“Seven Against Thebes” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,
A brother’s murder. 

There is something particularly horrific about the murder of a brother, something about brotherly strife that appears to poison the very concept of human nobility. In the Bible, it is the first evil committed after the Fall. We find this evil elsewhere too: just in the Book of Genesis, after Cain and Abel, we have the fraternal strife between Jacob and Esau, and between Joseph and his brothers. Shakespeare’s plays are full of brotherly hate, and even of brotherly murder. In Arthurian mythology, we have the tragic tale of brothers Balan and Balyn; and at a climactic point in the Mahabharata, Karna – a tragic hero, albeit from a literary culture in which the concept of tragedy did not really exist – is slain in battle by his brother Arjuna. It is a common tragic theme; even when it appears in a comedy – in As You Like It, say – it has tragic potential.

It is the central theme in Seven Against Thebes also. Yet, strangely, Aeschylus holds it back until we are some two thirds of the way into the play. To begin with, the tragic theme seems to be that of a city threatened with destruction, and of its inhabitants facing death or enslavement. Thebes is besieged, and its chorus, the young women of the city, naturally fear the worst. When we first see them, they are in a state of terror

I shriek, I’m terrified.

Their army is let loose; they’ve left the camp;

hundreds of horsemen stream in front.

Before this chorus enters, we have seen the ruler of Thebes, Eteokles. Unlike The Persians, this play has a principal character, a principal tragic protagonist, and he establishes his presence at the very beginning. He is in command, and is aware of the heavy responsibility he carries upon his shoulders. We see him carrying out his duties, giving orders to fight off the attackers. And yet, when left on his own, he makes a passing reference to something that is new, and, it may be, extraneous to the immediate crisis:

Oh Zeus and Earth and city gods

and mighty Curse and Fury of my father Oidipous,

do not root out and destroy my city now

and make it captive to the rest of Greece.

The Curse and Fury of Oidipous. Seven Against Thebes is the final play of a trilogy, the first two parts of which have been lost. What we are witnessing is but the last episode of a tragedy, a tragedy that spans three generations – that of Laios (subject of the first play); of his son Oidipous (subject of the second); and now, finally, of the third generation, of which Eteokles is the representative. Aeschylus’ audience, having seen the first two parts, would know of the terrible curse spoken by Oidipous, and they would, no doubt, have expected it to be fulfilled in this, the final act of the tragic drama. And yet, the curse is mentioned here almost, as it were, in passing: apart from this relatively early passage, it isn’t referred to again till the final scenes of this play. Till then, it is the danger to the city that is of primary concern.

Also not mentioned until some two thirds of the play is Eteokles’ brother, Polyneikes. It is not merely that he does not appear: he is not even referred to. This is rather strange, given that, by the end, fraternal strife, and the fulfilment of Oidipous’ curse that is a consequence of this strife, turn out to be at the heart of the work. Yet, for most of the play, we get virtually nothing of any of this: there is a just single passing reference to the curse, and no reference at all to the brother.

The focus, instead, appears to be upon the immediate crisis. Eteokles quells the terror of the chorus, promising to fight in person. And, at the centre of the play, there is a long scene, ceremonial in its formality, in which a scout, in seven speeches, tells of the seven warriors poised to attack each of the seven gates of Thebes, and Eteokles’ replies to each of the scout’s speeches, describing the Theban warriors he has assigned to meet these several assailants. In each instance, a Theban defender is selected best placed to counter the attacker; in each instance, Eteokles may have chosen himself; and in each instance, he does not. Six times, the opportunity to evade the curse of Oidipous is offered, but missed.

But then the final warrior, the seventh, is described: it is Eteokles’ own brother, Polyneikes. We are now approaching the end of the play, and only now, for the first time, is Polyneikes’ name mentioned. The effect is electric. A formal pattern had been set: first, a speech of the scout, describing the Argive attacker; then, Eteokles’ response, describing the Theban defender chosen specifically to counter the attacker; and finally, a short response from the chorus. Six times we see this pattern repeated – a sort of formal and ceremonial procession towards doom. And with the seventh, the nature of the doom becomes apparent: the curse of Oidipous now seems about to be fulfilled, and the pattern we have observed repeated six times is broken. Eteokles, instead of responding formally to the scout as he had done six times before, breaks into a lament:

Oh maddened, greatly hated by the gods,

Oh utterly hated race of Oidipous!

Oh me, for now my father’s curses are fulfilled.

And there is no choral response.

But Eteokles’ fate, whatever it is, must be faced. Six times he had had the opportunity to evade it, and six times that opportunity had not been taken. And now, there is no escape.

After the exit of Eteokles, the chorus is left on their own, and they deliver a magnificent ode of tragic intensity. In contrast to the panic and the terror of their first entrance, what they speak now is contained and reflective; and their theme is no longer the imminent danger to their city, but, rather, the fulfilment of the curse. And Aeschylus’ imagery is unexpected:

A foreigner sets out the lots,

a visitor from Skythia,

a bitter arbitrator for their goods.

His name is Iron; savage-hearted, he’s

dividing the earth for them

to have when dead, without a share

in these great plains.

This is knotty, as it is in all the other translations I have consulted. No doubt this reflects the knottiness of the original. The foreigner from Skythia is, no doubt, the iron swords that will kill the two brothers; but, in personifying the weapons in such a manner, an impression is give of this “foreigner” being more than that. This foreigner seems to represent some mysterious force, foreign to humanity itself, that puts an end to our earthly endeavours; that, far from giving the brothers shares in the great plains in which they had been born, gives them merely enough of these plains to be buried in.

Thebes is saved: in that sense, the prophecies and the curses – that had predicted the destruction of the city – have not proved true. But the brothers have killed each other. Some “foreigner” – Death, presumably, foreign to all that we may think of as human – has put an end to what they might have had on earth. Brotherly strife has put an end to all that might have been. It has the primal eldest curse upon it.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Seven Against Thebes.]

3 responses to this post.

  1. So interesting to see the various translations, and the approaches they suggest. The drama, in the one I read, was quite different, although as you saw that was a translation with an argument, making a case.

    For example, in that one, the Hecht and Bacon, the classicist half of the pair argues that Eteokles is dressed in his armor, piece by piece, during his exchange with the chorus, so that by the time the chorus gets to the passage you quote he has become iron, an instrument of war. The whole passage is so different, though, that I would not even want to guess what is going on in the original.

    A thorny one, this play.

    Reply

    • There have been times when. comparing different translations, I have wondered if the translators were translating the same play! Certainly, if Eteocles is putting on the armour during the preceding scene (and that surely is a question of the director’s interpretation rather than of translation of the text), the “iron” would, most likely, refer to Eteocles himself, who, as you say, has now become an instrument of war It still remains intriguing, though, why this “iron”, whatever it refers to, should be described as “foreign”.

      I also have translations of these plays by Seth Bernadete & by David Grene (the famous Chicago University Press editions), and by Frederic Raphael & Keneth McLeish, and while I have been reading the translations by Michael Ewans, I have been consulting these other two frequently.

      Reply

    • Iron itself is foreign, an import from Scythia. I know the answer to that one.

      But yes, the business with the armor is definitely an interpretation.

      I’m switching to more of the U of C translations soon. My memory of them is good. The Ewans quotations who have used sound good, too.

      Reply

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