Review: Four Plays of Aeschylus by Aeschylus and E. D. A. Morshead

Title: Four Plays of Aeschylus

Author: Aeschylus

Translator: E. D. A. Morshead

Genre: Tragedy

Year of Publication of this Edition: 2012

Public Domain Books

Rating: 3/5 stars

Though I’ve already written a review in Romanian for Prometheus Bound, it would have been strange if I didn’t write something about the entire volume that includes four of Aeschylus’ tragedies: The Suppliant Maidens, The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound.

What you need to know about Aeschylus is that he is one of the three emblematic figures of Greek tragedy along with Sophocles and Euripides. It is said that Aeschylus wrote around one hundred plays during his lifetime, but only seven survived the test of time, four of which I’ve mentioned above, while the other three form the Oresteia Trilogy. Aeschylus is also known for introducing the second actor on the stage. He gradually diminished the role of the chorus and he shifted the focus from the lyricism of the composition to the dialogue – an important change that gives the tragedy its dramatic characteristics we all recognize even today. For his artistic achievements, Aeschylus is also called the Father of Tragedy and he is praised by the Greek philosopher Aristotle in his famous work, Poetics.

The Suppliant Maidens (Ἱκέτιδες) is the earliest play of Aeschylus’ that survived to the present day, but it is less known in contrast with his other works. I actually read this one last because the subject didn’t appeal to me that much and I found the play pretty mediocre in theme and ‘action’. The subject has its roots in Greek mythology and it is the story of Danaus’ daughters who flee from Egypt to Argos, in order to avoid their incestuous marriages to the sons of Aegyptus, who were their cousins. The maidens (escorted by their father) find shelter in Argos hoping not to be captured by their suitors. In order to help the newcomers, Pelasgus (the King of Argos) asks his people to vote and their decision is crucial for the maidens’ destinies. Though the other two parts of the trilogy are lost, there are some scarce references to what happens to the maidens in Prometheus Bound and in one of Horace’s Odes.

E. D. A. Moreshead wrote about The Persians (Πέρσαι) that it “was brought out in 472 B.C., eight years after the sea-fight of Salamis which it commemorates” (p. 5), a play that had a great significance for those who fought against the Persian Empire in the Battles of Termopilæ, Marathon, Salamis and Plataea. The Persians might be the second play of a trilogy “standing between the Phineus and the Glaucus” (Idem.), Phineus being a prophet like Tiresias, who foreshadowed the conflict that is depicted in The Persians. I won’t spoil your read, but I will only add that, through this play, Aeschylus sends a patriotic message to his fellow Athenians and he revives their past victories against the Persians or the triumph of civilisation against barbarism, as Ovidiu Drîmba writes in his study of the history of theatre.

The Seven Against Thebes (Ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήβας) depicts the siege of Thebes along with the cruel fate of the two brothers, Eteocles and Polynices, who were cursed by their father, the late King Oedipus, for not taking care of their blind parent and for their selfishness and thirst for power. From my point of view, the most lyrical and heartbreaking parts of the play are those recited by the Chorus of Maidens, who depict the terrific battle scenes and address helpless and desperate prayers to the gods to protect the city and not let it fall into the hands of their enemy. The irony is that the name Thebes doesn’t appear anywhere in the text, but Cadmea or Cadmus. The one that gave the play the name we all know was actually Aristophanes, who referred to it in his comedy Frogs as “the Seven against Thebes, a drama instinct with War, which anyone who beheld must have yearned to be a warrior” (p. 6).

In Prometheus Bound (Προμηθεὺς Δεσμώτης), Titan Prometheus is punished by Zeus for creating the first humans, for stealing the Sacred Fire from Mt. Olympus and for giving it to the earthlings to start the process of civilisation. Though Prometheus is bound to a rock on Mt. Elbrus and Zeus uses various types of torture to make the titan repent, Prometheus stands tall and doesn’t have any reason to be ashamed or to apologize for what he has done. He has the power to predict the future and that future will not be a bright one for Mighty Zeus. Prometheus is not afraid of Zeus because he is immortal; therefore, all he has to do is to endure all the torture until his saviour will fulfil the prophecy. Unfortunately for us, the second and third plays of the Promethean trilogy are lost, but we can find out who the saviour is by reading the Greek myths.

Overall, the plays were very interesting, due to their unique structure and well-known characters from history and myths, but the language was pretty old and sometimes difficult to understand – a factor that made the reading too slow for my liking. I’m sure that I would have enjoyed this volume a little more if the writing had been a bit more modern, but this is a matter of taste.

 

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