The Context of Aeschylus’ Original Production, and the Effect on the Structure and Message of ‘The Persians’
Aeschylus was writing his tragedy ‘The Persians’ in a period of peace following a particularly violent series of wars between Greek and Persian forces (499-449) which eventually ended in Greek victory, as the Persian fleet was defeated in the straits of Salamis, and this can explain the playwright’s primary focus on historical events throughout his play, which is clearly influenced by historical context. Whilst the context surrounding the original production as aimed at winning a literary competition in a festival dedicated to Dionysus can be seen to shape the structure of events in the plot, it is the historical context of the Persian Wars that ultimately guide the overall messages of the play, which are hyperbolised due to the play’s status as a tragedy.
Aeschylus’ ‘The Persians’ was crafted with the aim to win the annual tragedy-writing contest at the Dionysia festival, and this context can be seen to affect the play’s message and playwright’s motives, which seem to be to dazzle audience members and judges alike in order to place in the competition. This is immediately made evident through the mass prostration of the chorus at the play’s opening hymn, as they sing of the glory of Persian soldiers. Indeed, we can understand how complicated dance routines likely followed by the chorus here would have particularly impressed the row of 10 judges seated at the front of the stadium, with the collective mass of voice loudly echoing around the ampitheatre – which was constructed with uneven surfaces in order to amplify sound- both elements which work to create a sense of spectacle, helping Aeschylus’ chances in winning the competition. Yet, even prior to these opening actions of the chorus, the audience is faced with the setting of a royal Persian palace, paired with the tomb of deceased King Darius, and the detail of a tomb- through symbolising the concept of death – immediately signifies the tragic outcome of the play for the audience, thus ensures that spectators’ emotions are tense from the play’s opening scenes. This is evidence for the extent to which Aeschylus’ focus on the context of the literary competition warped his dramatic decisions, through ensuring that both the viewers and the judges were kept in sufficient suspense throughout the plot.
The grandiose setting of a palace, coupled with the vehicle of a chariot in which Queen Atossa makes her entrance, would have added an element of wonder and awe to Athenian perceptions of the play as hugely distant from their own minimalistic culture, and such may have been deliberate tactics employed by the playwright to ensure that the judges deemed Aeschylus’ play the first out of a winning three, which is further evidence for the effect of competitive context on the message and plot of the play. Supernatural elements of the play such as the sudden apparition of Darius’ ghost, and Atossa’s elaborate necromancy that causes his appearance (involving prayers and offerings) would have further been aimed to awe judges through hinting that the play was almost otherworldly in its excellence, and in this way, context of the play encouraged Aeschylus to introduce elements of the divine into his narrative. Overall, the positioning of many moments of spectacular theatre in the opening scenes of ‘The Persians’ suggests that Aeschylus’ desire to win the tragic contest at the Dionysia festival hugely influenced the production of his work, which benefited the playwright who gained the prestigious prize of a golden tripod after winning first place in the competition.
The literary context of ancient Greece was hugely centred around the growth of the tragedy genre, which evidently influenced ‘The Persians’ in its focus on the theme of hubris, coupled with its adherence with a clear tragic structure. The cycle of hubris and nemesis- recognised by the audience- would have been one that tragedy aimed to warn of and prevent through its’ characters, and Xerxes’ action of bridging the Hellespont with a chain of ships would have been considered grossly hubristic in its corruption of a divinely-created natural world, yet is punished through catastrophic Persian defeat- in this way highlighting the effect of the hubris/nemesis cycle on the play’s plot. That this event holds significant historical truth could suggest an alternate interpretation that it is not influenced by tragic structure but merely serves to reflect the past, the fact that it is described through multiple characters throughout the plot- the chorus, then Atossa, then Darius- reinforces the doctoral purpose of tragedy to warn audiences of the dangers of hubris, thus prioritising the argument that tragic context did indeed affect the moral message of the play. Indeed, Darius’ evident shame at his son’s decision to bridge the Hellespont not only serves to caution of the dangers of destroying gods’ creation, but also creates traditional tragic feelings of pity and fear within the audience, who might here sympathise with the Persian King as condemned even by his own father as worthless.
The extended mourning sequence which closes ‘The Persians’ is indicative of the effect of literary culture not only on the message, but plot of the play- which ends in a traditional tragic denouement in which characters lament and reflect on the catastrophic happenings which have altered the course of their lives: in this case, Xerxes weeps for both his own degradation from a royal figure, to a ‘loathsome and pitiful outcast’, and through these lines, his role as a tragic protagonist is cemented, with the sheer length of the denouement elongating the cathartic emotions felt by the audience, who would be encouraged to likewise weep in horror at the peripeteia of the King. Nonetheless, characterisation of Xerxes in other parts of the narrative as authoritative and evil-natured perhaps deteriorate from tragic structure through encouraging viewers to perceive Xerxes as the play’s antagonist rather than protagonist, and this is furthered through knowledge that many Athenians in the audience would have fought against Xerxes’ forces in the Persian Wars- fashioning him into a real antagonist in their lives, and in this way, Aeschylus as a writer is influenced more by the historical circumstances of his time than the theatrical. Thus, the structure and message of Aeschylus ‘The Persians’ are evidently hugely ingrained and influence by tragic convention, and yet the character of Xerxes can be seen to stray from the confinements of tragedy as does not wholly slot into the role of ‘tragic protagonist’. Yet, Aeschylus’ descriptions of the King are nonetheless affected by the recent history of the wars between the Persians and Greeks, suggesting that indeed, the context of the play greatly affects its meaning, albeit this context be literary or historical.
The narrative of ‘The Persians’ is greatly influenced by Aeschylus’ desire to commemorate the Greek victory in the prior Persian Wars, entailing one-dimensional descriptions of Persian characters as ‘other’ to the Greeks, and their virtues. Aeschylus’ characterisation of the Xerxes particularly juxtaposes Athenian politics through presenting Persian oligarchy as a predominately destructive force, and this is shown through Xerxes’ command of his soldiers in battle, as ‘one million sabres obey the King’s dread word’, fearing for their lives as he threatens to ‘cut off [their]’ heads’ if they allow any Greek triremes to shield themselves from death. This display of the dangers of Persian oligarchy can be seen as the antithesis to descriptions of the Greeks as sailing as a ‘single pulse’ refusing to obey any man as master, and thus, it becomes evident that descriptions of Persian politics are merely hyperbolic opposites to the Athenian system of ‘demokratia’, designed to commemorate the superior system of Greek government: this would have been particularly evident in a contemporary production of the play, in which seating at the amphitheatre split spectators into demes (a Greek variation of political constituencies), therefore audience members would immediately be aware of the faults of the Persian government compared to their own. Indeed, further characterisation of Xerxes as an individual is certainly influenced by Aeschylus’ aim to commemorate the superiority of Greek forces and leadership: ‘folly’ and ‘foolish’ are adjectives repeatedly applied to the King throughout the narrative, one particularly compelling moment being Darius’ criticism of his son as a ‘Weak fool!’ driven by madness in battle. Such moments work to create an image of Xerxes as irrational and immature, thus establishing the Greek focus on collective unity as opposed to a singular leader in battle (‘they are not called slaves to any man’) as surpassing the Persian systems of leadership, and in this way sensationalising the Greeks’ exemplary teamwork in battles such as Salamis and Artemisium for all to see.
Indeed, Xerxes’ decision to tear his clothes paired with Atossa’s immediate concern with clothing her child upon his return perhaps deters from genuine historical events, yet is successful in signifying the Persian obsession with both luxury and outward appearances, thus underlining and shedding positive light on the Greek focus on the mental states of their soldiers rather than how they look, and this is greatly indicative of the effect of cultural context on the message of ‘The Persians’. Furthermore, we can understand how these acts might have been made all the more shocking for a contemporary audience through use of costume- Aeschylus’ choice of clothing for the King as a ripped and shredded version of the minimal Persian armour worn in battle would have been a visual representation of the Greek distain for the poor outfits worn by the Persians in battle- crafted from softer fabrics than the armour of the Greeks. To conclude, Aeschylus’ characterisation of the Persian leader Xerxes in ‘The Persians’ is almost wholly produced by Greek stereotypes of Persians developed in the historical context of the Persian Wars. Aeschylus, in order to mark the Persians as antagonistic individuals with no shared values to the Greeks, characterises them primarily as an unflattering ‘negation’ of Greek virtues and values: the Persians are what the Greeks are not, leading critics such as Hall to label the texts ‘a document to the Athenian collective imagination’- used to perhaps ease the guilt felt by Athenian audience members as they watch battles they have been involved in play out on stage.
The context surrounding the original production of Aeschylus’ ‘The Persians’ did indeed have a significant effect on both its structure and message. The recent history of the Persian Wars can be seen reflected in the narrative of both texts, and whilst it is literary-tragic context that influences Aeschylus’ great focus on themes of hubris, nemesis and catharsis, the events and characters used by the playwright to display these themes are ultimately rooted in the historical context of Xerxes’ actions and his leadership. Whilst the theatrical context in which the play was produced (the Greater Dionysia Festival) evidently influenced Aeschylus’ design of the play as aimed to win an award, this is only evident in the positioning of events at certain points in the structure, as opposed to the overall message of the play, which remains untouched. Whilst it is the recent historical context of the Greco-Persian wars which has greatest effect on the original production, the timeless relevance of themes such as political strife and human grief allow the text to have just as much resonance among readers in a modern context as it did upon first publication.
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Aeschylus was writing his tragedy ‘The Persians’ in a period of peace following a particularly violent series of wars between Greek and Persian forces (499-449) which eventually ended in Greek […]