The impact of ‘The Persians’: Descriptive narratives vs. plot

Classical tragedy is renowned for the dynamics of its plot, and richly ordained language of its narratives, explaining Aeschylus use of both plot and descriptive narratives in tragedy ‘The Persians’ to create an impact on the audience. Descriptive narratives are clearly key to impacting an audience through describing in triumphant tones the Battle of Salamis in which male members of the audience would have likely fought in only years earlier, and yet it is the plotting of the play rather than its narrative that characterizes Xerxes as a failed and careless monarch, yet not utterly undeserving of sympathy. Furthermore, albeit it being a topic moulded into the fabric of the plot- it is the descriptive narratives of characters in which the theme of hubris creates the most significant impact.

Indeed, the emotional impact of an audience of key descriptions of the Battle of Salamis in ‘The Persians’ rely largely on descriptive narratives as opposed to a plot which remains fairly static and arguably redundant. Such impact reaches fruition in the extended narrative of the Messenger, who retells the full horrors of the Persian defeat at Salamis to a shocked and mournful chorus, marking out the disunity of the Persian fleet, unable to form a coherent path as they disband in ‘swift disorder’ in contrast to the Greeks who move forward as a ‘single pulse’, chanting battle hymns, thus juxtaposing the Persian disunity through acting as utterly conformed in not only their military style, but also a cultural sense: indeed, the sharp contrast to be drawn here would have utterly impacted an Athenian audience through creating a celebratory feel to the passage- reminding the Greeks of their defeat of the Persians only years earlier. Furthermore, direct language choices selected by the messenger contribute to the tone of triumph which colours the passage, as the Persians are presented as fearful and alarmed at approaching Greek ships, in contrast to the Greeks who have ‘courage in their hearts’- a phrase used to suggest that stamina is intrinsic to their very being, which is further developed as the Greeks continue to attack their Persian counterparts with fragments of broken trireme following the battle; impacting an audience through reflecting their own pride in their victory. Whilst it could be argued that such moments are merely facets of the unfolding plot within the speech of the messenger, it is widely believed that Aeschylus exaggerated and hyperbolized the skill of the Greeks in such scenes; after all, his own brother died at Marathon and therefore his primary concern would likely not to have been to allow to Persians a wholly sympathetic hearing, thus supporting Kitty’s perception of the play as purely a piece of Athenian propaganda used to exaggerate the values of Greek culture.

Nonetheless, the plot is clearly largely influential in helping develop the characterization of Persian characters as nuanced and complex, perhaps in this way impacting an Athenian audience to a larger extent that descriptive narratives due to their own stereotypes surrounding Persian culture. This is proven through the character of Xerxes, and his extended grieving sequence shared with the Chorus which ends the play, which holds implications that the tragic nature and deep catharsis of the play relies on such a scene, as Xerxes expresses absolute pity for his character as a ‘weak and pitiful outcast’ and ‘theme for sorrow’, and this might have been emphasized in an original production through use of a melancholy musical soundtrack of lyres and flutes used to accompany this scene. Nonetheless, it could be argued that whilst sympathy created for the character of Xerxes largely relies on such scenes in the plot, audience sympathies are positioned with the Persian fleet through descriptive narratives in which they are described through similes such as ‘netted tunnies’ and a ‘myriad flock’- creating an impact on the audience in suggestions that the Persians feel unable to escape the wrath of leader Xerxes. Nonetheless, as the tragic hero of the play, Xerxes’ hamartia and recognition of his flaws in the final scene perhaps inflicts a greater emotional effect on an Athenian audience through encouraging them to reconsider their stereotypes surrounding the Persian King, which is further developed through his entrance in the plot onstage, following Darius’ speech in a ripped and torn outfit. Whilst it could be argued that the impact created here is one of pity and upset due to the pathetic presentation of the degraded monarch, a more compelling idea is that the audience might scorn the King due to their own negative and distasteful perceptions of Persian monarchy, an idea further reinforced through the positioning of the moment in the plot as directly following Darius’ vitriolic diatribe concerning the foolish and irrational character of his son: whilst it could be argued that it is the emotive language of Darius speech in lines such as ‘Poor Fool!’ and ‘has a God robbed him of his wits?’, paired with his historical listings of a series of prosperous Persian Kings in contrast to Xerxes’ folly that is largely responsible for the impact on an audience who would be tempted to perhaps scorn and cry insults at the onstage King themselves, it seems that the moment in the plot of Darius rising as an apparition from his tomb further impacts an audience through suggesting that the condemnation of Xerxes is almost divinely ordained. Furthermore, that the critique is shared between both parents of Xerxes- Atossa and Darius- would further invigorate an audience in suggestions that Xerxes has been rejected by not only divine figures, but additionally his own parents- and thus is isolated from the empathy of the most significant figures in his life.

The theme of human hubris and retaliation of divine nemesis is a theme which- despite its central positioning to the plot- becomes all the more shocking to a contemporary audiences when described in detail through descriptive narrative. The cycle of hubris and nemesis is one intrinsic to the structure of a number of contemporary tragedies including Elektra, Agamemnon and Antigone, and therefore it is unsurprising that Aeschylus focuses so intently upon the theme in his works, and yet this is done through narrative in order to perhaps add a unique and slightly unusual slant to his interpretation of the theme: Xerxes’ decision to bridge the Hellespont with a chain of ships (one that would be considered grossly hubristic as a corruption of a divinely created natural world) is one described through the speeches of a series of characters- from the Chorus, to Darius, to Atossa, and whilst this decision to integrate such moments throughout the plot might structurally create an impact on the reader through constantly reminding them of the severity of Xerxes actions, the emotively violent imagery in which the scene is described in the narrative of the Chorus- through language such as ‘yoked’, and ‘chained’ impacts the audience to a greater extent through furthering the shocking idea of not only Xerxes’ hubris, but his awareness and at times relish taken whilst performing such a dreadful act. Whilst the fact that the word ‘hubris’ is merely repeated thrice throughout the narrative of the play might suggest a contrary idea that it is plot opposed to narrative which affects an audience to the greater extent, a more compelling idea is that this ‘allows for the audience’s understanding of the theme to develop’, claims Garvie, and therefore we can conclude that it is indeed the descriptive narratives of characters that best impact an audience through warning of the gross dangers of hubristic actions. Furthermore, the chorus are shown, throughout narrative, to frequently liken their leaders to divine figures; Xerxes is compared to a ‘god’, Atossa the ‘mother of a God’, and Darius is remembered to have ruled ‘like a god’ over Persia during his reign, which further reinforces the fact that hubris and lack of respect for the divine is an attitude ingrained into Persian culture, impacting a Greek audience especially due to the deeply religious context of the Dionysius festival in which the play was performed- which heralded respect and worship of the divine above all other attitudes, suggesting that it is the descriptive narrative of describing hubris as opposed to its positioning in the plot which would have impacted the audience to the greatest extent.

In conclusion, whilst the plot is indeed significant in developing central themes such as Greek celebration and hubris, it is descriptive narratives in which these themes are used to create an impact of the audience; encouraging them to establish their own opinions on the characters through providing a wide range of viewpoints; from Darius’ critique of Xerxes, to the Chorus’ laudation of the King as a divine figure. This is particularly evident in the narrative descriptions of scenes from Salamis, in which the sharp dichotomy created between the thriving Greeks and feckless, disordered Persian fleet would have impacted an audience through reminding them of their own historical successes in the same battle.

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