The Persians and Authorial Intent: A Question of Tragedy
Aeschylus’ play The Persians, written in 472 BCE, is the oldest extant play in Western Civilization. The play is set within the city of Susa immediately following the defeat of the Persian navy at Mycale. However, The Persians is not as straightforward in its tragic nature as other Greek tragedies of the time given the rocky political relationship between Greece and Persia. Critics tend to debate whether or not the play is earnest as a tragedy. Although some critics interpret The Persians as Aeschylus’ xenophobic exultation following the end of the Greco-Persian wars, The Persians can be more accurately read as a tragedy that aims to evoke sympathy from the audience so that audience members may learn from Persia’s mistakes.
The debate between the two aforementioned interpretations is well-founded as there is ample evidence to support both sides. Early in the play, one of the members of the Persian chorus reflects: “We have always been the favorites of fate. Fortune has cupped / us in her golden palms. It has only been a matter of choosing / our desire. Which fruit to pick from the nodding tree” (114-116), and while the lines are demonstrative of a tragic fall from grace, they also show that the Persians were once prideful to a fault. That being the case, these lines likely did not evoke much sympathy from Grecian audiences who saw arrogance as a fatal flaw that would inevitably be divinely remedied. However, the chorus later asks “Will we ever see those bright boys we sent out of the safety / of our gates again? Were we right to do so? / What unthinkable peril might we have cast them into, / pursuing old men’s dreams?” (161-164). These utterances show that while the Persians were once prideful, they have since learned their lesson and now show remorse for the mistakes they have made. The lines are exceedingly important because they show Grecian audiences that the Persians do not fit the stereotypes they are usually associated with. In Athens, Persians were typically portrayed as bloodthirsty barbarians who would not have expressed such woe and remorse over the loss of life during war. The fact that Persian people in this play do express remorse would have been a break from stereotypes. If The Persians was truly intended to be a staged victory lap for the Greeks, it’s inconceivable that the Persians would have been portrayed in such a positive light.
Furthermore, if The Persians was only Aeschylus gloating about Athens’ victory, there surely would have been many more references to Grecian war heroes. Instead, the audience is given a monologue which only features Persian war heroes, including Artembares, Dadakes, Argestes, Ardeues, Arkteus, Pharnouchus, Matallos, Magos, Artabes, Amistrus, Amphitrius, Ariomardus, Tharybis, and Saisames (322-348), as well as their triumphs. Though the naval battle was an ignominious defeat for the Persians and an overwhelming victory for the Greeks, there is a glaring lack of Greek glorification in the text, which totally subverts expectations the audience would have had about the play going into it. If the theory that The Persians is a boast following the Greco-Persian war is true, then it is very difficult to reconcile Aeschylus’ authorial intention to boast with the fact that he simply glazed over all the Grecian heroes who participated at the battle of Mycale. Considering the fact that the passage focuses solely on Persian war heroes, a group of men whose stories would probably not have been often told, it’s far more likely that The Persians was earnestly meant to be a tragedy that attempts to honestly show Persia’s final hours so that Greek audience might learn from Persia’s mistakes.
The idea that the play is an earnest drama is further evidenced by the fact that the play fits the structure of most tragedies very well. For instance, the play prominently features a tragic hero in the form of Xerxes. Rather than being presented as a clown or buffoon as most enemies of the state were, Xerxes is presented as someone who is both intelligent and remorseful, specifically in the following lines: “I am accursed. / Hated by the gods and men alike. / No place on Earth can hide the shame of me. / Even the deepest caverns of death’s secret chambers / are not black enough to hide me” (793-797), and again later when he says, “All my companions are gone. / The friends of my youth. / My comrades in arms. / All lost” (832-835). Through these lines, Xerxes presents himself as someone who mourns for his friends, his country, and his family. In short, he is clearly a shattered, ruined man. The fact that The Persians contains an actual tragic figure, and not a parody of one, shows that The Persians was meant to be a tragedy, at least as far as authorial intent is concerned. However, the play’s impact reaches beyond authorial intent. Veterans, for instance, would have probably had a very different reaction to the play then average civilians who may have had nothing to do with the war whatsoever. But Aeschylus manages to account for people’s various associations with the war by making the main characters, specifically Atossa, Darius, and Xerxes, highly relatable, both in terms of their relationships with each other as family members, and the emotional turmoil they suffer.
Aeschylus makes sure that the focus of the play is more about this family than it is about the Persian Empire. The first familial relationship the audience sees is the relationship between Darius and Atossa. Upon returning from the dead, Darius says to his wife, “Wife. Your grieving voice was what pulled me up the steep / and narrow ascent. / It was the sound of you that brought me / this unfathomable distance” (664-666). This line has nothing to do with the conflict between Greece and Persia, but rather focuses solely on the relationship between a husband and wife who have been separated for years. It’s a sweet moment, and one that would have likely been omitted if the play was only concerned with basking in Athens’ victory. The audience later gets more family exposition in an exchange between Atossa and her son Xerxes. Upon Xerxes’ return, Atossa says to him “My shattered son / my heart is broken with pity” (875-876) to which Xerxes replies “Mother forgive me / I have wronged you” (883-884). It’s hard to believe Aeschylus would have included this element of pathos if he hadn’t wanted some semblance of sympathy for the characters in the show.
Although some people believe Aeschylus’ The Persians was written so that Athenians could celebrate and experience a sense of Schadenfreude, upon close inspection it appears much more likely that Aeschylus genuinely wrote a tragedy about The Persians so that audiences could either learn from it, or experience the feeling of catharsis which Greek tragedies were famous for. Aeschylus succeeded in writing an effective tragedy because there is a certain universality embedded in the play that is able to draw people into the tragedy. Even veterans of the Greco-Persian war would have been able to relate to a deep spousal relationship, or the relationship between a mother and her son. It is because people find other people and the relationships that exist between them endlessly fascinating that Aeschylus’ The Persians is an effective tragedy, and certainly as the oldest extant play in Western Civilization, one that has stood the test of time.
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Aeschylus’ play The Persians, written in 472 BCE, is the oldest extant play in Western Civilization. The play is set within the city of Susa immediately following the defeat of […]