BORN: 450 BCE, Athens, Greece
DIED: 385 BCE, Greece
The Acharnians (425 BCE)
Peace (421 BCE)
The Birds (414 BCE)
Lysistrata (411 BCE)
The Progs (405 BCE)
Aristophanes. Aristophanes, photograph. PD
Aristophanes was the greatest writer of Old Comedy in Athens in the fifth century BCE and the only playwright from that era with any complete plays surviving. Old Comedy was a form of drama that has no parallel in subsequent European literature. It was a mixture of fantasy, political and personal satire, farce, obscenity, and, in the case of Aristophanes at least, delightful lyric poetry. Although he used the language brilliantly, Aristophanes was above all an inspired creator of bizarre fantasy worlds that defy fundamental laws of rationality and logic. He paid little attention to consistency of time, place, or character and was not very interested in the logical development of a dramatic plot. He brought to his art a command of every kind of comedy, from slapstick to intellectual farce. Parody was one of his specialities, and he had a devastating way of deflating pomposity in politics, social life, and literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Equal-Opportunity Satirist. Knowledge of Aristophanes is confined almost entirely to his career as a dramatist. It is believed that he was born in Athens, Greece, in c. 450 BCE, a time when the city was one of the two leading political powers in Greece and the most important center of artistic and intellectual activity. Little is known about his family except that it was not a poor one. He had an excellent education and was well versed in literature, especially poetry, and above all Homer and the great Athenian tragic dramatists. In addition, he was well acquainted with the latest philosophical theories. All of Aristophanes’ boyhood was spent in the Periclean Age, an interlude of peace between 445 and 431. When the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta broke out in 431, Aristophanes was still a youth. What part he played in the war is not known, but he probably saw some active service before it finally ended in 404.
Already famous as a young man, Aristophanes used the power of comedy throughout his long career to ridicule and deplore the shortcomings of his society. Because of Aristophanes’ open sympathy toward the land-owning aristocracy, he opposed a war that spelled the destruction of agriculture, so some scholars have seen the poet as a political reactionary. It is true that Aristophanes never tired of heaping abuse on the rulers of Athens, but his comic world view kept him from partisanship of any kind. He was an equal-opportunity satirist, and one politician was just as good a target for ridicule as any other.
An Unprecedented Honor. Aristophanes’ career as a dramatist started in 427 BCE when he put on a play, now lost, called The Banqueters. A year later he brought out another play, which has not survived, The Babylonians, that politically criticized Athens’s imperial policies. As a result, Cleon—who eventually ruled Athens and represented the will of the city’s powerful merchant class—hauled the author before the council, apparently on a charge of treason. No action was taken against Aristophanes.
After 410 the Peloponnesian War situation gradually worsened, and in the winter of 407-406, a generation of other great classical writers was dying. Euripides died in Macedonia, to be followed in less than a year by his great rival Sophocles. Aristophanes clearly felt that the great days of tragedy were over, and in The Frogs (405 BCE), he showed Dionysus, the patron god of drama, going down to the underworld to bring Euripides back from the dead. When after many ludicrous adventures the god finally arrives in Hades, he acts as referee in a long poetic dispute between Euripides and Aeschylus, which contains much delightful comedy but also some serious criticism. After its debut, the play was given the honor of a second performance—something unheard-of at the time.
The End of War and After. The Athenians eventually lost their war with Sparta, having been starved into surrender in the spring of 404. This defeat broke the spirit of many Athenians, including Aristophanes. Thereafter, the author’s patriotism was colored with a nostalgic attachment to the ideal of Greek unity from earlier heroic times. Though Athenians soon regained considerable importance in both politics and intellectual life, they were never quite the same again. In the sphere of comedy the uninhibited boisterousness of the Old Comedy disappeared, replaced by a form that was less imaginative and spirited and more cautious and reasonable.
Aristophanes continued to write plays after the end of the war. Of them, Women in Parliament, a skit about equality in marriage and in ownership of property—included ideas later put forward by Plato in his Republic. Aristophanes lived for nearly twenty years after the war. One of his three sons, Araros, became a minor comic dramatist.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Aristophanes' famous contemporaries include:
Euripides (c. 480 BCE-406 BCE): One of the three great tragedians of classical Athens and a poet, Euripides penned ninety-five plays, of which eighteen have survived in complete form.
Cratinus (c. 520-423 BCE): As Aristophanes' rival in comic drama, Cratinus was considered one of three great masters of Athenian Old Comedy, along with Aristophanes and Eupolis. Only fragments of his work have survived.
Sophocles (c. 496 BCE-406 BCE): This Greek tragedian is one of the three greatest playwrights of ancient Greece who produced tragedies that have survived to the present day. It is believed that he wrote 120 or more plays during his lifetime, only 7 of which still exist.
Eupolis (c. 446 BCE-411 BCE): This Athenian poet of the Old Comedy was seen as Aristophanes' equal in the purity and elegance of his diction. He was also a master of irony and sarcasm. Seventeen plays are attributed to him.
Aeschylus (c. 525 BCE-456 BCE): This Greek playwright is often recognized as the founder of dramatic tragedy and is the earliest of the three great Greek tragedians that include Sophocles and Euripides.
Works in Literary Context
Criticism of Politics and War. The principal themes of Aristophanes’ comedies reflect the poet’s profound dissatisfaction with the political reality of Athens. For example, in The Acharnians, Aristophanes’ first play, an Athenian peasant excludes himself from the Peloponnesian War by obtaining a separate truce from Sparta. Another play addressing the issue of war, Peace, produced in 421BCE, involved a principal character who travels to Mt. Olympus on a dung-beetle to see what the gods have in store for his war-torn city. It includes a mock-mythological allegory of the Peloponnesian War.
Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata (411 BCE) is both a piece about women and one of the most powerful condemnations of war in European literature. Lysistrata (even the name puns on the idea of disbanding an army) is an Athenian woman who organizes, with the help of a Spartan ally, a sex strike with a view to putting an end to the war. All of the women of Athens agree not to have sex with their soldier and politician husbands until they end the war. Of course the plan quickly works.
Athenian Foibles. In addition to war and politics, Aristophanes also ridiculed characteristics of Athenians themselves and human foibles more generally. In The Wasps, he poked fun at Athenians’ obsession with unnecessary lawsuits. Bdelycleon, driven to despair by his father Philocleon’s compulsive attachment to jury duty, tries to keep the old man from the law courts by allowing him to conduct a trial of two dogs, one of which is called Cleon. Aristophanes satirizes two typically Athenian foibles: one, a blend of excessive zeal and meddlesome ingenuity, which often brings about ambitious projects that fail miserably; and two, passivity and inertia. In The Clouds, a name suggesting the impermanence of intellectual abstractions, the poet blames the professional philosophers of Athens for introducing a spirit of immorality into Athenian culture. He portrays Socrates as the head of a preposterous school that encourages absurd research and logically sound dishonesty. The comedy was not well received, obtaining the third prize at a competition—a crushing defeat for the poet. Finally, in The Birds, which many critics consider Aristophanes’ masterpiece, the author describes a society that is ruled by birds. Conveniently located between heaven and earth, the society manages to avoid both divine excesses and human folly.
Influence. As an author, Aristophanes exerted great influence not only on people in his own era but also on authors of other eras and other countries. In western Europe, Aristophanes’ fame was rekindled as a result of the revival of Greek learning during the Renaissance. Later, Aristophanes’ comedies were revered as great poetic works by Romantic poets and scholars. This enthusiasm determined the comic poet’s place, which subsequent scholars generally did not dispute, among the greatest representatives of European literature. Poets who acknowledged their admiration for Aristophanes include Heinrich Heine, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Browning, and T. S. Eliot. Aristophanes’ influence has also been recognized as having been significant for satiric and comedic authors such as Franpois Rabelais (1494-1553)—an avant-garde writer of fantasy, satire, the grotesque, dirty jokes, and bawdy songs—and Henry Fielding (1707-1754), an English novelist and dramatist who emulated Aristophanes, satirizng politicians with gusto.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Many themes consistently appear in Aristophanes' works, including themes of humanism, opposition to war, and ridicule of wrongheaded politicians whose elaborate projects come to nothing. He satirized what he did not like (and sometimes what he did like) using a peculiar mixture of fantasy, political and personal satire, farce, obscenity, and lyric poetry, often including animals as a way of conveying meaning or telling a story. Other works that rely heavily on satire include:
Gulliver's Travels (1726), a satirical novel by Jonathan Swift. This classic of English literature is both a satire on human nature and a parody of ''travelers' tales,'' a literary genre popular during the eighteenth century. It also ridicules the ambitious and pointless scientific projects of intellectuals and the empty pride of political leaders.
The Parliament of Birds (c. 1372-1386), a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer. The author puts forward a satirical debate over different approaches to love and marriage within the context of a conference of birds who meet to choose their mates on Valentine's Day.
Animal Farm (1945), a novella by George Orwell. This bitter and inventive satire uses the metaphor of animals in a barnyard to discuss human politics generally, and the politics of the Soviet Union under Stalin in particular.
Works in Critical Context
Among the various and conflicting interpretations of Aristophanes’ works, there is a general admiration for the poet’s seemingly boundless imaginative power and his habit of allowing the creative human spirit to triumph over all constraints of reality. Critics and scholars across the centuries have equated Aristophanes with the best of the Old Comedy, ignoring other representatives of this particular art, such as Cratinus or Eupolis, partly because only Aristophanes’ comedies have survived in complete form.
Aristophanes’ fame eventually waned after his death, but he quickly became central to the Western literary canon. Among the early authors who wrote commentaries on Aristophanes were Photius, the erudite patriarch of Constantinople, and John Tzetzes, the noted encyclopedist. Plato’s attitude toward the comic poet was more ambivalent, but this was probably because of Aristophanes’ devastating portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds . It is nevertheless reasonable to assume, given the prominent role played by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, that Plato also admired the poet’s genius. Early Greek scholars compiled critical editions of Aristophanes’ comedies, but they valued the comic poet solely for his magnificent language.
Later authors who represented the softer, less offensive, more refined New Comedy eclipsed Aristophanes after his death as Old Comedy’s raucous hilarity stopped appealing to the tastes and sensibilities of the urban populations of the later Roman eras. Thus it was New Comedy authors, not Aristophanes, who provided a blueprint for Roman comedy, which in turn exerted a decisive influence on the European stage.
Responses to Literature
1. How would you compare and contrast Aristophanes’ political comedy with current books, movies, and plays that lampoon political leaders?
2. How would you characterize different types of humor in Aristophanes’ plays, and what are their different satirical effects?
3. Why use animals rather than human beings as the main characters? What does this bring to the satire?
4. Explain how The Birds depicts a utopia, or perfect world. Is this utopia still a paradise by our current standards? What, if anything, has changed in our values from the Classical era?
5. Choose a subject that is very familiar to you, such as life at school, and try to satirize the parts of it that you least like or appreciate. See if you can use humor to poke fun at certain aspects of your subject. Could you use animals, perhaps including your school mascot, to heighten the satire?
Bowie, Angus. Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Dover, Kenneth. Aristophanic Comedy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972.
Ehrenberg, Victor. The People of Aristophanes: A Sociology of Old Attic Comedy. New York: Schocken, 1962.
Henderson, Jeffrey. The Maculate Muse: Obscene Language in Attic Comedy. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
MacDowell, Douglas M. Aristophanes and Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Olson, Douglas S. Aristophanes: ‘‘Peace.’’ Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Pickard, Sir Arthur Wallace. The Dramatic Festivals of Athens. Rev. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Reckford, Kenneth. Aristophanes’ Old and New Comedy: Six Essays in Perspective. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Ste. Croix, Geoffrey de. ‘‘The Political Outlook of Aristophanes.‘‘In The Origins of the Peloponnesian War by Geoffrey de Ste. Croix. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.
Stone, Laura. Costume in Aristophanic Comedy. Salem, NH: Ayer, 1981.
Whitman, Cedric. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.