Of the life of Aeschylus, the first of the three great masters of Greek tragedy, only a very meager outline has come down to us. He was born at Eleusis, near Athens, B. C. 525, the son of Euphorion. Before he was twenty-five he began to compete for the tragic prize, but did not win a victory for twelve years. He spent two periods of years in Sicily, where he died in 456, killed, it is said, by a tortoise which an eagle dropped on his head. Though a professional writer, he did his share of fighting for his country, and is reported to have taken part in the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea.
Of the seventy or eighty plays which he is said to have written, only seven survive: “The Persians,” dealing with the defeat of Xerxes at Salamis; “The Seven against Thebes,” part of a tetralogy on the legend of Thebes; “The Suppliants,” on the daughters of Danaüs; “Prometheus Bound,” part of a trilogy, of which the first part was probably “Prometheus, the Fire-bringer,” and the last, “Prometheus Unbound”; and the “Oresteia,” the only example of a complete Greek tragic trilogy which has come down to us, consisting of “Agamemnon”, “Choephorae” (The Libation-Bearers), and the “Eumenides” (Furies).
The importance of Aeschylus in the development of the drama is immense. Before him tragedy had consisted of the chorus and one actor; and by introducing a second actor, expanding the dramatic dialogue thus made possible, and reducing the lyrical parts, he practically created Greek tragedy as we understand it. Like other writers of his time, he acted in his own plays, and trained the chorus in their dances and songs; and he did much to give impressiveness to the performances by his development of the accessories of scene and costume on the stage. Of the four plays here reproduced, “Prometheus Bound” holds an exceptional place in the literature of the world. (As conceived by Aeschylus, Prometheus is the champion of man against the oppression of Zeus; and the argument of the drama has a certain correspondence to the problem of the Book of Job.) The Oresteian trilogy on “The House of Atreus” is one of the supreme productions of all literature. It deals with the two great themes of the retribution of crime and the inheritance of evil; and here again a parallel may be found between the assertions of the justice of God by Aeschylus and by the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. Both contend against the popular idea that the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge; both maintain that the soul that sinneth, it shall die. The nobility of thought and the majesty of style with which these ideas are set forth give this triple drama its place at the head of the literary masterpieces of the antique world.
CHORUS OF CAPTIVE WOMEN
The Scene is the Tomb of Agamemnon at Mycenae; afterwards, the Palace of Atreus, hard by the Tomb.
Lord of the shades and patron of the realm
That erst my father swayed, list now my prayer,
Hermes, and save me with thine aiding arm,
Me who from banishment returning stand
On this my country; lo, my foot is set
On this grave-mound, and herald-like, as thou,
Once and again, I bid my father hear.
And these twin locks, from mine head shorn, I bring,
And one to Inachus the river-god,
My young life’s nurturer, I dedicate,
And one in sign of mourning unfulfilled
I lay, though late, on this my father’s grave.
For O my father, not beside thy corse
Stood I to wail thy death, nor was my hand
Stretched out to bear thee forth to burial.
What sight is yonder? what this woman-throng
Hitherward coming, by their sable garb
Made manifest as mourners? What hath chanced?
Doth some new sorrow hap within the home?
Or rightly may I deem that they draw near
Bearing libations, such as soothe the ire
Of dead men angered, to my father’s grave?
Nay, such they are indeed; for I descry
Electra mine own sister pacing hither,
In moody grief conspicuous. Grant, O Zeus,
Grant me my father’s murder to avenge —
Be thou my willing champion!
Pass we aside, till rightly I discern
Wherefore these women throng in suppliance.
Exeunt Pylades and Orestes; enter the Chorus bearing vessels for libation; Electra follows them; they pace slowly towards the tomb of Agamemnon.
Forth from the royal halls by high command
I bear libations for the dead.
Rings on my smitten breast my smiting hand,
And all my cheek is rent and red,
Fresh-furrowed by my nails, and all my soul
This many a day doth feed on cries of dole.
And trailing tatters of my vest,
In looped and windowed raggedness forlorn,
Hang rent around my breast,
Even as I, by blows of Fate most stern
Saddened and torn.
Oracular thro’ visions, ghastly clear,
Bearing a blast of wrath from realms below,
And stiffening each rising hair with dread,
Came out of dream-land Fear,
And, loud and awful, bade
The shriek ring out at midnight’s witching hour,
And brooded, stern with woe,
Above the inner house, the woman’s bower.
And seers inspired did read the dream on oath,
Chanting aloud In realms below
The dead are wroth;
Against their slayers yet their ire doth glow.
Therefore to bear this gift of graceless worth —
O Earth, my nursing mother! —
The woman god-accurs’d doth send me forth
Lest one crime bring another.
Ill is the very word to speak, for none
Can ransom or atone
For blood once shed and darkening the plain.
O hearth of woe and bane,
O state that low doth lie!
Sunless, accursed of men, the shadows brood
Above the home of murdered majesty.
Rumour of might, unquestioned, unsubdued,
Pervading ears and soul of lesser men,
Is silent now and dead.
Yet rules a viler dread;
For bliss and power, however won,
As gods, and more than gods, dazzle our mortal ken.