Aeschylus

(525 BC - 455 BC / Eleusis)

Biography of Aeschylus

Aeschylus poet

The "Father of Tragedy," Aeschylus was born in 525 B.C. in the city of Eleusis. Immersed early in the mystic rites of the city and in the worship of the Mother and Earth goddess Demeter, he was once sent as a child to watch grapes ripening in the countryside. According to Aeschylus, when he dozed off, Dionysus appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to write tragedies. The obedient young Aeschylus began a tragedy the next morning and "succeeded very easily."

When Aeschylus first began writing, the theatre had only just begun to evolve. Plays were little more than animated oratorios or choral poetry supplemented with expressive dance. A chorus danced and exchanged dialogue with a single actor who portrayed one or more characters primarily by the use of masks. Most of the action took place in the circular dancing area or "orchestra" which still remained from the old days when drama had been nothing more than a circular dance around a sacred object.

It was a huge leap for drama when Aeschylus introduced the second actor. He also attempted to involve the chorus directly in the action of the play. In Agamemnon, the chorus of Elders quarrels with the queen's lover, and in The Eumenides, a chorus of Furies pursue the grief-stricken Orestes. Aeschylus directed many of his own productions, and according to ancient critics, he is said to have brought the Furies onstage in so realistic a manner that women miscarried in the audience.

Although Aeschylus is said to have written over ninety plays, only seven have survived. His first extant work, The Suppliants, reveals a young Aeschylus still struggling with the problems of choral drama. The tale revolves around the fifty daughers of Danaus who seek refuge in Argos from the attentions of the fifty sons of Aegyptus. His second extant drama, The Persians, recounts the battle of Salamis--in which Aeschylus and his brother actually fought--and deals primarily with the reception of the news at the imperial court. This play contains the first "ghost scene" of extant drama.

In his third surviving play, Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus tackles the myth of Prometheus, the world's first humanitarian. As the play begins, the titan is being fastened against his will to a peak in the Caucasian mountains for giving mankind the gift of fire without the consent of the gods. Prometheus knows Zeus is destined to fall. In fact, he holds the secret of the Olympian's doom--a certain woman that will be his undoing--but Prometheus will not reveal her name. Even amid the fire from heaven that is hurled at him in a frightening climax, Prometheus remains fearless and silent.

In Seven Against Thebes, Aeschylus deals with themes of patricide and incest. He was not, however, willing to settle for the conventional explanation of the "family curse". Instead, Aeschylus delved deeper, suggesting that heredity is nothing more than a predisposition--that the true cause of such "acts of wickedness" is ambition, greed, and a lack of moral fortitude. Thus, eliminating the gods as an excuse for wickedness, Aeschylus demanded that men take responsibility for their actions.

The Oresteia, a trilogy, was performed in 458 BC, less than two years before Aeschylus' death. Once again, he dealt with the tragedy of a royal house, a "hereditary curse" which began in a dim, legendary world in which Tantalus was cast into the pit of Tartarus for revealing to mankind the secrets of the gods. This situation paralleled events in Aeschylus' own life. He was reportedly charged with "impiety" for revealing the Eleusinian mysteries--the secret rites of the city of his birth--to outsiders. It is likely, however, that these charges were politically motivated, and he was not convicted.

Legend has it that Aeschylus met his death when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it. Whatever the cause of his death, his life laid the groundwork the dramatic arts would need to flourish, and by the time of his death, there were two notable successors ready to take his place--Sophocles and Euripides

Influence

On Greek Culture

When Aeschylus first began writing, the theatre had only just begun to evolve, although earlier playwrights like Thespis had already expanded the cast to include an actor who was able to interact with the chorus. Aeschylus added a second actor, allowing for greater dramatic variety, while the chorus played a less important role. He is sometimes credited with introducing skenographia, or scene-decoration,though Aristotle gives this distinction to Sophocles. Aeschylus is also said to have made the costumes more elaborate and dramatic, and having his actors wear platform boots (cothurni) to make them more visible to the audience. According to a later account of Aeschylus's life, as they walked on stage in the first performance of the Eumenides, the chorus of Furies were so frightening in appearance that they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labour.

His plays were written in verse, no violence is performed on stage, and the plays have a remoteness from daily life in Athens, either by relating stories about the gods or by being set, like The Persians, in far-away locales. Aeschylus's work has a strong moral and religious emphasis. The Oresteia trilogy concentrated on man's position in the cosmos in relation to the gods, divine law, and divine punishment. Aeschylus's popularity is evident in the praise the comic playwright Aristophanes gives him in The Frogs, produced some half-century after Aeschylus's death. Appearing as a character in the play, Aeschylus claims at line 1022 that his Seven against Thebes "made everyone watching it to love being warlike"; with his Persians, Aeschylus claims at lines 1026-7 that he "taught the Athenians to desire always to defeat their enemies." Aeschylus goes on to say at lines 1039ff. that his plays inspired the Athenians to be brave and virtuous.

Influence outside of Greek Culture

Aeschylus's works were influential beyond his own time. Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Regius Professor of Greek Emeritus at Oxford University) draws attention to Wagner's reverence of Aeschylus. Michael Ewans argues in his Wagner and Aeschylus. The Ring and the Oresteia (London: Faber. 1982) that the influence was so great as to merit a direct character by character comparison between Wagner's Ring and Aeschylus's Oresteia. A critic of his book however, while not denying that Wagner read and respected Aeschylus, has described his arguments as unreasonable and forced.

Sir J. T. Sheppard argues in the second half of his Aeschylus and Sophocles: Their Work and Influence that Aeschylus, along with Sophocles, have played a major part in the formation of dramatic literature from the Renaissance to the present, specifically in French and Elizabethan drama. He also claims that their influence went beyond just drama and applies to literature in general, citing Milton and the Romantics.

During his presidential campaign in 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy quoted the Edith Hamilton translation of Aeschylus on the night of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Kennedy was notified of King's murder before a campaign stop in Indianapolis, Indiana and was warned not to attend the event due to fears of rioting from the mostly African-American crowd. Kennedy insisted on attending and delivered an impromptu speech that delivered news of King's death to the crowd. Acknowledging the audience's emotions, Kennedy referred to his own grief at the murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy and, quoting a passage from the play Agamemnon, said: "My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: 'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.' What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black... Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world." The speech is considered to be Kennedy's finest. The quotation from Aeschylus was later inscribed on a memorial at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy following his own assassination

Aeschylus's Works:

The Persians
Seven Against Thebes
The Suppliants
The Oresteia trilogy
Agamemnon
The Libation Bearers
The Eumenides
Prometheus Bound (disputed)

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The Beacon Fires

A GLEAM -- a gleam -- from Ida's height,
By the Fire-god sent, it came;
From watch to watch it leapt, that light,
As a rider rode the flame!
It shot through the startled sky,
And the torch of that blazing glory
Old Lemnos caught on high,
On its holy promontory,
And sent it on, the jocund sign,

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