Reader's Encyclopedia

Aeschylus (525-45 bc)

A Greek tragic dramatist. Aeschylus was born of an aristocratic family in Eleusis. In his youth, he fought against the Persians in the great battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea. He seems to have been prouder of these feats than of his immense success as a playwright, which he did not even mention in the epitaph that, according to tradition, he wrote for himself. After sixteen years of writing, he won his first prize for tragedy in 484 bc; he won his last with his masterpiece the Oresteia, twenty - five years later. In 476 bc he had paid a successful visit to the court of Hiero I, Tyrant of Syracuse; three years before his death, he again went to Sicily, this time to Gela. According to a popular story, he was killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head, mistaking it for a stone. The story is improved with the mention of an oracular prophecy that he would die of a blow from heaven.

Aeschylus wrote ninety plays, but only seven of them have survived: The Suppliant Women, The Persians, the Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound, and the Oresteia, a trilogy. This last is the only extant example of the trilogies on related themes that were common in Aeschylus ' day; it includes Agamemnon, the Libation Bearers, and the Eumenides. Aeschylus is noted for the grandeur of his language and of his subjects, which encompass not only the struggles between historical heroes (The Persians) and mythical (Agamemnon), but the grim conflict between the old laws and the new (Eumenides) and, in a sense, between man and gods (Prometheus Bound). Aeschylus' poetry is tense, closely packed, exciting, often somewhat rough, compared with the polished lines of Sophocles. His imagery is strong, startling, and sometimes forced, but always effective. The antithesis of Euripides ' relatively colloquial speech, Aeschylus ' dialogue is far from natural but is well suited to the tragic immensity of his themes.

Aeschylus was a practical and imaginative man of the theatre, as well as an inspired poet. He was the first to use a second actor in addition to the chorus; this permitted for the first time dialogue between individuals. He also introduced elaborate costumes and the high-soled cothurnoi that gave his actors added stature. He seems to have enjoyed colorful effects; The Persians is filled with pageantry, and old Oceanus appears in Prometheus Bound riding on a sort of four-legged bird, perhaps the original of modern vaudeville's two-man horse. Tradition says that some of his costumes were so splendid that the hierophants at Eleusis copied them for their own vestments. The story is also told that his presentation in Eumenides of the chorus of Erinyes, hideous creatures with black skins and red tongues, so terrified the audience that women had miscarriages and children convulsions.