History of Literature








Greek dramatist

born 525/524 bc
died 456/455 bc, Gela, Sicily

the first of classical Athens’ great dramatists, who raised the emerging art of tragedy to great heights of poetry and theatrical power.

Life and career
Aeschylus grew up in the turbulent period when the Athenian democracy, having thrown off its tyranny (the absolute rule of one man), had to prove itself against both self-seeking politicians at home and invaders from abroad. Aeschylus himself took part in his city’s first struggles against the invading Persians. Later Greek chroniclers believed that Aeschylus was 35 years old in 490 bc when he participated in the Battle of Marathon, in which the Athenians first repelled the Persians; if this is true it would place his birth in 525 bc. Aeschylus’ father’s name was Euphorion, and the family probably lived at Eleusis (west of Athens).

Aeschylus was a notable participant in Athens’ major dramatic competition, the Great Dionysia, which was a part of the festival of Dionysus. Every year at this festival, each of three dramatists would produce three tragedies, which either could be unconnected in plot sequence or could have a connecting theme. This trilogy was followed by a satyr play, which was a kind of lighthearted burlesque. Aeschylus is recorded as having participated in this competition, probably for the first time, in 499 bc. He won his first victory in the theatre in the spring of 484 bc. In the meantime, he had fought and possibly been wounded at Marathon, and Aeschylus singled out his participation in this battle years later for mention on the verse epitaph he wrote for himself. Aeschylus’ brother was killed in this battle. In 480 the Persians again invaded Greece, and once again Aeschylus saw service, fighting at the battles of Artemisium and Salamis. His responses to the Persian invasion found expression in his play Persians, the earliest of his works to survive. This play was produced in the competition of the spring of 472 bc and won first prize.

Around this time Aeschylus is said to have visited Sicily to present Persians again at the tyrant Hieron I’s court in Syracuse. Aeschylus’ later career is a record of sustained dramatic success, though he is said to have suffered one memorable defeat, at the hands of the novice Sophocles, whose entry at the Dionysian festival of 468 bc was victorious over the older poet’s entry. Aeschylus recouped the loss with victory in the next year, 467, with his Oedipus trilogy (of which the third play, Seven Against Thebes, survives). After producing the masterpiece among his extant works, the Oresteia trilogy, in 458, Aeschylus went to Sicily again. The chronographers recorded Aeschylus’ death at Gela (on Sicily’s south coast) in 456/455, aged 69. A ludicrous story that he was killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald pate was presumably fabricated by a later comic writer. At Gela he was accorded a public funeral, with sacrifices and dramatic performances held at his grave, which subsequently became a place of pilgrimage for writers.

Aeschylus wrote approximately 90 plays, including satyr plays as well as tragedies; of these, about 80 titles are known. Only seven tragedies have survived entire. One account, perhaps based on the official lists, assigns Aeschylus 13 first prizes, or victories; this would mean that well over half of his plays won, since sets of four plays rather than separate ones were judged. According to the philosopher Flavius Philostratus, Aeschylus was known as the “Father of Tragedy.” Aeschylus’ two sons also achieved prominence as tragedians. One of them, Euphorion, won first prize in his own right in 431 bc over Sophocles and Euripides.

Dramatic and literary achievements
Aeschylus’ influence on the development of tragedy was fundamental. Previous to him, Greek drama was limited to one actor (who became known as the protagonist, meaning first actor, once others were added) and a chorus engaged in a largely static recitation. (The chorus was a group of actors who responded to and commented on the main action of a play with song, dance, and recitation.) The actor could assume different roles by changing masks and costumes, but he was limited to engaging in dialogue only with the chorus. By adding a second actor (the deuteragonist, or second actor) with whom the first could converse, Aeschylus vastly increased the drama’s possibilities for dialogue and dramatic tension and allowed more variety and freedom in plot construction. Although the dominance of the chorus in early tragedy is ultimately only hypothesis, it is probably true that, as Aristotle says in his Poetics, Aeschylus “reduced the chorus’ role and made the plot the leading actor.” Aeschylus was an innovator in other ways as well. He made good use of stage settings and stage machinery, and some of his works were noted for their spectacular scenic effects. He also designed costumes, trained his choruses in their songs and dances, and probably acted in most of his own plays, this being the usual practice among Greek dramatists.

But Aeschylus’ formal innovations account for only part of his achievement. His plays are of lasting literary value in their majestic and compelling lyrical language, in the intricate architecture of their plots, and in the universal themes which they explore so honestly. Aeschylus’ language in both dialogue and choral lyric is marked by force, majesty, and emotional intensity. He makes bold use of compound epithets, metaphors, and figurative turns of speech, but this rich language is firmly harnessed to the dramatic action rather than used as mere decoration. It is characteristic of Aeschylus to sustain an image or group of images throughout a play; the ship of state in Seven Against Thebes, the birds of prey in Suppliants, the snare in Agamemnon. More generally, Aeschylus deploys throughout a play or trilogy of plays several leading motifs that are often associated with a particular word or group of words. In the Oresteia, for example, such themes as wrath, mastery, persuasion, and the contrasts of light and darkness, of dirge and triumphal song, run throughout the trilogy. This sort of dramatic orchestration as applied to careful plot construction enabled Aeschylus to give Greek drama a more truly artistic and intellectual form.

Aeschylean tragedy deals with the plights, decisions, and fates of individuals with whom the destiny of the community or state is closely bound up; in turn, both individual and community stand in close relation to the gods. Personal, social, and religious issues are thus integrated, as they still were in the Greek civilization of the poet’s time. Theodicy (i.e., the justifying of the gods’ ways to men) was in some sense the concern of Aeschylus, though it might be truer to say that he aimed through dramatic conflict to throw light on the nature of divine justice. Aeschylus and his Greek contemporaries believed that the gods begrudged human greatness and sent infatuation on a man at the height of his success, thus bringing him to disaster. Man’s infatuated act was frequently one of impiety or pride (hubris), for which his downfall could be seen as a just punishment. In this scheme of things, divine jealousy and eternal justice formed the common fabric of a moral order of which Zeus, supreme among the gods, was the guardian.

But the unjust are not always punished in their lifetime; it is upon their descendants that justice may fall. It was this tradition of belief in a just Zeus and in hereditary guilt that Aeschylus received, and which is evinced in many of his plays. The simplest illustration of this is in Persians, in which Xerxes and his invading Persians are punished for their own offenses. But in a play such as Agamemnon, the issues of just punishment and moral responsibility, of human innocence and guilt, of individual freedom versus evil heredity and divine compulsion are more complex and less easily disentangled, thus presenting contradictions which still baffle the human intellect.

Finally, to Aeschylus, divine justice uses human motives to carry out its decrees. Chief among these motives is the desire for vengeance, which was basic to the ancient Greek scheme of values. In the one complete extant trilogy, the Oresteia, this notion of vengeance or retaliation is dominant. Retaliation is a motive of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Aegisthus, and Orestes. But significantly, the chain of retaliatory murder that pursues Agamemnon and his family ends not by a perfect balance of blood guilt, not by a further perpetuation of violence, but rather through reconciliation and the rule of law as established by Athena and the Athenian courts of justice.

Aeschylus is almost unequaled in writing tragedy that, for all its power of depicting evil and the fear and consequences of evil, ends, as in the Oresteia, in joy and reconciliation. Living at a time when the Greek people still truly felt themselves surrounded by the gods, Aeschylus nevertheless had a capacity for detached and general thought, which was typically Greek and which enabled him to treat the fundamental problem of evil with singular honesty and success.

The plays Persians
One of a trilogy of unconnected tragedies presented in 472 bc, Persians (Greek Persai) is unique among surviving tragedies in that it dramatizes recent history rather than events from the distant age of mythical heroes. The play treats the decisive repulse of the Persians from Greece in 480, in particular their defeat at the Battle of Salamis. The play is set in the Persian capital, where a messenger brings news to the Persian queen of the disaster at Salamis. After attributing the defeat of Persia to both Greek independence and bravery and to the gods’ punishment of Persian folly for going outside the bounds of Asia, the play ends with the return of the broken and humiliated Persian king, Xerxes.

The plays Seven Against Thebes
This is the third and only surviving play of a connected trilogy, presented in 467 bc, that dealt with the impious transgressions of Laius and the doom subsequently inflicted upon his descendants. The first play seems to have shown how Laius, king of Thebes, had a son despite the prohibition of the oracle of the god Apollo. In the second play it appears that that son, Oedipus, killed his father and laid a curse on his own two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices. In Seven Against Thebes (Greek Hepta epi Thēbais) Eteocles is shown leading the defense of the city of Thebes against an invading army led by his brother Polyneices and six chieftains from the south of Greece who are bent on placing Polyneices on the Theban throne. Eteocles assigns defenders to each of six of the seven gates of Thebes; but he insists on fighting at the seventh gate, where his opponent will be Polyneices. There the brothers kill each other, and the Theban royal family is thus exterminated, bringing to an end the horrors set in motion by Laius’ defiance of the gods.

The plays Suppliants
This is the first and only surviving play of a trilogy probably put on in 463. It was long believed by scholars that Suppliants (Greek Hiketides; Latin Supplices) was one of Aeschylus’ earliest plays because of its archaic structure; its chorus, representing the daughters of Danaus (the Danaïds), takes the leading role in the action. But there is now evidence that the trilogy of which Suppliants formed a part was produced in competition with Sophocles, who is first known to have competed in 468. Suppliants thus dates presumably from the middle of Aeschylus’ career, not from the beginning.

Born in Egypt, though of Greek descent, the Danaïds have fled with their father to Argos in Greece in order to avoid forced marriage with their cousins, the sons of Aegyptus. Pelasgus, the king of Argos, is torn between charity to the Danaïds and anxiety to appease Aegyptus but nobly agrees in the end to grant them asylum. The trilogy as a whole seems to have favourably stressed the saving power of domestic love as contrasted with both the willful virginity of the Danaïds and the unfeeling, violent lust of their cousins.

The plays Oresteia
The Oresteia trilogy consists of three closely connected plays, all extant, that were presented in 458 bc. In Agamemnon the great Greek king of that name returns triumphant from the siege of Troy, along with his concubine, the Trojan prophetess Cassandra, only to be humiliated and murdered by his fiercely vengeful wife, Clytemnestra. She is driven to this act partly by a desire to avenge the death of her daughter Iphigenia, whom Agamemnon has sacrificed for the sake of the war, partly by her adulterous love for Aegisthus, and partly as agent for the curse brought on Agamemnon’s family by the crimes of his father, Atreus. At the play’s end Clytemnestra and her lover have taken over the palace and now rule Argos. Many regard this play as one of the greatest Greek tragedies. From its extraordinarily sustained dramatic and poetic power one might single out the fascinating, deceitful richness of Clytemnestra’s words and the huge choral songs, which raise in metaphorical and often enigmatic terms the complex of major themes—of theology, politics, and blood relationships—which are elaborated throughout the trilogy.

Libation Bearers (Greek Choēphoroi) is the second play in the trilogy and takes its title from the chorus of women servants who come to pour propitiatory offerings at the tomb of the murdered Agamemnon. At the start of this play Orestes, the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, who was sent abroad as a child, returns as a man to take vengeance upon his mother and her lover for their murder of his father. He is reunited with his sister Electra, and together they invoke the aid of the dead Agamemnon in their plans. Orestes then slays Aegisthus, but Orestes’ subsequent murder of Clytemnestra is committed reluctantly, at the god Apollo’s bidding. Orestes’ attempts at self-justification then falter and he flees, guilt-wracked, maddened, and pursued by the female incarnations of his mother’s curse, the Erinyes (Furies). At this point the chain of vengeance seems interminable.

Eumenides, the title of the third play, means “The Kind Goddesses.” The play opens at the shrine of Apollo at Delphi, where Orestes has taken sanctuary from the Furies. At the command of the Delphic oracle, Orestes journeys to Athens to stand trial for his matricide. There the goddess Athena organizes a trial with a jury of citizens. The Furies are his accusers, while Apollo defends him. The jury divides evenly in its vote and Athena casts the tie-breaking vote for Orestes’ acquittal. The Furies then turn their vengeful resentment against the city itself, but Athena persuades them, in return for a home and cult, to bless Athens instead and reside there as the “Kind Goddesses” of the play’s title. The trilogy thus ends with the cycle of retributive bloodshed ended and supplanted by the rule of law and the justice of the state.

The plays Prometheus Bound
The date of this play (and even its authorship) is disputed, but many scholars regard it as a work of Aeschylus’ last years. In Prometheus Bound (Greek Promētheus desmōtēs) the god Prometheus, who in defiance of Zeus has saved mankind and given them fire, is chained to a remote crag as a punishment ordered by the king of the gods. Despite his isolation Prometheus is visited by the ancient god Oceanus, by a chorus of Oceanus’ daughters, by the “cow-headed” Io (another victim of Zeus), and finally by the god Hermes, who vainly demands from Prometheus his knowledge of a secret that could threaten Zeus’s power. After refusing to reveal his secret, Prometheus is cast into the underworld for further torture. The drama of the play lies in the clash between the irresistible power of Zeus and the immovable will of Prometheus, who has been rendered still more stubborn by Io’s misfortunes at the hands of Zeus. The most striking and controversial aspect of the play is its depiction of Zeus as a tyrant. Prometheus himself has proved to be for later ages an archetypal figure of defiance against tyrannical power, a role exemplified in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Prometheus Unbound (1820).

Anthony J. Podlecki
Oliver Taplin




Mosaic of Orestes

Туре of work: Drama
Author: Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.)
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of plot: After the fall of Troy
Locale: Argos
First presented: 458 B.C.


Aeschylus won first prize with this trilogy about the doomed descendants of the cruel and bloody Atreus. The atmosphere of the play is one of doom and revenge, as the playwright delves into the philosophical issue of the problem of evil and human suffering.


Principal Characters

Agamemnon (a'ge-mem'non), of the doomed House of Atreus, King of Argos and leader of the Greek expedition against Troy. When the Greeks were detained at Aulis, he had been commanded by the gods to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, so that the fleet might sail. This deed brought him the hatred of his wife Clytemnestra, who plots his death. On his return to Argos after the fall of Troy, she persuades him to commit the sin of pride by walking on purple carpets to enter his palace. Once within the palace, he is murdered in his bath by Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus.
Clytemnestra (kll'tgm-nes'tra), daughter of Leda and wife of Agamemnon. Infuriated by his sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, she murders him and rules Argos with her lover, Aegisthus, until she is killed by her son Orestes.
Cassandra (kasan'drs), the daughter of King Priam of Troy. She is fated always to prophesy truth but never to be believed. Captured by Agamemnon and brought to Argos, she foretells the king's death and is then killed by Clytemnestra.
Aegisthus (e-jis'thas), cousin of Agamemnon and the lover of Clytemnestra. After Agamemnon's death he rules Argos with her until he is slain by Orestes.
Orestes (oresf'tez), the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. After his father's murder, he is driven by his mother and her lover from his heritage of Argos. Returning from exile, he meets his sister Electra at their father's tomb and tells her that he has been commanded by the oracle of Apollo to avenge Agamemnon by killing his murderers. This revenge he carries out, but he is driven mad by the Furies, who pursue him to the Delphi, where he takes refuge in the temple of Apollo. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, appears. Unable to decide the case, she calls in twelve Athenian citizens to act as judges. It is argued against Orestes that Clytemnestra, in killing Agamemnon, had not slain a blood relative of her family and thus did not deserve death. Apollo argues that Clytemnestra, having only nourished the father's seed in her womb, was no blood relation of Orestes, and therefore the latter was innocent. The judges vote six to six, and Orestes is declared free of blood-guilt.
Electra (ёЧёкЧгэ), the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and sister of Orestes. After the murder of her father and the exile of her brother, she is left alone to mourn Agamemnon's death and to perform the rites at his tomb. There she meets Orestes, who has returned to Argos, but at first does not recognize him. Convinced at last of his identity, she urges him to avenge their father by killing their mother and her lover.
The Furies or Eumenides (п-men'i-dez), children of Night, whose duty it is to dog the footsteps of murderers and to drive them mad. They pursue Orestes but are balked by the judges' decision that he is innocent. They rail against the younger gods who have deprived them of their ancient power. They are pacified by Athena, who promises them great honor and reverence if they will remain at Athens as beneficent deities.
Athena (э-тё'пэ), the goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens, she is always on the side of mercy. She defends the new law against the old in the case of Orestes, pacifies the Furies, and changes them into the Eumenides or "gracious ones."
Apollo (э-рбГб), the god of poetry, music, oracles, and healing. It is he who commands Orestes to avenge his father's death by killing his guilty mother. He then appears at Orestes' trial and defends the accused with the argument that, by killing his mother, Orestes was not guilty of shedding family blood, for the mother, being only the nourisher of the seed, is no relation to her child. Family relationship comes only through the father.


William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Orestes pursued by the Furies


The Story

The house of Atreus was accursed because in the great palace at Argos the tyrant, Atreus, had killed the children of Thyestes and served their flesh to their father at a royal banquet. Agamemnon and Menelaus were the sons of Atreus. When Helen, wife of Menelaus, was carried off by Paris, Agamemnon was among the Greek heroes who went with his brother to battle the Trojans for her return. But on the way to Troy, while the fleet lay idle at Aulis, Agamemnon was prevailed upon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to the gods. Hearing of this deed, Clytem-nestra, his wife, vowed revenge. She gave her son, Orestes, into the care of the King of Phocis, and in the darkened palace nursed her consuming hate.
In her desire for vengeance she was joined by Aegis-thus, surviving son of Thyestes, who had returned from his long exile. Hate brought the queen and Aegisthus together in a common cause; they became lovers as well as plotters in crime.
The ship of Menelaus having been delayed by a storm, Agamemnon returned alone from the Trojan wars. A watchman first saw the lights of his ship upon the sea and brought to his queen the news of the king's return. Leaving his men quartered in the town, Agamemnon drove to the palace in his chariot, beside him Cassandra, captive daughter of the king of Troy and an augeress of all misfortunes to come, who had fallen to Agamemnon in the division of the spoils. She had already warned the king that some evil was to befall him.
Agamemnon, however, had no suspicions of his homecoming, as Clytemnestra came to greet him at the palace doorway, her armed retainers about her, magnificent carpets unrolled for the feet of the conqueror of Troy. Agamemnon chided his queen for the lavishness of her reception and entered the palace to refresh himself after his long journey. He asked Clytemnestra to receive Cassandra and to treat his captive kindly.
After Agamemnon had retired, Clytemnestra returned and ordered Cassandra, who had refused to leave the chariot, to enter the palace. When Cassandra persisted in remaining where she was, the queen declared she would not demean herself by bandying words with a common slave and a madwoman. She reentered the palace. Cassandra lifted her face toward the sky and called upon Apollo to tell her why she had been brought to this cursed house. She informed the spectators in front of the palace that Clytemnestra would murder Agamemnon. She lamented the fall of Troy, recalled the butchery of Thyestes' children, and the doom that hung over the sons of Atreus, and foretold again the murder of Agamemnon by his queen. As she entered the palace, those outside heard the death cry of Agamemnon within.
A moment later Clytemnestra appeared in the doorway, the bloody sword of Aegisthus in her hand. Behind her lay the body of the king, entangled in the rich carpets.
Clytemnesta defended herself before the citizens, saying she had killed the king for the murder of Iphigenia and had also killed Cassandra, with whom Agamemnon had shamed her honor. Her deed, she told the citizens defiantly, had ended the bloody lust of the house of Atreus.
Then she presented Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, who asserted that his vengeance was just and that he intended to rule in the palace of Agamemnon. Reproaches were hurled at the guilty pair. There were cries that Orestes would avenge his father's murder. Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, in a fury of guilty horror, roared out their self-justification for the crime and defied the gods themselves to end their seizure of power.
Orestes, grown to manhood, returned from the land of Phocis to discover that his mother and Aegisthus had murdered his father. He mourned his father's death and asked the king of the gods to give him ability to take vengeance upon the guilty pair. Electra, daughter of Agamemnon, also mourned and cursed the murderers. Encountering her brother, she did not at first recognize him, for he appeared in the disguise of a messenger who brought word of the death of Orestes. They met at their father's tomb, where he made himself known to his sister. There he begged his father's spirit to give him strength in his undertaking. Electra assured him nothing but evil could befall any of the descendants of Atreus and welcomed the quick fulfillment of approaching doom.
Learning that Clytemnestra had once dreamed of suckling a snake which drew blood from her breast, Orestes saw in this dream the image of himself and the deed he intended to commit. He went to the palace in disguise and killed Aegisthus. Then he confronted Clytemnestra, his sword dripping with the blood of his mother's lover, and struck her down.
Orestes displayed the two bodies to the people and announced to Apollo that he had done the deed required of him. But he realized that he must suffer for his terrible crime. He began to go mad as Furies, sent by his mother's dead spirit, pursued him.
The Furies drove Orestes from land to land. Finally he took refuge in a temple, but the Pythian priestess claimed the temple was profaned by the presence of the horrible Furies, who lay asleep near Orestes. Then Apollo appeared to tell Orestes that he had put the Furies to sleep so the haunted man could get some rest. He advised Orestes to visit the temple of Pallas Athena and there gain full absolution for his crime.
While Orestes listened, the ghost of Clytemnestra spitefully aroused the Furies and commanded them to torture Orestes again. When Apollo ordered the Furies to leave, the creatures accused him of the murder of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus and the punishment of Orestes. The god confessed he had demanded the death of Agamemnon's murderers. He was told that by his demands he had caused an even greater crime, matricide. Apollo said Athena should decide the justice of the case.
In Athens, in the temple of the goddess, Orestes begged Athena to help him. Replying the case was too grave for her to decide alone, she called upon the judges to help her reach a wise decision. There were some who believed the ancient laws would be weakened if evidence were presented, and they claimed Orestes deserved his terrible punishment.
When Orestes asked why Clytemnestra had not been persecuted for the murder of Agamemnon, he was told her crime had not been the murder of a blood relative, as his was. Apollo was another witness at the trial. He claimed the mother was not the true parent, that the father, who planted the seed in the mother's womb, was the real parent, as shown in the tracing of descent through the male line. Therefore, Orestes was not guilty of the murder of a true member of his blood family.
The judges decided in favor of Orestes. There were many, however, who in an angry rage cursed and condemned the land where such a judgment might prevail. They cried woe upon the younger gods and all those who tried to wrest ancient rights from the hands of established tradition. But Athena upheld the judgment of the court and Orestes was freed from the anger of the Furies.


Orestes slaying Aegisthus and Clytemnestra
Bernardino Mei


Critical Evaluation

The Oresteia won first prize in the Athenian drama competition when it was initially presented in 458 B.C. This was the thirteenth time Aeschylus had been awarded the highest honors in a career of forty-one years as a tragedian. He was foremost in establishing the drama as an art form capable of exploring the most compelling problems of human existence. And this dramatic trilogy—the only one in Greek drama to survive intact— was a fitting climax to his life. The Oresteia is not merely a magnificent work, it is one of the supreme achievements of classical culture.
In it Aeschylus took up the theme of the ancestral curse, as he had done in Seven Against Thebes, but here he uses that theme to probe the metaphysical problem of evil. The question amounts to this: In a divinely ordered universe why are atrocities committed, and what is the reason for human suffering? Aeschylus brought all of his dramatic skill, all of his lofty genius for poetry, and all of his intelligence and feeling to bear on the issue. And he came as close as any writer ever has to expressing the profoundest truths of human life.
The legend of the dynasty of Atreus is a series of crimes, each committed in retaliation against a close relative. The murder of kin was the most hideous sin a person could perform, according to Greek morality. The blood curse was brought on the house of Atreus when Atreus murdered his nephews, and from there on the history of the family is one of slaughter. Agamemnon, the first play in the trilogy, reveals the homecoming and murder of Agamemnon by his wife Clytemnestra and his cousin Aegisthus, who is also her lover. The second play, The Libation-Bearers, shows Orestes' arrival in Argos and his revenge upon his mother and Aegisthus for killing Agamemnon. Then he is pursued by the Furies. And in the final play, The Eumenides (or "The Kindly Ones"), the curse is put to rest when Orestes is absolved from guilt in the Athenian law court of Athena.
The action of this trilogy is simple enough, but it is in the way Aeschylus develops the action, with layer upon layer of meaning, that these dramas engross us. The curse theme operates on several planes at once, and it is given concrete expression in the recurring images of the web, the net, the coiling snake full of venom.
On the simplest level the Oresteia is a revenge trilogy. Agamemnon kills his daughter Iphigenia, which enables him to make war on Troy. When he returns Clytemnestra kills him in retaliation, aided by Aegisthus, who wants to avenge his father, Thyestes. Then Orestes slays the two of them to avenge Agamemnon, for which the Furies persecute him. Conceivably this chain of butchery could continue forever, if it were not for the intervention of the gods.
Yet on the personal plane crime begets crime not because of any abstract law, but because human motives require it. Aeschylus' characters have freedom of choice and must take full responsibility for what they do. However, their personalities are such that their deeds seem inevitable. On this level character is fate and impels acts of violence. Agamemnon brings Troy to rubble because family honor and his own pride demand it, but in the process he kills his daughter and nearly wipes out the youth of Greece. The tragedy of the Trojan War is repeatedly emphasized, and Agamemnon is in large measure responsible for that waste of life. He is rather a monster, grown fat and arrogant in his power.
Clytemnestra is equally prideful. Her vanity is injured when Agamemnon brings his mistress, Cassandra, home, and out of personal honor she avenges Iphigenia. Also, she is tied by sex to Aegisthus, a demagogue who turns tyrant.
Here another level of meaning becomes visible—that of political intrigue and the lust for power. Agamemnon is king. With him out of the way Clytemnestra and Aegisthus become co-rulers of Argos. Agamemnon went to Troy fully aware of the wealth and fame in store for him, and Orestes knows, as well, that Argos will fall to him when he kills his mother and her lover. Every act of vengeance in these plays carries some motive of gain.
We see the inevitable sequence of events. Power or the drive for power breeds insolence and crime, which brings retribution. Orestes breaks this chain. Why? Because he was encouraged to the crime by Apollo; because he feels pain and remorse afterward; because he does not take over Argos once the crime is committed; and because the gods feel compassion for such a man, even if the Furies do not.
Now the final level of meaning emerges—the divine revelation. That this occurs in the Areopagus is Aeschylus' patriotic salute to the notion that Athenian law had supernatural sanction. God, or Fate, tempers retribution with mercy in the end, and the vengeful Furies are placated with an honorary position as tutelary goddesses. If Orestes is absolved by a sophism about paternal lineage, this merely underscores the fact that Athena and Apollo, as the agents of Zeus, have compassion for him and would use any legal pretext to get him off the hook. Man must learn by suffering, Aeschylus says, and Orestes has shown himself to be the only character in the trilogy who is able to learn by agony. Success makes men proud and amoral, but pain teaches men the true way to live. As a vindication of divine justice the Oresteia is splendid, and as a depiction of the cumulative power of evil it is unsurpassed.


Francois Bouchot
Pylades und Orestes





Dirck van Baburen
Vulcan Chaining Promethus


Type of work: Drama
Author: Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.)
Type of plot: Classical tragedy
Time of plot: Remote antiquity
Locale: A barren cliff in Scythia First presented: Date unknown


In this compelling drama, Aeschylus offers the spectacle of a demigod in conflict with his destiny and defiant in the face of severe punishment. The mood of the play is one of sharp irony and deep reflection, for the suffering of the legendary Fire-Bearer symbolizes man's inhumanity to man.


Principal Characters

Prometheus, (ргэ-me'the-us, ргэ-me'thoos), a Titan, the son of Themis (Earth). In the revolt of Zeus against Kronos, he had sided with Zeus and had provided the counsel by which the older gods had been overthrown. Later he persuaded Zeus to spare mankind, whom Zeus had planned to destroy. But he has broken the command of the king of the gods by bringing to men the gift of fire and instructing them in all the arts and crafts. For this flouting of the will of Zeus he is carried, a prisoner, by Kratos (Might) and Bia (Force) to a rocky cliff in remote Scythia, there to be fastened by Hephaestus to the crag and to remain bound for eternity. His only comfort in his anguish is his secret foreknowledge of the eventual downfall of Zeus. His knowledge of the future remains to him; he prophesies to Io the torments that await her; tells her that her descendant, Herakles, will finally release him, and declares that Zeus himself will one day be deposed by his own son, whose future identity only he, Prometheus, knows. This secret he refuses to divulge to Hermes, who brings the command of Zeus that Prometheus must reveal this all-important name on pain of even worse torments. Defiant to the last, Prometheus is blasted by the thunderbolt of Zeus and sinks into the underworld as the play ends. Prometheus is depicted in this drama as the embodiment of stubborn resistance against the tyranny of Zeus, willing to bear any punishment rather than submit. To the modern mind, and especially to the writers of the Romantic period, he is the personification of the revolt against tyranny of any sort, the symbol of man's war against the forces of reaction and of his eternal quest for knowledge.
Io (I'o), the daughter of the river-god Inachus, She was beloved by Zeus, who changed her into a heifer to save her from the jealous wrath of Hera. But the latter, penetrating her rival's disguise, sent a gadfly to torment her throughout the world. Half-crazed with pain, she has wandered to Scythia, where she finds in Prometheus a fellow sufferer. He prophesies her future adventures and traces her descendants down to Herakles, who will deliver him from his chains.
Hermes (hur'mez), the messenger of Zeus, sent to wring from Prometheus the secret of the identity of that son of Zeus who will overthrow his father. In his attitude, Hermes has been called the personification of prudent self-interest. He fails in his errand, for the dauntless Prometheus reviles him as a mere lackey and refuses to divulge the secret.
Hephaestus (he-fes'tas), god of fire and of metal-working. He has been ordered by Zeus to forge the chains that fasten Prometheus to the rock and to drive an adamantine wedge through his breast. This horrible task he performs reluctantly, bowing only to the superior power of Zeus.
Oceanus (o-se'a-nas), god of the sea. He comes to sympathize with Prometheus and to preach to him the virtue of humility. He even offers to intercede on his behalf with Zeus. But Prometheus warns him that, in comforting a rebel, he himself may be charged with rebellion and urges him to depart.
Kratos (Might) and Bia (Force), brute beings who symbolize the tyranny of Zeus, for they carry out his will. They drag the captive Prometheus to the cliff in Scythia and supervise Hephaestus as he chains the Titan to the rock. Kratos taunts the fallen Titan, reminding him that the name Prometheus—the Contriver—has a terrible irony, for no contrivance can release him.


Peter Paul Rubens
Prometheus Bound


The Story
Condemned by Zeus for giving fire to mere mortals, the Titan Prometheus was brought to a barren cliff in Scythia by Hephaestus, the god of fire, and two guards, Kratos and Bia. There he was to be bound to the jagged cliffs with bonds as strong as adamant. Kratos and Bia obeyed willingly the commands of Zeus, but Hephaestus experienced pangs of sorrow and was reluctant to bind his kinsman to the storm-beaten cliff in that waste region where no man came, where Prometheus would never hear the voice or see the form of a human being. He grieved that the Titan was doomed forever to be guardian of the desolate cliff. But he was powerless against the commands of Zeus, and so at last he chained Prometheus to the cliff by riveting his arms beyond release, thrusting a biting wedge of adamant straight through his heart, and putting iron girths on both his sides with shackles around his legs. After Hephaestus and Bia departed, Kratos remained to hurl one last taunt at Prometheus, asking him what possible aid mankind might now offer their benefactor. The gods who gave Prometheus his name, Forethinker, were foolish, Kratos pointed out, for Prometheus required a higher intelligence to do his thinking for him.
Alone and chained, Prometheus called upon the winds, the waters, mother earth, and the sun, to look on him and see how the gods tortured a god. Admitting that he must bear his lot as best he could because the power of fate was invincible, he was still defiant. He had committed no crime, he insisted; he had merely loved mankind. He remembered how the gods first conceived the plan to revolt against the rule of Kronos and seat Zeus on the throne. At first Prometheus did his best to bring about a reasonable peace between the ancient Titans and the gods. Failing to do so and to avoid further violence, he sided with Zeus, who through the counsel of Prometheus overthrew Kronos. Once on the throne, Zeus parceled out to the lesser gods their share of power, but ignored mortal man with the ultimate plan of destroying him completely and creating instead another race which would cringe and be servile to Zeus's every word. Among all the gods, only Prometheus objected to this heartless proposal, and it was Prometheus' courage, his act alone, which saved man from burial in the deepest black of Hades. It was he who taught blind hopes to spring within man's heart and who gave him the gift of fire. Understanding the significance of these deeds, he had sinned willingly.
Oceanus, brother of Prometheus, came to offer aid out of love and kinship, but he first offered Prometheus advice and preached humility in the face of Zeus's wrath. Prometheus remained proud, defiant, and refused his offer of help on the grounds that Oceanus himself would be punished were it discovered that he sympathized with a rebel. Convinced by Prometheus' argument, Oceanus took sorrowful leave of his brother.
Once more Prometheus recalled that man was a creature without language, ingorant of everything before Prometheus came and told him of the rising and setting of stars, of numbers, of letters, of the function of beasts of burden, of the utility of ships, of curing diseases, of happiness and lurking evil, of methods to bring wealth in iron, silver, copper, and gold out of the earth. In spite of his torment, he rejoiced that he had taught all arts to humankind.
Io, a young girl changed into a heifer and tormented by a stinging gadfly, came to the place where Prometheus was chained. Daughter of Inachus, a river-god, she was beloved by Zeus. His wife, Hera, out of jealousy, had turned Io into a cow and set Argus, the hundred-eyed monster, to watch her. When Zeus had Argus put to death, Hera set a gadfly to sting Io and drive her all over the earth. Prometheus prophesied her future wanderings to the end of the earth, predicting that the day would come when Zeus would restore her to human form and together they would conceive a son named Epaphus. Before Io left, Prometheus also named his own rescuer, Hercules, who with his bow and arrow would kill the eagle devouring his vital parts.
Hermes, messenger of Zeus, came to see Prometheus and threatened him with more awful terrors at the hands of angry Zeus. Prometheus, still defiant, belittled Hermes' position among the gods and called him a mere menial. Suddenly there was a turbulent rumbling of the earth, accompanied by lightning, thunder, and blasts of wind, as angry Zeus shattered the rock with a thunderbolt and hurled Prometheus into an abysmal dungeon within the earth. Such was the terrible fate of the Fire-Bearer who defied the gods.


Jacob Jordaens
Prometheus Bound


Critical Evaluation
In several ways Prometheus Bound is something of a puzzle. We do not know the date of its production, although we can safely assume it came rather late in Aeschylus' career, possibly between 466 B.C. and 456 B.C., which was the year of his death. Nor do we know its exact place in the Aeschylean trilogy on Prometheus, because this is the only surviving play; we know only that it was followed by a last play entitled Prometheus Unbound. Further, it is the one extant play by Aeschylus to deal directly with a metaphysical problem by means of supernatural characters, but even the questions it raises are unresolved. This drama is a mystery centering on a mystery. The situation of the play is static: Prometheus is fastened to a Scythian crag for enabling mankind to live when Zeus intended to destroy this ephemeral creature. Once Hephaestus wedges and binds him down, Prometheus is immobile. Thereafter the theatrical movement lies in his visitors—the chorus of nymphs, Oceanus, Io. and Hermes. Essentially this is a drama of ideas, and those ideas probe the nature of the cosmos. We may forget that the characters are mainly extinct Greek gods, but the issues that Aeschylus raises are still very much alive today.
The Greeks loved a contest, and Prometheus Bound is about a contest of wills. On the one side is Zeus, who is omnipotent in this world, while on the other is Prometheus, who has divine intelligence. Neither will give an inch, for each feels he is perfectly justified. Zeus rules by right of conquest, and Prometheus resists by right of moral superiority. On Zeus's side are might and force, the powers of complusion and tyranny, but Prometheus has knowledge and prescience. The play consists of a strange debate between the two. Zeus in his inscrutability and majesty does not appear, but we see his agents enforcing his will.
The drama begins and ends with the exercise of Zeus's almighty power. That power is used simply to make Prometheus suffer. At first it binds him to a crag and finally it envelops him in a cataclysm. Zeus has a fearsome capacity to inflict pain, not merely on Prometheus but on Io as well. In both instances it seems due to disobedience. If Prometheus opposed Zeus by giving man the fire and skills he needed to survive, Io resisted Zeus's love. Because of this Zeus exiled her from her home and changed her into a cow, while jealous Hera forced her to flee from land to land, bitten by a gadfly. Thus Prometheus shows rebellion on the divine plane (he being a Titan), while Io rebels on the human level. The price of their rebellion is written in their flesh, and both regard Zeus as their persecutor. Aeschylus certainly disliked political tyranny, but it is a mistake to read this play merely as a parable of man's inhumanity to man. The issues go far deeper.
Prometheus knew what would come of his revolt. He made a great personal sacrifice when he supported mankind out of compassion. In a real sense he is a savior and a tremendous hero. His knowledge does not keep him from suffering like man, nor does it make him accept his pain calmly. He knows why he suffers but still defies his fate. He feels that his is right and Zeus is wrong. Moreover, he claims that Zeus is not the ultimate power, that Zeus is subservient to the Fates and the Furies.
Yet Prometheus holds the winning hand in this play and he knows it, for he possesses a secret that Zeus needs to retain his power. No matter how much suffering Zeus may have caused him, one day Zeus will have to come begging. That is Prometheus' only consolation in torment. Every counsel to moderation or humility is superficial and vain, for why should Prometheus give up the joy of seeing Zeus humbled just to alleviate his own agony? This motivation comes through clearly in the bitter dialogue with Hermes.
Thus Prometheus is not only self-rightous and vengeful, but he is full of arrogant pride. He chooses his pain; perhaps he even deserves it. No one justifies Zeus, for he is beyond any notion of justice, but Prometheus exults in justifying himself to any divinity who will listen. Yet we remember his services to man and feel compassion for him. He is an authentic tragic hero, arousing both pity and fear.
As a dramatic character Io represents the human condition. The daughter of a god, she is shut out of her home by Zeus's command, given an animal's body, and made to run over the face of the earth in pain, stung by the ghost of many-eyed Argus (conscience). In the distant future, however, she and Zeus will be reconciled.
We can only guess at the resolution of the Zeus-Prometheus conflict that Aeschylus unveiled in the lost Prometheus Unbound. Possibly Zeus gained in maturity after centuries of rule and decided to release the Titan freely, after which Prometheus gave him the secret. Just as man evolved through the gifts of Prometheus into a civilized creature, perhaps Zeus changed and made his reign one of wisdom and force. It is hard to believe that Prometheus would alter unless such a change had come about in Zeus. This, however, is only speculation. The debate between Prometheus and Zeus remains open. Is Prometheus a rebel because God is unjust? Or is it that he places himself above God, doing what pleases him in the knowledge that he must suffer for it. Aeschylus never solves this dilemma in the play—he merely shows it to us in the strongest dramatic terms. Tautly written, Prometheus Bound is profound precisely because it remains an enigma. In judging the debate we judge ourselves.


Gustave Moreau
Prometheus Bound



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