ca. 445-385 B.C.
Greek comic dramatist
Greek dramatist Aristophanes wrote about 40 comic plays, of which only 11 have survived. His plays dealt with many of the leading topics of the day, including politics, philosophy, and literature. They are the only complete examples of Greek comedy from the classical* period.
Little is known about Aristophanes’ life. He may have been born on the Greek island of Aegina. His first play was produced in Athens when he was only 18, and he won several important prizes when he presented his plays at competitions. Aristophanes often used public figures as characters in his plays, but his mocking portrayal of the Greek politician Kleon led to a lawsuit against the young playwright.
Greek Old Comedy. Greek comedy may have had its origins in the entertainment at local festivals. The first formal performances of comedy were staged in Athens in 486 B.C., and plays from this early period—including those of Aristophanes—belong to a style known as Old Comedy. Old Comedy often included a substantial element of fantasy. The plays used satire* to comment on figures from mythology and Greek politics. The language was informal and even bawdy*, with numerous references to bodily functions.
Old Comedy contained certain structural features. For example, it used choruses* of animal characters, such as birds, frogs, or wasps, to comment on the action or themes of the play. The chorus often spoke for the playwright, and at some point in the middle of the play the chorus addressed the audience directly. The Greeks called this speech to the audience the parabasis. In addition, Greek comedy of this period often interrupted the story to remind spectators in the theater that they were watching a play.
Early Plays. Aristophanes’ earliest surviving play, Acharnians, won first prize in a competition when the poet was barely 20 years old. Like some of his other comedies, Acharnians features a bold hero whose fantasy comes true. The play is about Dikaiopolis, a crusty old farmer who wants Athens to make peace with the city of Sparta and end the Peloponnesian War. Angry at the misery caused by six years of conflict, Dikaiopolis negotiates his own private treaty with the Spartans. The rest of the play shows him justifying his plan and enjoying the benefits of peace—food, wine, and lovemaking.
Many of the themes of Aristophanes’ later plays appear in this early work. Some of these themes involve contrasts—between war and peace, city and country, or old and young people. Another theme is the role of comedy in the community. Aristophanes suggests that the comic playwright has certain civic responsibilities, such as advising the Athenians on public issues and commenting on the literature of the day. In his role as literary critic, Aristophanes makes Euripides, the Greek dramatist, into a comic character in Acharnians.
Four other early plays of the 420s B.C. develop Aristophanes’ favorite themes. In Knights, the playwright again makes fun of the politician Kleon, thinly disguising him as a blustering bully. In the play, Kleon tries to trick an old man named Demos, who represents the Athenian people. However, an even trickier character, a lowly sausage seller, outsmarts Kleon.
In contrast to today's theater, ancient Greek plays ordinarily had only one performance. However, Aristophanes’ Frogs made such a favorable impression on the judges of a drama competition that they gave the playwright a unique honor: a second performance of the play the following year. The judges based their decision on the play's solemn plea for civic peace and harmony. They seem to have agreed with Aristophanes, who believed that part of his job was to offer sound advice to the city.
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
* satire literary technique that uses wit and sarcasm to expose or ridicule vice and folly
* bawdy humorously indecent
* chorus in ancient Greek drama, a group of actors whose singing or dancing accompanies and comments upon the action of a play
PLAYS OF ARISTOPHANES
Clouds is a satire of the “new learning” promoted by the Sophists, a group of Athenian philosophers in the late 400s B.C. In the same play, Aristophanes draws a comic portrait of the philosopher Socrates. Although Socrates’ approach to education was quite different from that of the Sophists, his unusual behavior and appearance made him irresistible to Aristophanes as a comic target. The first production of Clouds, however, was not a success. It is the only surviving play of Aristophanes without a happy ending, which may explain its failure.
After Clouds, Aristophanes wrote Wasps, which ridicules the Athenian jury system. His next play, Peace, a celebration of the joys of peacetime, was produced just a few weeks before the conclusion of a truce between Athens and Sparta.
Later Career. Birds is the longest and perhaps the greatest of the surviving plays of Aristophanes. Disgusted with debts and taxes in Athens, two old men set out for the land of the birds. One of the men, the tramp Pisthetairos, persuades the birds to make him their leader. Before the play ends, he has overpowered the gods as well. The gods agree to let him marry Basileia, the beautiful woman who represents Zeus’s power and authority, and the play ends with the wedding. Pisthetairos achieves the ultimate comic fantasy: supreme power.
Lysistrata is probably the best known and certainly the most frequently performed play of Aristophanes. It is one of several comedies in which Athenian women—controlled by men in real life—play a leading role. Comedy loves to turn reality upside down. In Lysistrata, the women decide to force the men of Athens to arrange a lasting peace with Sparta by refusing to have sexual relations with their husbands until the men take action. Lysistrata, the heroine of the play, is courageous, funny, and imaginative—one of Aristophanes’ most memorable characters.
In Women at the Thesmophoria, Aristophanes combines comedy and literary parody*. The women of Athens are angry at Euripides because of the unflattering portrayal of female characters in his plays. Euripides sends one of his male relatives, disguised as a housewife, to plead his case with the women. The fun at Euripides’ expense continues in Frogs, in which the god Dionysus visits the underworld* and judges a poetry contest between Euripides and the earlier playwright Aeschylus. Euripides loses the competition.
Aristophanes’ last two surviving comedies, Assemblywomen and Wealth, appeared in the 300s B.C. They clearly signal changes in the format of Old Comedy. Neither play has a parabasis, and the chorus plays only a small role in Wealth. In Assemblywomen, the women disguise themselves as men and take over the assembly with humorous results. Wealth explores the relationship of justice to prosperity and poverty. In this play, the outrageous, biting tone of Old Comedy seems to have almost disappeared.
* parody work that imitates another for comic effect or ridicule
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
Originality and Influence. Aristophanes boasted, often through his choruses, of his new and original ideas. Most likely these boasts were tongue-in-cheek. Like most dramatists, he doubtless borrowed ideas from earlier and from contemporary playwrights, just as he often recycled his own successful material.
On a deeper level, however, Aristophanes created comic stories of lasting power. Unlike the writers of tragedies, who drew their material from Greek legends, comic writers had to invent new plots. Aristophanes succeeded admirably in creating meaningful and enjoyable dramas. (See also Drama, Greek.)