DATE: 467, part of a Theban tetralogy: Laios, Oedipus, Seven, Sphinx [satyr-play]
COMPETITION: won first prize
CHARACTERS: Eteokles, Messenger, Antigone, Ismene, Herald
CHORUS: women of Thebes
SETTING: the palace at Thebes
The Argive army, led by Polyneikes, is at the gates of Thebes. Eteokles rallies the spirits of his terrified people and leads them in a prayer to the gods. A messenger reports that seven leaders command the Argive force, and in the central scene names and describes each to the king. Eteokles assigns an appropriate defender to each gate, finding that he has left for himself the seventh gate and his own brother, Polyneikes. He realizes that the curse of their father has in fact come to pass, confirmed by the chorus in a major ode, revealing that this trilogy has depicted the operation of a family curse over three generations. The messenger brings news that both brothers have killed one another. The bodies are brought back, escorted by the mourning sisters (Ismene, Antigone). The text concludes with a herald forbidding the burial of Polyneikes, but this is almost certainly a later addition influenced by Sophokles’ Antigone.
It is obviously difficult to appreciate the entire trilogy from the basis of the last play only. Aeschylus was showing the destructive effects of a family curse and in this play we see it worked out on the third generation. Whereas the Oresteia trilogy operates with the sequence: action Æ reaction Æ resolution, this trilogy has no resolution at the end, but only the final working out of an inherited curse on a doomed family. A major difference from the story as told in Sophokles’ Oedipus is that Laios is given a conditional oracle in Aeschylus, “if he would save his city, have no children,” thus turning the story into one of disobedience and punishment. The play is slow-moving, almost archaic in its language and pace, and does not immediately appeal to modern audiences. The chorus of women, almost stereotypically frightened, provides a strong contrast to the male world of arms and violence that engulfs the city. We are made aware that forces larger than humans are at work here: Furies, curses, the justice of the gods, the inevitability that the two brothers will meet at the same gate, and the realization of this by Eteokles and the chorus. The play is dominated by Eteokles, who is both noble king and cursed son; in good Aeschylean fashion he works his fate out on himself, tragically and ironically as defender of his people.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005