Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Æschylus (c. 525–456 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by John Williams White (1849–1917)
THE MIGHTIEST of Greek tragic poets was the son of Euphorion, an Athenian noble, and was born B.C. 525. When he was a lad of eleven, the tyrant Hipparchus fell in a public street of Athens under the daggers of Harmodius and Aristogeiton. Later, Æschylus saw the family of tyrants, which for fifty years had ruled Attica with varying fortunes, banished from the land. With a boy’s eager interest he followed the establishment of the Athenian democracy by Cleisthenes. He grew to manhood in stirring times. The new State was engaged in war with the powerful neighboring island of Ægina; on the eastern horizon was gathering the cloud that was to burst in storm at Marathon. Æschylus was trained in that early school of Athenian greatness whose masters were Miltiades, Aristides, and Themistocles.  1
  During the struggle with Persia, fought out on Greek soil, the poet was at the height of his physical powers, and we may feel confidence in the tradition that he fought not only at Marathon, but also at Salamis. Two of his extant tragedies breathe the very spirit of war, and show a soldier’s experience; and the epitaph upon his tomb, which was said to have been written by himself, recorded how he had been one of those who met the barbarians in the first shock of the great struggle and had helped to save his country.
      “How brave in battle was Euphorion’s son,
The long-haired Mede can tell who fell at Marathon.”
  Before Æschylus, Attic tragedy had been essentially lyrical. It arose from the dithyrambic chorus that was sung at the festivals of Dionysus. Thespis had introduced the first actor, who, in the pauses of the choral song, related in monologue the adventures of the god or engaged in dialogue with the leader of the chorus. To Æschylus is due the invention of the second actor. This essentially changed the character of the performance. The dialogue could now be carried on by the two actors, who were thus able to enact a complete story. The functions of the chorus became less important, and the lyrical element was subordinated to the action. (The word “drama” signifies action.) The number of actors was subsequently increased to three, and Æschylus in his later plays used this number. This restriction imposed upon the Greek playwright does not mean that he was limited to two or three characters in his play, but that only two, or at the most three, of these might take part in the action at once. The same actor might assume different parts. The introduction of the second actor was so capital an innovation that it rightly entitles Æschylus to be regarded as the creator of the drama, for in his hands tragedy first became essentially dramatic. This is his great distinction, but his powerful genius wrought other changes. He perfected, if he did not discover, the practice of introducing three plays upon a connected theme (technically named a trilogy), with an after-piece of lighter character. He invented the tragic dress and buskin, and perfected the tragic mask. He improved the tragic dance, and by his use of scenic decoration and stage machinery, secured effects that were unknown before him. His chief claim to superior excellence, however, lies after all in his poetry. Splendid in diction, vivid in the portraiture of character, and powerful in the expression of passion, he is regarded by many competent critics as the greatest tragic poet of all time.  3
  The Greek lexicographer, Suidas, reports that Æschylus wrote ninety plays. The titles of seventy-two of these have been handed down in an ancient register. He brought out the first of these at the age of twenty-five, and as he died at the age of sixty-nine, he wrote on an average two plays each year throughout his lifetime. Such fertility would be incredible, were not similar facts authentically recorded of the older tragic poets of Greece. The Greek drama, moreover, made unusual demands on the creative powers of the poet. It was lyrical, and the lyrics were accompanied by the dance. All these elements—poetry, song, and dance—the poet contributed; and we gain a new sense of the force of the word “poet” (it means “creator”), when we contemplate his triple function. Moreover, he often “staged” the play himself, and sometimes he acted in it. Æschylus was singularly successful in an age that produced many great poets. He took the first prize at least thirteen times; and as he brought out four plays at each contest, more than half his plays were adjudged by his contemporaries to be of the highest quality. After the poet’s death, plays which he had written, but which had not been acted in his lifetime, were brought out by his sons and a nephew. It is on record that his son Euphorion took the first prize four times with plays of his father; so the poet’s art lived after him and suffered no eclipse.  4
  Only seven complete plays of Æschylus are still extant. The best present source of the text of these is a manuscript preserved in the Laurentian Library, at Florence in Italy, which was written in the tenth or eleventh century after Christ. The number of plays still extant is small, but fortunately, among them is the only complete Greek trilogy that we possess, and luckily also the other four serve to mark successive stages in the poet’s artistic development. The trilogy of the ‘Oresteia’ is certainly his masterpiece; in some of the other plays he is clearly seen to be still bound by the limitations which hampered the earlier writers of Greek tragedy. In the following analysis the seven plays will be presented in their probable chronological order.  5
  The Greeks signally defeated Xerxes in the great sea fight in the bay of Salamis, B.C. 480. The poet made this victory the theme of his ‘Persians.’ This is the only historical Greek tragedy which we now possess: the subjects of all the rest are drawn from mythology. But Æschylus had a model for his historical play in the ‘Phœnician Women’ of his predecessor Phrynichus, which dealt with the same theme. Æschylus, indeed, is said to have imitated it closely in the ‘Persians.’ Plagiarism was thought to be a venial fault by the ancients, just as in the Homeric times piracy was not considered a disgrace. The scene of the play is not Athens, as one might expect, but Susa. It opens without set prologue. The Chorus consists of Persian elders, to whom the government of the country has been committed in the absence of the King. These venerable men gather in front of the royal palace, and their leader opens the play with expressions of apprehension: no news has come from the host absent in Greece. The Chorus at first express full confidence in the resistless might of the great army; but remembering that the gods are jealous of vast power and success in men, yield to gloomy forebodings. These grow stronger when Atossa, the aged mother of Xerxes, appears from the palace and relates the evil dreams which she has had on the previous night, and the omen that followed. The Chorus beseech her to make prayer to the gods, to offer libations to the dead, and especially to invoke the spirit of Darius to avert the evil which threatens his ancient kingdom. Too late! A messenger arrives and announces that all is lost. By one fell stroke the might of Persia has been laid low at Salamis. At Atossa’s request, the messenger, interrupted at first by the lamentations of the Chorus, recounts what has befallen. His description of the battle in the straits is a passage of signal power, and is justly celebrated. The Queen retires, and the Chorus sing a song full of gloomy reflections. The Queen reappears, and the ghost of Darius is invoked from the lower world. He hears from Atossa what has happened, sees in this the fulfillment of certain ancient prophecies, foretells disaster still to come, and warns the Chorus against further attempts upon Greece. As he departs to the underworld, the Chorus sing in praise of the wisdom of his reign. Atossa has withdrawn. Xerxes now appears with attendants, laments with the Chorus the disaster that has overtaken him, and finally enters the palace.  6
  The economy of the play is simple: only two actors are required. The first played the parts of Atossa and Xerxes, the second that of the messenger and the ghost of Darius. The play well illustrates the conditions under which Æschylus at this period wrote. The Chorus was still of first importance; the ratio of the choral parts in the play to the dialogue is about one to two.  7
  The exact date of the ‘Suppliants’ cannot be determined; but the simplicity of its plot, the lack of a prologue, the paucity of its characters, and the prominence of the Chorus, show that it is an early play. The scene is Argos. The Chorus consists of the daughters of Danaüs, and there are only three characters,—Danaüs, a Herald, and Pelasgus King of Argos.  8
  Danaüs and Ægyptus, brothers, and descendants of Io and Epaphus, had settled near Canopus at the mouth of the Nile. Ægyptus sought to unite his fifty sons in marriage with the fifty daughters of the brother. The daughters fled with their father to Argos. Here his play opens. The Chorus appeal for protection to the country, once the home of Io, and to its gods and heroes. Pelasgus, with the consent of the Argive people, grants them refuge, and at the end of the play repels the attempt to seize them made by the Herald of the sons of Ægyptus.  9
  A part of one of the choruses is of singular beauty, and it is doubtless to them that the preservation of the play is due. The play hardly seems to be a tragedy, for it ends without bloodshed. Further, it lacks dramatic interest, for the action almost stands still. It is a cantata rather than a tragedy. Both considerations, however, are sufficiently explained by the fact that this was the first play of a trilogy. The remaining plays must have furnished, in the death of forty-nine of the sons of Ægyptus, both action and tragedy in sufficient measure to satisfy the most exacting demands.  10
  The ‘Seven Against Thebes’ deals with the gloomy myth of the house of Laïus. The tetralogy to which it belonged consisted of the ‘Laïus,’ ‘Œdipus,’ ‘Seven Against Thebes,’ and ‘Sphinx.’ The themes of Greek tragedy were drawn from the national mythology, but the myths were treated with a free hand. In his portrayal of the fortunes of this doomed race, Æschylus departed in important particulars, with gain in dramatic effect, from the story as it is read in Homer.  11
  Œdipus had pronounced an awful curse upon his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, for their unfilial neglect,—“they should one day divide their land by steel.” They thereupon agreed to reign in turn, each for a year; but Eteocles, the elder, refused at the end of the first year to give up the throne. Polynices appealed to Adrastus King of Argos for help, and seven chiefs appeared before the walls of Thebes to enforce his claim, and beleaguered the town. Here the play opens, with an appeal addressed by Eteocles to the citizens of Thebes to prove themselves stout defenders of their State in its hour of peril. A messenger enters, and describes the sacrifice and oath of the seven chiefs. The Chorus of Theban maidens enter in confusion and sing the first ode. The hostile army is hurrying from its camp against the town; the Chorus hear their shouts and the rattling din of their arms, and are overcome by terror. Eteocles reproves them for their fears, and bids them sing a pæan that shall hearten the people. The messenger, in a noteworthy scene, describes the appearance of each hostile chief. The seventh and last is Polynices. Eteocles, although conscious of his father’s curse, nevertheless declares with gloomy resoluteness that he will meet his brother in single combat, and, resisting the entreaties of the Chorus, goes forth to his doom. The attack on the town is repelled, but the brothers fall, each by the other’s hand. Thus is the curse fulfilled. Presently their bodies are wheeled in. Their sisters, Antigone and Ismene, follow and sing a lament over the dead. A herald announces that the Theban Senate forbid the burial of Polynices; his body shall be cast forth as prey of dogs. Antigone declares her resolution to brave their mandate, and perform the last sad rites for her brother.
  “Dread tie, the common womb from which we sprang,—
Of wretched mother born and hapless sire.”
  The Chorus divides. The first semi-chorus sides with Antigone; the second declares its resolution to follow to its last resting-place the body of Eteocles. And thus the play ends. The theme is here sketched, just at the close of the play, in outline, that Sophocles has developed with such pathetic effect in his ‘Antigone.’  13
  The ‘Prometheus’ transports the reader to another world. The characters are gods, the time is the remote past, the place a desolate waste in Scythia, on the confines of the Northern Ocean. Prometheus had sinned against the authority of Zeus. Zeus wished to destroy the old race of mankind; but Prometheus gave them fire, taught them arts and handicrafts, developed in them thought and consciousness, and so assured both their existence and their happiness. The play deals with his punishment. Prometheus is borne upon the scene by Force and Strength, and is nailed to a lofty cliff by Hephæstus. His appeal to Nature, when his tormentors depart and he is left alone, is peculiarly pathetic. The daughters of Oceanus, constituting the Chorus, who have heard the sound of the hammer in their ocean cave, are now borne in aloft on a winged car, and bewail the fate of the outraged god. Oceanus appears upon a winged steed, and offers his mediation; but this is scornfully rejected. The resolution of Prometheus to resist Zeus to the last is strengthened by the coming of Io. She too, as it seems, is a victim of the Ruler of the Universe; driven by the jealous wrath of Hera, she roams from land to land. She tells the tale of her sad wandering, and finally rushes from the scene in frenzy, crazed by the sting of the gadfly that Hera has sent to torment her. Prometheus knows a secret full of menace to Zeus. Relying on this, he prophesies his overthrow, and defies him to do his worst. Hermes is sent to demand with threats its revelation, but fails to accomplish his purpose. Prometheus insults and taunts him. Hermes warns the Chorus to leave, for Zeus is about to display his wrath. At first they refuse, but then fly affrighted: the cliff is rending and sinking, the elements are in wild tumult. As he sinks, about to be engulfed in the bowels of the earth, Prometheus cries:—
                  “Earth is rocking in space!
And the thunders crash up with a roar upon roar,
  And the eddying lightnings flash fire in my face,
And the whirlwinds are whirling the dust round and round,
  And the blasts of the winds universal leap free
And blow each upon each with a passion of sound,
  And æther goes mingling in storm with the sea.”
  The play is Titanic. Its huge shapes, its weird effects, its mighty passions, its wild display of the forces of earth and air,—these impress us chiefly at first; but its ethical interest is far greater. Zeus is apparently represented in it as relentless, cruel, and unjust,—a lawless ruler, who knows only his own will,—whereas in all the other plays of Æschylus he is just and righteous, although sometimes severe. Æschylus, we know, was a religious man. It seems incredible that he should have had two contradictory conceptions of the character of Zeus. The solution of this problem is to be found in the fact that this ‘Prometheus’ was the first play of the trilogy. In the second play, the ‘Prometheus Unbound,’ of which we have only fragments, these apparent contradictions must have been reconciled. Long ages are supposed to elapse between the plays. Prometheus yields. He reveals the secret and is freed from his bonds. What before seemed to be relentless wanton cruelty is now seen to have been only the harsh but necessary severity of a ruler newly established on his throne. By the reconciliation of this stern ruler with the wise Titan, the giver of good gifts to men, order is restored to the universe. Prometheus acknowledges his guilt, and the course of Zeus is vindicated; but the loss of the second play of the trilogy leaves much in doubt, and an extraordinary number of solutions of the problem has been proposed. The reader must not look for one of these, however, in the ‘Prometheus Unbound’ of Shelley, who deliberately rejected the supposition of a reconciliation.  15
  The three remaining plays are founded on the woful myth of the house of Atreus, son of Pelops, a theme much treated by the Greek tragic poets. They constitute the only existing Greek trilogy, and are the last and greatest work of the poet. They were brought out at Athens, B.C. 458, two years after the author’s death. The ‘Agamemnon’ sets forth the crime,—the murder, by his wife, of the great King, on his return home from Troy; the ‘Choëphori,’ the vengeance taken on the guilty wife by her own son; the ‘Eumenides,’ the atonement made by that son in expiation of his mother’s murder.  16
  Agamemnon on departing for Troy left behind him in his palace a son and a daughter, Orestes and Electra. Orestes was exiled from home by his mother Clytemnestra, who in Agamemnon’s absence lived in guilty union with Ægisthus, own cousin of the King, and who could no longer endure to look upon the face of her son.  17
  The scene of the ‘Agamemnon’ is the royal palace in Argos. The time is night. A watchman is discovered on the flat roof of the palace. For a year he has kept weary vigil there, waiting for the beacon-fire that, sped from mountain-top to mountain-top, shall announce the fall of Troy. The signal comes at last, and joyously he proclaims the welcome news. The sacrificial fires which have been made ready in anticipation of the event are set alight throughout the city. The play naturally falls into three divisions. The first introduces the Chorus of Argive elders, Clytemnestra, and a Herald who tells of the hardships of the siege and of the calamitous return, and ends with the triumphal entrance of Agamemnon with Cassandra, and his welcome by the Queen; the second comprehends the prophecy of the frenzied Cassandra of the doom about to fall upon the house and the murder of the King; the third the conflict between the Chorus, still faithful to the murdered King, and Clytemnestra, beside whom stands her paramour Ægisthus.  18
  Interest centers in Clytemnestra. Crafty, unscrupulous, resolute, remorseless, she veils her deadly hatred for her lord, and welcomes him home in tender speech:—
  “So now, dear lord, I bid thee welcome home—
True as the faithful watchdog of the fold,
Strong as the mainstay of the laboring bark,
Stately as column, fond as only child,
Dear as the land to shipwrecked mariner,
Bright as fair sunshine after winter’s storms,
Sweet as fresh fount to thirsty wanderer—
All this, and more, thou art, dear love, to me.”
  Agamemnon passes within the palace; she slays him in his bath, enmeshed in a net, and then, reappearing, vaunts her bloody deed:
  “I smote him, and he bellowed; and again
I smote, and with a groan his knees gave way;
And as he fell before me, with a third
And last libation from the deadly mace,
I pledged the crowning draught to Hades due,
That subterranean Saviour—of the dead!
At which he spouted up the Ghost in such
A flood of purple as, bespattered with,
No less did I rejoice than the green ear
Rejoices in the largesse of the skies
That fleeting Iris follows as it flies.”
  Æschylus departs from the Homeric account, which was followed by other poets, in making the action of the next play, the ‘Choëphori,’ follow closer upon that of the ‘Agamemnon.’ Orestes has heard in Phocis of his father’s murder, and returns in secret, with his friend Pylades, to exact vengeance. The scene is still Argos, but Agamemnon’s tomb is now seen in front of the palace. The Chorus consists of captive women, who aid and abet the attempt. The play sets forth the recognition of Orestes by Electra; the plot by which Orestes gains admission to the palace; the deceit of the old Nurse, a homely but capital character, by whom Ægisthus is induced to come to the palace without armed attendants; the death of Ægisthus and Clytemnestra; the appearance of the avenging Furies; and the flight of Orestes.  21
  The last play of the trilogy, the ‘Eumenides,’ has many singular features. The Chorus of Furies seemed even to the ancients to be a weird and terrible invention; the scene of the play shifts from Delphi to Athens; the poet introduces into the play a trial scene; and he had in it a distinct political purpose, whose development occupies one-half of the drama.  22
  Orestes, pursued by the avenging Furies, “Gorgon-like, vested in sable stoles, their locks entwined with clustering snakes,” has fled to Delphi to invoke the aid of Apollo. He clasps the navel-stone and in his exhaustion falls asleep. Around him sleep the Furies. The play opens with a prayer made by the Pythian priestess at an altar in front of the temple. The interior of the sanctuary is then laid bare. Orestes is awake, but the Furies sleep on. Apollo, standing beside Orestes, promises to protect him, but bids him make all haste to Athens, and there clasp, as a suppliant, the image of Athena. Orestes flies. The ghost of Clytemnestra rises from the underworld, and calls upon the Chorus to pursue. Overcome by their toil, they moan in their sleep, but finally start to their feet. Apollo bids them quit the temple.  23
  The scene changes to the ancient temple of Athena on the Acropolis at Athens, where Orestes is seen clasping the image of the goddess. The Chorus enter in pursuit of their victim, and sing an ode descriptive of their powers.  24
  Athena appears, and learns from the Chorus and from Orestes the reasons for their presence. She declares the issue to be too grave even for her to decide, and determines to choose judges of the murder, who shall become a solemn tribunal for all future time. These are to be the best of the citizens of Athens. After an ode by the Chorus, she returns, the court is established, and the trial proceeds in due form. Apollo appears for the defense of Orestes. When the arguments have been presented, Athena proclaims, before the vote has been taken, the establishment of the court as a permanent tribunal for the trial of cases of bloodshed. Its seat shall be the Areopagus. The votes are cast and Orestes is acquitted. He departs for Argos. The Furies break forth in anger and threaten woes to the land, but are appeased by Athena, who establishes their worship forever in Attica. Heretofore they have been the Erinnyes, or Furies; henceforth they shall be the Eumenides, or Gracious Goddesses. The Eumenides are escorted from the scene in solemn procession.  25
  Any analysis of the plays so brief as the preceding is necessarily inadequate. The English reader is referred to the histories of Greek Literature by K. O. Müller and by J. P. Mahaffy, to the striking chapter on Æschylus in J. A. Symonds’s ‘Greek Poets,’ and, for the trilogy, to Moulton’s ‘Ancient Classical Drama.’ If he knows French, he should add Croiset’s ‘Histoire de la Littérature Grecque,’ and should by all means read M. Patin’s volume on Æschylus in his ‘Études sur les Tragique Grècs.’ There are translations in English of the poet’s complete works by Potter, by Plumptre, by Blackie, and by Miss Swanwick. Flaxman illustrated the plays. Ancient illustrations are easily accessible in Baumeister’s ‘Denkmäler,’ under the names of the different characters in the plays. There is a translation of the ‘Prometheus’ by Mrs. Browning, and of the ‘Suppliants’ by Morshead, who has also translated the Atridean trilogy under the title of ‘The House of Atreus.’ Goldwin Smith has translated portions of six of the plays in his ‘Specimens of Greek Tragedy.’ Many translations of the ‘Agamemnon’ have been made, among others by Milman, by Symmons, by Lord Carnarvon, and by Fitzgerald. Robert Browning also translated the play, with appalling literalness.  26

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.