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...
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