Is it not clear we must think deeply, or perish?
I’ve never been one to watch plays, let alone read them. I was a kid who grew up entertained by the boob-tube and video games. In my youthful mind, I couldn’t have told you which was the harsher punishment – being forced to sit through a “boring old” play or a spanking.
Nope, the tragedies in my life weren’t Greek; they were running out of grape popsicles or not having a videotape nearby to record a new episode of the Transformers cartoon.
With age comes wisdom and patience (so it’s said), and I’ve come to appreciate good stories, no matter the medium. In the quest to broaden my horizons of Western literature, the next thing on my plate was the only surviving set of plays by Aeschylus.
As Wikipedia will inform you, Aeschylus is the first Greek tragedian whose works are still intact. It’s estimated he wrote up to ninety plays, but we’re only left with seven. Four of them are parts of incomplete series’, and the other three form a trilogy known as The Oresteia. That one’s next on the TBR pile, but here’s my take on the first four:
- Prometheus Bound – My second favorite of the four, it tells the story of the Titan Prometheus, bound to a mountain by Zeus. His crime? Caring for the human race while Zeus wanted to destroy them and start over. Prometheus gave man the gifts of intellect and science, the most notable being fire. This little play packs a wallop of metaphor and sarcasm. I loved it.
- The Suppliants – Ties into the unhappy story of Io from Prometheus Bound. Her descendants, great-great-great-great-great-etc grandchildren of Zeus, have run off from Egypt to seek asylum in Argos, land of their ancestors. The women are escaping forced marriage to their cousins in Egypt. Interesting, but probably my least favorite. Maybe it got better in the missing parts of the play.
- Seven Against Thebes – My favorite in the group. The city of Thebes is under siege by seven Argive armies, led by the exiled brother of Eteocles, king of Thebes. I loved the way the heroes and villains were described in this play. Such great imagery.
- The Persians – The first interesting thing about this play is it’s based on the real battle of Salamis, where Greeks fought back the Persian army led by Xerxes. Aeschylus was a soldier at the time, and while this account is obviously fictional, his experience gives the play another dimension. The second interesting thing? It’s told from the perspective of the Persians while they await news from the battle, only to discover their efforts were for naught. The ghost of King Darius, Xerxes’ dead father, chastises the arrogance of the Persian empire.
If you find Homer’s epic poems are a little too intimidating, give Aeschylus a shot. His are short, but wonderful works giving insight to the world of Greek lore and culture. My only hope is that someday, the rest of his plays will be found in a cave somewhere.
Fun links to learn more:
- Free versions of the plays can be found here. I prefer Philip Vellacott’s translation from the Penguin book.
- Prometheus Bound performed in ancient Greek. Don’t fret, there are English subtitles.