La Danaide Statue by Rodin
Herald of Aegyptus
|Setting||shore of Argos|
The Suppliants (Ancient Greek: Ἱκέτιδες, Hiketides; Latin: Supplices), also called The Suppliant Maidens, The Suppliant Women, or Supplices is a play by Aeschylus. It was probably first performed "only a few years previous to the Orestea, which was brought out 458 BC." It seems to be the first play in a tetralogy, sometimes referred to as the Danaid Tetralogy, which probably included the lost plays The Egyptians (also called Aigyptioi), and The Daughters of Danaus (also called The Danaïdes or The Danaids), and the satyr play Amymone. It was long thought to be the earliest surviving play by Aeschylus due to the relatively anachronistic function of the chorus as the protagonist of the drama. However, evidence discovered in the mid-20th century shows it one of Aeschylus' last plays, definitely after The Persians and possibly after Seven Against Thebes.
"Those at least who judge by the style, the simplicity of the plot, the paucity of the characters, and the predominance of choric action, will be reluctant to believe that the Suppliants was composed more than ten years after the Prometheus, Persians, and Seven against Thebes. It may be remarked, though not as an evidence of date, that the play is rather a melodrama than a tragedy. It ends happily, and has no other claim to the latter title than from the pathos excited and sustained by the helpless condition of the fugitive maidens in a foreign land. On the whole, it is rather a good play; and though it has obtained a bad name among scholars on the score of its many corruptions, yet there is a grace and a dignity in the choruses, and a general tenderness, virtue, and artlessness in the characters, that impart a very pleasing tone to the whole composition."
The Danaids form the chorus and serve as the protagonists. They flee a forced marriage to their Egyptian cousins. When the Danaids reach Argos from Egypt, they entreat King Pelasgus to protect them. He refuses pending the decision of the Argive people, who decide in the favour of the Danaids. Danaus rejoices the outcome, and the Danaids praise the Greek gods. Almost immediately, a herald of the Egyptians comes to attempt to force the Danaids to return to their cousins for marriage. Pelasgus arrives, threatens the herald, and urges the Danaids to remain within the walls of Argos. The play ends with the Danaids retreating into the Argive walls, protected.
George Thomson, expanding on D.S. Robertson, interpreted the tetralogy as a defence of the Athenian law requiring widows to marry a brother or cousin of their deceased husband in some circumstances in order to keep his property within the family. According to this interpretation, the Danaids' predicament of being forced into a marriage with their cousins would not have generated as much sympathy with the initial audience, which was accustomed to such marriages, as it might today. This is reflected in the question Pelasgus asks of the Danaids' in The Suppliants which echoes Athenian law on the subject: "If the sons of Aigyptos are your masters by the law of the land, claiming to be your next-of-kin, who would wish to oppose them?" Thomson speculates that as Oresteia ends by validating the contemporary Athenian law regarding trial for murder by the court of Areopagus, the Danaid plays may have ended by validating the contemporary Athenian law regarding marriage of next-of-kin when the husband dies without an heir. Thomson further suggests the possibility that as Oresteia's ending dramatizes the establishment of the court of Areopagus, the Danaid plays may have ended by dramatizing the establishment of the festival of the Thesmophoria, a festival reserved for women which was based on the cult of Demeter which, according to Herodotus, was brought to Greece from Egypt by the Danaids.
The remaining plays of the tetralogy have been mostly lost. However, one significant passage from The Danaids has been preserved. This is a speech by the goddess of love Aphrodite praising the marriage between the sky (the groom) and the earth (the bride) from which rain comes, nourishing cattle, corn and fruits.
As the plot of the remaining plays has been generally reconstructed, following a war with the Aegyptids in which Pelasgus has been killed, Danaus becomes tyrant of Argos. The marriage is forced upon his daughters, but Danaus instructs them to murder their husbands on their wedding night. All do except for Hypermnestra, whose husband, Lynceus, flees. Danaus imprisons or threatens to kill Hypermnestra for her disobedience, but Lynceus reappears and kills Danaus; Lynceus becomes the new king of Argos, with Hypermnestra as his queen. Opinions differ as to the ending, although certainly Aphrodite was involved in the denouement. One opinion is that Lynceus now must decide how to punish the forty-nine homicidal Danaids, when Aphrodite appears in deus ex machina fashion and absolves them of the murders, as they were obeying their father; she then persuades them to abandon their celibate ways, and the trilogy closes with their marriages to forty-nine local Argive men. An alternative opinion is that Hypermnestra is put on trial for disobeying her father and Aphrodite successfully defends her similarly to Apollo's defence of Orestes in Oresteia. The trilogy was followed by the satyr play Amymone, which comically portrayed one of the Danaids' seduction by Poseidon.