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an analysis of the play by Aeschylus

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

The Septem (Seven Against Thebes) was brought out in 467 [B.C.], five years after the Persae (Persians). The subject of the trilogy to which it belonged was the ruin of the house of Laius, owing to the presence of an hereditary curse. In the Laius, the first of the three plays, the origin of the evil was explained. Laius had been warned by the oracle at Delphi that "if he died without offspring he would preserve the city"; but he impiously disregarded the commands of Apollo, begot a son called Oedipus, exposed him on Cithaeron, and so brought his family under the ban of heaven. In the Oedipus the results of his conduct began to be seen. Oedipus, now grown to manhood, had slain his father unawares, and became King of Thebes. On discovering his incestuous marriage with his mother, he put out his eyes in a fit of despair, and pronounced over his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, a fatal imprecation, "that they shall divide their inheritance with the sword in such a manner as to obtain equal shares." This imprecation is fulfilled in the Seven Against Thebes. Eteocles, now ruler of Thebes, is attacked by Polyneices with an Argive host; the two brothers slay each other in battle; and the share of the inheritance which each of them obtains is a grave in Theban territory.

The play would naturally conclude with the deaths of the two brothers. But an extra scene is appended, in which Antigone proclaims her resolve to defy the laws, and to bury Polyneices, in spite of the edict prohibiting his interment. Many critics regard this episode as a later interpolation, inserted in imitation of the Antigone of Sophocles; and contend that it not only spoils the conclusion of the trilogy, but is also shown to be spurious by the fact of its requiring three actors. But there is nothing in the language of the scene to suggest the hand of an interpolator. And the difficulty about the actors is of little moment, since, even supposing that a third actor was as yet unknown, the part of Ismene might easily have been taken by one of those extra performers, who were frequently employed on the tragic stage. There is also the fact that in Sophocles the prohibition of the burial comes from Creon, while in Aeschylus it comes from the people of Thebes; and this difference, though a mere matter of detail, is against the theory of Sophoclean influence. Moreover, the solemn dirge over the dead bodies, while thoroughly Aeschylean in style, was foreign to the taste of later generations, and is hardly likely to have been interpolated.

Even on aesthetic grounds the scene may be defended. It is true that it interferes with the symmetrical construction of the trilogy, suggesting coming misfortunes, instead of rounding off the calamities of the past. But at the same time it affords a refreshing contrast to the preceding horrors. Up to this point the plot of the three tragedies had been a long record of sin and violence, ending with the unnatural hatred of the brothers. The courage and sisterly devotion of Antigone relieves the general darkness of the picture, and sheds a gleam of light over the final scene in the gloomy history of the family.

The Seven Against Thebes is a good example of the transitional stage between the old choral songs and the regular drama. The greater portion of the tragedy is lyrical and descriptive. We are placed in the center of a besieged city, and the air is full of rumours and alarms. Long choral dances exhibit the frantic terror of the women; while speeches and addresses, fired with warlike sentiment, explain the preparations for attack and defense. Suddenly, when the performance is well advanced, we reach the point of dramatic interest, and the rest of the action is rapid and decisive. Eteocles announces his ominous resolve to confront his brother, and rushes forth to the combat. The news of the issue speedily arrives, the corpses of the two brothers are brought in, and the play ends with the lamentation of the sisters and the heroism of Atigone.

A spirit of martial enthusiasm pervades the whole work, which was described by the ancients, and not without justice, as "full of the war-god." The most celebrated scene is the one relating to the fourteen champions, which is constructed with as much symmetry of arrangement as a choral ode. As the messenger describes each Argive chieftain, Eteocles answers him, in a speech of almost equal length, with an account of the rival Theban hero; and the pairs of speeches are concluded with a lyrical appeal from the chorus. Thus the whole episode consists of seven symmetrical parts. It is essentially undramatic in tone, and its improbability has been noticed by Euripides, who points out the absurdity of such lengthy narratives when the enemy is at the very walls. But it is a magnificent specimen of descriptive power, and the splendour and incisiveness of the language redeem it from any charge of monotony. It appears to have been accompanied, like other narrative speeches in the Greek drama, by illustrative gesture on the part of the chorus; and it was probably in this scene that Telestes, the dancer of Aeschylus, obtained his celebrity, on account of the skill with which he depicted in dumb show the martial fury of the combatants.

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