Aeschylus was born in the city of Eleusis, near Athens, in 525 BC and died in 456 BC. He was a Greek dramatist, the earliest of the city's great tragic poets. As the predecessor of Sophocles and Euripides, he is the founder of Greek tragedy.
He fought successfully against the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC, at Salamis in 480 BC, and possibly at Plataea in the following year. He made at least two trips, perhaps three, to Sicily, where on his final visit he died at Gela. A monument was later erected there in his memory.
It was a major step for drama when Aeschylus introduced the second actor. He also attempted to involve the chorus directly in the action of the play. Aeschylus is said to have written about 90 plays. His tragedies, first performed about 500 BC, were presented as trilogies, or groups of three, usually bound together by a common theme, and each trilogy was followed by a satyr drama (low comedy involving a mythological hero, with a chorus of satyrs). The titles of 79 of his plays are known, but only 7 have survived.
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Famous Greek Tragedies
I have summarized the lives and most notable plays of the only three surviving Greek playwrights.
Aeschylus wrote approximately 90 plays, including satyr plays as well as tragedies; of these, about 80 titles are known. Only seven tragedies have survived entire. His trilogy of three plays, Oresteia, is the only surviving trilogy. (a Trilogy is the three plays written and presented by a playwright on a single day of the Festival of Dionysus.)One account, perhaps based on the official lists, assigns Aeschylus 13 first prizes, or victories; this would mean that well over half of his plays won, since sets of three plays (trilogy) rather than separate ones were judged. According to the philosopher Flavius Philostratus, Aeschylus was known as the “Father of Tragedy.” Aeschylus' two sons also achieved prominence as tragedians. One of them, Euphorion, won first prize in his own right in 431 BCE over Sophocles and Euripides. Aeschylus is credited with the introduction of a 2nd actor, which increased the opportunity for greater dramatic dialogue and diminished the role of the chorus.
The Oresteia trilogy consists of three closely connected plays, all extant, that were presented in 458 BCE. In Agamemnon the great Greek king of that name returns triumphant from the siege of Troy, along with his concubine, the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, only to be murdered by his fiercely vengeful wife, Clytemnestra. She is driven to this act partly by a desire to avenge the death of her daughter Iphigenia, whom Agamemnon has sacrificed in order to ensure Greek success in the Trojan War, partly by her adulterous love for Aegisthus with whom she had an affair while Agamemnon was away at war, and partly as agent for the divine curse brought on Agamemnon's family by the crimes of his father, Atreus. At the play's end Clytemnestra and her lover have taken over the palace and now rule Argos.
Libation Bearers is the second play in the trilogy and takes its title from the chorus of women servants who come to pour propitiatory offerings at the tomb of the murdered Agamemnon. At the start of this play Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who was sent abroad as a child, returns as a man to take vengeance upon his mother and her lover for their murder of his father. He is reunited with his sister Electra, and together they invoke the aid of the dead Agamemnon in their plans. Orestes then slays Aegisthus, but Orestes' subsequent murder of Clytemnestra is committed reluctantly, at the god Apollo's bidding. Orestes' attempts at self-justification then falter and he flees, guilt-wracked, maddened, and pursued by the female incarnations of his mother's curse, the Erinyes (Furies). (The Furies are three very ancient deities who are responsible for punishing those guilty of murder who have not been punished for their crime.) At this point the chain of vengeance seems interminable. The chain of deaths could continue indefinitely.
Eumenides, the title of the third play, means “The Kindly Ones.” The play opens at the shrine of Apollo at Delphi, where Orestes has taken sanctuary from the Furies. At the command of the Delphic oracle, Orestes journeys to Athens to stand trial for his matricide. There the goddess Athena organizes a trial with a jury of citizens. The Furies are his accusers, while Apollo defends him. The jury divides evenly in its vote and Athena casts the tie-breaking vote for Orestes' acquittal. The Furies then turn their vengeful resentment against the city itself, but Athena persuades them, in return for a home and worship by the Athenians, to bless Athens instead and reside there as the “Kindly Goddesses” of the play's title. The trilogy thus ends with the cycle of retributive bloodshed ended and supplanted by the rule of law and the justice of the state. Moreover, mortals will henceforth determine justice rather than the gods.
Sophocles was born about 496 BCE in Colonus Hippius (now part of Athens), the son of Sophillus, reportedly a wealthy armor-maker. Sophocles was provided with the best traditional aristocratic education. As a young man, he was chosen to lead the chorus of youths who celebrated the naval victory at Salamís in 480 BCE. In 468 BCE, at the age of 28, he defeated Aeschylus, whose preeminence as a tragic poet had long been undisputed, in a dramatic competition. The date of the first contest with Euripides is uncertain; in 441 Euripides defeated Sophocles in one of the annual Athenian dramatic competitions. From 468 BCE, however, Sophocles won first prize about 20 times and many second prizes. His life, which ended in 406 BCE at about the age of 90, coincided with the period of Athenian greatness. He numbered among his friends the historian Herodotus, and he was an associate of the statesman Pericles. He was not politically active or militarily inclined, but the Athenians twice elected him to high military office.
He won his first victory at the Dionysian dramatic festival in 468, however, defeating the great Aeschylus in the process. This began a career of unparalleled success and longevity. In total, Sophocles wrote 123 dramas for the festivals. Since each author who was chosen to enter the competition usually presented four plays, this means he must have competed about 30 times. Sophocles won perhaps as many as 24 victories, compared to 13 for Aeschylus and four for Euripides, and indeed he may have never received lower than second place in the competitions he entered. Sophocles is credited with the introduction of a 3rd actor, and the use of only three actors became the traditional for the next three centuries.
Oedipus the King
Oedipus, in Greek mythology, was the king of Thebes, the son of Laius and Jocasta, king and queen of Thebes. Laius was warned by an oracle that he would be killed by his own son. Determined to avert his fate, Laius pierced and bound together the feet of his newborn child and left him to die on a lonely mountain. The infant was rescued by a shepherd, however, and given to Polybus, king of Corinth, who named the child Oedipus (swollen foot) and raised him as his own son. The boy did not know that he was adopted, and when an oracle proclaimed that he would kill his father, he left Corinth. In the course of his wanderings he met and killed Laius, believing that the king and his followers were a band of robbers, and thus unwittingly fulfilled the prophecy.
Lonely and homeless, Oedipus arrived at Thebes, which was beset by a dreadful monster called the Sphinx. The frightful creature frequented the roads to the city, killing and devouring all travelers who could not answer the riddle that she put to them: What walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon, and on three legs in the evening? The answer was a human being, who in infancy crawls on all fours, in adulthood walks upright on two legs, and in old age uses a cane. When Oedipus solved her riddle, the Sphinx killed herself. Believing that King Laius had been slain by unknown robbers, and grateful to Oedipus for ridding them of the Sphinx, the Thebans rewarded Oedipus by making him their king and giving him Queen Jocasta as his wife. For many years the couple lived in happiness, not knowing that they were really mother and son.
The play opens with the city of Thebes stricken by a plague and its citizens begging Oedipus to find a remedy. He consults the Delphic oracle, which declares that the plague will cease only when the murderer of Jocasta's first husband, King Laius, has been found and punished for his deed. Oedipus resolves to find Laius' killer, and much of the rest of the play centers upon the investigation he conducts in this regard. In a series of tense, gripping, and ominous scenes Oedipus' investigation turns into an obsessive reconstruction of his own hidden past as he begins to suspect that the old man he killed at the crossroads was none other than Laius. Finally, Oedipus learns that he himself was abandoned to die as a baby by Laius and Jocasta because they feared a prophecy that their infant son would kill his father; that he survived and was adopted by the ruler of Corinth, but in his maturity he has unwittingly fulfilled the Delphic oracle's prophecy of him; that he has indeed killed his true father, married his own mother, and begot children who are also his own siblings.
Jocasta hangs herself when she sees this shameful web of incest and attempted child murder, and the guilt-stricken Oedipus then sticks needles into his eyes, blinding himself. Sightless and alone, he is now blind to the world around him but finally cognizant of the terrible truth of his own life. To fulfill the decree of Apollo, he goes into exile so that Thebes may be freed from the plague.
Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, the former king of Thebes. She is willing to face the capital punishment that has been decreed by her uncle Creon, the new king, as the penalty for anyone burying her brother Polyneices. (Polyneices has just been killed attacking Thebes, and it is as posthumous punishment for this attack that Creon has forbidden the burial of his corpse.) Obeying all her instincts of love, loyalty, and humanity, Antigone defies Creon and dutifully buries her brother's corpse. Creon, from conviction that reasons of state outweigh family ties, refuses to commute Antigone's death sentence. By the time Creon is finally persuaded by the prophet Teiresias to relent and free Antigone, she has killed herself in her prison cell. Creon's son, Haemon, kills himself out of love and sympathy for the dead Antigone, and Creon's wife, Eurydice, then kills herself out of grief over these tragic events. At the play's end Creon is left desolate and broken in spirit. In his narrow and unduly rigid adherence to his civic duties, Creon has defied the gods through his denial of humanity's common obligations toward the dead. The play thus concerns 1) the inevitable punishment of hubris by the gods, 2) the conflict of gender in Greek society and 3) the conflicting obligations of civic vs. religious loyalties and obligations.
According to tradition, Euripides was born in Salamis on September 23, about 480 BCE, the day of the great naval battle between the Greeks and the Persians. According to some authorities, his parents belonged to the nobility; according to others, they were of humble origin. In any case, their son received a thorough education. His plays began to be performed in the Attic drama festivals in 454 BCE, but it was not until 442 BCE that he won first prize. Despite his prolific talent, Euripides won this distinction again only four times. Aside from his writings, his chief interests were philosophy and science.
Although Euripides did not identify himself with any specific school of philosophy, he was influenced by the Sophists and by such philosophers as Protagoras, Anaxagoras, and Socrates. Euripides was austere and considered himself misunderstood by his contemporaries—a conclusion not without foundation, for he was constantly the object of attack by Athenian writers of comedy. Aristophanes in particular made him a subject of a satire in his play The Frogs (405 BCE). Euripides’ plays were criticized for their unconventionality, for their natural dialogue (his heroes and princes spoke the language of everyday life), and for their independence from traditional religious and moral values. His plays, however, if not overwhelmingly popular, were famous throughout Greece. In the latter part of his life Euripides left Athens for Macedonia.
In contrast to Aeschylus and Sophocles, Euripides represented the new moral, social, and political movements that were taking place in Athens toward the end of the 5th century BCE. It was a period of enormous intellectual discovery, in which wisdom ranked as the highest earthly accomplishment. Anaxagoras had recently demonstrated that air was an element, and that the sun was not a divinity but physical matter. New truths were being established in all the branches of knowledge, and Euripides, reacting to them, brought a new kind of consciousness to the writing of tragedy. His interest lay in the thought and experience of the ordinary individual rather than in the experiences of legendary figures from the epics of Homer.
Although Euripides drew on the old mythology, he treated its characters in a realistic fashion: They were no longer idealized symbols remote from commonplace life, but contemporary Athenians. Euripides shared in the intellectual skepticism of the day, and his plays challenged the religious and moral dogmas of the past, which had not yet fallen into general discredit. His moods and attitudes shifted between extremes, sometimes within the boundaries of the same play. He was capable of bitter, realistic observation of human weaknesses and corruption, and yet just as often his work reflected respect for human heroism, dignity, and more tender sentiments. He more than any other Greek playwright defied the patriarchal values of Classical Greek society by including strong, intelligent women in his plays and delineating the bleak prospects of gender equality in Greek society. He would have applauded Antigone for her defiance of King Creon.
Medea One of Euripides' most powerful and best known plays, Medea (431 BCE) is a remarkable study of the mistreatment of a woman and of her ruthless revenge. The Colchian princess Medea has been taken by the hero Jason to be his wife. They have lived happily for some years at Corinth and have two sons. But then Jason casts Medea off and decides to marry the Princess of Corinth. Medea is determined on revenge, and after a dreadful mental struggle between her passionate sense of injury and her love for her children, she decides to punish her husband by murdering both the Corinthian princess and their own sons, thereby leaving her husband to grow old with neither wife nor children. She steels herself to commit these deeds and then escapes in the chariot of her grandfather, the sun-god Helios, leaving Jason without even the satisfaction of punishing her for her crimes. Euripides succeeds in evoking sympathy for the figure of Medea, who becomes to some extent a representative of women's oppression in general.
Trojan Women The setting of Trojan Women (415 BCE; Greek Trōades) is the time immediately after the taking of Troy, and the play treats the sufferings of the wives and children of the city's defeated leaders, in particular the old Trojan queen Hecuba and her children. Hecuba's daughter Cassandra is taken off to be the concubine of Agamemnon, and then her daughter-in-law Andromache is led off to be the slave of Neoptolemus. Andromache's son Astyanax is taken from her to be hurled to his death from the walls of Troy. Finally, as Troy goes up in flames, Hecuba and the other Trojan women are taken off to the ships to face slavery in Greece. This play is a famous and powerful indictment of the barbarous cruelties of war. It was first produced only months after the Athenians captured the city-state of Melos, butchering its men and reducing its women to slavery, and the Trojan Women's mood may well have been influenced by the Athenians' atrocities and the Melians' fate, which are both mirrored in the play.
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