GREEK DRAMA I
AESCHYLUS PROMETHEUS BOUND
In Herodotus’ history, one of the Persians who is arguing against
democracy says that people are simply too ignorant to govern
themselves. In many ways, this seems a valid complaint (cf. our
own elections!). To make a democracy work takes an
extraordinarily high caliber of citizen. One reason we place so
much emphasis on education in our own society (and one reason democracy
so difficult to establish in other places).
The reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes turned Athens into a democracy,
and it’s interesting that democratic institutions were so rooted in
Athenian culture that, even when the city of Athens was destroyed,
Athens still operated democratically. The ecclesia continued to
After the Persian War, Athens has to rebuild—and rebuild it does. The
Golden Age of Athens is just around the corner, a free society at its
How did the Athenians make democracy work? The democracy works in
part because Athenian citizens are well informed. Partly, this
education is informal, through conversations in the agora. Years
later, the New Testament comments that the Athenians delighted in
nothing other than to hear or say something new).
But perhaps even more important in training the citizenry to be
effective decision makers, the theater.
From time of Pisistratos onward, there were two great dramatic
festivals every year, the City Dionysia in March, and the Lenaea in
January. The latter was devoted largely to comedies, the former
to tragedies. As part of the City Dionysia, there were three days in a
row where playwrights would each take a day to present their
work--three tragedies and a satyr play, sun-up to sundown.
Something enormously special happening in these plays. Theater
historians would say that three out of the four greatest tragic
playwrights were three of the Athenians who wrote plays for these
competitions—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides.
For the next exam, you should be prepared to take one of these figures
(Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides) and write an essay arguing that
this man was the best and most important of the Greek playwrights.
Now are these really the greatest tragic playwrights of all time? Well,
certainly other playwrights have thought so. Great writers go
back again and again to these plays trying to adapt them to own
times. Seneca, Racine, T.S. Eliot, Shelley, Jean Cocteau, Sartre,
Hofmannsthal. Jean Giraudoux (who wrote Amphytrion 38!) all
modified Greek originals. They wrote some very fine plays. Wagner at
Bayreuth and Hofmannsthal at Salzburg did some very impressive
things. But rarely are these later writers able to make tragedy
Why were our three Athenians more successful?
Tragedy deals with great issues, as Aristotle noted, things of
sufficient magnitude. It deals with great human conflicts, often
involving right vs. right, focusing on our conflicting duties
(state/family, gods/love, etc).
Now it’s not all that hard to bring these conflicts to the stage.
But successful tragedy requires something else: it requires the
conflict to be resolved, not only for person on stage, but for audience
Successful tragedy has powerful effect on audience: Aristotle called it
catharsis (“through pity and terror effecting the purgation of these
emotions”). But Aristotle’s definition not quite easy for
us. (There’s a joke where one professor tells another that the
commonly accepted idea theory of catharsis is not really what Aristotle
meant at all. “No?” he asks, “Well then, I claim it for myself.
In producing catharsis (whatever it is) the Greek tragic playwrights
had some advantages—
--Confidence of Persian war victory
--A well-developed tradition (Homer)
--Shared mythology (the lack thereof is why Wagner failed)
But even with all this going for them, the credit should go mostly to
the individual playwrights.
First of all, Aeschylus.
With few exceptions, we know very little about the lives of the great
writers of antiquity. This is unfortunately the case with
Aeschylus. We don’t know when he was born—525 BC? 512
BC? We do know that he fought at Marathon and possibly other
Persian War battles. We know his first first prize came in 484
BC. We know he wrote more than 90 plays, and we have titles of 79
of them. We know he won first prize on 13 occasions, that he
traveled to Sicily and produced plays there, and that he died in Sicily
It would be nice to know more, but it would be nicer to have more than
the seven extent Aeschylus plays. Still, these seven plays are
sufficient to show that Aeschylus was one of the greatest playwrights
of all time.
Aeschylus is first of all important for his innovations.
Aristotle tells us he introduced the 2nd actor to the stage.
Aeschylus was also a great poet. Like Homer, he uses iambic
hexameter with all its variations. Much of what he is doing her
won’t come across in translation, but some of his poetry does show
through, especially if you get a translation that preserves his
Aeschylus is great also for his mastery of the dramatic form. I
love his opening to Prometheus Bound, “This is the Scythian country we
have come to, an unending waste.” This is true in a double
sense—and one often feels that was as (say) one looks at American
politics or the education bureaucracy.
Most important, there’s the way Aeschylus handles important
themes, A great example, Prometheus Bound.
Prometheus is part of a trilogy. It’s strange and a bit difficult
that we have only the middle play, but for the Greeks that would have
been less of a problem. They knew the whole story well, both what
came before and what came after.
For the full story of Prometheus, we turn today mostly to the poet
Hesiod and his Theogony. The basic story is as follows.
To the Greeks, Zeus was a relatively recent god, preceded as supreme by
primordia chaos, Ouranos, and then Chronos. Zeus had to seize power
from his violent father, and then put down rebellions/attempts to
overthrow him by the Titans. He did so with the aid of Prometheus.
But Prometheus fell into disfavor because of his help to mankind.
First, he tricked Zeus in the matter of sacrifices, leaving Zeus with
the generally useless portions of the sacrificial animal. Zeus
responded with a flood to destroy mankind, but Prometheus warned
Deucalion and humans survived. Mankind was going to die out
anyway, but Prometheus stole fire and give men the ability to
survive. Zeus is now going to punish Prometheus for this.
Men are punished too. How? With a gift from Zeus—a woman,
“For from her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live among
mortal men to their great trouble.”
Hesiod says of Pandora, “But into her heart Hermes, the guide, the
slayer of Argus, put lies, and wheedling words of falsehood and a
treacherous nature…to be a source of sorrow to men that eat bread.”
‘Don’t’ let any sweet-talking woman beguile your good senses with the
fascination of her shape,” warns Hesiod. “It’s your barn she’s
Now there is none of this misogyny in Aeschylus: quite the
reverse. And here’s a key point. The basic stories of Greek
mythology are fixed: a playwright can’t change the details. What
they can do is select what they want, leaving out what they don’t and
adding additional details.
In analyzing theater, it’s useful to take a look for each of the five
“narrative essentials,” plot, character, theme, setting and tone.
Note that plot is the process of selecting and ordering story elements,
and that’s what the Greek dramatists will do.
Note the way Aeschylus handles plot in Prometheus Bound, and note the
effectiveness of each plot element.
1. We get first Hephaestus forced against his will to chain
2. We get next interaction with a chorus, the daughters of Tethys.
3. We see Oceanus come and commiserate with Prometheus.
4. We get Io stopping by in the midst of her wandering.
5. We get a confrontation of Hermes and Prometheus.
All these are well chose to support Aeschylus over purpose [plot
choices discussed in class.]
Note how the setting and tone also support Aeschylus purpose. “This is
the Scythian country we have come to, and unending waste.” A
bleak and desolate place where order/reason don’t hold sway, fitting
for a bleak situation!
Then there’s Aeschylus overall theme. First, we see Zeus as like
a mortal tyrant, and the dilemmas the characters in the play face are
very much like Athenians might have faced during the tyranny of
But there’s also Zeus as a god, and living in a world governed by an
unjust god is even worse. Is the highest power in the universe
unjust—or is justice even a consideration? James Russell Lowell
writes, “Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is
strong, though its portion be the scaffold and upon the throne be
But what if there is no ultimate justice, no God keeping watch above
his own? It’s a scary thought!!
But beyond this, there is a deeper question Aeschylus is dealing with,
the relationship of force and reason. Should human life be
governed by force or reason? Ultimately, the two have to be
reconciled, and here’s the “cosmic conflict” that Aeschylus deals
with. Ultimately, it’s going to be resolved in the 3rd play of
the trilogy, where Zeus and Prometheus are going to come to some sort
of an agreement.
Now how are force and reason going to be harmonized in political
life? Isn’t that what democracy is about?
And then there is force and reason in our own lives: our own tendency
to want to use force instead of allow ourselves to be governed by
reason. Here, too, Aeschylus is giving us a catharsis—a
cleansing, a changed heart.
There’s another major theme: the pursuit of truth. Note Io
persists in wanting to know what’s ahead, even though the future is
filled with evil. Maxim Gorky said, “The truth isn’t always the
thing for what ails you.” I think Aeschylus might disagree. Note
the “blind hope” theme: one of Prometheus gifts to men.