(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Adrastus, the Argive king who led the disastrous war of the Seven against Thebes and alone escaped with his life, brings the mothers and the children of the slain chieftains to Athens, the most democratic and hospitable city of Greece. There they gather at the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, and when Aethra, the mother of Theseus, comes to pray, they form a ring of supplication about her, begging for help in recovering the dead bodies of their sons for burial according to the prescribed rites. The anguish of the mothers so moves Aethra that she sends at once for her own son.

The powerful young king closely cross-examines the defeated old ruler and refuses to help after discovering that Adrastus foolishly married off his daughters to quarrelsome exiles, Tydeus and Polynices, and engaged in war against Thebes despite the advice of the prophet Amphiaraus. Aethra, however, discreetly reminds her son that, although his logic is sound as far as it goes, he is nevertheless obligated by honor and the religious customs of Attica to go to the aid of all who seek proper burial and funeral rites for the dead. Theseus, recognizing the wisdom and humanity of her counsel, departs to seek a vote of the Athenian assembly on the matter.

Upon his return, Theseus announces that, with the support of the assembly, he is ready to send two messages to Creon, king of Thebes. The first is a polite request for permission to bury the dead. If this one is refused, the second is a warning that his armies are on their way. He is interrupted by the arrival of an insolent herald from Creon who demands in the name of his despot that Adrastus be driven from Athens. The herald adds that courageous wisdom calls for peace. Theseus,...

(The entire section is 703 words.)