The Suppliants is a tragedy by Aeschylus, the earliest of the Ancient Greek tragedians. It is the first play in a series of four: unfortunately it is the only one that remains, although we have managed to retain the titles - The Egyptians, The Daughters of Danaaus and Amymone - as well as a broad outline of the plots of the other three plays.
The play begins when Danaus and his fifty daughters (the titular suppliants, also known as the Danaids) land on the shores of Argos, having fled there from Egypt to get away from the fifty sons of Aegyptus, their cousins, who seek to marry them by force. They throw themselves on the mercy of King Pelasgus, appealing to his better nature to protect them from the forced incest. When this seems not to be working, and Pelasgus shows his qualms about protecting them from the Egyptians, who have set sail in hot pursuit to recover their wives, they threaten to hang themselves at the altars of the gods, thereby profaning them and bringing down divine retribution on Pelasgus and all of his people. The matter is put to the people of Argos, and in an off-stage deliberation they decide to protect the suppliants.
Prayers to Zeus to sink the Egyptians on their way fail totally, and a herald is dispatched to demand that Pelasgus hand over the Danaids. Despite sound legal arguments, he refuses, and Argos and the Egyptians go to war.
This is where The Suppliants breaks off. Fragments from other authors and the mythology suggest that Pelasgus is killed in the war and Danaus becomes tyrant of Argos. The Argives lose the war, and the Danaids are forced to marry the Egyptians, which they do, but Danaaus instructs them each to murder their husbands on their wedding night. However, Hypermnestra refuses, and her husband, Lynceus, flees. Danaaus threatens to kill Hypermnestra for her disobediance, but Lynceus re-appears, kills Danaus, and becomes the new tyrant of Argos. He is about to kill the other forty-nine Danaids, but Aphrodite appears and makes him absolve them of the murders; in exchange, the other forty-nine marry native Argive men.
The play is available online, in English translation, here.
This play provides examples of:
- Audience Monologue: Opens with the Suppliants setting the scene, and even telling us of their plan to kill themselves sacreligiously if denied asylum.
- Character Title: Well, group-of-characters title, but the Chorus fills the role of protagonist.
- Deus ex Machina: How The Daughters of Danaaus ends.
- Double In-Law Marriage
- Downer Ending: Well, come on, it is a tragedy!
- Driven to Suicide: The Suppliants are quite prepared to commit suicide if Pelasgus doesn't agree to protect them.
- Fatal Flaw: Averted, unusually for a Greek tragedy. Pelasgus doesn't have one; he's just faced with an impossible dilemma not of his own making.
- Greek Chorus
- In Medias Res: When the play begins, the Suppliants are in the middle of fleeing from their arranged marriages and angry husbands-to-be.
- Jerkass: The Egyptian herald.
- Kissing Cousins: Although the female half are quite keen to avoid this.
- Sacred Hospitality: Even before they threaten to kill themselves, the Suppliants make the point that to refuse them protection would invoke the displeasure of Zeus.
- Tragedy: Even though it averts many of the Aristotlean ideas of Tragedy, in part because it was written before Sophocles came along and defined the genre.
- What the Hell, Hero?: The Supplicants do this when Pelasgus expresses his doubts about taking them in and risking the wrath of the Egyptians.