|Eteocles and Polynices being carried away, dead, after the Battle of Thebes|
by Alfred John Church.
In Sophocles' Theban Plays, Oedipus Rex (429 B.C.), Oedipus at Colonus (406 B.C.), and Antigone (441 B.C.) we learn of the fall of Oedipus - how he inadvertently married his own mother, blinded himself, and left his kingdom, Thebes, to his two sons Eteocles and Polynices, who, by the time Antigone begins, have died having killed each other in a battle. In Aeschylus' Seven Against Thebes (Ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήβας, 467 B.C.) the action follows the two brothers who were to share the kingdom by ruling alternate years. However Eteocles refuses to stand down and forced Polynices to flee to Athens. There he plots to usurp his brother with the help of other leaders and captains: Tydeus, Capaneus, Eteoclus, Hippomedon, Parthenopaeus, and Amphiaraus. Along with Polynices, these are the "seven" of the title. Eteocles prepares for battle, and has the seven gates of Thebes guarded, but when he learns one of the 'seven' is his own brother he agrees to do battle with him alone.
As with the Theban plays, there is in Aeschylus' play the 'family curse', which at the start of the play had already cost Oedipus his life, and by the end had cost the two brothers their lives. There is also the question of fate and prophecy, and that though Polynices and Eteocles chose to fight, Eteocles felt as though the curse was already upon them and that by fighting, they were acting out their destiny. The Chorus offers another point of view - that their fate is in their own hands, though the curse is very real.
The theme effectively ends not in Seven Against Thebes but Sophocles' Antigone, though Seven Against Thebes was itself the end of Aeschylus' 'Oedipodea' trilogy (beginning with Laius, then Oedipus, however these two plays are lost). I did find it particularly difficult. With Sophocles' plays, the matter was tough, but reading not so; with Aeschylus, its style and matter were particularly tricky. It was a beautiful play, but very easy (I found) to get lost. Had I not have read Sophocles, I think I would have stumbled very quickly. But it is a very short play, just over 1,000 lines, so I dare say it was a good introduction.
Nevertheless I won't give up on Aeschylus. I have all the surviving plays: The Persians, The Suppliants, Prometheus Bound, as well as the Oresteia. I imagine I'll be trying again with the Oresteia in January.