Of the three Ancient Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, whose
works are at least partially extant and still performed, Aeschylus is the earliest, living from around 525 to 455 B.C. He is sometimes called the "father
of tragedy," having the innovation to add a second actor to a scene, rather than the traditional one actor and chorus. It is interesting how something that
seems so obvious in modern times was such a breakthrough back then. Adding the extra actor on stage opened up the opportunity for dialogue or at least
monologues from two different characters, as in the case of this tragedy. Though only seven of his plays survive today, Aeschylus is known to have
written as many as 90.
This tragedy is the third part of a trilogy (the other parts have not survived) about the siege of Thebes, first performed around 467 B.C.. The Dover Edition supplies insightful information for the background events leading to the action of this play. The background begins with Laïus, defying the oracle at Delphi warning him to not have children. Yet he begat a son, Oedipus, whom he cast away but was rescued by a herdsman and raised in Corinth. Unaware of his parentage, Oedipus eventually slays his father and marries Iocaste, the Queen of Cadmus his mother. (The editor of this volume notes that the name of the town was later changed to Thebes in the play.) When the truth of their relationship is finally revealed, Iocaste slays herself, then Oedipus puts a curse on his male children before he dies. It is the result of that curse that provides the material for this play.
Eteocles, son of Oedipus is the ruler of Thebes (Cadmus) when he hears that his brother, Polynices, is leading an attack against the city. He has sent out a Spy, and these are the two actors that are on stage together. For each of the seven gates, the Spy gives report on the warrior that will be leading the attack on that particular gate, emphasizing his strengths and the gods he invokes. (The editor of this edition makes a point about the important role the Immortals play in the lives of these people.) Eteocles then responds with his choice of warrior that will face each foe, choosing the best one to offset their strengths. It is not what we would term dialogue, but two alternating monologues, interspersed with cries from the Chorus.
The editor also notes that the Chorus is made up of maidens. And for good reason. It is they who will be raped and taken into slavery if the city falls, so they have much to fear. Yet Eteocles chides them, telling them to shut up, they are only making matters worse by invoking panic. He says:
"Hark to my question, things detestable!
Is this aright and for the city's weal,
And helpful to our army thus beset,
That ye before the statues of our gods
Should fling yourselves, and scream and shriek your fears?
Immodest, uncontrolled! Be this my lot—
Never in troubles nor in peaceful days
To dwell with aught that wears a female form!
Where womankind has power no man can house,
Where womankind feeds panic, ruin rules
Alike in house and city!"
At the first gate, to pit against the bold and brazen Tydeus, Eteocles chooses Melanippus, the loyal son of Astacus "Who has in heed the throne of Modesty and loathes the speech of Pride." Next comes the boastful Capaneus: "God willing or unwilling. . .I will lay waste this city." For him, Eteocles chooses Polyphontes—"by grace of Heaven and favor of his champion Artemis!" Eteoclus, with a name very similar to the ruler of Thebes, will attack the third gate and is high and haughty: "Not Ares' self shall cast me from the wall," says Eteoclus. "Not by pride and vain pretense, is he," Megareus, who will guard that gate for Thebes," is the response from Eteocles. Hippomedon will lead the attack against the fourth gate. He bears a shield wrought with the image of Typhon (a monster with 100 dragon heads). To counter this foe, Eteocles sends Hyperbius, whose shield bears an image of Zeus. Parthenopaeus has been chosen to assail the fifth gate. Though his appearance is effeminate, his wrath is fierce, and his shield bears the image of the Sphinx, who once held the city of Thebes under control until Oedipus answered her riddle. Actor, the brother of Hyperbius, equally fierce yet no braggart, will confront this foe. At the sixth gate, Amphiaraus is placed. A wise priest and prophet, he alone opposes the attack. He is duped into participating in the battle by his wife. As a seer, he foretells his own death, cursing his wife to his grave. It is with regret that Eteocles speaks of Lasthenes, who will slay Amphiaraus, whom Eteocles knows is just and not evil. The seventh gate pits brother against brother, Eteocles against Polynices, and Oedipus' curse is fulfilled.
If you are like me and love Ancient Greek Drama, (gosh, who doesn't?) ☺, by all means, read this! When one thinks of all the useless drivel being published today (trashy romance novels and biographies of current politicians come quickly to mind), it is probable (and deserving) that they will be out of print and out of mind within the next decade. Yet this play has survived two-and-a-half centuries! Wow! It boggles the mind. . .
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