“Suppliants” by Aeschylus

[All excerpts quoted taken from the translation by Michael Ewans, published by Everyman]

Tragedy, and especially Greek tragedy, depicts, it is often asserted, the downfall of a protagonist as a consequence of that protagonist’s fatal character flaws. This doesn’t really take into account those various tragedies where the protagonists character flaws play no part in the downfall (Herakles, say, where the tragedy comes about not because of flaws in Herakles’ character, but because the goddess Hera, for reasons best known to herself, makes him mad); or those tragedies where the downfall is the consequence of the protagonist’s virtue rather than of the protagonist’s flaw (Antigone is an obvious example); or where there is no downfall (The Oresteia ends in triumph, Oidipous in Kolonos in transcendence, and even Medea is rescued by the gods); or, best of all, where, as in The Persians, there is no protagonist. It is always dangerous formulating rules for what tragedies ought to be: these plays need ideally to be seen in the context of their own rules, which differ from play to play.

In Suppliants, for instance, there does not appear to be any single protagonist: if we are to use that term at all, we can only apply it to the chorus, since it is their fate that is in the balance. This chorus does far more than merely observe the action and comment: it is they who initiate the action, and it is they whose very presence drives the action forward. However, at no point during the play is this chorus faced with a tragic dilemma (as one may expect from a tragic protagonist): it is the people of Argos (not seen in this play), and their king Pelasgos – that is, characters who are most certainly not protagonists – who face a tragic dilemma. And at the end, there is no downfall. But it is not unmitigated triumph either: what could have been an unambiguously joyous ending is mixed, quite startlingly, with powerful notes of unease. Just about every single rule we may propound for the tragic form is here overturned.

It could be argued, of course, that what we perceive as the ending is not really the ending: this is the first part of a trilogy, and the second and third parts are lost. The unease of the final tableau is intended, most likely, to prepare the ground for what is yet to come. We know from existing myths what the narrative line of these later plays would have been, but what we cannot know, of course, is how Aeschylus’ would have treated them.

The plot, briefly, is this: the fifty daughters of Danaos come to Argos from Aigypt, pleading for protection, as, back home, they are threatened with forced marriage; the Argives and their king Pelasgos are faced with a tragic dilemma: either they grant the Daneids protection, and face almost certain warfare; or they deny that protection, and face the wrath of Zeus for flouting his law. The Daneids turn the screw further in a passage of swift stychomythia:  if they are not granted protection, they say, they will use their waistbands – “such as a woman usually wears” – to hang themselves upon the very images in Zeus’ shrine. Through no fault of their own, Pelasgos and the Argives face the tragic dilemma, to which there is no good solution: either to plunge the city into war, or to face divine wrath. The citizens of Argos vote to offer protection, but the tragic seeds are sown.

This is what is covered in this play. Afterwards, according to the myth, war does indeed break out between the Argives and the Aigyptians over this matter; the Aigyptians prevail; and the fifty sisters are forcibly married. They plan, however, to kill their husbands on their wedding night, and they all carry out this plan – all except one Hypermnestra. The myth does not tell us the motives of Hypermnestra – whether it was cowardice on her part, or whether she truly loved her husband Lynkeus: no doubt Aeschylus had his own ideas. From one tantalising fragment that survives from the final play of this trilogy, the goddess Aphrodite appears to be speaking at a trial, but whether it is the trial of the forty-nine sisters for killing their husbands, or of Hypermnestra for not killing her husband, is not clear:

… The sacred Heaven yearns to penetrate the Earth,

and Earth itself is yearning for the wedding too;

desire makes showers of love fall down from Heaven,

impregnate the Earth; then she gives birth

to food for flocks and to Demeter’s gifts for all

mankind. The moisture of this marriage makes the trees

grow perfect fruits. Of all these things I am the cause.

Much, inevitably, is now left to conjecture, and what Aeschylus made of this whole myth is tantalisingly unclear. What is clear, though is that the potential tragic fate of the Daneids is not a consequence of any character flaw on their part; and neither is the tragic choice faced by the Argives a consequence of any character flaw on their part. Maybe the flaw is in the nature of the world itself, but that won’t really do either: the evil has come very clearly from the Aigyptians who are attempting to force the Daneids into marriage; but though they may be the originators of the evil, the tragedy is not theirs. So much remains unresolved.

It’s possibly best to see this existing play as but the first part of a three part drama, and not take the ending of the first part to be Aeschylus’ final word. However, this standalone drama does seem to me to make sense even as it is: sometimes, “there is no possible resolution” can serve as a resolution in itself.

For the question that requires resolution is the nature of Zeus. It is that eternal question that has worried people of all cultures: what exactly is the nature of divinity? Zeus is praised throughout, and is supplicated. Fear of offending Zeus drives much of the action. And yet – what kind of being is he? Some half way through the play, the chorus prays to him:

King of kings, most blessed

of the blessed ones, most perfect

of all perfect powers, Zeus, god of riches;

hear us, and shield your daughters from

male violence, which you truly hate;

hurl their black-thwarted, evil ship

into the sea’s depth!

But soon afterwards, the pursuing ship loaded with Aigyptian soldiers lands, very much not from the seas’ depth: either Zeus has not heard the heartfelt supplication, or he doesn’t care. There follows what is possibly the most action-filled onstage business in any Greek drama, as the Aigyptians try forcibly to abduct the panic-stricken daughters of Danaos. However, the Danaides have the protection of the city of Argos, and so, they are saved. For the moment, at least.

But the questions remain unresolved. What sort of god is it who demands that the people of Argos, through no fault of their own, face either bloody warfare or divine wrath? What sort of god is it who refuses to hear the Daneids’ heartfelt supplication?

If these questions aren’t resolved at the end of this play, that need not be seen as a dramatic flaw: whatever we may conjecture about the remaining plays of the trilogy, we can be sure those plays do no resolve these questions either; these questions have no answer. Enough that they have been posed.

And, in the finale, they are emphasised. One problem with making the chorus the protagonist is that it becomes difficult to negotiate those scenes where the protagonist needs to converse with the chorus. Aeschylus’ solution to this is as daring as it is simple: introduce a second chorus. In the existing text, it is not clear who the members of this second chorus are: most translations I have looked at give their lines to the handmaidens of the Daneids, who have been silent throughout the play, and speak only in the finale. Michael Ewans, in his translation, introduces a group of Argive soldiers to act as the second chorus. Either way, the play ends, quite remarkably – and quite uniquely, I think, in the existing Greek plays – with a dialogue between two choruses.

This second chorus is fatalistic:

When something’s destined, it will happen;

Zeus’ mighty, endless will

cannot be crossed.

And, a few lines later:

Daneids: How could I see into the mind

                  of Zeus? It is unfathomable.

Argives: Utter moderate prayers.

Daneids: What should I choose?

Argives: Not to ask too much of the gods.

And, with Argive pessimism undercutting the triumph of the Daneids, the play draws to an end. Or, rather, the first part of the trilogy draws to an end, but what remains unresolved here remains unresolved still.

[See here for Amateur Reader’s post on Suppliants.]

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