Women of Athens
Rumours are getting round that Socrates, Xanthippe’s husband has been arrested for sedition. He regularly wanders round the market-place accosting prominent citizens and making them look like fools. Many of the City fathers do not approve and want to stop him. Many of the young people of the City find Socrates both entertaining and thought-provoking. Xanthippe is standing behind the counter of her shop, serving Agatha. Pandemos enters with Acibiades, her teenage son, in tow. Pandemos is carrying a shopping basket.
|Xanthipe: Good morning, lady; what can I interest
you in today? A fig tart, perhaps – or else some cinemon buns? They’re
all freshly baked.
Agatha: The buns look very good, I’ve just bought four myself.
Pandemos picks up one of the buns and sniffs at it, disdainfully.Pandamos: Very well, I’ll take half a dozen.
Xanthippe: There you go, then. That will be two Drachmas.
Xanthippe serves Pandemos the six buns and Pandemos puts them in her shopping bag.Pandamos: Is it true, Xanthippe... what they’re saying about your husband?
Xanthippe: Oh, you’ve heard he’s been arrested, then?
Pandemos: Yes – it’s the talk of the city!
Phaedo enters the shop, but seeing that Xanthippe is busy walks over to the far side of the store, to inspect a tray of sweet-meats on display there. Alcibiades nods at him as he passes. Phaedo returns the nod and then eves-drops on the conversation. As Xanthippe speaks, Alcibiades walks over to Phaedo and punches him on the arm.Xanthippe: Then there’s no point me denying it, Pandemos. I’ve warned him again and again that if he carried on with his meddling he’d get into trouble. If only he spent his energy helping me in the shop or getting some other job – but no! All he’s interested in is hanging out with his crowd in the market-place and making fun of whichever City worthy falls into his clutches. He catches their attention by complimenting them and once their vanity is hooked he reels them in by asking their advice about something or other. Of course, he’s not at all sincere, and soon enough he’s making out that they don’t know anything.
Alcibiades grins. Phaedo frowns and shakes his head.Agatha: I’m not sure you’re being entirely fair on Socrates, Xanthippe. My son tells me that your husband has a heart of gold. You make it sound as if he’s nothing better than a mischief maker.
Xanthippe: What would Plato know? That young man is captivated by Socrates! If he had to live with him, like me, he’d tell a different tale! He’s forever finding fault with everything I say and never lifts a finger to help about the house.
Phaedo: Socrates is a good man, Xanthippe. You don’t appreciate him. It’s a scandal he’s been arrested!
Xanthippe: It is at that! I’ll never live it down.
Alcibiades: You can’t honestly say you’re surprised, how things have turned out, though – can you, Phaedo?
Phaedo: No, I’m not surprised, Alcibiades; but I am disappointed.
Alcibiades: Whatever! Socrates can take care of himself. He’ll be able to talk himself out of any charges brought against him. He could argue the hind legs of a donkey – and he’s got plenty of friends who’ll speak up for him too.
Phaedo: Would you do that, ’Cibi?
Alcibiades: Of course, and with my family connections he’ll be out of jail in no time! Isn’t that true, Mother?
Pandemos: Yes, dear – of course. [She is not sincere.]
Agatha: I don’t think it will be quiet as simple as that, Alcibiades. The Democrats have had Socrates in their sights for a while now and I don’t think they’ll readily let him off the hook.
Xanthippe: Yes, you’re right there: they’re putting it about that he’s running a smear campaign for you Aristocrats – making out that the Democrats are incompetent to govern!
Ureanea and Theaetetus enter the shop as Xanthippe is speaking. They halt just inside the door as they see that it is busy.Ureanea: What’s going on here? I thought this was a bakery not the council-house.
Pandamos: Socrates has been arrested. He’s been accused of subversion.
Ureanea: But that’s ridiculous! You must be very worried, Xanthippe.
Ureanea moves behind the shop counter, and makes to hug Xanthippe; but Xanthippe brushes her off. Theaetetus walks over to join Phaedo and Alcibiades. Alcibiades welcomes him by punching his shoulder. Phaedo welcomes him by smiling.Xanthippe: That man just seems to seek out trouble – no matter what I say, he takes no notice and does just as he likes. He might as well be mad. I’m at my wit’s end.
Xanthippe shakes her head.Theatetus: Socrates will be OK, I’m sure.
Phaedo: Surely the magistrates will see that Socrates is innocent.
Agatha: Let’s hope so, Phaedo; but even magistrates are swayed by party interest and public opinion; and Socrates has been attracting a lot of attention recently. Only last week he was suggesting that all the Democrats were capable of was deceptive words and rabble-rousing!
Ureanea: That’s true, Lady Agatha. I don’t know what to make of it all. Socrates seems to be a good man, Xanthippe, you are too hard on him; but he is one for making enemies and putting strange ideas into young heads. My boy is always challenging his father – and risking a hiding for doing so!
Theatetus: But, Mother! When Father is wrong about something should I simply go along with his mistake? Isn’t it more helpful to point out his error, so he can correct it?
Ureanea: I don’t know about that, Theaeteus; but I do know it’s important for you to respect your father.
Pandamos: That’s right, Ureanea. It is important to respect authority. If every young man started questioning his father and doubting what his teachers and betters told him – where would we be? I ask you!
Phaedo: Perhaps a better place than we are now?
Alcibiades says nothing, but shakes his head. Theaetetus looks at Phaedo and grins. Cybele and Diotima enter the shop. Diotima leans heavily on a walking stick. They pause just inside the door. Xanthippe pushes past Ureanea, leaving her standing alone behind the store counter, and hurries over to the two priestesses.Xanthippe: Your reverences, I am honoured to welcome you to my shop. How may I serve you?
Xanthippe bows to the two priestesses, as do the other women.
Cybele: We are come to buy honey cakes, as offerings to the gods we serve.
Diotima: Half-brothers they are, but poles apart.
The two priestesses smile at each other.Agatha: Yet it is wise to pay each his due.
Ureanea: That is well said, Lady Agatha.
Xanthippe: I will get your cakes, then, reverend ladies.
Xanthippe returns to her post behind the counter and produces a tray of honey-cakes from a shelf. Ureanea makes way for her and goes to stand next to Theatetus. Cybele walks over to confront Pandemos, who is still standing next to the shop counter, next to Agatha. Diotima remains near the doorway, leaning on her walking stick, observing.Cybele: What is your business here, Pandemos?
Pandemos: I have come to buy bread, holy Cybele.
Diotima: Not to sow discord, then?
Pandemos: I don’t know what you mean!
Alcibiades: Be careful how you answer Diotima, Mother! The priestess of Dionysus is a seer.
Pandemos shows Cybele the contents of her shopping bag.Pandemos: See then: here are the buns I have bought.
Cybele disdains to look into the bag.
Cybele: They look well enough.
Diotima: But they are an appearance – not the truth.
There is an awkward pause. The two priestesses stand patiently, like statues. The three boys look at each other. Xanthippe picks up a honey cake and then puts it down again. Pandemos pretends to re-arrange the contents of her shopping bag. Agatha wrings her hands. Ureanea looks around at everyone else in turn and then speaks.Ureanea: Socrates has been arrested. There it is: that’s what we’ve been talking about!
Cybele: Truly? That gentle man? What is he accused of?
Phaedo: The Democrats say that he’s been stuffing our heads with nonsense and leading us astray...
Theaetetus: But it seems to me that he’s only been removing cobwebs from our minds.
Alcibiades: And filling our hearts with visions!
Phaedo: How can it be bad to caution those who think they know it all? How can it be bad to teach that one should care about justice more than expediency? How can it be bad to encourage people to be friendly and kind and to cooperate for the good of all? How can it be bad to say that beauty and love and truth are what matter; not money and fame and power? All that Socrates says is from the heart. If only our politicians listened to him we would be governed much better.
Agatha: I agree, Phaedo: but what’s right does not always win the argument. Often it’s a question of power. “Might is right,” as that dreadful saying goes, The Democrats will say whatever gets them votes – and justice be damned! Their power-base is discontent among the general public, so they’re hardly in favour of promoting common cause between the Artisans and Aristocrats! As for beauty, truth and friendship – they have little time for such ideals!
Xanthippe: I think you are right, Lady. Socrates is doomed – and it’s all his own fault!
Diotima stomps her walking stick on the floor.Diotima: Peace woman! Have you no sense of decency? Your husband is a true devotee of Dionysus and you should not speak so harshly of him. He has learned from me the ways of love. He has glimpsed the beauty of the god, and now is infatuated with wisdom. His vision is no longer limited to the things of this poor world, and you’d do well to learn what he has to teach you in the little time you have left.
Xanthippe makes to interject and disagree, but Diotima shakes a finger at her. Xanthippe looks increasingly annoyed and unhappy.Diotima: Rather than rushing about baking buns and cakes and pies (which do no-one any real good, but only make greedy folk fat) you should sit at his feet and nourish your soul with the words of love which he has for any-one who cares to listen. Truly, he is mad, just as his detractors say; but his madness is the grace of Dionysus, and his wild enthusiasm is more moderate and sound than the tame solidity of thought of those who claim to be sane.
Theaetetus hurries over to stand before Diotima and then says:Theaetetus: I think you speak truly, holy one. When I listen to Socrates, my heart soars as if on wings. He shows me things that I seem to have always known but had somehow forgotten. He brings me to my senses, while teasing and mocking me. If he’s mad, then I would share in his precious madness – if only I were worthy!
Diotima takes Theaetetus’ hand and smiles.Diotima: Worthiness in these matters lies within the heart, young man; true beauty is of the soul, not the body. Learn to fly as he is teaching you – seek out your true business in life and then pursue it with integrity and with passion – and you will prove yourself worthy, and he will be proud of you. Only remember to honour the god who has gifted you the sight.
Theaetetus: I will do my best to follow your advice, most revered Diotima.
Ureanea: That’s all well and good, Theao’, but remember to honour your Father too!
Alcibiades: But what has all this got to do with Socrates’ predicament? He’s holed-up in a clammy prison cell just now. Shouldn’t we be concerned to bail him and get him a good lawyer? I for one don’t want to see him rot in jail, still less be told to drink the hemlock! He may be annoying, and impossible to live with – as you say, Xanthippe – but my life wouldn’t be worth living without him. He has made me question all that I thought certain and opened up possibilities for me that I would never have imagined.
Cybele: Just be careful, young man, what paths you tread – not all possibilities are good ones – and beware of love that turns to hate. Ambition ruins many a soul of noble birth. Only those who are pure of heart and clear of thought can quaff the intoxicating brew my sister-seer pours out. Are you sure you can stomach the drink which you so eagerly gulp down?
Alcibiades is taken aback and seems somewhat crestfallen. He frowns.Agatha: Even so, Alcibiades is right. I will go and stand bail for Socrates. It’s the least I can do.
Xanthippe: Thank you, my Lady: and please try and talk some sense into him.
Agatha leave the stage. Cybele turns her back on Xanthippe and addresses the others.
Cybele: Well, we have heard the case. On the one hand, Socrates is a demagogue, stirring up dissent and fomenting disrespect for parents, teachers and politicians; on the other hand, he is himself a wise and kind teacher who inspires devotion and loyalty. My sister speaks well of him, which counts for much; but it is the mind which must pass judgement, though urged on by the heart. The law court is governed by Apollo, not Dionysus; so Socrates is answerable in my domain. How then, do you account him: will he be found innocent or guilty?
Cybele steps back beside Diotima and Theaetetus. Xanthippe appears shamefaced. Pandemos stands next to the shop counter, near Xanthippe. Pandemos looks annoyed. Ureanea looks nervous. She is standing next to Alcibiades and Phaedo. Phaedo looks eager, Theaetetus thoughtful, Alcibiades conflicted. Theaetetus steps forward.Theaetetus: My mind tells me that Socrates speaks the truth. That he disrespects no-one; but that he respects the truth more than any man. The Democrats are wrong to accuse him of undermining the social order. Society must be based on friendship – and friends are not afraid to correct each other. Only those who have no regard for the truth, but only political expediency, need fear his tongue. His soul is pure and his wisdom an asset to the State, not a liability. Far from leading us astray, Socrates has shown the young people of Athens a vision of a future world where justice and peace might flourish together.
Theaetetus moves to stand alongside Diotima. Phaedo steps forward.Phaedo: My heart tells me that there is no malice in him. If he has offended any one it is because they chose to take offence. All that Socrates ever does is show people what is wrong, so that they can chose to pursue what is right. How can such a man be guilty of any crime? I will stand by him until his last day. Even if he is condemned I will not leave his side; for he has shown me the way that my life must be lived as a man, and I will not allow that he is wicked.
Phaedo walks over to stand next to Diotima. Alcibiades steps forward.Alcibiades: If truth be told, I admire the man; but his words confuse me. His soul is glorious, enraptured by the god he serves; but he has no time for such as us. I’m afraid his vision is too penetrating for this world, his judgements too harsh and uncompromising, his passion insatiable by any earthly fruit. His accusers are mistaken; but they will have his life, for they cannot live in peace with him. No society is big enough to contain them together. Politics is the art of the possible, we’re told – and Socrates is simply impossible, on any account! Hence, to our shame, he’ll be given the hemlock-bowl and he will surely drain its dregs. Soon he’ll be gone from this world, and its dishonest business of conflict and betrayal will go on a while, as if nothing had happened; but will we be any more able to live without the man than with him? I fear the ruin of our state!
Phaedo starts to cry and Thaeatus tries to comfort him. Alcibiades moves back to the opposite side of the stage from Phaedo, and stands next to Ureanea. Pandemos moves to join them. Alcibiades looks down at his feet, in shame. Cybele steps forward to centre stage. She addresses the audience directly.Cybele: The die it seems is cast, and sordid fate approaches fast. May this foul deed, when it’s soon past, not pursue us to our varied dooms as the wisest man, who above us looms, takes of his breaths the last.