Dave's Reviews > Persians/Seven against Thebes/Suppliants/Prometheus Bound

Persians/Seven against Thebes/Suppliants/Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus
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's review
May 06, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, translated, classic, play, fiction
Read in July, 2009

How does one approach reviewing Aeschylus or any of the classics? One is dealing with a work which is thousands of years old and in and of itself a piece of history. Add to that problem that for most of us, there is no choice but to read translations of the work, rather than the original. In addition, there are only a few works remaining from only three sources (unless the authorship has been incorrectly given), so one is left to compare Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, and given that Aeschylus was writing much earlier than the others the comparison would be rather difficult given the changes that Aeschylus made to Greek Theatre. What one can discuss is how readable the translations are, and the supporting material.

Aeschylus I, number 145 in the Loeb Classical Library contains four of Aeschylus’ plays: “Persians”, “Seven Against Thebes”, “Suppliants”, and “Prometheus Bound”. The edition I have read is the 2008 publication which was edited and translated by Alan H. Sommerstein. In the preface, Mr. Sommerstein discusses the state of the Aeschylus volumes prior to this publication and what he attempts to accomplish with this new translation and publication of the plays. This is followed by a superb introduction which discusses Aeschylus, his life, his works, Greek Theatre, and what happened to the plays in history to bring them to the point they are now at. This is followed by the standard Bibliography, Sigla, and Abbreviations which one expects from a Loeb edition, and that brings us to the plays themselves.

Each of the plays is preceded by a section detailing the specifics of the play. When it was believed to be first performed, whether it won the Dionysia competition, what parts of the play may be suspect, what is believed to be the other plays in the production and what is known about those plays. The footnotes in the translations of the plays themselves are also quite extensive, as information about the decisions made in the translation are covered as well as more information to better help understand any unspoken meanings that Aeschylus may have been trying to convey. The translations themselves are excellent. I have read a few translations of some of these plays, and Mr. Sommerstein has done an outstanding job of helping the reader understand the play.

“Persians” opens with the council of Susa (i.e. the chorus) unsure of the fate of their army and concerned because so many men went to war so far away. They are joined by the Queen Mother, Atossa who is also concerned, because of a dream she had. News of the disaster arrives by messenger, and all are distraught. Atossa asks the chorus to summon the ghost of Darius, who at first is completely unaware of what has occurred, and then curses the hubris of his son Xerxes who led his vast army to this disaster, and then prophesizes the defeat at Plataea. Eventually Xerxes himself arrives in rags and laments the defeat and what it means to Persia.

“Seven Against Thebes” begins after Thebes has been under siege for a time, and on a day when it has been prophesized (by Teiresias) that the city will be assaulted on that very day. A scout arrives and gives Eteocles a description of what has happened outside the city and then leaves to gather more information. Eteocles comments on what he has been told and leaves to oversee the defenses. The Theben maidens arrive (i.e. The Chorus) and describe the fear and terror felt inside the city. Eteocles returns and tries to shame the women into being silent and thus not spread any more fear, they agree and Eteocles once again leaves to inspect the defenses. The Chorus continues to comment until the scout returns and Eteocles rushes back to talk to him. The scout describes each of the seven captains who are assaulting the seven gates, finishing with Polyneices Eteocles discusses how each will be dealt with, and when he learns that is brother is at the seventh gate, he decides to go there to face his brother himself. The Chorus is left alone as both the scout and Eteocles have left the stage. The scout returns and we learn that Eteocles and Polyneices have killed each other. The ending is a bit uncertain as it appears that Atigone and Ismene were added to the play for a later production. However, there is a dispute over what to do with the bodies of the two brothers.

“Suppliants” is about the Danaids who are fleeing a forced marriage and make a plea to King Pelasgus of Argos to protect them. He lets the Argive people make the decision, which is to help the Danaids. An Egyptian herald arrives to try to force the Danaids to return for the marriage, but King Pelasgus threatens the herald and pushes the Danaids to go within the walls of Argos for protection. For me, this was the most difficult play to follow, there was not much in the way of action, and significant sections of it are missing or were added in which makes it all the more difficult.

“Prometheus Bound” is the last of the plays in this volume, and along with “Persians” is the most enjoyable one to read. Some question whether Aeschylus actually wrote the play, but regardless it is an interesting one. The play opens with Prometheus being escorted to the wrong to which he will be bound by Power (Kratos), Violence (Bia), and Hephaestus, the smith. Violence never utters a word, nor does Prometheus himself during this initial period, but Power mocks Prometheus and Hephaestus is empathetic to Prometheus’s position. Power pushes Hephaestus until the job is done, and then the three leave Prometheus alone. For the remainder of the play Prometheus is chained to the rock, lamenting his position, and talking to those who come to see him, such as the daughters of Oceanus (Chorus), Oceanus, Io, and at the end Hermes. The play pits the tyranny of Zeus against Prometheus and his (Prometheus’s) love for man.

This is an excellent edition of the Loeb library, and the new translations of Aeschylus are quite good. One could argue that any edition of classic works deserves five stars, but in this case it is really earned.
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