The "Father of Tragedy," Aeschylus was born in 525 B.C. in the city of Eleusis. Immersed early in the mystic rites of the city and in the worship of the Mother and Earth goddess Demeter, he was once sent as a child to watch grapes ripening in the countryside. According to Aeschylus, when he dozed off, Dionysus appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to write tragedies. The obedient young Aeschylus began a tragedy the next morning and "succeeded very easily."
When Aeschylus first began writing, the theatre had only just begun to evolve. Plays were little more than animated oratorios or choral poetry supplemented with expressive dance. A chorus danced and exchanged dialogue with a single actor who portrayed one or more characters primarily by the use of masks. Most of the action took place in the circular dancing area or "orchestra" which still remained from the old days when drama had been nothing more than a circular dance around a sacred object.
It was a huge leap for drama when Aeschylus introduced the second actor. He also attempted to involve the chorus directly in the action of the play. In Agamemnon, the chorus of Elders quarrels with the queen's lover, and in The Eumenides, a chorus of Furies pursue the grief-stricken Orestes. Aeschylus directed many of his own productions, and according to ancient critics, he is said to have brought the Furies onstage in so realistic a manner that women miscarried in the audience.
Although Aeschylus is said to have written over ninety plays, only seven have survived. His first extant work, The Suppliants, reveals a young Aeschylus still struggling with the problems of choral drama. The tale revolves around the fifty daughers of Danaus who seek refuge in Argos from the attentions of the fifty sons of Aegyptus. His second extant drama, The Persians, recounts the battle of Salamis--in which Aeschylus and his brother actually fought--and deals primarily with the reception of the news at the imperial court. This play contains the first "ghost scene" of extant drama.
In his third surviving play, Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus tackles the myth of Prometheus, the world's first humanitarian. As the play begins, the titan is being fastened against his will to a peak in the Caucasian mountains for giving mankind the gift of fire without the consent of the gods. Prometheus knows Zeus is destined to fall. In fact, he holds the secret of the Olympian's doom--a certain woman that will be his undoing--but Prometheus will not reveal her name. Even amid the fire from heaven that is hurled at him in a frightening climax, Prometheus remains fearless and silent.
In Seven Against Thebes, Aeschylus deals with themes of patricide and incest. He was not, however, willing to settle for the conventional explanation of the "family curse". Instead, Aeschylus delved deeper, suggesting that heredity is nothing more than a predisposition--that the true cause of such "acts of wickedness" is ambition, greed, and a lack of moral fortitude. Thus, eliminating the gods as an excuse for wickedness, Aeschylus demanded that men take responsibility for their actions.
The Oresteia, a trilogy, was performed in 458 BC, less than two years before Aeschylus' death. Once again, he dealt with the tragedy of a royal house, a "hereditary curse" which began in a dim, legendary world in which Tantalus was cast into the pit of Tartarus for revealing to mankind the secrets of the gods. This situation paralleled events in Aeschylus' own life. He was reportedly charged with "impiety" for revealing the Eleusinian mysteries--the secret rites of the city of his birth--to outsiders. It is likely, however, that these charges were politically motivated, and he was not convicted.
Legend has it that Aeschylus met his death when an eagle mistook his bald head for a rock and dropped a tortoise on it. Whatever the cause of his death, his life laid the groundwork the dramatic arts would need to flourish, and by the time of his death, there were two notable successors ready to take his place--Sophocles and Euripides
On Greek Culture
When Aeschylus first began writing, the theatre had only just begun to evolve, although earlier playwrights like Thespis had already expanded the cast to include an actor who was able to interact with the chorus. Aeschylus added a second actor, allowing for greater dramatic variety, while the chorus played a less important role. He is sometimes credited with introducing skenographia, or scene-decoration,though Aristotle gives this distinction to Sophocles. Aeschylus is also said to have made the costumes more elaborate and dramatic, and having his actors wear platform boots (cothurni) to make them more visible to the audience. According to a later account of Aeschylus's life, as they walked on stage in the first performance of the Eumenides, the chorus of Furies were so frightening in appearance that they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labour.
His plays were written in verse, no violence is performed on stage, and the plays have a remoteness from daily life in Athens, either by relating stories about the gods or by being set, like The Persians, in far-away locales. Aeschylus's work has a strong moral and religious emphasis. The Oresteia trilogy concentrated on man's position in the cosmos in relation to the gods, divine law, and divine punishment. Aeschylus's popularity is evident in the praise the comic playwright Aristophanes gives him in The Frogs, produced some half-century after Aeschylus's death. Appearing as a character in the play, Aeschylus claims at line 1022 that his Seven against Thebes "made everyone watching it to love being warlike"; with his Persians, Aeschylus claims at lines 1026-7 that he "taught the Athenians to desire always to defeat their enemies." Aeschylus goes on to say at lines 1039ff. that his plays inspired the Athenians to be brave and virtuous.
Influence outside of Greek Culture
Aeschylus's works were influential beyond his own time. Hugh Lloyd-Jones (Regius Professor of Greek Emeritus at Oxford University) draws attention to Wagner's reverence of Aeschylus. Michael Ewans argues in his Wagner and Aeschylus. The Ring and the Oresteia (London: Faber. 1982) that the influence was so great as to merit a direct character by character comparison between Wagner's Ring and Aeschylus's Oresteia. A critic of his book however, while not denying that Wagner read and respected Aeschylus, has described his arguments as unreasonable and forced.
Sir J. T. Sheppard argues in the second half of his Aeschylus and Sophocles: Their Work and Influence that Aeschylus, along with Sophocles, have played a major part in the formation of dramatic literature from the Renaissance to the present, specifically in French and Elizabethan drama. He also claims that their influence went beyond just drama and applies to literature in general, citing Milton and the Romantics.
During his presidential campaign in 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy quoted the Edith Hamilton translation of Aeschylus on the night of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Kennedy was notified of King's murder before a campaign stop in Indianapolis, Indiana and was warned not to attend the event due to fears of rioting from the mostly African-American crowd. Kennedy insisted on attending and delivered an impromptu speech that delivered news of King's death to the crowd. Acknowledging the audience's emotions, Kennedy referred to his own grief at the murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy and, quoting a passage from the play Agamemnon, said: "My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He once wrote: 'Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.' What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black... Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world." The speech is considered to be Kennedy's finest. The quotation from Aeschylus was later inscribed on a memorial at the gravesite of Robert Kennedy following his own assassination
Unions in wedlock are perverted by the victory of shameless passion that masters the female among men and beasts.
And though all streams flow from a single course to cleanse the blood from polluted hand, they hasten on their course in vain.
We shall perish by guile just as we slew.
Justice turns the scale, bringing to some learning through suffering.
For hostile word let hostile word be paid.
For a murderous blow let murderous blow atone.
Of prosperity mortals can never have enough.
Shoals of corpses shall witness, mute, even to generations to come, before the eyes of men that we ought never, being mortal, to cast our sights too high.
For insolence, once blossoming, bears its fruit, a bushel of doom, from which it reaps a tear-filled harvest.
Since long I've held silence a remedy for harm.
It is an ill thing to be the first to bring news of ill.
Fear hurries on my tongue through want of courage.
For he does not wish to seem but to be just.
Be bold and boast, just like the cock beside the hen.
And in this too profit begets profit.
What exists outside is a man's concern; let no woman give advice; and do no mischief within doors.
We should know clearly before we discuss this matter; to guess is one thing, to know clearly another.
And she, after swan-like singing her last and dying song, lies beside him, her lover.
Overly persuasive a woman's ordinance spreads far, traveling fast; but fast dying a rumor voiced by a woman perishes.
The saying goes that the gods leave a town once it is captured.
Bonds and the pangs of hunger are excellent prophet doctors for the wits.
The field of doom bears death as its harvest.
Ares, gold-changer of bodies.
When a tongue fails to send forth appropriate shafts, there might be a word to act as healer of these.
The evils of mortals are manifold; nowhere is trouble of the same wing seen.
Alas for the affairs of men! When they are fortunate you might compare them to a shadow; and if they are unfortunate, a wet sponge with one dash wipes the picture away.
Relentless persuasion overbears him, irresistible child of forecounseling destruction.
For the poison of hatred seated near the heart doubles the burden for the one who suffers the disease; he is burdened with his own sorrow, and groans on seeing another's happiness.
For there is no defense for a man who, in the excess of his wealth, has kicked the great altar of Justice out of sight.
In the lack of judgment great harm arises, but one vote cast can set right a house.
And one who is just of his own free will shall not lack for happiness; and he will never come to utter ruin.
You wish to be thought to act justly than to do so.
What good is it to live a life that brings pains?
When strength is yoked with justice, where is a mightier pair than they?
The man who does ill must suffer ill.
Bronze in the mirror of the form, wine of the mind.
For this is the mark of a wise and upright man, not to rail against the gods in misfortune.
There is a moment when god honors falsehood.
The words of truth are simple.
Self-will in the man who does not reckon wisely is by itself the weakest of all things.
Or don't you know, so exceedingly clever as you are, that a vain tongue must pay the penalty?
You have been trapped in the inescapable net of ruin by your own want of sense.
I have learned to hate all traitors, and there is no disease that I spit on more than treachery.
It is a light thing for whoever keeps his foot outside trouble to advise and counsel him that suffers.
For it would be better to die once and for all than to suffer pain for all one's life.
For know that no one is free, except Zeus.
Don't you know this, that words are doctors to a diseased temperment?
It is best for the wise man not to seem wise.
The best by far is to marry in one's own rank.
Inscribe it in the remembering tablets of your mind.
The Battle Of Salamis
The night was passing, and the Grecian host
By no means sought to issue forth unseen.
But when indeed the day with her white steeds
Held all the earth, resplendent to behold,
First from the Greeks the loud-resounding din
Of song triumphant came; and shrill at once
Echo responded from the island rock.
Then upon all barbarians terror fell,
Thus disappointed; for not as for flight
The Hellenes sang the holy pæan then,
But setting forth to battle valiantly.
The bugle with its note inflamed them all;
And straightway with the dip of plashing oars
They smote the deep sea water at command,
And quickly all were plainly to be seen.
Their right wing first in orderly array
Led on, and second all the armament
Followed them forth; and meanwhile there was heard
A mighty shout: "Come, O ye sons of Greeks,
Make free your country, make your children free,
Your wives, and fanes of your ancestral gods,
And your sires' tombs! For all we now contend!"
And from our side the rush of Persian speech
Replied. No longer might the crisis wait.
At once ship smote on ship with brazen beak;
A vessel of the Greeks began the attack,
Crushing the stem of a Phoenician ship.
Each on a different vessel turned its prow.
At first the current of the Persian host
Withstood; but when within the strait the throng
Of ships was gathered, and they could not aid
Each other, but by their own brazen bows
Were struck, they shattered all our naval host.
The Grecian vessels not unskillfully
Were smiting round about; the hulls of ships
Were overset; the sea was hid from sight,
Covered with wreckage and the death of men;
The reefs and headlands were with corpses filled,
And in disordered flight each ship was rowed,
As many as were of the Persian host.
But they, like tunnies or some shoal of fish,
With broken oars and fragments of the wrecks
Struck us and clove us; and at once a cry
Of lamentation filled the briny sea,
Till the black darkness' eye did rescue us.
The number of our griefs, not though ten days
I talked together, could I fully tell;
But this know well, that never in one day
Perished so great a multitude of men.