The Suppliants

by Aeschylus

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021

Aeschylus’s The Suppliants brilliantly depicts strong passions and moral greatness. The play is nevertheless very difficult to interpret. For one thing, The Suppliants was part of a trilogy dealing with the fate of the daughters of Danaüs; the sequel plays are lost except for a few fragments. Most Greek tragedies were in the form of a trilogy, in which the related mythical stories presented in the first play were developed to a conclusion in the third. In this trilogy, the Danaids were probably central actors in all three plays. Consequently evaluation of the one surviving play is problematic. A second difficulty to interpretation is the high proportion of lyric poetry contained in the drama: nearly half of the preserved play is choral lyrics that allude to complex myths. This beautiful and allusive poetry is unusual in a drama, and yet interpretation of these mythical references is crucial to understanding the subtler themes of the work. A third challenge to appreciating The Suppliants is its lack of action, which is sparse even when compared with other extant Greek tragedies. As it stands, the plot seems to turn on Pelasgus’s agonizing decision whether or not to protect the maidens who come to him for refuge. This focus on the king of Argos rather than on the fate of the maidens may not be what Aeschylus actually intended as the focus of the trilogy. Each of these major difficulties must be considered in evaluating Aeschylus’s art in The Suppliants.

It is virtually certain that The Suppliants was the first play of a trilogy, of which The Egyptians and The Danaids were the second and third parts. Aeschylus wrote the only extant Greek trilogy, Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777). From his practice in that work and the myth as it is known from other sources, the probable development of the Danaid trilogy can be tentatively reconstructed. It is possible that even before The Egyptians opens, the war between Argos and the sons of Aegyptus is over, with Pelasgus dead and Argos utterly defeated. The maidens are forced to return to Egypt, are married, and all but one murder their husbands on the wedding night. Only Hypermestra refuses out of love to kill her new husband. As in Oresteia, a trial probably ensued: A fragment of The Danaids suggests that Hypermestra is tried for disobedience in not killing her husband. However, Aphrodite intervenes and defends her by citing the invincible power of love. If this reconstruction is correct, the courageous vow of Pelasgus to protect the maidens turns out to have been futile. The resistance of the Danaids to marriage, a prominent theme in The Suppliants, leads to an act for which, according to some versions of the myth, they are eternally punished in Hades by being compelled to carry water in leaky urns. The resolution in the third play may affirm the same power of matrimony and sexual union that the maidens so passionately reject in the opening play. Clearly, any first impressions of The Suppliants must be qualified by reference to the story as it unfolded in the complete trilogy.

In the extant play, the audience is confronted by a dense work full of allusive choral lyrics that are intended to elaborate on the plight of the Danaids. This unusual reliance on lyric once led scholars to assume that The Suppliants was a very early play, written perhaps as early as c. 490 b.c.e. , when the dramatic possibilities of dialogue and plot were still unexplored. Subsequently, a spectacular papyrus discovery confirmed that the play was in fact...

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first performed in the 460’s, near the close of Aeschylus’s career. For whatever reason, the dramatist chose to portray the situation of the Danaids, a “protagonist” in the form of fifty maidens, primarily through lyric song rather than through dramatic confrontation and dialogue. The choral songs often dwell on the story of Io, who was loved by Zeus and persecuted by Hera. Her experience of pursuit and exile is obviously a parallel to the plight of the Danaids. However, the Danaids and also the Argives and the sons of Aegyptus trace their origins back to Io. The maidens express revulsion at the idea of forced marriage to their cousins, but while their resistance to marriage may seem to suggest an assertion of women’s rights, this may be an anachronistic interpretation. It is likely that Aeschylus intended the maidens to express a more common fear of the time, that of leaving childhood and accepting the role of wife and mother.

Pelasgus is undoubtedly the most interesting character in the play. He is faced with a tragic choice: either to protect the suppliants and risk war with Egypt or to return them and incur the wrath of Zeus. Some have seen his decision to champion the Danaids’ cause as a mark of weakness, since it is precipitated by their threat to commit suicide on the altar of the gods. However, Aeschylus skillfully depicts a leader who is at once reluctant to endanger his people and afraid not to do what is right. Rather than himself deciding an issue with such far-reaching implications for his country, he submits his proposal to a vote of the people, who unanimously approve the plan to protect the suppliants. This detail is surely a nod to the evolution of mature Athenian democracy in the 460’s, even though the action is translated to Argos in mythical times. Although their decision leads to a war that Argos loses, the Argive resolve to defend the suppliants presents a noble contrast to the use of force by the brutal Egyptians.

The Suppliants is an intense, lyrical depiction of the helpless refugees who find defenders willing to act selflessly and to take risks for what is right. A pious Greek king and his subjects take upon themselves the problems of unjustly persecuted barbarians. With its brief acknowledgment of democracy as the only proper way for a community to decide such important matters, even if the decision should have tragic consequences, the play also represents a fascinating fusion of literature and history.