Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


an analysis of the play by Aeschylus

The following essay on the Oresteia was originally published in The Tragic Drama of the Greeks. A.E. Haigh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896. pp. 103-6.

The Persians (Persae) ... is the only surviving Greek tragedy which treats of a non-mythical subject. It was exhibited in 472 [B.C.], nearly seven years after the final defeat of the Persians, whose overthrow it celebrates. Though produced, after the usual fashion, along with three other plays, it appears to have been unconnected with the rest in point of contents. Aristophanes cites an incident from the Persians which is not to be found in the present text; and this fact has led some critics to suggest that there were two versions of the play, the one from which Aristophanes quotes being that performed at Syracuse by the request of Hieron. But the rival opinion is perhaps more probable, that there was only a single version, and that Arisophanes was somewhat confused in his recollections.

In no work of Aeschylus is the grandeur of his mind more strikingly revealed. In the hands of an ordinary poet the play might easily have been converted into a mere manifestation of national pride. But the Persians is pitched in a higher key. The tone is one, not of triumph, but of solemn warning, addressed to victors as well as vanquished. The truth continually enforced is the certainty of the retribution which awaits the oppressor. In the great history of the Persian War, that which strikes the imagination of Aeschylus is, not so much the struggle of liberty against despotism, or of Greek against barbarian, as the spectacle of divine justice humbling the pride of nations. To him, as to the old Hebrew prophets, history is a revelation of the will of providence; and the ruin of armies, and the overthrow of nations, are but examples of the handiwork of God.

The purpose of the tragedy, then, is essentially a moral one: the glory and triumph of the Greeks are only incidentally displayed. At the same time no device can be conceived, which would have placed the victory of the Greeks in a clearer light than the device adopted by Aeschylus. In laying the scene in Persia he made his countrymen the witnesses, as it were, of the ruin and degradation of their adversaries; and it is easy to imagine the emotions which such a performance must have excited in the minds of the Athenian audience. Most of them had taken an active part in the great events described. In the drama which was now unfolded before their eyes they saw their enemies receiving, in abject despair, the successive tidings of calamity; they heard the stately narrative of those life and death struggles from which they had just emerged; and they beheld the actual workings of that oppressive despotism from which they themselves had narrowly escaped. A spectacle of this kind must have gone to their hearts with a directness which no legend could hope to equal.

It has often been observed that no individual Greek is mentioned by name in the course of the play. The omission is remarkable, and was due, not so much to the fear of exciting jealousy and party feeling, as to the desire of avoiding everything familiar, and of imparting a sort of mysterious dignity to the tragedy, by confining it to strange scenes and distant peoples. The usual occupants of the tragic stage being gods and heroes, when a poet ventured to descend from this ideal region into the atmosphere of ordinary life, it was necessary to retain as much as possible of the accustomed splendour in the performance. This result might be attained, in part, by the exclusion of familiar names and places, and the selection of things marvellous and unknown. As Racine observes, the effect upon the general public is much the same, whether the action of a play be separated from present surroundings by a thousand years, or by a thousand leagues. To some such feeling is ascribed that air of remoteness from everyday life which pervades the Persians.

The sense of strangeness is intensified by the local colouring given to the play. Many instances are to be found. Long enumerations of Persian names, and barbarous exclamations of sorrow, are of frequent occurrence. The chorus of elders address the queen with oriental adulation as "wife and mother of a god"; and are so terrified by the sight of Darius, that they dare not look in his face, or answer his questions. Atossa's high-flown description of her libations -- "drops from the flower-working bee, watery tricklings of virgin fountain, splendour of ancient vine, stainless draught of untamed mother" -- suggests the extravagance of oriental imagination. The final scene, too, in which Xerxes and the chorus, amid wild and barbarous music, abandon themselves to paroxysms of sorrow, is no doubt intended as a picture of Persian effeminacy. Yet it is to be observed, at the same time, that Aeschylus, like Shakespeare, and most early poets, shows little regard for archaeological accuracy. The gods invoked by the Persians are the ordinary Greek gods, Zeus, Hermes, and Apollo; a statue of Apollo stands, in Greek fashion, before the royal palace; the offerings on the tomb of Darius are Greek, and not Persian.

Back to Aeschylus