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Overview

Aeschylus

(525—456 bc) Greek dramatist


Related Overviews

 

Sophocles (496—406 bc)

Greek tragedy

Euripides (c. 485—406 bc) Greek dramatist

Pericles (c. 495—429 bc) Athenian statesman and general

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Quick Reference

Athenian tragic poet (?525/4–456/5 bc). He fought in the battle of Marathon. His first tragic production was in 499, his first victory in 484. He gained thirteen victories altogether. His epitaph makes no reference to his art, only to his prowess displayed at Marathon; this estimate of what was most important in Aeschylus' life—to have been a loyal and courageous citizen of a free Athens—will reflect his own death‐bed wishes or those of his family.

Works

Aeschylus' total output is variously stated at between 70 and 90 plays. Seven plays have survived, of which Prometheus Bound is of disputed authenticity. Many of Aeschylus' productions were connected ‘tetralogies’, comprising three tragedies presenting successive episodes of a single story (a ‘trilogy’) followed by a satyr‐play based on part of the same or a related myth. This seems to have been common practice in his day. See satyric drama.

Technique

Aeschylus was the most innovative and imaginative of Greek dramatists. His extant plays, though covering a period of only fifteen years, show a great and evolving variety in structure and presentation.

The three earliest extent plays (Persians, Seven against Thebes, and Suppliants) are designed for a theatre without a skēnē (stage building; see theatre ‐staging, greek) but containing a mound or elevation (tomb of Darius, Theban acropolis, Argive sanctuary, the two latter with cult‐images on them). There are two actors only; the main interactions are less between character and character than between character and chorus (often expressed in dialogue between singing chorus and speaking actor). There is a wide variety of structural patterns, some of them probably unique experiments, but all built round the basic framework of a series of episodes framed by entries and exits and separated by choral songs. The pace of the action is usually slow.

By 458 (the year of the Oresteia trilogy: Agamemnon, Libation‐bearers, Eumenides) the dramatist had available to him a skene and probably an ekkyklēma and mēchanē also (see theatre staging, greek), as well as a third actor. Aeschylus makes imaginative, and once again very varied, use of the new opportunities. After composing the first half of Agamemnon entirely in his old style (with no actor–actor dialogue), he centres the play on a verbal trial of strength between Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, meanwhile keeping Cassandra long silent and then making her narrate Agamemnon's death prophetically before it happens. The house and its entrance are firmly controlled throughout by the ‘watchdog’ Clytemnestra. In the second half of Libation‐bearers the action increasingly accelerates as the climax approaches, and then abruptly slows as Clytemnestra for a time staves off her doom with brilliant verbal fencing. In Eumenides a series of short scenes, full of surprises and changes of location, and including a trial‐scene with some virtuoso four‐sided dialogue, leads to a conclusion mainly in the old mode for one actor and chorus (with a second chorus at the very end).

Aeschylus' plots tend to be characterized, not by abrupt changes of direction (peripeteiai), but by a build‐up of tension and expectation towards a climax anticipated by the audience if not by the characters. He was quite capable of contriving peripeteiai when he wished, as witness Seven against Thebes, where the whole action pivots on Eteocles' discovery that he has unwittingly brought about a combat between himself and his brother and thus fulfilled his father's curse; the trilogy form, however, encourages sharp changes of direction and mood between plays rather than within them.

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Subjects: classical studies.


Reference entries

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Works by Aeschylus