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Seven Against Thebes; translated by David Grene.

The superior translation in this edition seems to make all the difference here compared to the last two, though I do think that this play is somewhat engaging on its own.

Readers of Sophocles’ Thebes trilogy will recognize the main character, Eteocles, one of Oedipus’s sons. The other son, Polyneices, is about to attack the city with a massive army from rival city Argos. We see Eteocles talking and arguing with the women of Thebes as he receives messages about the approaching soldiers. The titular seven are generals who were chosen to lead seperate regiments against the cities’ seven gates. The meat of the play is the messenger’s description of each general – a brief summary of his character and description of the devices on his shield (or lack thereof). In this long scene, after each description, Eteocles chooses a suitable warrior from his own ranks to counter each enemy general’s particular character. The final general is, of course, Polyneices himself, and Eteocles decides to face him hermano y hermano. They die, and the brothers’ more well-known sisters Antigone and Ismene arrive to mourn their bodies. An epilogue, which supposedly is apochryphal, introduces the city’s ban on burying Polyneices and Antigone’s resolution to put his body rest anyway – thereby introducing Sophocles far more famous play, Antigone.

Is Grene simply a better translator, or is this play actually more interesting than the other two? I think it’s both, actually. Compared with the first two, this one was a little entertaining and somewhat thought provoking. It is by no means a masterpiece (as Grene himself points out in the introduction – what’s with all this ragging on Aeschylus?), but things happen; you know what’s going on; there’s interesting tension between the characters; and, finally, I really loved the descriptions of all the generals. There’s this common thread (or meme, if you roll that way) in literature, whereby a special team is formed from individuals with particular personalities and, if applicable, super powers. Chalk it up to the number being magic, but usually there are seven such members. E.g.: The Seven Samurai. The Magnificent Seven. And, last but not least, my favorite Grimm’s fairy tale: The Seven who went Far in the World, which was the basis of the Terry Gilliam movie, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

So it seems that Seven against Thebes was the first instance of this story, and I found it just as bad-ass as I always do. The only problem here is that it’s so brief. We only get the set up for about 300 lines, and then the battle is resolved off-stage in about two minutes. What a tease. Where’s the action? Sadly for us moderns, the Greeks were more interested in the curse that led to the battle and the mourning that followed it than some fanboyish interest in the powers of heroes.

And, to be honest, the Seven don’t really have amazing powers, just vaguely interesting personalities. Of special note are Tydeus, who ends up surviving the battle and fathering a son named Diomedes – the guy who ends up stabbing Aphrodite in the Trojan War; and Amphiaraus, a prophet-warrior who has a plain, unadorned shield; openly considers the battle an immoral decision; yet goes into battle anyway, because he knows he’s fated to die in it. More on this attitude shortly.

I’m not going to be a complete philistine here and say that this very sensible and understandable treatment of the subject – with loads of historical context to explain it – was worthless. In fact, the discussion of the curse was kind of chilling in itself.

To add to Amphiaraus’ predicament above, the chorus makes it clear that Eteocles has every means available (at least in a world in which curses are real and can be purged by sacrifices to the gods) to end the conflict immediately, but he chooses not to. He displays a very cold, almost frightening fatalism, rushing in the battle to reach some kind of closure that is not very clear to the chorus or to me. Readers of Oedipus Rex are introduced to the Greek idea of fate, to the machinations of the Gods and how crimes cannot be ignored. But this is going a step further – Eteocles is consciously aware of all the gears in the machine that brought him and his city to the brink of destruction – and he still refuses to change anything. What does this say about free will?

This issue is certainly worth thinking about, maybe even losing some sleep over.

While Seven against Thebes is not the best tragedy ever written and seems incomplete in a somewhat frustrating way, it is definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the Thebes dynastic drama (Cadmus, Oedipus, Antigone, etc.); Greek mythology in general; Greek Tragedy; and the Seven-Member Team of Awesome Meme.

(Endnote: Maybe Wes Anderson could roll out a movie script for this one? I really want to see colorful shots of the Seven in which they face the camera and people do quirky things in the background – set to the Rolling Stones.)

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