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Aeschylus: excerpt from three plays from "World Poetry"

World Poetry now turns to classical Greek playwrights. The first one is Aeschylus (c. 525-c. 456 BCE). He is the earliest tragedian whose plays have remained (possible seven out of a possible 70-90) and is believed first to use multiple actors with a chorus. And although no reliable information about his life exists, legend has it that he fought in the Battle of Marathon and that he had at least two brothers. Two of his sons and a nephew also became playwrights.

The book has excerpts from three plays, Agamemnon, The Suppliants, and The Persians .

The first, Agamemnon , is a chorus of old men. They notice things happening. King Agamemnon has been away for ten years now, fighting that war in Troy, but his queen, Clytemnestra, has been making the rounds to every temple in town. A prophet has foretold that something is going to hit the fan (… not his exact words) when Agamemnon returns:

‘…For anger grimly returns
Cunningly haunting the house,
avenging the loss avenging the loss,
never forgetting its due.’
So cried the prophet.
(p. 103)

While a lot is hinted at in this passage, not much is said. If the reader is not familiar with the story, the reader is left in the dark for the most part. When Agamemnon left for the war, he sacrificed (i.e., killed) their daughter Iphigenia to calm a storm/obtain favorable winds. Not too surprisingly, this didn’t sit well with her mother. In the time that he’s been gone, she’s taken up housekeeping with Agamemnon’s cousin, whose family has an ancient grudge against his. To add insult to injury, Agamemnon brings home a concubine, Cassandra of Troy, the doom and gloom prophetess who is always right but is never believed. Of course Clytemnestra takes Agamemnon out, which sets in motion a whole new cycle of stories.

The Suppliants tells of the Danaids, the 50 daughters of Danaus, women seeking sanctuary in Argos because they are being forced to marry their cousins in Egypt. It is refers to a series of four plays, the last three of which are mostly incomplete but have been largely reconstructed. King Pelagus of Argos can’t grant them asylum without a vote of the people (i.e. non-slave men) of Argos, but this is granted. When it is, the Danaids break out in song praising Zeus. That’s what’s recorded here:

O be joyful now sing
the Zeus-calf born over the sea
to right an old wrong
son of our flowerpastured
first mother child of the heifer filled
by Zeus’ breath cares- child whose
name, given at birth, proves the virginal
truth of his father:
Epaphos, Caress-born
(p. 104)

The last play is The Persians which deals with the Persian defeat at the Battle of Salamis (480 BCE) and how the news comes home. It serves to give strokes to the victorious Greeks by naming the Persian generals who died and also by having the Persian king Darius, brought back from the dead, chewing out his son, Xerxes out for angering the gods with his hubris for building a bridge across the Hellespont in an effort to reach Greece. The Persians is one of a trilogy of a plays. The other two have not survived.

The Battle of Salamis

“Sons of the Greek, go forward, and set free
your fathers’ country and your sons,
your wives, the holy places of your gods,
the monuments of your own ancestors,
now is the one battle for everything.” (p. 105)


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Sources:

Aeschylus

The Persians

The Suppliants

Battle of Salamis

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© 2016 Denise Longrie


Image Credit » https://pixabay.com/en/comedy-face-theater-tragedy-masks-157719/ by OpenClipartVectors

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