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Are Aeschylus’ Suppliants Women of Color?

Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz

The political dimension of Aeschylus’ Suppliants interrelates gender, sexuality and race. The underlying problem is one of insider and outsider, defined by gender and ethnicity/race. While the violence against the maidens is explicitly sexual, there is also a racial dimension to it. The title of this paper is meant to be somewhat provocative: woman of color is a term that came into usage at a particular time responding to perceived problems in the way feminism ignored race. Thus, the paper is in an ideological framework, not looking at color words in this text, but rather how difference is addressed in the play. It draws on studies of  post-colonial work on race in antiquity (e.g. Hall, McCoskey, Mitchell, Wohl), but will be a case study of one play. This paper will explore the description of the Danaids and their pursuers for the way in which skin color is used; then, we will engage in speculation as to how it would have appeared in performance.

In the text, the maidens work hard to distinguish themselves from the Egyptian men who are pursuing them, and they are at pains to identify themselves as Argives by descent. They must do so because they are also themselves markedly “other.” For instance, the women confuse Pelasgus when he first sees them because of their outlandish dress, and he even thinks they might have been Amazons (Aes. Suppliants 237, 287). "Where are you from," he asks. They are dark, as they themselves say (71, 155), but the Egyptian men are reviled as darker than they (719-20).

Looking for cues from the text, I will analyze the probable staging, asking what the maidens would have looked like. In the context of the time period and the recent past war with Persia, I will analyze the potential significance of that depiction for the audience.  My fundamental question in my conclusion will be whether the references to color and their costuming are likely to have made them appear outsiders and foreigners, and if so, how would it have worked to construct audience sympathy.

Session/Panel Title

Color in Ancient Drama in Performance

Session/Paper Number

15.2

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