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Aristophanes (Ἀριστοφάνης) (c. 446 – c. 386 BCE) was an ancient Greek playwright of Old Comedy. He is one of the most important figures in the history of comedy, and his plays are still performed today. However, his work is often overlooked by modern scholars, who tend to focus on the more "serious" playwrights of the Classical period.
This is a shame, because Aristophanes' plays are not only funny, but they are also highly intelligent and thought-provoking. They deal with a wide range of topics, including politics, religion, and philosophy. Aristophanes was a sharp critic of the Athenian government, and his plays often satirized the politicians and generals of his day. He was also a vocal opponent of the Peloponnesian War, and his plays often explored the human cost of conflict.
Aristophanes' plays are not without their flaws. They can be crude and offensive, and they often rely on stereotypes and cheap laughs. However, they are also incredibly quotable, and they contain some of the most memorable lines in all of Greek literature.
A short biography
Aristophanes was born in Athens, Greece, in the mid-5th century BCE. His father, Philippus, was a wealthy landowner and a member of the Athenian elite. Aristophanes received a good education and was well-versed in literature, philosophy, and politics.
Aristophanes began his career as a playwright in the early 420s BCE. His first play, The Banqueters, was a satire of the educational and moral theories of the day. It was a critical and commercial failure, but it did not deter Aristophanes from continuing to write plays.
Over the next two decades, Aristophanes wrote over 40 plays. Of these, only 11 have survived. His most famous plays include The Clouds, The Wasps, The Birds, Lysistrata, and The Frogs.
Aristophanes' plays were highly popular in his own day. They were often performed at the annual Dionysia festival, which was the most important cultural event in Athens. However, Aristophanes' plays were also controversial. They often satirized the politicians and generals of the day, and they sometimes criticized the Athenian government itself. As a result, Aristophanes was fined on several occasions for his plays.
Aristophanes died in Athens in the late 4th century BCE. He is considered one of the greatest comic playwrights of all time. His plays are a valuable source of information about ancient Greek culture and society.
His name literally means in greek: "appearing the best" (From ἄριστος (áristos, “best”) + -φανής (-phanḗs, “seeming, appearing”).
Some of his most important works
Acharnians (425 BCE)
"Acharnians" is an ancient Greek comedy play written by Aristophanes, which was first performed in 425 BCE during the Peloponnesian War. The play is a satire that comments on the political and social issues of the time. Here's a summary of the play:
The play revolves around the character Dikaiopolis, an Athenian citizen from the deme (district) of Acharnae. Dikaiopolis is frustrated with the ongoing Peloponnesian War, which has led to food shortages and hardship for the Athenian citizens. He becomes disillusioned with the political leaders and the warlike policies of Athens and decides to take matters into his own hands to secure peace and prosperity for himself.
Dikaiopolis negotiates a personal peace treaty with the city-state of Sparta, one of Athens' enemies, allowing him to engage in private trade with the Spartans and enjoy their goods. He sets up an open-air market in his own yard, where he conducts business with various characters representing different Greek states.
The play features a series of comedic episodes and interactions as various characters come to Dikaiopolis' market. These characters embody different stereotypes associated with their respective city-states, and Aristophanes uses them to lampoon various aspects of Greek society, politics, and culture. Some of these interactions involve humorous dialogues and absurd situations.
Dikaiopolis' actions draw the ire of Athenian authorities and representatives of other city-states, who are outraged by his private peace treaty and his mockery of their policies. However, Dikaiopolis cleverly defends his actions and mocks their absurdity.
As the play progresses, there is a comedic contest known as the "Megarian Dialogue," where Dikaiopolis and a Megarian (from the city-state of Megara) present their respective cases for why they should be allowed to trade and interact freely. This dialogue highlights the absurdity of political arguments and the lengths people will go to for their own interests.
In the end, the play concludes with a celebratory feast hosted by Dikaiopolis, where he celebrates his personal peace and mocks the folly of war and the political establishment. The play ultimately delivers a message about the detrimental effects of war, the absurdities of political rhetoric, and the desire for individual peace and prosperity amidst larger conflicts.
"Acharnians" is known for its political satire, witty dialogue, and caricatured characters, which make it a quintessential example of Aristophanes' comedic style and his criticism of contemporary Athenian society and politics.
Knight (424 BCE)
"Knights" is another ancient Greek comedy play written by Aristophanes, first performed in 424 BCE. Like many of Aristophanes' works, "Knights" is a satirical play that addresses political and social issues of its time, particularly focusing on the figure of Cleon, a powerful and controversial Athenian politician. Here's a summary of the play:
The play centers around two slaves, Demosthenes and Nicias, who are disgruntled with their master, a wealthy and corrupt sausage-seller named Demosthenes. This character is a thinly veiled caricature of Cleon, a prominent Athenian statesman known for his demagoguery and ruthless tactics.
The slaves hatch a plan to replace their master with another sausage-seller, Agoracritus, who will supposedly be a better ruler for Athens. They believe that Agoracritus, though also a slave, is more suitable because he has some experience with horses, a reference to Cleon's alleged background as a tanner.
The play unfolds with a series of comedic episodes and confrontations. Agoracritus dons the guise of a Paphlagonian oracle, who speaks in absurd and exaggerated language, to manipulate Demosthenes and ultimately seize power. The oracle predicts that a "knight," referring to Agoracritus, will be the savior of Athens and overthrow the corrupt politicians.
The character of Cleon is portrayed as a tyrannical and greedy leader who exploits the Athenian populace for his own gain. The play lampoons his demagogic speeches, his manipulation of the legal system, and his excessive taxation, highlighting the negative aspects of his rule.
The climax of the play involves a chariot race between Demosthenes and Agoracritus, symbolizing the political competition between Cleon and the new "knight." Agoracritus wins the race and humiliates Demosthenes, symbolizing the downfall of Cleon.
The play concludes with Agoracritus assuming leadership and promising to bring about positive changes for Athens, contrasting the supposed virtues of the new leader with the flaws of Cleon. The play ends on a hopeful note, suggesting that the people have the power to overthrow corrupt leaders and bring about positive change.
"Knights" is a biting satire that pokes fun at the political and social climate of ancient Athens, particularly the excesses and abuses of power by figures like Cleon. The play employs comedic elements, exaggerated characters, and witty wordplay to deliver its critical commentary on the political landscape of the time.
Clouds (423 BCE)
"Clouds" is another famous comedy play written by Aristophanes, first performed in 423 BCE. It is a satirical work that criticizes the intellectual and moral trends of Athenian society, particularly targeting the philosophical teachings of Socrates and the Sophists. Here's a summary of the play:
The play follows the character Strepsiades, an Athenian farmer who is deeply in debt due to his son, Pheidippides' extravagant spending habits and love for horse racing. Strepsiades hopes to find a solution to his financial troubles and discovers that the philosopher Socrates runs a "Thinkery" (a school) where he teaches persuasive rhetoric and other unconventional ideas.
Strepsiades enrolls his son Pheidippides in the Thinkery, hoping that he will learn how to argue his way out of paying the family's debts. However, Pheidippides soon becomes influenced by the teachings of Socrates and the Thinkery's "Clouds," which represent abstract and lofty ideas that challenge traditional beliefs.
The play portrays Socrates and the philosophers as eccentric characters who engage in absurd and unconventional practices. They are depicted as spending their time in intellectual pursuits, conducting strange experiments, and arguing over trivial matters. The Clouds themselves represent a sort of intellectual fog that distorts reasoning and encourages sophistry.
As Pheidippides becomes more involved with the Thinkery, he undergoes a transformation in his beliefs and behavior. He starts disrespecting his father, justifying immoral actions, and adopting a skeptical and relativistic view of morality and justice. This change alarms Strepsiades, who becomes increasingly concerned about the negative impact of the Thinkery's teachings on his son.
The climax of the play involves a debate between Strepsiades and Pheidippides over the issue of whether it's acceptable to beat one's parents. Pheidippides argues in favor of beating parents, using the sophistical techniques he learned at the Thinkery. Strepsiades is horrified by his son's newfound beliefs and sees them as a direct consequence of Socratic and sophistic teachings.
In the end, Strepsiades takes matters into his own hands and sets fire to the Thinkery, symbolizing his rejection of its harmful influence on his son and Athenian society. The play concludes with the destruction of the Thinkery and the characters' humorous attempts to put out the fire.
"Clouds" is a critical commentary on the changing intellectual landscape of Athens, where traditional beliefs and values were being challenged by new philosophical ideas. The play satirizes the Sophists' and Socrates' methods of argumentation, the potential dangers of relativism, and the potential negative consequences of pursuing abstract intellectual pursuits at the expense of practical wisdom and moral integrity.
Wasps (422 BCE)
"Wasps" is yet another comedy play by Aristophanes, first performed in 422 BCE. This play continues Aristophanes' tradition of satirizing various aspects of Athenian society and politics. Here's a summary of "Wasps":
The play revolves around the character Philocleon, an elderly Athenian citizen who is obsessed with serving on juries in the Athenian legal system. The term "Wasps" refers to jurors, as they were often depicted as wasps buzzing around the courts, seeking opportunities to serve and receive pay.
Philocleon's son, Bdelycleon, is exasperated by his father's obsession with serving on juries. Bdelycleon believes that Philocleon's fixation is causing harm to their household and reflects the larger societal issue of jurors having too much power and influence. Bdelycleon hatches a plan to cure his father of his addiction to jury duty.
Bdelycleon takes his father to a makeshift courtroom in their home, where he stages a mock trial. In this trial, Philocleon acts as a judge, and various characters, including dogs, present their cases. The humorous and absurd trial serves to expose the irrationality and absurdity of Athenian legal proceedings.
Through this trial, Bdelycleon makes a satirical commentary on the Athenian legal system and its potential for abuse and manipulation. The play highlights the tendency for jurors to be swayed by emotions, rhetoric, and bribes rather than a genuine pursuit of justice.
As the play progresses, Bdelycleon's plan to cure Philocleon involves exposing him to various forms of entertainment and diversion, such as music, dancing, and feasting. Bdelycleon hopes that these activities will distract his father from his obsession with jury duty.
The climax of the play involves a conflict between Philocleon and a group of other "Wasps" who are unhappy with Bdelycleon's attempts to change Philocleon's mindset. The conflict results in a battle of words and comedic physical interactions.
In the end, Philocleon undergoes a transformation and starts to appreciate the joys of a more leisurely and enjoyable life outside the courtroom. The play concludes with a celebratory dance, symbolizing Philocleon's liberation from his obsession.
"Wasps" is a satirical commentary on the Athenian legal system, the power of jurors, and the potential for corruption and irrationality within the judicial process. The play uses humor, exaggerated characters, and witty dialogues to highlight the absurdities and challenges of the Athenian legal system while providing a critique of societal values and norms.
Peace (421 BCE)
"Peace" is a comedy play written by Aristophanes, first performed in 421 BCE. This play is unique in that it focuses on a theme of peace and the desire for an end to the Peloponnesian War, which was ongoing at the time of its performance. Here's a summary of "Peace":
The play begins with the main character, Trygaeus, who is fed up with the ongoing Peloponnesian War and its devastating impact on Athenian society. He decides to take a bold and humorous action: he uses a giant dung beetle (a scarab) to fly to the heavens and meet the goddess Peace, whom he hopes to bring back to Earth.
In the heavens, Trygaeus finds that Peace has been trapped on a high tower due to the warlike activities of various deities who represent war and conflict. Trygaeus engages in comical interactions with these deities, convincing them to abandon their warlike ways and allow Peace to return to Earth.
Trygaeus eventually brings Peace back to Athens, and her presence has an immediate positive impact. The play portrays the joy and celebrations that erupt as a result of her return. The characters rejoice in the newfound abundance, and there is even a humorous wedding celebration involving a farmer and a maiden.
Throughout the play, Aristophanes uses comedic situations, witty dialogue, and imaginative settings to satirize the absurdity and destructive nature of war. The play contrasts the negative consequences of the war with the positive outcomes of peace, emphasizing the benefits of stability, prosperity, and unity.
"Peace" is notable for its optimistic message and its departure from some of Aristophanes' more typical biting political satire. Instead of focusing on individual politicians or specific societal issues, the play addresses the larger context of the Peloponnesian War and its toll on Athenian society. The comedic elements and the imaginative premise make "Peace" a lighthearted commentary on the desire for an end to conflict and the yearning for a better, more peaceful world.
Birds (414 BCE)
"Birds" is a comedic play written by Aristophanes, first performed in 414 BCE. This play is a fantastical and satirical work that revolves around the idea of humans building a utopian city in the sky, inhabited by birds. Here's a summary of "Birds":
The play opens with two main characters, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, who are disenchanted with the state of affairs in Athens and decide to leave the city in search of a better life. They encounter the bird-goddesses Epops (a hoopoe) and Peisetaerus (a hoopoe) who convince them to help establish a new city in the sky, named "Cloudcuckooland."
The humans and the birds collaborate to build Cloudcuckooland, a utopian city located between the earth and the heavens. The birds hope that their new elevated position will enable them to have control over access to the gods and thus achieve power and influence.
As Cloudcuckooland becomes more established, it attracts a variety of characters who seek various forms of advantages and benefits. The play humorously depicts the absurdity of human desires, greed, and ambition as they interact with the fantastical bird society.
The humans and birds then decide to blockade the gods' access to sacrifices and prayers from Earth. The play features comical interactions between the characters and the gods as they negotiate and scheme to regain their influence.
Through the manipulation of communication between the gods and humans, as well as the creation of bizarre laws and customs in Cloudcuckooland, the play highlights the satirical theme of the manipulation of power and the folly of those who seek to control others.
"Birds" is a social and political satire that criticizes human tendencies toward manipulation, corruption, and the pursuit of power. It also pokes fun at the idea of building utopian societies and the absurdities of human behavior. The play's fantastical elements, imaginative world-building, and humorous dialogue make it one of Aristophanes' most creative and whimsical works.
Lysistrata (411 BCE)
"Lysistrata" is one of Aristophanes' most famous comedic plays, written around 411 BCE. The play is known for its bold and humorous exploration of gender relations, sexual politics, and the absurdities of war. Here's a summary of "Lysistrata":
The play is set during the Peloponnesian War, and it centers around the character Lysistrata, an Athenian woman who hatches a plan to end the war by convincing women from both Athens and Sparta to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers until they agree to stop the fighting.
Lysistrata gathers a group of Athenian and Spartan women, who are initially hesitant but eventually agree to her plan. The women take over the Acropolis in Athens, which holds the city's treasury, and barricade themselves inside, preventing their husbands from accessing their money and their sexual companionship.
As a result of the women's refusal to engage in sexual activities, the men become increasingly frustrated and desperate. The play features humorous scenes of men trying to seduce the women and negotiating with them in order to end the "sex strike."
Throughout the play, Aristophanes uses comedic elements to satirize gender stereotypes and societal norms. The women are depicted as strong, determined, and united, while the men are portrayed as foolish, lustful, and easily swayed.
As the situation escalates, an Athenian magistrate tries to intervene and end the women's protest. However, he is ultimately overpowered by the women, who use their wit and clever tactics to outmaneuver him and maintain their stance.
In a climactic scene, the women from both Athens and Sparta convene and engage in a humorous dialogue that highlights the shared desire for peace and the ridiculousness of war. The women eventually succeed in persuading their male counterparts to negotiate a peace settlement.
The play concludes with a festive celebration of reconciliation, as the Athenian and Spartan men and women come together to celebrate the end of the war and the restoration of normal relations.
"Lysistrata" is a comedic masterpiece that uses humor, sexual innuendo, and satirical elements to address serious issues such as war, gender roles, and power dynamics. The play's bold exploration of these themes and its clever depiction of characters and situations have made it a timeless work that continues to be studied, performed, and appreciated to this day.
Thesmophoriazusae/Women at the Thesmophoria (410 BCE)
"Thesmophoriazusae" is a comedy play written by Aristophanes, believed to have been performed around 411 BCE. The play is known for its witty commentary on gender roles, feminism, and the practice of the Thesmophoria, an annual festival dedicated to the goddess Demeter. Here's a summary of "Thesmophoriazusae":
The play revolves around the character of Euripides, a renowned Athenian playwright, who is portrayed as a womanizing misogynist. The women of Athens are outraged by Euripides' negative portrayal of women in his plays and by his alleged encouragement of effeminacy among men.
Led by their leader, Mnesilochus, the women decide to infiltrate the Thesmophoria festival, which was exclusively for women, in order to bring charges against Euripides and put him on trial for his offenses against their gender.
To gain entrance to the festival, Mnesilochus disguises himself as a woman, wearing women's clothing and adopting feminine mannerisms. However, his disguise is soon discovered by the other women, who threaten to reveal his true identity.
In a comedic turn of events, Euripides arrives at the festival, hoping to save Mnesilochus and clear his own name. He brings along his elderly father, who is dressed as a tragic heroine, to elicit sympathy from the women.
A series of comedic situations and misunderstandings ensue as the characters try to manipulate and outwit each other. Euripides and Mnesilochus are put on trial, with the women acting as the judges and prosecutors.
The play features a humorous debate between Euripides and Agathon, another famous playwright and a favorite of the women, as they each try to defend their portrayals of women in their plays. The women's arguments highlight the absurdity and complexity of gender relations and societal expectations.
Ultimately, the women declare Euripides guilty, and they sentence him to dress as a woman for a year. Euripides reluctantly agrees to the sentence, and the play ends with a celebratory dance and a humorous exchange of dialogue.
"Thesmophoriazusae" is a comedic exploration of gender dynamics, satire of contemporary playwrights, and a commentary on the portrayal of women in the theater. The play uses its characters' interactions, witty dialogues, and absurd situations to highlight the complexities of gender roles and societal norms, ultimately delivering a humorous critique of both men and women in Athenian society.
Frogs (405 BCE)
"Frogs" is a comedy play written by Aristophanes, first performed in 405 BCE. This play is particularly notable for its satirical commentary on the state of Athenian drama and its examination of the role of the poet in society. Here's a summary of "Frogs":
The play begins with the god Dionysus, the god of theater and wine, expressing his concerns about the decline of Athenian drama. He decides to journey to the underworld to bring back a deceased playwright to revitalize Athenian theater.
Dionysus is accompanied on his journey by his servant, Xanthias. Along the way, they encounter various comedic and fantastical situations, including encounters with gods and mythological figures.
Upon reaching the underworld, Dionysus is faced with a choice between two famous playwrights: Aeschylus and Euripides. The two playwrights engage in a humorous and witty debate, in which they defend their own styles of drama and critique each other's works.
The debate between Aeschylus and Euripides serves as a satirical commentary on the state of Athenian drama and the changing preferences of the audience. Aristophanes uses this dialogue to highlight the tension between traditional and innovative approaches to theater, and to poke fun at the intellectual and artistic debates of the time.
After witnessing the debate, Dionysus decides to take Aeschylus back to the world of the living. The play ends with a comic battle between Aeschylus and Euripides, which involves witty wordplay and humorous physical interactions.
"Frogs" is known for its complex structure, witty wordplay, and its meta-theatrical commentary on the state of Athenian drama. The play addresses the decline in dramatic quality and serves as a humorous critique of the trends and themes in contemporary theater. The interplay between mythological characters, satirical dialogues, and comedic situations makes "Frogs" one of Aristophanes' most thought-provoking and entertaining works.
Ecclesiazusae/Assemblywomen (392 BCE)
"Ecclesiazusae," also known as "Assemblywomen," is a comedy play written by Aristophanes, believed to have been performed in 392 BCE. This play is a satirical exploration of gender relations, politics, and the concept of communal ownership. Here's a summary of "Ecclesiazusae":
The play centers around a group of Athenian women led by Praxagora who are frustrated with the state of affairs in Athens. They devise a plan to infiltrate the Athenian assembly, where political decisions are made, by disguising themselves as men.
Praxagora and her fellow women attend the assembly and enact a radical plan: they propose a resolution that would give women equal rights with men and communalize property, wealth, and even sexual partners. The resolution passes due to their majority and leads to a comedic reversal of traditional gender roles and societal norms.
As the women take over the city and implement their new society, the play explores the humorous consequences of their decisions. Traditional family structures are disrupted, and men are relegated to domestic roles while women engage in politics and public affairs.
The play features scenes of comedic misunderstanding, as men grapple with their new roles and women try to navigate the complexities of governance. The satire emphasizes the absurdity of reversing traditional gender dynamics and highlights the challenges of implementing radical social change.
Throughout the play, Aristophanes uses exaggerated situations and witty dialogue to satirize various aspects of Athenian society, including politics, gender relations, and the pursuit of utopian ideals.
In the end, the women's new society faces its own set of problems and absurdities. The play concludes with a humorous resolution as Praxagora and her fellow women grapple with the unexpected consequences of their radical experiment.
"Ecclesiazusae" is a thought-provoking comedy that explores themes of gender, politics, and societal structures. The play uses its imaginative premise and witty satire to offer commentary on the complexities and challenges of implementing radical social change, while also poking fun at the idealism and unforeseen consequences of utopian visions.
"Plutus," also known as "Wealth," is a comedy play written by Aristophanes, believed to have been performed in 388 BCE. This play is unique among Aristophanes' works as it takes a more lighthearted and less overtly political approach compared to some of his other plays. Here's a summary of "Plutus":
The play revolves around the character of Chremylos, an Athenian citizen who is concerned about the unjust distribution of wealth in society. Chremylos encounters the god Plutus, who is depicted as blind, and believes that by restoring Plutus' sight, wealth can be distributed more fairly.
With the help of the goddess Penia, who personifies poverty, Chremylos takes Plutus to the temple of Asclepius, the god of healing, in order to restore his sight. This action unleashes a series of comical situations and conflicts as people react to Plutus' newfound ability to see.
As Plutus regains his sight, he begins to reward the virtuous and punish the wicked, which results in a shift in the distribution of wealth. The wealthy become poor, and the poor become rich, leading to humorous and absurd consequences.
The play features scenes in which people try to manipulate Plutus in order to gain wealth, and discussions about the impact of wealth on various aspects of society, including friendship, politics, and marriage.
Unlike many of Aristophanes' other plays, "Plutus" does not focus on specific political figures or issues. Instead, it provides a more general commentary on wealth, its consequences, and its influence on human behavior.
The play ends on a note of reconciliation and unity, as people come together to celebrate the newfound balance in wealth distribution and the positive changes that have occurred in society.
"Plutus" is a lighter and more philosophical comedy that uses humor to explore themes related to wealth, justice, and societal values. While it lacks some of the overt political satire present in Aristophanes' earlier works, "Plutus" still engages with important social and moral questions through its imaginative premise and clever dialogues.