DATE: between 466 and 459, with 463 being the favored date; part of the “Daughters of Danaos tetralogy,” the other tragedies being Egyptians and Daughters of Danaos, with Amymone as the satyr-play
COMPETITION: won first prize
CHARACTERS: Danaos, King of Argos (Pelasgos), Herald of the Egyptians
CHORUS(ES): the daughters of Danaos, their cousins the sons of Aegyptus
Danaos and his daughters live in Egypt but are Greeks by descent. He has refused to allow the marriage between his daughters and their cousins, sons of his brother Aegyptus. Fleeing their home in Egypt, they arrive at Argos, from which their ancestress Io had come, and claim sanctuary, both as Greeks in descent and as suppliant refugees. King Pelasgos is faced with a difficult decision: to reject the suppliants, who are protected by Zeus, or accept them and risk conflict with the Egyptians. He will not make this decision without consulting and gaining the approval of his people. Danaos reports that Pelasgos has in fact persuaded his people to protect these suppliants and refugees. A threatening herald from the Egyptians arrives and attempts to coerce the maidens into leaving with him, but King Pelasgos intervenes to repulse this threat and take the Danaids into the protection of the city of Argos. Danaos commands his daughters to resist any attractions of desire or love, and the chorus (or part thereof) agrees to avoid marriage. A dissenting voice argues that Love is a powerful deity and one that must be respected.
We are again dealing with only one play of a trilogy, and here we are not certain whether our play is the first or second of that trilogy. Subsequent events are known: the defeat or death of Pelasgos, the forced marriage of the Danaids, the murder of all the Egyptians (save one) by their brides, and the trial of the one Danaid, who spared her husband, her acquittal and the establishment of a new royal dynasty in Argos. The god beneath this play is Zeus Hikesios (Zeus the god of suppliants), and the theme turns on the rights of refugees and the danger that accepting them will entail. If the date of 463 is correct, the play was written at a crucial time for Athens, the events that would lead to the reform of the Areopagos council and the full flowering of Athenian democracy. Thus when Pelasgos insists that a ruler cannot decide for the people (demos), the play may well be striking a responsive note in contemporary politics. A final theme is that of gender, since it becomes clear that the chorus is not just fleeing this marriage (with their cousins), but marriage in general. They are told that Love is not a god to be avoided, but by whom? A sub-chorus of handmaidens, the other half of a divided chorus, the sons of Aegyptus? In the later Daughters of Danaos Aphrodite herself will defend marriage by citing the most ancient of human myths, the marriage of Earth and Heaven. Danaos, we know from other sources, is refusing marriage for his daughters because of an oracle that he will be killed by his son-in-law. This will have been revealed in a later (or earlier) play.
Content Credits: Ian C. Storey, Arlene Allan, A Guide to Ancient Greek Drama, Blackwell Publishing, 2005