Aeschylus: Tragedy, Terror, and Justice
Called the father of tragedy, Aeschylus wrote plays that remain among the most harrowing and compelling in the western canon. His Eumenides, according to one near-contemporary account, “frightened the people so much that children lost consciousness and fathers became incontinent.” Yet, for all the terror his plays evoke, what’s most notable about the playwright’s work is its deep engagement with the political ferment of democratic Athens in its most radical and creative period. In Aeschylean drama, the heroes of the mythic past are placed under the spotlight of popular scrutiny, their individual wills and aristocratic privileges tested against the norms and institutions of a democratic civic order. How do we negotiate the psychological and the political? How do we delineate private life and the public sphere? Is justice social? What does it mean to be a “democratic” hero?
In this course, we will read and discuss Aeschylus’ Oresteia, as well as his less well-known plays, including Seven Against Thebes, Suppliant Women, Prometheus Bound, and the Persians. We’ll pay close attention to Aeschylus’s construction of the public and private realms, the force of emotion and of erotic love, and power of madness and reason in shaping human life. We’ll consider the social and political origins of tragedy: How can we understand its emergence alongside that of democracy? In what ways did it function as a collective education for the nascent democratic city-state. And, throughout we’ll consider the central questions of Aeschylian tragedy: How do we adjudicate the “old” passions for revenge, power, and heroic autonomy against the requirements of a democratic polis? What is the purpose of violence in civil society? How do we substitute justice for revenge? Can, and should, certain desires and passions transcend the limits of the political?
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
November 18 — December 16, 2021
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Thursday, November 25th.