Aeschylus Biography

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Agamemnon Author/Context

Born around 524 or 525 B.C. in the city of Eleusis near Athens, the Greek dramatist Aeschylus is known as the first great tragedian. His childhood was spent experiencing many great transitions for the city of Athens, including the expulsion of the last Athenian tyrant in 510 B.C. and the establishment of the Athenian democratic state, ruled by many citizens. Aeschylus also fought in several military campaigns against the Persians at Salamis, Artemisium, and Palatea, as well as at the final defeat of the Persians at Marathon in 490 B.C., where his brother died in battle. These events were very formative in forging the creative mind that would write such dramatic works as the trilogy of Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Traditionally, Athens held dramatic competitions each year in honor of the Greek god Dionysus, at which three different theater troupes consisting of only two persons each would each act out a series of four plays together in competition for the first prize at the festival. Three of these plays were usually tragedies, plays that focused on a heroic character who falls due to his own folly. However, the fourth play was a more comical, light-hearted work, called a satire. These annual competitions provided an incentive for people to write, as well as creating an important forum for fifth-century dramatists such as Aeschylus to gain recognition for their work.

Aeschylus' won first prize at the Athenian festival in 484 B.C., after which he continued to write and compete, while also traveling to further his experience and outlook towards life. In 476 B.C. he went to Etna in Sicily under the advisement of Hieron of Syracuse, where he produced The Women of Etna there. Later he returned to Athens and produced the Persians in 472 B.C., under the watchful eye of his patron, the Greek statesman Pericles, architect of the Parthenon on the great Acropolis rock in Athens. Aeschylus was at last defeated by the younger dramatist Sophocles in 468 B.C., although he made a comeback the following year with a new sequence of plays that included The Seven Against Thebes. The Oresteia was produced in 458 B.C., the last great work he would create. Aeschylus moved to Sicily soon afterwards, dying in 456 or 455 B.C. at Gela, Sicily. Although during the course of his lifetime he wrote more than seventy plays, today only seven plays survive: The Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, The Persians, Prometheus Bound, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.

Unlike Sophocles' Oedipus plays which were written over a period of fifty years, Aeschylus has written the Oresteia all at once to be a tightly knit sequence that refer back to each other, even though events in the plays are separated by a series of months or years as they occur. The Agamemnon relates a story that dates back to Homer's The Odyssey, for there Odysseus had met with Agamemnon's ghost in the Underworld during his own wanderings. Aeschylus takes a popular myth and transforms it into a social commentary with great immediacy for the Athenian citizenry. He points out the role of women in Athenian society, twisting gender roles so that men, such as Agamemnon and Aegisthus, behave as women and women, such as Clytaemnestra, behave as men. The playwright also proposes the question of what is right or wrong, to be explored further in The Libation Bearers. While the Chorus perceive Agamemnon to be justified in killing his daughter to preserve the Greeks' honor and thus allowing their fleet to sail, Clytaemnestra suggests that Agamemnon's first duty is his role as a father; his greater loyalty should be for his own children, rather than the troops at his command. Overall, the events of the Agamemnon prompt one to question these social values and others, leaving one with a biting curiosity to know whatever will happen next as the second installment, the Libation Bearers, begins.

Bibliography

Aeschylus. Lattimore, Richmond, trans. Oresteia: Agamemnon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Lattimore, Richmond, trans. "Introduction to the Oresteia." Aeschylus I: Oresteia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953.

Vellacott, Phillip, trans. "Introduction." The Oresteian Trilogy. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Wharton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1969.

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