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SECTION 3: ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

Chapter 9: Aristophanes



I. Aristophanes' Life and Work

Whether he deserved it or not, Aristophanes has emerged as the only exponent of Old Comedy whose works survive intact. Out of a corpus of forty or more, eleven of his comedies have survived through a manuscript tradition. Equally important, these plays date from 425 to 388 BCE, constituting a sampling of all major phases of his playwriting career. Though time-bound in their subject, his dramas are still widely produced because their themes clearly have a timeless quality.

A. Aristophanes' Life and Career

Aristophanes was born into a good Athenian family probably at some point during the 450's BCE and died around 386 BCE. Thus, at a relatively young age he began to flourish—comic genius of the sort he shares with Menander, Shakespeare, Molière, and Wilde tends to flower early—but unlike so many others of his ilk whose brilliance all too often fizzles out early, his light burned bright until late in life. Such a prolonged career requires dramatic transformations of a playwright, as the world changes around him, and Aristophanes, as few others have, reinvented himself several times through his career.

The most significant transition he undertook came after the Peloponnesian War when comedy could no longer directly satirize celebrities or politicians and the Athenians stopped investing large sums on ludicrously elaborate choruses. Aristophanes, by then in his fifties, abandoned the complex choral songs which had been a hallmark of his style up until then and, even more of a surprise, generalized the subjects of his abuse, even though he had attacked individuals throughout his early career, even constructing whole comedies around the foibles of one well-known personality. The reason he made so great a change as this is clear: he loved the theatre and, by forcing himself to evolve in ways he, no doubt, would rather not have, he not only maintained his presence on the Athenian stage but also showed the way for a new type of comic drama, the New Comedy which would dominate Greek theatre in the next age and for which he was the sire, if not the parent who raised its greatest exponents.

B. The Nature and Significance of Aristophanes' Comedy

As far as some are concerned today, Aristophanes' plays—and indeed Old Comedy in general—seem to present a startling paradox, where exquisitely beautiful choral odes mingle happily with startlingly earthy jests about sex and other bodily functions. To wit, many in Victorian England were fascinated with Aristophanes' gift for lyric poetry, his wit and sagacity, but at the same time his scatological humor appalled them, so much so their texts of Aristophanes edit out many passages in his plays. While few today are so squeamish about off-color jokes, even modern audiences are sometimes left breathless by Aristophanes' explicit references to eros and digestion (note).

Because Aristophanes mentions many political figures and attitudes popular in his day, later ages valued him as a source of historical information as much as a humorist and dramatist. That, along with his use of interesting idioms and jargon peculiar to the Classical Age, comprises, no doubt, the main reason so many of Aristophanes' plays have survived to our time, when more respected—and respectable—playwrights, such as Sophocles, are less well attested in the tradition of western literature. As witness to the sort of interest he attracted in later ages, there still exist scholia for his plays, that is, notes written in later antiquity by scholiasts, researchers who worked on the texts of ancient literature. Scholiastic commentaries on Aristophanes were composed to explain his plays to ancient readers who, living after Aristophanes' day, would not have understood his political references or other comments on current events in his day any more than readers untrained in classical history would today.

Thus, for theatre historians the scholia are immeasurably valuable because they include data about the production of ancient plays, such as the dates, festivals, and actors of a play's premiere. What is more, the Aristophanes scholia situate all his surviving plays in specific years, so we can follow his career better than that of any other ancient Greek playwright (note). As a result, Aristophanes' plays have come to be important not just to theatre historians, but to all ancient historians because, for instance, his awareness or ignorance of a certain event in a play written in a specific year can be crucial in determining the chronology of important events during his lifetime. Next to Thucydides, the great historian of the Classical Age, Aristophanes is the best contemporary source we have for Athenian history in the later fifth century BCE, the period of the Peloponnesian War.

In regard to Aristophanes' drama itself, much less is certain. It is impossible, for instance, to say with certainty whether or not Aristophanes' plays were ever restaged, either during his lifetime or in the post-Classical Age, after their first production at the Dionysia or Lenaea. While their topicality argues against their long-term viability in the ancient theatre—political jokes tend to lose currency very quickly—other evidence suggests certain plays may have been revived in performance or were at least circulated in published form (note).

But cultural immediacy is not the only issue at hand here—nor is it necessarily the most compelling either—the themes of Aristophanes' plays, such as the power of sex, modern art, and the corruption of the legal system, give his plays universal appeal now and so why not then, too? It is hard to believe these masterpieces of comic fantasy did not find eager viewers in post-classical antiquity, as they do so often today, theatre-goers to whom they appealed long after the immediate society and time for which they were written had passed. Too bad there's no unequivocal evidence to that effect.

One modern scholar has, however, recently suggested that a series of vases from southern Italy, which were once construed as evidence of early native comedy on the Italian peninsula, are, in fact, representations of Aristophanic drama and other Old Comedies. He suggests they were exported from Athens to the Greek-speaking population living south of Rome in the fourth century BCE, which is not an unreasonable supposition but it would be nice to have more data underlying a thesis of such weight (note). All in all, these vases constitute far from overwhelming evidence that Aristophanes' drama did, in fact, reach a wider range of viewers than his Athenian contemporaries, and if they did, it would be little surprise to anyone who's seen Aristophanes on stage.


II. Aristophanes' Early Plays (427-421 BCE)

A. Aristophanes' First Two Plays (427-426 BCE)

1. The Banqueters

Given all this, we can trace the history of Aristophanes' evolution as a comic poet as we can no other dramatist from the Classical Age. This applies not only to those plays surviving but also ones now lost. For example, Aristophanes wrote The Banqueters (427 BCE), his first play—by contrast, we don't know the titles of the first plays produced by any of the tragedians in the Classical Age!—when he was still too young to produce at the Dionysia under his own name. So one Callistratus, an otherwise unknown older associate of Aristophanes, produced the play, though it is clear the public knew who the real author was and accepted the ruse because in the parabasis of a later play (The Clouds) Aristophanes says:

I still remember that glorious day when the judges—men of extraordinary taste and discrimination, it is a joy to speak—awarded the first prize to my youthful comedy, The Banqueters. Now at that time, gentlemen, my Muse was the merest slip of a girl, a tender virgin who could not—without outraging all propriety—give birth. So I exposed her child, her maiden effort, and a stranger rescued the foundling.

That he also won first prize with his first venture in comedy is a notable achievement, bespeaking Aristophanes' native talent for comic drama. The teen-pregnancy joke, however, is less notable except that it hints at many a Greek comedy to come.

The Banqueters is telling in other ways. For instance, its name is, in fact, a good way for a young Athenian playwright to begin his career since, at least to judge from komoidia ("party-song"), banqueting had deep roots in Greek comedy. The surviving fragments of The Banqueters show that it featured a chorus of feasters, as well as an agon between a good and a profligate young man which looks ahead to The Clouds where Just and Unjust Reason dispute, with the soul of a young man at stake. From a play that is both forward-looking and steeped in the tradition of Greek comedy, it seems safe to conclude that the young Aristophanes had a clear understanding of the history of the genre upon which he was embarking.

2. The Babylonians

The next year (426 BCE) Aristophanes competed at the Dionysia again with another comedy, The Babylonians. Like The Banqueters, this play is no longer extant, and unfortunately we know relatively little about it other than that it featured the god Dionysus as a character. About its reception, however, we are much better informed since we are told Aristophanes in The Babylonians viciously satirized current politicians, particularly the reigning demagogue Cleon. In retaliation for criticizing him in front of Athenians and foreigners alike—recall that important foreigners attended the Dionysia—Cleon prosecuted Aristophanes on the charge of unpatriotic behavior. In the course of this law suit, he also attacked the good name of Aristophanes' family and thus Aristophanes' right to produce plays at all, a competition in those days restricted to native Athenians.

We do not know the outcome of the case, but apparently Cleon's charge did not hold up in court since Aristophanes was able to stage comedies every year henceforth, until at least 421 BCE, at either the Dionysia or Lenaea. The only perceptible impact of Cleon's case was that in the following year (425 BCE) Aristophanes' next comedy, The Acharnians, was presented not at the Dionysia but the Lenaea, a festival where foreigners were not in attendance. So, Cleon seems to have won at least a partial victory inasmuch as he restricted Aristophanes' vicious satire of him to an Athenians-only audience, which was probably what the demagogue really wanted anyway.

B. Aristophanes' Surviving Plays from 425-421 BCE

1. The Acharnians

The Acharnians, the earliest surviving play by Aristophanes, features a hero who is an average man fancifully named Dicaeopolis ("Just-City"). In the course of the play, this prototypical comic commoner, tired of the ravages of war, makes a separate, personal peace treaty with the Spartans. The plot of this comedy is unnoteworthy except that it ends in a riotous, licentious revel evidently intended to induce the Athenians into signing a treaty with the Spartans by reminding them of all the sensual pleasures concomitant with peace.

This play cannot have pleased Cleon any more than The Babylonians. It includes several jabs at the demagogue who generally advocated that the Athenians maintain an aggressive posture against the Spartans in the war. In spite of any displeasure Cleon may have felt or expressed, Aristophanes' play won its playwright another first prize, though this time at the Lenaea, the less illustrious of the dramatic festivals. Still, the young Aristophanes was already a two-time winner in just his first three outings—perhaps even a three-time winner since there's no record about how The Babylonians fared—whatever the count, it's an impressive record for a new-comer.

2. The Knights

By the next year (424 BCE) Cleon had reached the height of his political power and influence, in large part because he had managed to capture and imprison a number of important Spartans, a serious and demoralizing blow to the Athenians' enemies. Given the height of his political power and his personal outrage at the young playwright's taunts, one might have expected Aristophanes to let up the barrage of comic barbs he aimed at the demagogue. But that would be to underestimate several factors at hand: the force of Aristophanes' genius, his youth, his idealism and the innate liberality of Athenian democracy.

Contrary to common sense, then, Aristophanes in 424 BCE produced The Knights, his most stinging attack yet on Cleon, though the play was again restricted to the Lenaea. And while the young dramatist may have been bold enough to make a third direct assault on the reigning leader of Athens, others apparently were not. For one, the producer Callistratus refused to work with Aristophanes this time, as he had before on The Banqueters. Fortunately, the playwright was now old enough to stage a play under his own name but then several actors also panicked and left the show. None, it seems, had the audacity to ridicule the powerful Cleon so blatantly.

That left Aristophanes with little choice but to perform in his own play—a thing unheard of in Greek drama since the days of Aeschylus!—and take the role of the comic villain who, though not named Cleon as such, was a thinly disguised caricature of the politician called "the Paphlagonian" (note). Finally, to make matters even worse, mask-makers refused to create a comic likeness of Cleon so Aristophanes had to play the part without a mask. In brash contempt of his peers in theatre and the compulsion of political correctness, Aristophanes went on stage, his face smeared with wine lees to make it resemble his vision of the purple, bloated cheeks of the hot-tempered rabble-rouser, a bold challenge to Cleon to sue him a second time.

Unlike so much political satire, The Knights is actually very clever, funny even today. It's also anything but subtle. The Paphlagonian is the servant of another character called Demos ("People"), a collective representation of the Athenians as a crude, fat, boorish, self-indulgent, superstitious, weak-minded, rich householder. This dissolute and easily distracted moron has had a series of fawning servants, the latest of whom is the "wily" Paphlagonian. But of all Demos' scoundrelly servants the Paphlagonian outdoes the lot, especially in lying, cheating and pilfering. Through fawning and obsequious behavior he has won Demos' heart, but to the servants under him the Paphlagonian is surly and insolent.

In the course of the play, these inferiors turn on the Paphlagonian and urge another man, a lowly sausage-seller, to try to win Demos' heart from the newcomer. The sausage-seller and the Paphlagonian hold a contest to see who can out-flatter, out-boast and out-cater-to-the-baser-tastes-of Demos. As this is a comedy, naturally the sausage-seller wins by out-Cleoning the Paphlagonian. Concluding, then, with the suggestion that a hotdog vendor would make a better leader of Athens than the current powers that be, the play ends happily as the Paphlagonian is ousted from Demos' house, a blunt parable for removing Cleon from power.

And from this Aristophanes once again won first prize, his third—perhaps his fourth—at such a young age. Of course, as Aristotle notes, people tend not to take comedy seriously, so nothing came of Aristophanes' ridiculous but earnest attempt to make the Athenians see Cleon for the dangerous demagogue he really was. In fact, Cleon solidified his control all the more over the Athenians after 424 BCE. Nor is there any record that he prosecuted Aristophanes for writing The Knights. Perhaps he had learned what many public figures eventually come to recognize: all publicity, good or bad, is good.

3. The Clouds

In 423 BCE, Aristophanes finally turned from politics and Cleon-bashing to a very different tack on life in the day and won himself a slot in the Dionysia for the first time in several years. In The Clouds he attacked philosophy and the sophists who had by then been challenging the Athenians' traditional modes of thinking for some time. Rather unfairly, he made the native-born Athenian philosopher Socrates the target of his comic onslaught, setting him up as the champion of the crack-pot ideas that were circulating among the intellectual avant-garde at the time and threatening to undermine the moral order of Athens and corrupt its youth.

While Aristophanes must have known that Socrates was not one of the sophists responsible for the crimes he accuses him of—men like Protagoras, a veritable sophist who did indeed advocate the sort of relativism that claimed good and bad are negotiable values, would have been far fairer prey—to look at the situation from the perspective of a comic poet shows clearly the reasons Socrates was chosen for abuse. For one thing, Protagoras and many of his ilk were foreigners, whereas Socrates was a well-known, local figure who was clearly associated with the sophists, even if he professed not to agree with them.

For another—and this is much more important for a comic poet and social satirist like Aristophanes than any actual principle of philosophy—Socrates was not what anyone would call handsome, which made him a ready target for physical comedy. An anecdote handed down to us from antiquity claims that, when the actor playing Socrates in The Clouds first entered the stage wearing a mask that had been specially made to resemble the philosopher's infamous face, Socrates was in the audience and stood up so the audience could have a better chance to compare the mask with the real thing. Whatever his reason—perhaps a tribute to the mask-maker, perhaps a way of saying, "I'll go along with your joke, Aristophanes!," or perhaps a recognition like Cleon's that all publicity is inherently good—Socrates' action is typical of the good-humored, powerfully intelligent "father of Western philosophy."

The plot of The Clouds revolves around a father named Strepsiades ("Twister") who wants his son to be educated in the latest fashion, so that the boy can win lawsuits for their family and make them all rich. So Strepsiades enrolls his son in a fictitious school run by Socrates, the imaginatively monickered Phontisterion ("The Thought-ery" or "The Thought-Factory"). The rest of the play progresses through a series of jokes at Socrates' and the sophists' expense, all of which are quite humorous but, like the political jokes in The Knights, often independent of plot development. In the end, the boy is trained in all sorts of subtle verbal gimmickry, so that he can argue in favor of any case he wants, be it just or not. And what he ultimately argues for is a son's fundamental right to beat his father. At the end of the play he puts theory into action, but when he proceeds to threaten his mother with a beating, too, the battered and indignant Strepsiades burns down the Phontisterion.

Needless to say, such an ending would have pushed the technical limits of the ancient Greek theatre to the edge and beyond. It makes sense, then, as the scholia note, that this version of the ending of The Clouds, the one which had been handed down to us in our manuscripts of the play, is a later revision and not the one originally performed on stage in 423 BCE. This says two important things about classical drama. First, a fifth-century comic playwright could revise his work after its premiere, which begs the question of why and for whom—a reading public? a subsequent production? and if so, where and when?—at the same time, however, this evidence hints at the wider distribution of Greek drama in the day, offering the tantalizing possibility that plays were not just seen but also read as early as the Classical Age.

Second, the revised ending accords well with another bit of information we know about The Clouds, that this comedy was a "flop," as far as we know, Aristophanes' first ever. Not only did it fail to win the Dionysia that year, but it was given the last prize. As it turns out, one important factor in this play's failure had nothing to do with the work itself but was simply an unfortunate coincidence of timing. At the same festival, Aristophanes' older rival Cratinus produced what would prove to be his last great comic masterpiece, Pytine ("The Flask") (note).

Still, the loss must have stung Aristophanes badly—first wounds always hurt the most!—so it is also possible to conclude that years later, with this ignominious fiasco still sticking in his craw, he revised The Clouds, even when there was no clear opportunity of restaging it. It was his way to closing the wound inflicted by his first significant failure on the stage, all of which means we must proceed with some caution when looking to The Clouds for indications about the performance of plays outside of the Dionysia and Lenaea during the Classical Age. It may not represent in every detail a script designed to be staged, even if it comes from the hand of Western Civilization's most productive and produced playwrights.

4. The Wasps

[Click here to see a review of a recent production of The Wasps.]

In the following year (422 BCE) Aristophanes returned both to the Lenaea, where he had already had two successes, and to the comic turf where he had been most successful, the political arena. He produced a comedy called The Wasps, a satire of the Athenian jury system. This play features an old man who, since his son has become head of the house, has had much free time on his hands. This old man named Philocleon ("Love Cleon") has of late been spending his many leisure hours in court serving as a juror, becoming virtually addicted to trials. As a consequence, his son named Bdelycleon ("Fart Cleon") fears that the old man and his senile cronies will ruin Athens by constantly voting according to their geriatric right-wing reactionary inclinations—read: Cleon's political agenda—so Bdelycleon has locked his father Philocleon in their house to prevent him from going to court and perpetuating Cleon's hate-mongering, hawkish policies.

In the first scenes of the play, Philocleon tries to escape but is stopped by Bdelycleon, who finally convinces the old man to stay home by staging a do-it-yourself, home-style trial. To understand the main joke of this play, it is crucial to understand current political events in Athens. An Athenian general named Laches had recently been put on trial for embezzling tribute monies he was supposed to be bringing home to Athens from Sicily. In court, Laches' lawyers had pleaded that life at the front was terribly difficult and he needed the money to support his family while he was away. They went so far as to bring Laches' family into court where they wept and wailed in the background, begging for mercy. To the horror of many, Laches won acquittal through these cheap courtroom antics.

In The Wasps, the case which Bdelycleon stages at home in order to entertain and distract his father is a spoof of Laches' trial. A household dog named Labes ("Grabber") is charged with stealing a big piece of Sicilian cheese. Philocleon serves as the jury and behaves like a typical Athenian juryman, complaining about things, making rude interjections and falling asleep.

Playing the lawyer for the cheese-thieving cur, Bdelycleon pleads that his client leads a hard life protecting his master's flock and keeping his master's sheep in line all day—sheep is surely an insulting reference to the Delian League, the member nations of the empire the Athenians had built after the Persian Wars —and the poor dog does not get to enjoy the usual canine pleasures of sleeping at home all day. Labes' mate and her litter suffer from his absence, and on cue the bitch and her pups stand up in court and bay pitifully, going "How! How!" which is how ancient Athenian dogs said "bow-wow." In the end, although Philocleon is reluctant to acquit the obviously guilty hound, Bdelycleon tricks his father into putting his vote in the wrong jar, and in the end the dog goes free.

While it constitutes one of Aristophanes' best and most original plots, The Wasps won him only a second place. For some reason, his charm was beginning to wear off with the public. "Well," Aristophanes must have thought, "at least it didn't come in last place like The Clouds. But what's wrong with these people? Why can't they accept genius when they see it. I'll tell you what it is. It's this pointless war, that's what's really to blame. It just keeps dragging on and on. I mean, how do they expect us to make people laugh with all this fighting going on? Somebody should stop this stupid . . . Wait a second! That gives me a new idea!"

5. Peace

But he didn't need a new idea, because in 421 BCE things began to change dramatically. For one, Cleon was suddenly removed from the scene, killed in battle, and the war-party, now beheaded, lost its death-grip on the Athenians. Peace rose unexpectedly on the horizon, and in that spirit Aristophanes produced at the Dionysia a comedy appropriately entitled The Peace.

It featured Trygaeus, another commoner-hero much like Dicaeopolis in The Acharnians, who seeks peace with Sparta. Like Dicaeopolis, too, this "average man" is fed up with war and wants to go to Zeus himself and plead for an end to the insane conflict. But the gods live in the sky where normal mortals cannot go. So, to reach their abode, Trygaeus has devised an ingenious plan. He has raised a gigantic dung-beetle on whose back he plans to ride all the way to heaven. But to make it large enough to carry a human aloft, he has had to force-feed it with . . . what dung-beetles like to eat. For Trygaeus' kitchen staff, one can hardly imagine a more unpleasant task.

And so the play opens, with Trygaeus' servants running back and forth between the kitchen and the dung-beetle's stall carrying food items cooked up to tempt the gigantic insect's appetite. Aristophanes takes the opportunity to wallow in the absurdity of the situation he has created by indulging in a series of crude but uproariously funny scatological cooking-jokes. The servants, for instance, dash in and out with courses designed to titillate the behemoth bug's appetite and the audience's baser tastes: "shit-cakes," "shitrolls in asses' dung," "shit-overs," "shit-in-a-blanket," and for dessert, not Twinkies but "Stinkies." As the audience is about to succumb to mal-de-merde, Trygaeus himself appears riding the giant dung-beetle to heaven on the mechane (note). After encouraging his fellow mortals not to do anything to attract the dung beetle back to earth, Trygaeus finally arrives in heaven, rescues the goddess Peace and brings her down to earth for the collective good of all humankind.

The play, however, brought home only second prize, the second of Aristophanes' career. More important, however, this joyous, if not gold-medal finale also brings to an end a string of surviving Aristophanes comedies dating from 425-421 BCE, all securely dated via scholia which provide unprecedented data about their times, their author and the history of ancient comedy. This depth of detail is unparalleled in ancient theatre history, except perhaps for the Roman playwright Terence's plays more than two centuries later.

III. Aristophanes' Later Plays (after 421 BCE)

Though The Peace garnered only a second prize for Aristophanes, it was a significant play for him in at least one other respect. In it he experimented with a comic device, ridiculing Euripides, which would serve him well in several future plays. Though The Peace was not the first time Aristophanes had bashed the renegade tragedian—as early as The Acharnians he had mocked Euripides' tendency to dress his heroes in rags—by 421 BCE he was clearly coming to see the general utility and applicability of this strategem. He later built two of his best comedies, The Frogs and Thesmophoriazusae, by playing the anti-tragedy card. Indeed, now that Cleon was out of the picture, grand-mal Euripidomania seized Aristophanes' drama, attesting not only to its author's fascination with the bad boy of tragedy but also the burgeoning popularity of Euripides' plays in the waning days of the Classical Age (note).

1. Thesmophoriazusae

Little wonder, then, that in 411 BCE Aristophanes wrote Thesmophoriazusae ("The Women at the Festival of Demeter") in which Euripides appears as a central character. The preposterous premise of this uproariously funny play is that Euripides, well-known for his psychotic female characters—which include but are not limited to murderesses, witches, liars, adulteresses, and incestuous sluts—has heard that the women of Athens are tired of his slanders and plan to get revenge on the seemingly misogynistic playwright. After all, who could question why women are so angry with Euripides, since he constantly shows them doing all sorts of nefarious and unnatural things? As it turns out, however, that is not the problem the women in Aristophanes' play have with Euripides.

In general, the female characters in this comedy admit freely that they do nefarious and unnatural things, just like Euripides says. Their problem is that their husbands, who have by now been attending Euripidean drama regularly for decades, have started to clue into women's hidden nature and, as a result, have become suspicious of their wives. Euripides has revealed to them how women have affairs behind their husbands' backs and sneak wine on the side—none of this do the women in Aristophanes deny among themselves—but now men know it, too, and that has made it much more difficult to maintain their traditional level of debauchery. The women of Athens feel they have to shut Euripides down or risk never getting away with any crimes again. So they decide to use their annual meeting at the Thesmophoria, a sacred, females-only festival, to plan revenge.

But Euripides is the master plotter and quickly discovers their intention. He convinces Mnesilochus, an older male relative of his, to sneak inside the women's rites so he can learn what the women are planning to do. But first he needs to dress him appropriately, so Euripides and Mnesilochus go to the house of Agathon, a notorious cross-dresser—and, of course, a famous tragic playwright—who lets them borrow a frock. As it turns out, he has plenty to spare.

Mnesilochus, then, goes into the women's meeting and, though "she" watches quietly at first, cannot help "herself" when the women start into Euripides. La femme Mnesilochus takes the floor and defends him by noting that "she", as a woman and moreover a mother of nine, has done all sorts of sordid things, many of which Euripides has not yet mentioned in his tragedies. The women do not like that.

A heated debate ensues, interrupted finally by an excited messenger who reports that Euripides has sent a spy into their midst. After an extensive search for the intruder, the women "uncover" Mnesilochus, who, like all male characters in Old Comedy, is wearing a phallus. While "she" tries desperately to hide her phallus by squeezing it between her legs, the women detect it—and him!—and thereby uncover Euripides' latest plot.

Greek vase depicting Telephus at the altar holding the baby Orestes (click to see larger image)Identified now as the spy, Mnesilochus grabs one of the women's babies and runs in a panic up to the altar. Desperate for his life, he threatens to kill the baby, if the women try to hurt him, a spoof of a famous—or, better, infamous—play, Euripides' Telephus. In this tragedy the title character seizes the baby Orestes from Clytemnestra's arms and threatens to kill it if Agamemnon and the Greeks will not listen to him.

Greek vase depicting a scene from Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae (click to see larger image)As Mnesilochus holds the baby aloft, he yanks the diaper off the baby and discovers that it is not a baby at all, but a wineskin that its "mother" had sneaked into the assembly for the party afterward. She has even put little booties on it to make it look like a baby. Thinking he is in serious trouble now, Mnesilochus soon discovers that sometimes you don't need a baby at all, only a bottle, since the women are much more upset that he has their wine than they would have been if he had taken an actual baby from them.

Trapped at the altar with his hostage wineskin, Mnesilochus starts screaming to Euripides for help. Then he gets a bright idea. He decides to send out a board with a message scratched on it that says he needs to be rescued, a spoof of another Euripides tragedy, Palamedes. It works. Euripides arrives to save him, using a ploy from his own Helen, a tragedy produced just the year before, and dressed as the soggy, shipwrecked Menelaus, in answer to which Mnesilochus plays Helen. They nearly escape, except a guard arrives and prevents Mnesilochus' departure by tying him up. Euripides slips out promising to return.

Bound as he is to the skene building, Mnesilochus decides to try a different trick from another recent Euripides hit, Andromeda, probably part of the same trilogy as Helen. In this play, the hapless Andromeda is chained to a rock near the ocean where a gigantic sea-monster is about to come and eat her, but at the last moment the hero Perseus flies in on his winged sandals—the mechane, of course—kills the monster and rescues her. So, Mnesilochus begins singing a spoof of Andromeda's lament, and right on cue Euripides arrives, flying through the air on "winged sandals." There is much commotion as "Euri-pers-ides" attempts to land and "slay" the guard, but in this play the sea-monster wins the battle and eventually chases the playwright away.

Having failed to deceive his foes in typical Euripidean fashion, Aristophanes' comic tragedian is finally forced to abandon his post-modern ways and use a conventional, tried-and-true trick to help his hapless accomplice escape. He walks on stage—as opposed to swimming or flying, that is—accompanied by a beautiful dancing-girl who distracts the guard while the old man in drag runs off. The play resolves when Euripides appeases the women by promising not to tell their husbands, when the men return from war, all the secret things they have been doing. The women can hardly pass up a deal like that and the play ends on a note of concord and reconciliation.

2. Lysistrata

In the same year Thesmophoriazusae was staged (411 BCE), Aristophanes also produced Lysistrata, another comic masterpiece and his most popular stage piece today. This play begins with the women of Greece holding another meeting in secret. While the men are assembling to debate the war, the women do the same. Led by a sort of proto-feminist named Lysistrata ("Shredda Garrison") who has convened and now chairs the assembly, the women of Greece, including representatives from not just Athens but also Corinth, Thebes and Sparta, seek their own way to end the war, a welcome opportunity for Aristophanes to ridicule all Greek cities equally.

Lysistrata points out to her female congress that the war does nothing but evil to everyone on all sides. There is less food, less money, less fun and, worst of all, less sex, since the men are gone to war all the time. The foolishness of men must be stopped, says Lysistrata, and if men themselves or the gods are not going to stop it, the task becomes women's work. "But how can poor, pitiful, weak, little women make big, strong men stop fighting?," asks one of the women. Lysistrata proposes that they use their highest trump card, their only card, in fact: they must all collectively, in one united spirit and body, refuse to go to bed with any man until the fighting stops.

The women immediately begin to disperse, shaking their heads ("It's too big a sacrifice for anyone to make!"). Lysistrata calls them back and begs them to use their heads for once. "Is it so great a sacrifice, for just a while, if we can end the war?" She leans on each one of them individually, and finally one woman—naturally the one from Sparta who is not giving up that much anyway, Aristophanes implies—agrees to abstain from sex in order to end the war. One by one, the other women capitulate reluctantly and swear an oath of chastity before the foreign women return to their cities.

The scene now focuses on Athens, where the women seize the Acropolis to protect themselves from violent assault by frustrated men and because that is where the war reserve of Athens had been stored, a thousand talents of gold set aside for an extreme emergency. As long as the Athenian women hold the Acropolis, the men cannot use the emergency funds to rebuild their navy and resume the fighting, and in time they will find increasing frustration in terms of arms—arms of every kind.

The make-love-not-war plan works well at first, but the sex-strike is as hard on the women as it is on the men, if not harder. Lysistrata finds that she spends as much time keeping the women on the Acropolis as the men off of it. One woman, trying to slip out, says she is only going home to "card her wool"—that is, prepare the wool for spinning into thread—but Lysistrata knows what she really wants to card and sends her back inside the temple.

Another woman comes out, terminally pregnant. She says she has to leave and go home because it is against Athenian religious law for a woman to give birth in the temple. Lysistrata says, "Wait a second! You weren't pregnant yesterday." The woman says, "Well, I am today. It's a miracle!" Lysistrata feels the woman's stomach and says, "It feels big and hard." The woman exclaims, "Bless Athena! It's a boy!" Lifting the woman's dress, Lysistrata retorts, "No, bless Aphrodite! You've stolen the bronze helmet off the statue of Athena, and I know why you want to go home!" And she sends the woman and her brazen contractions back inside the temple.

But the women's woes are nothing compared to the men's suffering. Lysistrata looks down the road that leads up to the Acropolis and sees a lone man coming up the path. Up is the key-word here, as the man, like all men in Aristophanes' comedies, is in an undeniable state of erotic excitation. Lysistrata sounds the alarm that a man is coming to the gates, to which the women respond by flocking up to get an eyeful. One of the women, Myrrhina ("Myrtle"), recognizes the poor tumescent pilgrim as her husband, Cinesias ("Mover").

Their one-on-one confrontation becomes the deciding battle, a spoof of epic and a paradigm for the eternal conflict between men and women. Cinesias begs Myrrhina to come down and see him but she refuses. After much moaning and pleading and finally resorting to desperate tactics—he says their baby needs her and pinches it to make it cry!—he convinces her to come down from the Acropolis and meet him face to face. When she descends, he insists that they do it, even if just it is a quickie. She says she will, if he promises to vote to end the war.

He is clearly ready to promise her anything, and does, if she will just act like a dutiful wife. Next, she asks him where he intends for them to do it. He drags her off to the cave of Pan, just around the corner from the entrance to the Acropolis (note). After taunting her husband over and over with the prospect of sex, she ends up leaving him alone and hard-pressed for relief. Eventually the men capitulate, give up the war, and everyone returns home to the joys of a better sort of combat and congress.

Lysistrata is not only among the most successful comedies to come out of ancient Greece, it is one of best ever written anywhere at any time. Besides its brilliant comic invention, some part of this play's widespread prosperity stems surely from the strong sense of desperation that runs beneath its mirth and humor, the thought that the Peloponnesian War is a pointless exercise in self-destruction. Behind the play's whimsical façade lurks a palpable seriousness that makes Lysistrata all the easier to take seriously, in a way very few comedies do. Clearly, the smiles on the surface of the play mask the furrowed brows and tragic expressions of everyone in the theatre. Furthermore, Aristophanes fits masterfully the timeless conflict of men and women onto the time-bound war between Athens and Sparta, taking a deathless theme and applying it to a specific situation in his Greece. Rarely has an abstract concept ever been made so concrete and vivid in any art form and so easily translated anywhere across time and space with less loss of relevance as Lysistrata, which goes some way toward explaining the enduring triumph of this play.

3. The Frogs

Yet, there exists another masterpiece from Aristophanes' hand, a comedy with a force and brilliance equalling that of Lysistrata, yet another testament to his ability to distill eternal truths from temporal themes. It is his last surviving play before the disastrous end of the Peloponnesian War, and in many ways it is both his crowning triumph and the final masterpiece of the Classical Age, The Frogs (note). Like Lysistrata, a timeless hymn to the human condition, The Frogs focuses not on sex but humanity's other great obsession: death.

By 405 BCE so many Athenians, from generals to peasants, had died in the Peloponnesian War, it must have seemed like there was a huge Athenian party going on in the world of the dead. Seeing little hope of regaining what had been lost, in either material or human resources, Aristophanes set his final masterpiece in Hades, the classical underworld, where the dead (the characters) and the living (the audience) could join together in one last festival. It is a family reunion of sorts for the whole Classical Age, now defunct (note).

In this bittersweet comedy, dead Athenians debate—what else would dead Athenians do?—quibbling over what they've always debated, the debatable merits of the ever-debating Euripides. The Frogs is, in essence, a long and heartfelt hug good-bye to the Classical Age, for all its glories and follies, both of which in oh-so-many ways Euripides embodied best. It was also a chance to get in one last dig at old foes, like Cleon who could realistically be imagined to be wreaking still his own peculiar brand of hell in Hades. So, in an infernal kommos disguised as a komos Aristophanes croaks a final, funereal "party-song" for the past, as the present assemble and watch the dead frolic. It is hard to imagine a play more comic or more tragic than The Frogs.

 

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know

Aristophanes
Scholia/Scholiasts
The Banqueters
The Babylonians

Cleon
The Acharnians
The Knights
The Clouds
Socrates

The Wasps
The Peace
Euripides
Thesmophoriazusae (Thesmophoria)
Lysistrata (Lysistrata)
The Frogs
Dionysus (see Reading 4)
Heracles/Hercules (see Reading 4)

Course Description
Class Grading and Projects
Chapters
Syllabus
Slides
A Guide to Writing in History and Classics

 

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