Euripides, The Suppliant Women
THE SUPPLIANT WOMEN
Euripides’ The Suppliant Women, first presented around 420 bce, focuses on the suffering brought to civilians from war. “The play is best understood as a plea against inhumanity, especially in wartime” (Jones 52). Athens comes off as the merciful democratic ideal state through Theseus. Chaucer and Shakespeare will keep Theseus harassed by suppliant women in later literary ages.
In the Euripides play, at the temple of Demeter at Eleusis, northwest to nearby Athens, Aethra, the widowed mother of Theseus, prays for the suppliant women: mothers of the seven warriors who remain unburied after their failed assault on Thebes in the Eteocles vs. Polynices affair (the sons of Oedipus). Aethra will call on her son Theseus: “It is proper for women, if they are wise, / Always to get things done by men” (41-42). Theseus arrives, wondering what all the dirge-chanting is about. Adrastus, the remaining leader of the warriors and king of Argos, is grilled by Theseus in what is almost an “agon.” Adrastus explains that he had hoped his sons-in-law, Polynices and Tydeus, would overcome their outcast status, and he begs Theseus to make an appeal to the Thebans. After some somewhat sanctimonious pontificating — “I praise the god who set our life in order, / Lifting it out of savagery and confusion. / … / But intelligence wants more than heavenly power; our minds grow proud, / Until we think we are wiser than the gods” (201-218) — Theseus declines. Euripides gives him this declaration of class distinctions:
The classes of citizens are three. The rich
Are useless, always lusting after more.
Those who have not, and live in want, are a menace,
Ridden with envy and fooled by demagogues;
Their malice stings the owners. Of the three,
The middle part saves cities: it guards the order
A community establishes. (238-246)
The chorus of women echo Adrastus’ sentiment, but Theseus does listen to his mother regarding the customs and the advisability of the quality of mercy in Athenian leaders:
The power that keeps cities of men together
Is noble preservation of the laws.
It will be said that, lacking manly strength,
You stood aside in fear and lost a chance
To win a crown of glory for the city.
They will say you hunted boars, a mean pursuit,
And proved a coward at the call of action,
The time for spear and helmet. (312-319)
Theseus decides he’ll bring it to vote and make the request of Creon. A herald from Thebes engages Theseus in a debate about democracy: he comes from Thebes where one man rules instead of a “mob” (411): “the man who knows when not to act / Is wise. To my mind, bravery is forethought” (509-510). Creon has sent word that alliance with Adrastus and the suppliants will result in war. But Theseus defies the herald and will bury the corpses no matter what.
Theseus gathers an army to head for Thebes. After the chorus chimes in, a messenger declares that Theseus has been victorious, stopping hs army at the gates, though, in order to stay on-task (724-725), not to sack the city. Theseus will return with the corpses and the suppliants sing a dirge. When Theseus and the bodies arrive, Adrastus provides eulogies and the women sing more. Evadne, Capaneus’ widow (and Eteocles’ sister) appears on a cliff above the funeral pyre. Her father Iphis cannot dissuade her and she leaps into her husband’s pyre. Iphis mourns.
The kids of the dead warriors carry in the urns holding the ashes of their fathers, and boys vow to avenge their dead fathers. Sigh. But Athena appears ex machina and forces Adrastus to swear never to make war on Athens and to enact a ritual sacrifice. Two of the kids are charged with avenging the dead on Thebes when they’re old enough. Theseus praises Athena.
Euripides. The Suppliant Women. Trans. John Davie. Electra and Other Plays. NY: Penguin Books, 1998. 85-128, 229-235.
Euripides. The Suppliant Women. Trans. Frank William Jones. Euripides IV. Ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. 51-104.
Powell, Barry. Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.