March 8th, 2012


Ill which the gods have sent thou canst not shun ...

Yes, here's another of those Dover Thrift Edition books that serve three functions in my reading … first, pushing an on-line order up into the “over $25 free shipping” promised land, second, filling a gap in my otherwise-excellent liberal arts education, and third, well, being a fast read when I've been falling behind on my six-books-a-month reading target (72 books a year). This one, The Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus is one of the few remaining plays by that ancient Greek dramatist. Aeschylus wrote in the 5th century BCE, and preceded the better known Sophocles and Euripides. According to the introductory note here, it was Aeschylus who introduced a second actor in a scene (where formerly, all plays just featured one main actor with a chorus), greatly expanding the dramatic possibilities.

The Seven Against Thebes is the third play of a trilogy, of which the first two are lost, dealing with the famous Oedipus tragedy (best known from Sophocles' masterpiece). In this third play, Oedipus' cursed progeny, Eteocles, ruler of Cadmea (later known as Thebes), and Polynices, the exiled brother seeking to take the city-state with the aid of the army of Argos, prepare to do battle. It's convenient that the storyline is so familiar in Western culture, as it makes this play considerably more accessible than if one only had the “backstory” elements included within the text itself. The chorus is supposed to be the “Cadmean Maidens”, lending a certain pathos to the proceedings, as they have a pronounced interest in the results, and are in no way “detached” in their interactions with the featured characters.

The first three-quarters of this are exchanges between Eteocles, a Spy which is reporting on the Argive forces outside the seven gates of Cadmea, and the Chorus. The Spy reports on what champions of Argos are assigned to attack which gate, and Eteocles responds with what Cadmean warriors will be meeting them there (along with what deities are affiliated with both forces), and the Chorus expressing their hopes and concerns. Eteocles himself goes to defend the seventh gate, at which his brother Polynices is attacking.

I hate to bring in a “spoiler” here, but:
O dark and all prevailing ill
      That broods o'er Oedipus and all his line,
Numbing my heart with mortal chill!
      Ah, me, this song of mine,
Which, Thyad-like I woke, now falleth still,
      Or only tells of doom,
      And echoes round a tomb!
Dead are they, dead! in their own blood they lie -
Ill-omened the concent that hails our victory!
The curse a father on his children spake
      Hath faltered not, nor failed!
Nought, Laius! they stubborn choice availed -
First to beget, then, in the after day
            And for the city's sake,
            The child to slay!
            For nought can blunt nor mar
            The speech oracular!
      Children of teen! By disbelief ye erred -
Yet in wild weeping came fulfillment of the word!
While all the other Cadmean warriors successfully defended their gates, Eteocles and Polynices slay each other at the seventh. At this point Etocles (obviously) and the Spy are replaced by Oedipus' daughters Antigone and Ismene (although the latter has no specific lines) and a Herald from the ruling council. The Herald bears instructions that Polynices should be denied a funeral and be thrown to the dogs outside the walls, which Antigone refuses, insisting that both of her brothers will be given proper rites, and the play ends. It's primarily in this last quarter of the play that the Chorus (of the Cadmean Maidens) fills in the background on the family's dark history,

As you can tell by the quote above, this has been rendered into English rhyme (by an E.D.A. Morshead in 1928), and one has to wonder what liberties have been taken with the original (in ancient Greek rhyme) to force it into not only another language, but a rhyming scheme in that. The doom/tomb and mar/oracular rhymes stand in the above as possibly painful extrapolations!

Anyway, The Seven Against Thebes was a reasonably entertaining read, and it's one of those “culturally significant” works that one really should be familiar with. As is usually the case with the Dover Thrift books, you're not likely to find these at your local brick-and-mortar store because their cover prices are so low (in this case $1.50) that they're hard to justify expending shelf space on, but they're ideal to have at the ready when you have a couple of twelve dollar books and need to bump things up to get free shipping from the on-line guys!

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