Tag: Aeschylus

36. Prometheus Bound (430 BC?) possibly by Aeschylus.

36. Prometheus Bound (430 BC?) possibly by Aeschylus.

Plot : The Titan Prometheus is bound to a lonely crag for eternity, for defying Zeus and giving mankind fire. His ability to foretell the future is his only hope of future release, yet he refuses to tell Zeus of the circumstances of that God’s potential future downfall.
My copy is the Penguin edition covering Aeschylus’ four surviving plays outside his Oresteian Trilogy, edited by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 9780140441123)

My thoughts: Again, the first and only surviving play in a trilogy. Initially believed to have been written by Aeschylus, some think it more likely to have been by his son Euphorion. I think the nearly 30 year gap between The Oresteia and this play lends credence to this view.
I actually found this a much more visually imaginative play than the others credited to Aeschylus, and would love to see it on stage : the arrival of Oceanus on a winged beast and the Chorus in a winged carriage, the costumes for the part-woman, part-cow Io, and the gods Hephestus and Hermes, the personifications of Strength and Violence, the chaining/binding of Prometheus to the rock, and its descent underground at the end of the play would make for a remarkable spectacle.
This story had already been referenced by Hesiod, Homer and Pindar. What I learnt new from this telling included
• A more complete telling of the Io myth, linking back to the events in The Suppliants, and the following murder of all but one of their husbands, and the descendant (Heracles) of the surviving couple to eventually free Prometheus and bring the story full circle
• Prometheus not only gave man fire, but also claims to have taught man writing, mathematics, astronomy, horsemanship, animal husbandry and agricultural uses, seamanship, medicine, mining and prophecy – in short, “all human skill and science”
My question on an earlier post as to whether Gods could be portrayed on stage is fully answered by this play.

Favourite lines/passages:

It is a pleasant thing to spend the length of life
In confidence and hope,
And to nourish the soul in light and cheerfulness

The Daughters of Oceanus (Chorus)

So let the pronged locks of lightning be launched at me,
Let the air be roused with thunder and convulsion of wild winds,
Let hurricanes upheave by the roots the base of the earth,
Let the sea-waves’ roaring savagery
Confound the courses of the heavenly stars
Let him lift me high and hurl me to black Tartarus
On ruthless floods of irresistible doom ;
I am one whom he cannot kill

Prometheus

Personal rating: 7/10.

Advertisements
29. The Oresteia (458 BC), part 3. The Eumenides (The Furies) by Aeschylus

29. The Oresteia (458 BC), part 3. The Eumenides (The Furies) by Aeschylus

Plot : Following on immediately from the end of The Choephori, Orestes flees from the Furies to the Pythian temple of Apollo after killing his mother Clytemnestra and her lover Aegithius. Apollo advises him to go Athens and plead his case to the goddess Athene. In what may be the first recorded court case heard in literature, Athene gathers twelve Athenian jurors, and Apollo and the Furies present their cases. Orestes is pardoned, and Athene placates the Furies from exacting their frustrations upon Athens by offering them a home and worship from her people.
My thoughts : Again, not a resounding success in my heart, despite the fascinating presence of the wingless black-garbed Furies. Apollo’s arguments are weak (“Zeus made me do it”, “Zeus is more right than Justice” and most controversial “Mothers are not true parents”) yet the human jury is deadlocked until Athene casts her deciding vote for Orestes. The anger and frustration of the Furies is quickly overcome by the bribes Athene offers, so the whole thing collapses in an unbelievable happy-ever-after.
Not sure if it is just the version I read, but in this last play there is evidence of development of the drama as staged : there are two distinct scenes – in previous plays there was change of scene but not scripted as in this case; and at one point there are more than two speaking actors on stage besides the Chorus (Athene, Apollo and Orestes)

Favourite lines/passages:
Athene in response to the Furies’ initial outburst

“You seek the form of Justice, more than to be just”

And her warning to keep the sanctity of the courtroom

“If you befoul a shining spring with an impure
And muddy dribble, you will come in vain to drink.”

And of course some great lines for the Chorus of Furies

“Come, swift avenging Furies,
O sword of Justice, fall!”

and

“The old is trampled by the new!
Curse on you younger gods who override the ancient laws and rob me of my due!
Now to appease the honour you reviled
Vengeance shall fester till my full heart pours
Over this land on every side
Anger for insult, poison for my pain ….
A sterile blight shall creep on plant and child
And pock the earth’s face with infectious sores.”

Personal rating : 5 /10
Next: The Histories, by Herodotus. This is quite a long work, and I am going away for two weeks’ holiday with this in my luggage.

28. The Oresteia (458 BC), part 2. The Choephori (The Libation Bearers) by Aeschylus

Plot : Following on from the events of Agamemnon, Orestes returns from exile to reunite with his sister Electra, and together they swear retribution on Aegithius and Clytemnestra. Orestes disguises himself as a stranger and once gaining entry to the palace, makes good his promise.
I should have mentioned in my last blog that my text for these plays is the Penguin collection, translated by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 0140449674)
My thoughts : The first two thirds of this play consists of the chance meeting of Orestes and Electra at Agamemnon’s gravesite, and a rather longwinded and repetitive string of wails and threats by them singly, together and in tandem with the Chorus. The play lifts in interest once Orestes reaches the palace and kills the pair, only to be driven away by avenging Furies that only he can see.
Much is made of Orestes’ acting in the name of Justice, particularly by the Chorus urging him to act as Apollo has foretold. Yet Orestes also knows that Apollo has given him two paths, and should he fail to kill the usurpers, he will face endless torment.

I am a little disappointed with The Oresteia so far compared with the preceding single plays, particularly considering the universal praise which it seems to attract. I’d be interested to hear other lay opinions on this.

Favourite lines/passages:
No favourite lines leapt out at me, although the final scene with Orestes fleeing from the Furies makes me interested in reading the final instalment.
“Like Gorgons with grey cloaks, and snakes coiled swarming around their bodies! Let me go! “

Personal rating : 4 /10
Next: The final play of the trilogy, The Eumenides (The Furies)

 

27. The Oresteia (458 BC), part 1. Agamemnon by Aeschylus

Plot : This trilogy of plays tell the story of the curse upon the House of Atreus, from the time of the return of King Agamemnon from the Trojan War as told in Homer’s Iliad. But the curse stretches back before current events to the earlier generation, where brothers Atreus and Thyestes quarrel over the throne of Argos. Thyestes seduces Atreus’ wife and in retribution and to secure the throne, Atreus kills two of Thyestes’ sons and feeds their flesh to Thyestes at a banquet. Thyestes dies in exile and his remaining son Aegithus awaits his chance for revenge.
Atreus’ sons Agamemnon, King of Argos, and Menelaus, King of Sparta marry sisters Clytemnestra and Helen. Prince Paris of Troy abducts Helen while a guest of Menelaus, and the kingly brothers gather a huge army and head off to retake Helen from the Trojans. But before they can set sail, their combined navies are becalmed and according to prophecy will not be able to leave harbour unless Agamemnon sacrifices his own daughter Iphigenia.
After ten years of siege Troy is captured and Agamemnon returns to Argos with the prophetess Cassandra as his prisoner. But Queen Clytemnestra has taken Aegithus as her lover and together they plot Agamemnon’s death.
My thoughts : This first play is quite long (1,673 lines, compared to the 1,040 and 1,070 of the others on the trilogy), and I found many of the early speeches, particularly those of the Chorus and Clytemnestra overladen and slow. But as Agamemnon steps into his house to unknowingly meet his doom, the drama and tension build up to the double tragedy.
It is difficult to sympathise with either side as they both have blood on their hands. There is no doubt Clytemnestra is a “vile plotting she-hound …. a raging shark of hell”, spouting hypocrisy and lies without the smallest ounce of regret, and taking great delight in her murderous act. But then, her daughter was betrayed and killed by Agamemnon, so are her actions justifiable? Are her actions Justice or Revenge?

Gérin_Clytemnestre
The most tragic figure is Cassandra, ‘gifted’ by Apollo with the power of prophecy yet cursed to be disbelieved or misunderstood by all, paraded captive through the streets of Argos, her home and her family destroyed, and her life as a slave only a prelude to her own death. Her powers warn her of Agamemnon’s fate and the history of bloodshed hanging over the family, and her speech as she beholds the bloody fate of the Thyestes’ children are the most effective and horror-laden of the play.
Again, the deaths of Agamemnon and Cassandra happens off stage, and the doors open to a blood-spattered Clytemnestra standing jubilant over their bodies, bloodied dagger still in hand. Now her speeches are more powerful and resounding, as she boasts and celebrates her revenge for the murder of Iphigenia. Considering the play is named Agamemnon, he is the least powerful character, and brings more to the story as a corpse than a king. Aegithius hides and plots, leaving Clytemnestra to do the actual murder yet appearing from the shadows to claim his share of the Argive throne.
But the story is not yet told, for Agamemnon’s son Orestes is still travelling overseas and on his return, more blood is likely to be shed.
Favourite lines/passages:
Avoiding all the blood and horror of the second half, I’ ll settle for Aeschylus’ description of Helen

“And so to Troy there came
One in whose presence shone
Beauty no thought can name.
A still enchantment of sweet summer calm,
A rarity for wealth to dote upon,
Glances whose gentle fire,
Bestowed both wound and balm,
A flower to melt man’s heart with wonder and desire.”

Well, even Aphrodite claimed Helen was the most beautiful mortal woman alive!

Personal rating : 6 /10
Kimmy the Lit-Terrier’s rating : She sat with her head down throughout so I guess that’s only a 1/5
Next: The second play of the trilogy, The Choephori (or , The Libation Bearers)

26. The Suppliants (463 BC) by Aeschylus

Plot : Two brothers, Aegyptus and Danaus, descendants of Io and Zeus, have fifty children each. Aegyptus’ fifty sons determine to carry off Danaus’ fifty daughters, who escape with their father to Argos, their ancestral home. The Egyptians follow, and Danaus and the maidens beg King Pelasgus of Argos to protect them.
My thoughts : Again, with only one third of the story available, reading this play is unsatisfying. The drama of the arrival of the Egyptians and their promise of war is left hanging by the unfortunate loss of the other parts. A shame as the remainder of the story would have been interesting : the second play would have Danaus relenting and giving up his daughters, yet make the girls vow to kill their husbands on the wedding night. (Danaus has been prophesised to die at the hands of his son-in-law, a likely bet for someone with fifty daughters!). However, one daughter Hypermestra, has fallen in love with her husband and refuses to kill him. The third play would have to resolve the guilt of all concerned.
Like Seven against Thebes, the Gods are called on for help, but never appear on stage. I wonder if it was sacrilegious to portray a God on stage?
Favourite lines/passages
The Egyptians approach, and the maidens have been left alone by Danaus who has returned to Pelasgus to seek aid. The Maidens cry out

Could I but find a seat in the blue air
Where drifting rain-clouds turn to snow,
Some smooth summit where even goats cannot climb,
A place beyond sight, aloof,
A dizzy crag, vulture haunted,
To witness my plunge into the abyss,
To escape a forced marriage my heart refuses!
The my dead flesh might feed wild dogs,
Fatten the vultures of the valley, I’d be content!
For death is freed from suffering and tears.
Let death aim well,
And claim me before the bed and the embrace,
Where can I fly to be free,
To escape the bond of the flesh?

Diversions/digressions : Potentially confusing, there is another play by Euripides called The Suppliants, or The Suppliant Maidens, which is not related to the events of Aeschylus’ play, but is related to the events in Seven against Thebes. A trap for beginners like me!
Personal rating : 4/10
Next :  Aeschylus’ (and Ancient Greece’s) only surviving trilogy of plays, The Oresteia (458 BC), consisting of Agamemmnon , The Choephori (or, The Libation Bearers), and The Eumenides (or, The Furies)

 

 

 

Strange tales #1 The death of Aeschylus

There is a tale that Aeschylus, my “author of the month”, died from being hit on the head by a falling tortoise. He was spending a lot of time outside due to a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object, when an eagle flying past mistook his head for a rock and dropped the tortoise it was carrying on him to smash it open (the tortoise, not Aeschylus’ head). For more detail, look for a copy of

J. C. McKeown (2013), A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Cradle of Western Civilization, Oxford University Press (9780199982103)  p. 136.

 

 

25. Seven against Thebes (467 BC) by Aeschylus.

25. Seven against Thebes (467 BC) by Aeschylus.

Plot : The curse of Oedipus descends upon his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, as they battle over the throne of Thebes. King Eteocles is told that the seven gates of his city are to be attacked by the seven generals of the enemy army led by Polyneices. He sends his six best warriors to defend the other gates, leaving the seventh and last gate to himself to personally defend, as Fate would have, against his own brother.
My copy is the Penguin edition covering Aeschylus’ four surviving plays outside his Oresteian Trilogy, edited by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 9780140441123)

My thoughts: More assuredly than The Persians, this is believed to be the single surviving play of a trilogy by Aeschylus, this time dealing with the curse of Oedipus.
Suffice to say that the family has been cursed when the grandfather Laius disobeys Apollo. The son Oedipus kills his father, unknowingly marries his mother, and upon realising his deeds, blinds himself. His anger leads him to curse his sons, and hence the conflict which culminates in Seven against Thebes.
Again Aeschylus sets the action of his play inside the besieged city of a people whom the Athenians could be expected to have little sympathy for, as Thebes had fought on the side of the Persians against the rest of the Greeks in the living memory of the audience. (Indeed, Thebes is repeatedly called by its earlier name of Cadmus throughout the play, with the play’s current title added maybe 60 years after its was written)

The original play starts with the beseiged city facing direct attack and King Eteocles berating the Theban women for wailing and praying hysterically in the open square, and demoralising his troops. Upon the arrival of his spy, Eteocles hears which enemy is attacking each of the city gates, and assigns one of his generals to defend. Of course he leaves the last gate for himself, and upon hearing that his brother attacks there, rushes to meet him and settle the feud. Rather disappointingly, the drama of their confrontation, battle and mutual deaths all happens off stage, and we only have the Chorus’ reaction to the final realisation of the curse. And yet, perhaps the curse is not yet done, as the play ends with their sister Antigone preparing to defy the elders of the city and give her brother Polyneices a decent burial.  (The final scene featuring Oedipus’ daughter Antigone is thought to have been tacked on some years later by another author, and the original ending is now lost.)

Favourite lines/passages:

Eteocles : The gods, I am sure, have already ceased to think of us. The offering they desire from us is that we die. Why any longer shrink from our appointed end?

Eteocles : When the gods send destruction there is no escape.

You can tell he was a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

Diversions/digressions: Sophocles also covered the whole story in his trilogy of plays which do survive, so I will no doubt discover Antigone’s fate in  a month or two.

Personal rating: Not as powerful or emotional as The Persians despite the dramatic potential of the doom hanging over the brothers and their city. I can only give it 3/10.

Next : The Suppliants, again by Aeschylus.