Week 6: Exploring the Human Condition I
Aiskhylos, Seven Against Thebes
Background note: Oedipus, king of Thebes, left his throne to his sons Eteocles and Polyneices. Unable to rule together they ruled instead in alternate years until in a year when Eteocles was on the throne Polyneices gathered an army from Argos (in southern Greece) and attacked Thebes. The "Seven" of the play's title refer to Polyneices plus the six Argive leaders, who lead the seven divisions of Polyneices' army against the seven gates of the city. Both here and in other tellings of the story it is unclear which of the two brothers broke the alternate-years agreement.
There is a background note for the Philoktetes at the start of that play's translation.
1. What is/are the role(s) of the gods and the supernatural in these two plays? How does this compare with the Iliad and Odysssey?
2. Are the heroes in these two plays similar to the the heroes in the Iliad and the Odyssey? In what ways are they similar? How are they different?
3. Apart from a very, very small number of exceptions Athenian tragedy always told stories about the heroes who lived in the few generations before and after the Trojan War. Considering that the playwrights could have written plays about their contemporaries (or about people who lived closer to them in time than the heroes) why do you think they wrote plays telling the stories of these remote heroes instead? What does the use of heroes from the past add to the plays? What does the remoteness of time add?
4. In particular, is it possible for members of the audience to identify with one or more characters in the plays? How is this possible, given the distance in time and in stature betweem them and the heroes? Conversely, if the audience cannot identify with the characters in the play what do they get out of watching what they can’t relate to?
NOTE: The Herald’s speech at the end of Seven Against Thebes was not written by Aischylos but was added later to harmonize our play with Sophokles’ Antigone. Our play probably ending with a processional removal of the bodies after Antigone and Ismene’s lamentations.