Keith's Reviews > Aeschylus: Seven Plays

Aeschylus by Aeschylus
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Jan 27, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: partial-read, favorites
Read from January 27, 2011 to October 04, 2013

The Oresteia *****
One of the most striking things about The Oresteia is its dense imagery. The trilogy, presented on a bare stage with a strictly limited number of speakers, focuses on several key images and words that interact throughout the three parts. Imagery related to nets, houses, birds/animals, illness/healing and stains/cleaning, torches, sleeping/dreaming and sailing appear throughout. It is truly minimalist.

The Lattimore translation has many memorable lines and phrases including:

“I tell you he is alive and killing the dead.” (The Libation Bearers 887)**
“Pain flowers for him.” The Libation Bearers 1009)
“Let go / upon this man the stormblasts of our bloodshot breath.” (Eumenides 137)
“Caught inside / the hard wrestle of water.” (Eumenides 557)

I don’t have anything to add to the thousands of years of criticism. This is a remarkable play that I’ve returned to many times throughout my life, and I’m sure I’ll return again. The Lattimore translation, as noted above, contains many gems, though I’m baffled by the odd line breaks. Is that in the original, or is that Lattimore's attempt to mimic modern(i.e., 1950s)poetry? I didn't like it.

The Chicago University edition is well done, but the complete lack of footnotes is unfortunate. While the Oresteia has a fuller introduction than the other plays in the book, much of the context and culture is lost. It’s not absolutely necessary, but it adds to the experience. I simultaneously read James Hogan’s A Commentary on the Complete Greek Tragedies.

**Apparently that can also be read in the original Greek as “The dead is killing the living.” (October 2013)


The Persians **
This is not a very compelling play to read. It is a long lament by the Persians who had lost a war to the Athenians. In performance, with music and staging, it may have been a more compelling piece, but on the page it is rather anticlimatic. (February 2011)

Prometheus Bound *****
Greek mythology is full of men struggling against gods. And losing. In Prometheus Bound, Prometheus, a fellow god, vies with a tyrannical Zeus for the benefit of mankind – and for his trouble he’s nailed to a rock.

Aeschylus presents Zeus as a tyrant – attempting to destroy mankind, raping Io and leaving her to Juno’s harsh fate, nailing Prometheus to a rock for defending mankind, suppressing dissent, and intimidating foes. As the preface to the Oxford edition notes, Zeus “foreshadows the methods of twentieth century totalitarianism” inflicting “’isolation, deprivation of sleep, intimidation, endlessly repeated accusations of lying, maintenance of very painful postures,’” etc. (p. 12)*

But Prometheus has one trump card – he knows how Zeus’s reign might end – which even Zeus doesn’t know. The death of a god – the rise of a new day free from tyranny – are promised. Such thoughts agitated the pens of Romantics like Shelley and Byron. But as the Oxford preface notes, that’s probably not the direction Aeschylus took. This is but one part of a probable trilogy, and evidence points to a conciliation between Prometheus and Zeus at the end. Zeus remains supreme.

By itself though, Prometheus Unbound is a romantic struggle against the seemingly omnipotent god in which the underdog, the downtrodden, the victim might actually taste victory. It’s a stirring work. It’s not surprising why this part of the play survived.

This is a good translation, but this edition lacks any substantive notes. I also read this with the Oxford edition and the commentary by James C. Hogan. (01/15)


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