedy


Ancient Greek Tragedy 101: Prominent Tragedy Playwrights: Aeschylus


The Life of Aeschylus: The Soldier-Poet

Figure 1

Bust of Aeschylus

Note: A photograph of The Bust of Aeschylus (Gill, 2019)

The son of Euphorion, Aeschylus was the oldest among the three prominent Tragedy playwrights. He was born in the last quarter of the sixth century B.C. During his early manhood, he fought in The great Persian Wars which were between Greek states and Persia and ended with The Peace of Callias (449 B.C.). He started writing at a very early age; yet, his victory in competitions at annual festivals in honour of the god Dionysus came in 484 B.C. It is said that he had won the first prize thirteen times; yet, even after his death, his tragedies continued to get prizes from competitions. During his lifetime he presented a set of plays and only seven have survived: the trilogy known as The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides), Seven Against Thebes, The Persians, and The Suppliants. When he died in Gela, Sicily in 456/455 B.C., he left an epitaph behind him:


"This tomb the dust of Æschylus doth hide, Euphorion's son, and fruitful Gela's pride: How tried his valour Marathon may tell, And long-haired Medes who know it all too well"

(Copleston, 1870, pg. 28).


Aeschylus and Early Greek Tragedy


Early tragedies were choral and built upon a character and chorus. Aristotle claims that Aeschylus is the one who added the second actor to the play. In that sense, it is concluded by several scholars that Aeschylus had invented the tragedy since dialogue can only be performed by at least two actors. Along with his contribution to the structure of tragedy, he changed the plot by uniting the battles and politics of his city with the common sympathies of mankind.


Figure 2

Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis (The Battle of Salamis, Trans.)

Note: A romantic style painting of the Persian invasion (Kaulbach, 1868)


In early tragedies, the plays were sacred and devoted to the gods and their characters were only Greeks; however, in the Persians, which is the earliest surviving text of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus dealt with the recent history instead of choosing the sacred mythological themes persistently for his plays. Its plot was about the great Persian War and all the characters in the play were Persians rather than Greeks. Hence, the characteristic that differs Aeschylus from the other two prominent tragedy playwrights was his self-willed style in constructing his plays.


Even within his own work, Aeschylus did not stick to a specific style or theme. In Suppliant Maidens, he used the main character in the chorus as well and therefore, the play does not have a real protagonist. In Persians, there is no prologue and no true exodos that includes one last short choral song before the chorus leaves the stage, proving again that he made changes to the style of Greek tragedy. Aeschylus did not have a specific dramatic technique to structure his plays; instead, he added or removed some elements of the play and changed the plot of some of his tragedies from sacred mythological themes to the historical stories of mankind.




The Oresteia: Agamemnon by Aeschylus


Figure 3

An Audience in Athens during the Representation of Agamemnon by Aeschylus

Note: An Audience in Athens during the Representation of Agamemnon by Aeschylus (Richmond, 1884)


Being the first play of the trilogy, Oresteia, Agamemnon is considered the best work of Aeschylus and perhaps of the Greek Tragedy. The play was performed two years before Aeschylus’s death. The central themes were from classical myths: the Trojan War which begins after the abduction of Helen, the daughter of Zeus and the history of Agamemnon’s family which has several connections to the events leading up to the war. The plot was built upon Agamemnon’s return after the Trojan War and his murder by Clytaemest.


One of the greatest contributions made by Aeschylus to this play is the fact that he presented inversions of gender roles in Clytaemestra’s character. She is referred to be manlike carrying masculine elements in her. Her manlike character was rooted in her speeches, her body and her attitudes; however, the shifts in gender roles were extremely highlighted when Agamemnon was bathing, naked and undefended as prey, while Clytaemestra was standing near him in armour as a warrior and hunter. She claims that she got enjoyment from killing Agamemnon when his blood was splattering on her:


"How quiet he sinks now—his soul starts from his mouth:

with one jerked gulp he brings up his own blood,

spatters me dark with the scarlet dew in his breath.

And that dew falls on me as the gods' spring rains

fall and bless harvest back to the long-parched earth"

(Agamemnon, 458 BC, p. 36, lines 1387-1392).


Aeschylus is the eldest tragedian from the last quarter of the sixth century B.C. He was not only a great playwright at that time, but he was also a great soldier who fought in the Persian Wars, in the battle of Marathon, and in Salamis. Until his death, he wrote many tragedies which changed and formed Early Greek Tragedy in terms of plot and structure. He added the second actor and then the third; he removed the exodus of the Chorus and the prologue for some plays; he gave the same weight to the two actors and created a play without a protagonist; he made inversions of gender roles which was something unthinkable at that time. Hence, the role of Aeschylus in the development of Greek Tragedy was quite significant.


Resources


Aeschylus. (2013) Agamemnon. (T. Chappell, Trans.). Retrieved from https://www.open.ac.uk/people/sites/www.open.ac.uk.people/files/files/aeschylus-agamemnon-definitive.pdf


Bednarowski, K. P. (2015). SURPRISE AND SUSPENSE IN AESCHYLUS’ “AGAMEMNON.” The American Journal of Philology, 136(2), 179–205. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24562756


Brown, A. (Ed.). (2018). Aeschylus: Libation Bearers. Liverpool University Press. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv160bt3g


Copleston, R. S. (1870) Aeschylus. William Blackwood and Sons.


Herington, J. (1986). Aeschylus. Yale University Press.


Garvie, A.F. (2016). The Plays of Aeschylus. Bloomsbury Publishing.


Kitto, H. D. F. (2003). Greek Tragedy: A Literary Study. The Taylor & Francis e-Library.


Image Resources


Gill, N.S. (2019). A photograph of The Bust of Aeschylus. [Photograph]. ThoughtCo. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/aeschylus-greek-tragedy-writer-profile-118001


Kaulbach, W. von. (1868). Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis (The Battle of Salamis, Trans.) . [Painting]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Salamis#/media/File:Kaulbach,_Wilhelm_von_-_Die_Seeschlacht_bei_Salamis_-_1868.JPG


Richmond, W. B. (1884). An Audience in Athens during the Representation of Agamemnon by Aeschylus. [Painting]. Retrieved from https://fineartamerica.com/featured/an-audience-in-athens-during-the-representation-of-agamemnon-by-aeschylus-william-blake-richmond.htm


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Melis Güven

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