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A Short Analysis of Aeschylus’ The Persians

An introduction to a classic play

Michael Billington notes in The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present that Aeschylus’ classical play The Persians is the oldest surviving work of Western drama. First performed at the City Dionysia in 472 BC, The Persians takes a nuanced approach to the matter of war and conquest. It was a direct inspiration for the French national anthem, ‘La Marseillaise’. Percy Shelley’s drama Hellas was written in response to it. It’s the only play from the classical era that deals with historical events rather than mythological ones. In short, The Persians is a fascinating play and Aeschylus’ handling of war is worthy of closer inspection and analysis.

The real-life historical incident which inspired Aeschylus’ play was the Greeks’ victory over Persian forces at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. The Persian King Xerxes attacked the Greeks at Salamis in a sea battle because he wanted vengeance following his defeat at the earlier Battle of Marathon ten years before. Given that Aeschylus’ play was first performed just eight years later, many of the spectators in the original audience of The Persians would have either fought in the conflict or known someone who had. In summary, Aeschylus’ play focuses on the Persian court, where Xerxes’ mother, Atossa, and a chorus of old men, await news of Xerxes’ military attack. Unfortunately, when news arrives, it could hardly be worse: Xerxes’ Persian army has been annihilated by the Greeks. Read the rest of this entry

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A Short Analysis of Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis

An introduction to a classic play

Iphigenia at Aulis (the title is sometimes rendered as Iphigenia in Aulis) has been criticised for its melodrama, but its portrayal of the central character’s decision to agree to renounce her life for the ‘greater good’, and Agamemnon’s ambivalence about sacrificing his own daughter, make it a curious and satisfying play which repays close analysis and discussion. The play is largely (more on that later) by the Greek tragedian Euripides, and was first performed in 405 BC. In the mid-1550s, Iphigenia at Aulis even provided an unlikely claim to fame in English literature: it became the first piece of dramatic writing to be ‘composed’ by an Englishwoman, when Joanna Lumley (alternatively Jane Lumley) translated Euripides’ play into English, thus becoming effectively the first female dramatist in the English language. (We discuss Lumley in our book of literary curiosities, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History.)

Before we go any further, though, a brief summary of the plot of Iphigenia at Aulis. At the port of Aulis (an ancient port in central Greece), the Greek fleet is all ready to sail off to the Trojan War. But Agamemnon, who will lead the fleet, has been told that in order to get calm winds for the journey, he must make a terrible sacrifice to the goddess Artemis: he must kill his own daughter, Iphigenia. Read the rest of this entry

A Summary and Analysis of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King

An introduction to a classic play

The plot of Sophocles’ great tragedy Oedipus the King (sometimes known as Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannos) has long been admired. In his Poetics, Aristotle held it up as the exemplary Greek tragedy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it one of the three perfect plots in all of literature (the other two being Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones). Oedipus the King might also be called the first detective story in Western literature. Yet how well do we know Sophocles’ play? And what does a closer analysis of its plot features and themes reveal? Read the rest of this entry