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
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
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. In addition, Aeschylus
left behind two sons who would carry on his dramatic legacy,
and one of them, Euphorion, would even claim first prize at the
City Dionysia, defeating both Sophocles and Euripides in 431