Aeschylus(ca. 525 B.C.–456 B.C.)

An Athenian playwriter who has come to be seen as the world’s first great dramatist.Born at Eleusis (site of the goddess Demeter’s temple and mystery cult), Aeschylus fought in the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., where his brother, Cynegirus, died. According to Herodotus, the young man “had his hand cut off with an ax as he was getting hold of a ship’s stern, and so lost his life, together with many other well-known Athenians.” (Histories 6.116) Aeschylus also took part in the Greek naval victory over the Persians at Salamis(480 B.C.) and eight years later made that battle the centerpiece of his play ” The Persians” ,which fortunately has survived. (The play includes what appears to be an eyewitness account of some of the fighting.) Six other of his plays have survived as well,including “Seven Against Thebes” (produced in 467 B.C.), “The Suppliant Women” (ca. 463B.C.), and “Prometheus Bound” (ca. 460 B.C.), the latter based on the myth in which Zeus punishes the Titan Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and having a giant eagle gnaw at his liver. The other three of Aeschylus’s extant plays make up the Oresteia trilogy (458 B.C.)—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and Eumenides. In fact, it was Aeschylus who pioneered the trilogy form. He also introduced other theatrical conventions, including, as Aristotle reported in his Poetics, the use of a second actor, which increased the number of characters that could be seen on stage at the same time. Aeschylus’s main talent lay in selecting primal core themes and emotions (usually drawn from popular myths) that all people could identify with and packaging them in formal but powerful language that gripped and moved his audiences. The great modern translator of his works, Paul Roche, says of him: “The stamp of Aeschylus’s soul was loyal, heroic, aristocratic, and uncompromising. There was a great deal of the inspired prophet about him—the seer, lofty and penetrating in thought, delving into the past and casting his look far into the future.What he saw he sent flooding out of him, crashing down in thunderous poetry. There was a kind of divine impetus in him that struck out great rending thoughts in magnificent language.. . . His vision of heaven and earth was grand and overwhelming.Aeschylus never minded if he shocked.. . . [He felt that] people must be made to see the truth, even if it shook them. ” (The Orestes Plays of Aeschylus,pp. xix–xx)

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