"when men’s lives are swollen with hubris they are toppled down by some disaster sent from heaven" -from Sophocles' Ajax

22 November 2013

The Persians, by Aeschylus

Aeschylus’ play The Persians is unique amongst Greek tragedies because it focuses on a contemporary political situation rather than re-presenting stories from Greek mythology. The play is set in Persia just after the battle of Salamis, in which Aeschylus fought. The content of the play centers on Atossa—Xerxes’ mother—receiving the news that the Persian army has been destroyed at the battle of Salamis and her son disgraced.

Like Aeschylus’ play TheSuppliants, The Persians relies on an aggrandizement of Hellenic martial prowess and pride in contrast to a foreign invader who ignores the commands of the gods. Understandably for someone who fought the Persians, this play—like The Suppliants—has a xenophobic undertone glorifying the Greek military.

The play opens with the Persian council/Chorus discussing how impressive and glorious the Persian army raised by Xerxes was, and how they built a bridge across the Hellespont to send part of the vast army to Greece while the other portion travelled by land. The opening scene of the Chorus speaking is unusually long. By the end of their long speech, the council has begun to fell an anxiety about their army, with premonitions of destruction. Xerxes’ mother Atossa arrives and relates a dream that she had of signs pointing to disaster. The council assures her that the signs must point to the success of the Persian army. Atossa and the Chorus discuss the likelihood of Persian success or failure, and why Xerxes felt the need to try and conquer Athens. A messenger arrives and delivers news that the Persian army has been destroyed. Over the course of several speeches between the messenger, Atossa, and the Chorus they establish how badly the Persian army has been defeated and how the Greeks won the battle of Salamis. Atossa and the messenger leave and the Chorus laments the losses. Atossa returns and tells the Chorus she is going to offer sacrifices to the gods to protect Xerxes and to try and get the spirit of Darius—her dead husband, and Xerxes’ father—to come and offer some advice. The ghost of Darius arrives and tells Atossa and the Chorus about the defeat of the Persian army, he recounts the list of Persian rulers that had made the empire great, and then concludes that Xerxes has done more to ruin the Persian Empire than any other leader. After the ghost leaves, the Chorus reflects on what a great ruler Darius was, particularly in the light of the current catastrophe. Xerxes arrives wearing robes torn in grief. He and the Chorus lament the doom of the Persian Empire in what becomes a formulaic call and response of grief.

10 November 2013

Seven Against Thebes, by Aeschylus

Seven Against Thebes is part of the Oedipus myth; it would fit between SophoclesOedipus at Colonus and Antigone. However, this Aeschylus play actually features Eteocles, who doesn’t show up in any of the Sophocles plays.

Eteocles and his brother Polyneices are the sons of Oedipus and they’ve inherited the throne, which they decided to share on a rotating annual basis. However, this plan has predictably poor results when Eteocles decides he doesn’t want to give up the throne (shock of all shocks). To try and enforce their agreement, Polyneices has raised an army and besieged Thebes, sending seven champions to the seven gates of the city. Seven Against Thebes begins at this moment of crisis—an army stands at the city’s walls and Eteocles must choose seven champions to face the invaders’ warriors. When he learns that Polyneices will be personally attacking the seventh gate, Eteocles chooses to face his brother himself despite the protests of everyone around him. Both men—Eteocles and Polyneices—are killed in the combat.

The brothers’ mutual destruction fulfills the curse on the house of Laius, placed on their grandfather. Laius was told by the Oracle never to have children, but while drunk Laius impregnated his wife Jokasta. For this the gods cursed the house of Laius, dooming them to destruction, a doom carried out in Seven Against Thebes. Eteocles and Polyneices are the sons of Oedipus, grandsons of Lauis, and their fate is to destroy one another in battle and therefore end the line of male descent from Laius.

Aeschylus’ play opens with Eteocles discussing the military situation and making an inspirational speech to the people of Thebes. Despite Eteocles’ speech, the Chorus of Theban Women begin to panic and beg the gods for protection. Eteocles chastises the Chorus for speaking of defeat at a time of war, and then debate whether or not offering prayers for deliverance is beneficial or invites defeat by entertaining the notion of defeat. Following this debate there is a long and beautifully moving passage about the brutal effects of war on captured cities. After this passage, a soldier comes in to report to Eteocles about the seven champions stationed at the various gates. This dialogic section goes back and forth in a very traditional formula for ancient literature: the soldier describes an enemy champion with his arms, armor, equipment, and behavior; Eteocles assigns a champion of his own, whose characteristics mirror/foil the characteristics of the enemy champion; and the Chorus prays/laments for the success of their champion against the enemy. When the final champion is named as Polyneices, Eteocles calls for his armor to go and fight his brother personally. The Chorus and soldiers protest, begging Eteocles not to fight his brother for fear of fulfilling the curse. Eteocles ignores these supplications and goes to the battle. Soon a soldier returns and informs the Chorus that the city is saved but that the sons of Oedipus killed one another. The Chorus laments the inevitability of fate when a curse has been proclaimed and will be enforced by the Furies. Ismene and Antigone—Oedipus’ daughters/sisters, and Eteocles’ and Polyneices’ sisters—enter to lament their fate and the fate of their brothers, then a Herald enters to announce that the state’s regents have declared that Eteocles should be honorably buried but Polyneices should be left dishonorably unburied because he made war against his home city. Antigone refuses to assent to this, saying that even if the state declares that he should not be buried, she will bury Polyneices himself (which leads into the events of Sophocles’ Antigone).

29 October 2013

The Suppliants, by Aeschylus

AeschylusThe Suppliants is part of the story of Io, an Argive woman with whom Zeus fell in love. Hera turned her into a cow, and Zeus still loved her, so Hera sent a stinging fly to chase Io across the world until she got to Egypt where Zeus rescued her from the fly and touched her with his hand thus impregnating her. Io had some kids, who had some kids who had two sets of fifty cousins, one set male (the Aegyptians) and one set female (the Danaids). By the time Aeschylus’ play opens, the Aegyptians have tried to marry the Daniads against their will and the will of Zeus, so the women have fled back to their ancestral homeland of Argos to seek protection from the Argive city-state and gods.

The play is set in a holy grove near Argos, with a set of statues for various gods—Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon, and Hermes at least. The Suppliants (the Daniads) have come to throw themselves on the mercy of the gods to prevent a forcible marriage to their pursuers. There is much discussion and disputation about the will of the gods, though the general consensus is that Zeus—god of suppliants—will defend the Daniads in their cause because 1) they have come as suppliants to seek his protection, and 2) out of his love for their ancestor Io. While the Daniads are in the holy grove Pelasgus, king of Argos, arrives to ask their business and find out who they are. The Daniads relate the story of Io, with which Pelasgus is already familiar because it is an Arguve legend, and thus demonstrate an ancestral claim on Argive protection. Pelasgus debates whether he should offer the Daniads protection or not, whether it is the will of the gods to side with the women or the Aegyptian men, and whether it is really Argos’ problem. Eventually through their rhetoric and devotion to the gods, the Daniads convince Pelasgus to support their cause and he returns to the Argive agora to try and convince the ekklesia to support them, which the ekklesia does unanimously. After a little while a herald from the Aegyptians arrives and tries to claim the Daniads by force, but they are defeated by Pelasgus and a band of Argive warriors. The play closes with the Daniads going into Argos to be housed, and the Argives and Aegyptians preparing for a war.

Like PrometheusBound, The Suppliants is a play highly concerned with the law and with what’s right. Much of the conflict in the play centers around the Daniads trying to show Pelasgus and the gods that their cause is just and should be supported rather than the cause of the Aegyptians, who are depicted as wild, sacrilegious barbarians with no respect for the laws of the gods, Argos, or of hospitality. In a way, the play dramatizes the conflict between the law of strength (i.e., the Aegyptians) and the law of order and duty (i.e., the Daniads).
Of course to a modern audience/reader, The Suppliants seems like a proto-feminist play because it presents the women’s cause as just and admirable while the men’s cause is evil and barbaric. The play also seems to have an anti-rape theme because the Aegyptians desire to force the Daniads into marriage is figured (not inaccurately) as a kind of rape. While the feminist reading is sound for a contemporary audience, I think a more historically accurate reading of the play would see it in more nationalistic terms. The Daniads claim the rights of a Hellenic people, they emphasize their Argive heritage and therefore their Greek-ness. The Aegyptians, on the other hand, are decidedly Egyptian—coming in Egyptian ships, with an Egyptian herald, described as dark skinned, identified with the Nile, etc. In other words, the Aegyptians are foreigners coming to conquer and steal Hellenic women and force them into marriage. This nationalistic theme makes sense considering that Aeschylus was a soldier who fought to defend Athens and their Hellenic allies, and that a number of Aeschylus’ extant plays deal with foreign invaders.