The Suppliants

by Aeschylus

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In The Suppliants, what commonalities do the suppliant women and Prometheus share?

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Prior to the plays of Aeschylus (c. 524 –c.455 BCE), ancient Greek plays of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE had a large chorus of up to fifty members who interacted with a single actor. The first actor in ancient Greek plays is believed to have been Thespis, in whose honor actors are referred to as "thespians."

Since the single actor had no one else with whom to interact, the role of the chorus was nearly equal to that of the single actor. The chorus engaged in dialogue with the actor either as a whole, or through the chorus leader, called the coryphaeus.

Aeschylus is credited with adding a second actor to his plays, and he also reduced the size of the chorus from fifty to twelve.

The chorus plays a significant role in Aeschylus's tragedy The Suppliants, (also known as The Suppliant Maidens, or The Suppliant Women), and in Prometheus Bound, which until the 1800s was believed to have been written by Aeschylus, but the authorship has since been in doubt.

In The Suppliants, the chorus is composed of the suppliant women themselves, the Danaids, who are fleeing forced marriages to their Egyptian cousins.

In Prometheus Bound, the chorus is composed of the daughters of Oceanus, the god of the sea. Because Prometheus is immobilized throughout the play, the play consists almost entirely of spoken dialogue, much of which is between Prometheus and the chorus.

The chorus takes an active role in each play. In The Suppliants, the chorus is the collective protagonist of the play. It is their fate that's determined during the course of the play, and they're ultimately afforded protection from the Egyptians by Pelasgus, the King of Argos.

The chorus in Prometheus Bound has less of a stake in the action of the play, but the chorus nonetheless takes an active role in sympathizing with Prometheus's plight, and in offering him advice, solace, companionship, and protection—at least until the end of the play, when Zeus strikes Prometheus with a thunderbolt, casting Prometheus and the chorus into the abyss.

It wasn't until Sophocles (c. 496–406 BCE) added a third actor to his plays that the role of the chorus was reduced to providing commentary on the action of the play, rather than taking an active role in the play itself.

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What do the chorus of suppliant women in The Suppliants have in common with Prometheus?

Defiance is the key word here. The chorus of Danaids, like Prometheus himself, defy established standards and moral norms through their extraordinary actions. Just as Prometheus defied the gods in stealing fire from them and giving it to humanity, so the chorus of young women in The Suppliants defy the customs of Athenian society by refusing to participate in forced marriages to their Egyptian cousins.

At that time, women had no rights to speak of, not even when it came to their choice of husband. They were expected to do as their menfolk told them to do and silently put up with the consequences. But not the chorus of Danaids in The Suppliants. Fearing a fate worse than death, they flee from Egypt, seeking protection from King Pelasgus of Argos.

Once the fifty maidens reach the city, a further parallel between the Danaids and Prometheus can be observed. Prometheus achieved lasting renown among the people for giving them the gift of fire. And the Danaids are similarly lauded by the people of Argos for bravely escaping the clutches of their Egyptian cousins. For it is the people of Argos who decide that the Danaids will stay within their city walls, safe and protected from their irate cousins.

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