The Suppliants

by Aeschylus

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 511

Aeschylus’s tragedy The Suppliants is not dated, but the abundance of choruses (more than half of the entire text) and other archaic elements suggest that it belongs to his earliest work. It forms the first part of the trilogy whose nonextant second and third parts were The Egyptians and The Danaides, respectively.

Egypt’s fifty sons intend to marry Danaus’s fifty daughters, who are their cousins. The maidens flee to their ancestral city of Argos. The play actually begins with the Danaides and Danaus arriving in Argos. With the people’s permission, the king of Argos gives protection to the fugitives. Egypt’s herald threatens the king of Argos with war and departs to Egypt.

There has been much debate among scholars as to the exact meaning of this tragedy. On historical grounds, it would be impossible to think that Aeschylus emphasizes here the idea of a marriage between close relatives being inappropriate. Equally, it would narrow the meaning of this tragedy to believe that Aeschylus justifies the Danaides’ intention to remain single forever.

It is obvious that the playwright is preoccupied with the idea of a marriage based on free choice versus coercion to marry: a marriage protected by the nation on behalf of its rulers, who do the nation’s will.

The collective character of the protagonist (the Danaides) and the absence of a decisive confrontation on the stage (which normally forms the nucleus of a tragedy as genre) leads us to believe that the play is not quite a tragedy. It is rather a sort of oratorio incorporating dialogues that occupy much less space than choruses. It is this arrangement that was common to earlier forms of tragedy, because tragedy as genre developed from the dithyramb sung by the chorus at Dionysian festivals. One example of the numerous choruses found in The Suppliants is as follows:

Ho! Land of hills Protectress, held in awe
Of old—now by new bonds of treaty-law
Knit to our hearts—what ills
Must we yet suffer at the hands of men?
Where shall we find a refuge, holy one?
In all this Apian earth is there no glen,
No haunt of darkness hollowed from the sun,
Where we may hide?

Although in the following parts of the trilogy, there are some noticeably tragical elements (deaths and war), the trilogy as a whole does not end in a catastrophe. The goddess Aphrodite herself brings the action to a happy end.

What takes place between the beginning and the end of this particular play, however, is a depiction of the state of suspense that the Danaides find themselves in. The suspense gradually builds up, reaches the climax, and then, through a number of turning points, develops into the horror before the impending attack by the sons of Egypt. Everything ends with the fierce argument between the king of Argos and Egypt’s herald.

The images of the play strike us with their solidness, gravity, and lack of common human psychology. These archaic images are employed by Aeschylus to highlight the ideas expressed in his work.

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