Tragedian (c.525 BC – c.455 BC)
The greatest tragedian who ever lived; together with Sophocles and Euripides they form the holy trinity of tragic poetry. Aeschylus was the creator and main reformer of the Greek drama who gave it the meaning and glory for which it is renowned. A titanic innovator, a remarkable musician, poet, architect and director, none of his successors ever reached the level of his capacity, ingenuity and wisdom.
Prior to him, there was only one actor on stage, who portrayed various characters by changing masks and could only either engage in monologue or converse with the chorus. Aeschylus changed this by adding a second and then a third actor on stage thus enriching the dialogue and evolving the theatre to whole new level. According to Aristotle he reduced the role of the chorus and gave the primary role to the leading character. He decorated the set, worked as a choreographer, composed the music, designed the costumes, created the characters and acted himself. The spectators felt themselves surrounded by the Gods watching the divine events.
The master tragedian combined the art of theatre with philosophy. His primary theme in most of his surviving plays is justice. He wanted to convey the message that justice has many components. As such, just characters frequently come into conflict with one another. But righteousness never takes sides. As the great tragedian said “τὸ δίκαιον μεταβαίνει» (justice moves). Unjust acts give birth to crimes and the only remedy to this perpetual generation of evil is virtue, which the Greeks had imprinted in their souls with the words Μηδὲν ἄγαν (nothing in excess).
Aeschylus wrote about 100 plays. According to the Suda lexicon Aeschylus won first place 28 times first place. His plays were inspired from mythology, theogony, the Orphic myths of the Argonauts, Homer and Hesiod as well as from his personal experiences during the Battles of Marathon and Salamis, in which he fought bravely together with his brother. Another important source of his plays was the mystery schools. 7 of his plays survive today:
- Suppliants (Hiketides) is about the Danaids, who flee with their father to Argos to avoid their forced marriage with their cousins. The sense of justice, which for the Greeks is a synonymous to the “rhythm of life” and the “harmony of the worlds”, is explored in depth by the poet. It was part of a trilogy and is one of Aeschylus’ oldest tragedies since it follows the archaic structure.
- Persians (Persai) is a play of triumph that glorifies the Battle of Salamis. It is concurrently a monumental work that immortalizes the Greek resistance against the Persian Empire and their love for freedom.
- Seven Against Thebes is a beautiful yet dramatic story that deals with the rivalry and clash of Eteocles and Polyneices, the two sons of Oedipous and the subsequent downfall of the Theban royal family. The play explores the themes of fratricide, patricide, consanguinity and divine justice. It was the third and last of the Oedipous trilogy.
- The Oreseetia trilogy was comprised of three interconnected plays Agamemnon, Choephoroi and Eumenides. In the first one the tragedian dramatizes the assassination of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. In the second play Orestes murders his mother Clytemnestra as a vengeance for his father’s death. The third play of the trilogy involves the Gods, who vindicate Orestes for his matricide. The Erinnyes, the “Furies”, are transformed into the benevolent Eumenides, the “Kind Goddesses and harmony is restored. The Oresteia is widely considered as the greatest tragic poetry ever written.
- Prometheus Bound was the play in which Aeschylus revealed the secrets of the Mystery Schools. Prometheus is punished by Zeus for handing down fire (knowledge) to mankind from the Gods. Through this knowledge man became an inventor. Power (Zeus) and Freedom (Prometheus) clash with one another with Prometheus – the freedom that is harmonized with the laws of the universe – taking over. Prometheus is the embodiment of all the struggles, pain and passions of humanity. Like the former, it too was part of a trilogy.
Aeschylus was among the chosen ones of the Muses, to whom they revealed themselves. Like Homer, Hesiod, Orpheus, Pindar, Euripides, Sophocles, etc, the Muses stimulated Aeschylus’ soul, giving him the ability to narrate and glorify the heroic labours of men and Gods so that to act as a paedagogue to the viewers who witnessed his plays. The poet acted as a channel to deliver the Muses’ optic presentations to the spectators, who received the information through the symbolic actions of the heroes and the Gods. This would provide the best example and the most powerful method to bring the mortal man in contact with the Divine. Aeschylus’ plays were not for money or for entertainment. Decoding and understanding the divine information led to lytrosis and eventually the conquest of immortality. This was the reason why Aeschylus and all his contemporary playwrights were described as sages. This was the reason why ancient theatre had therapeutic and didactic purposes.
- “Aeschylus”. Helios New Encyclopaedic Dictionary. Passas, I. Athens, 1946. Print.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. ”Aeschylus”. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Web. September 8, 2016.
- Tziropoulou – Eustathiou, Anna. The Destruction of the Greek Libraries. Georgiades: Athens, 2014. Print.