The Trilogies of Aeschylus

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

You might not be able to say his name, but you probably wouldn't have some of your favorite tragic stories without the Greek playwright, Aeschylus. Check out this lesson to explore his invention of a genre, along with his famous tragic trilogies!

Tragic Father: Aeschylus and the Invention of Tragedy

When was the last time you saw a good tear-jerker? Whether you were misty-eyed from A Walk to Remember or blubbering over My Dog Skip, much of your emotional and viewing pleasure is actually owed to a playwright from ancient Greece!

Aeschylus (ca. 525-456 B.C.), Athenian warrior-poet and father of Tragedy
Etching of Aeschylus

Perhaps fittingly, Aeschylus (often pronounced 'Es-kil-uhs') - the father of Greek tragic drama - started out as a soldier, reportedly taking part in several major campaigns during the Persian Wars (i.e. Battles of Marathon and Salamis). Back home in Athens, though, his mind turned to more literary pursuits, and he began to compete in a festival honoring Dionysus, which held poetry competitions.

Over time, Aeschylus revolutionized these highly musical and already theatrical performances by instructing one cast member of the chorus to step away from the group to deliver a monologue. As this practice evolved, Aeschylus had more and more chorus members to break away to deliver their own lines, eventually leading to a chorus distinct from other characters of the play. And so the earliest form of drama as we know it was born.

Aeschylean Tragedy

Of course, considering his role in founding the genre, many of the characteristics of Aeschylean tragedy are also found elsewhere in the works of those like Sophocles or Euripides. One of those is the common practice of taking the plots of tragedies from mythological accounts of gods, kings, heroes, and epic conflicts. However, some tragedians also took inspiration from historical events (i.e. Aeschylus' Persians).

Another common feature of ancient tragedy that's found in Aeschylus' work is the production of plays in a tetralogy, or a collection of four (Greek tetra) individual works with a central plotline. These tetralogies were comprised of three sequential tragedies (a trilogy), accompanied by a satyr play - a rude, irreverent, and typically sexual, dramatic work used as comedic relief - taken from the same fundamental story.

Unfortunately, only seven of an estimated 70-90 total plays by Aeschylus have survived to the modern era. Of those, none of his satyr plays have remained intact, leaving only the tragic trilogies. However, most of these are also either completely lost to us, or remain in only pieces as you'll see when you keep reading about the only three Aeschylean trilogies with any plays left today.

Aeschylus' Tragic Trilogies

  • The 'Theban' Trilogy

Ever wonder where the so-called 'Oedipus complex' got its name? Psychoanalysts took it from the story of Oedipus - a mythic king of Thebes who unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother - which is told in Aeschylus' 'Theban' plays. Sadly, though, of these four plays first produced in 467 B.C., only the final tragedy, Seven against Thebes, remains.

The first two (Laius and Oedipus) would've chronicled the prophecy and actuality of Oedipus' unfortunate rise to power. Seven against Thebes, however, tells of the war between his two sons and their allies and the final tragedy that befalls this ill-fated family. On a lighter note, the satyr play Sphinx would have been drawn from Oedipus' clever solving of this mythical creature's legendary riddle.

  • The 'Danaid' Trilogy

Continuing his theme of fateful families, this tragic trilogy by Aeschylus dramatizes the tale of Danaus and his 50 daughters ('Danaids'), who are romantically pursued by their cousins: the sons of Aegyptus, from whom Egypt gets its name. As with Aeschylus' 'Theban' trilogy, only a single play from this tetralogy is extant. In this case, though, it's the first - called Suppliants - in which the Danaids and their father flee to Argos (primitive Greece) to escape the lusty suitors under the protection of King Pelasgus.

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