Aeschylus

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Aeschylus

Aeschylus (ĕs´kĬləs, ēs´–), 525–456 BC, Athenian tragic dramatist, b. Eleusis. The first of the three great Greek writers of tragedy, Aeschylus was the predecessor of Sophocles and Euripides.

Aeschylus fought at Marathon and at Salamis. In 476 BC he went to Sicily to live at the court of Hiero I, and he died at Gela. He wrote perhaps 90 plays (7 survive in full) and won 13 first prizes at the Greater Dionysia, the spring dramatic festival in which each dramatist submitted four connected plays—a tragic trilogy and a lighter satyr play.

Achievements and Characteristics

Prior to Aeschylus, tragedy had been a dramatically limited dialogue between a chorus and one actor. Aeschylus added an actor, who often took more than one part, thus allowing for dramatic conflict. He also introduced costumes, stage decoration, and supernumeraries. In addition, Aeschylus also appeared in his own plays.

In the sophisticated theology of his tragedies, human transgressions are punished by divine power, and humans learn from this suffering, so that it serves a positive, moral purpose. At their best, his choral lyrics are rivals of the odes of Pindar. The choruses, more important in Aeschylus than in his successors, both comment on the action as well as present it. Vivid in its character portrayal, majestic in its tone, and captivating in its lyricism, Aeschylus' tragic poetry is esteemed among the greatest of all time. He alone of Greek tragedians was honored at Athens by having his plays performed repeatedly after his death.

The Plays

The extant plays of Aeschylus are hard to date. The earliest is probably The Suppliants, simple in plot (concerning the 50 daughters of Danaüs) and with only one actor besides the chorus. The Persians (472? BC), glorifying the Athenian victory over Persia at Salamis, has two actors, but the new form is still unpolished. The Seven against Thebes can be dated to 467. Prometheus Bound (see Prometheus), of uncertain date, is striking for its bald attack on the vengefulness of the gods toward man, but the later two parts of its trilogy, which are lost, may have portrayed Zeus as just.

The last three tragedies of Aeschylus compose the only extant ancient trilogy, called the Oresteia, a history of the House of Atreus, with which the poet won first prize in 458. The three plays are Agamemnon, The Choëphoroe (The Libation Bearers), and The Eumenides; in each play three actors are used—an innovation borrowed from Sophocles. Because of its scope, complexity, and the profundity of its themes (the significance of human suffering and the true meaning of justice), the Oresteia as a whole is considered by many to be the greatest Attic tragedy. Browning's Agamemnon is a poetic translation of the first play, and Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra is an American reworking of the trilogy. The translation by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore in The Complete Greek Tragedies is one of many English translations of his plays.

Bibliography

See studies by G. Murray (1940), M. H. McCall, ed. (1972), T. G. Rosenmeyer (1982), R. P. Winnington-Ingram (1983), and J. Herington (1986).

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