Aristophanes Essay - Critical Essays

Aristophanes Drama Analysis

Because Aristophanes has had no real literary heirs, or imitators, in subsequent European literature, some discussion of Old Comedy as a genre is in order. There are good reasons why this genre died out when Athens went into its decline and was never revived. Old Comedy was nurtured and sustained by a constellation of social and political features of imperial Athens, which never came together in quite the same way subsequently. The fifth century b.c.e. saw the height of Athenian fortunes, and the sense of limitless possibility that the times inspired is reflected in Aristophanes’ early plays. Athenian democracy was also at its height. It was a limited democracy, insofar as citizenship was limited, but a direct democracy in which the citizens themselves voted on every proposed law and treaty. There were obvious analogies between the legislative assembly, the popular courts (where juries numbered in the hundreds, sometimes in the thousands), and the theater, where the people assembled in a body on a few festival days each year to see productions subsidized by state taxes. The no-holds-barred approach prevailing in assembly and court debate spilled over into the comedies, which are filled with ad hominem attacks on individuals. Politicians and poets were favorite targets, but a man might be singled out for ridicule because of his appearance, his cowardice in battle, or even his sexual proclivities.

Two unique features of Old Comedy reflect its political and social setting with special vividness. These are the agon and the parabasis. The agon is a contest, partly physical but chiefly verbal, between the protagonist and the chorus. Its rhetoric reflects that of the assembly and law courts (and of Greek tragedy as well, which had a similar relationship to its social and political milieu). The parabasis is an address to the audience in which the comic chorus drops whatever dramatic identity the play imposes on it to speak in the first person, in the poet’s own voice. The parabasis may be only tangentially related to the plot and can address any political or social issue, although always in a fantastic vein that must have blunted its political impact.

Scholars disagree considerably on the question of Aristophanes’ political purpose and beliefs, though most see him as in some sense conservative—that is, supportive of moderate (as opposed to radical) democracy and of the “traditional” virtues proper to an agrarian, nonimperial economy: peace, political stability, and free trade. It is difficult, though, to elicit any specific political program from the plays, because of their essentially anarchic spirit, which tends to subvert the few sober pronouncements of individual characters. Even if it could be demonstrated from the plays that Aristophanes had such a program, the question of its impact would remain. Here again evidence is slight and ambiguous. There is no known case in which a comedy demonstrably influenced public policy. Aristophanes produced a whole series of brilliant antiwar plays during the course of the Peloponnesian War (some took first prize), but the war continued. Even the Peace of 421, staged the same year the Peace of Nicias between Athens and Sparta was concluded, seems more a reflection of the city’s mood than a peace initiative on Aristophanes’ part. The attack on Socrates in The Clouds is cited by Plato in the Apologia Skratous (399-390 b.c.e.; Apology, 1675; which purports to be Socrates’ own defense at his trial) as a source of popular hostility against the philosopher, but The Clouds preceded the trial by twenty-five years. What is more, to judge from the Symposium, Aristophanes and Socrates belonged to the same circle of friends; surely the poet had no intention of urging any action against the philosopher. Scholar K. J. Dover has pointed out that Aristophanes survived the advent of oligarchic regimes as well as the democratic backlash that accompanied their overthrow; this would hardly have been possible had he been perceived as a partisan of either. A careful reading of his plays will reveal that they take advantage precisely of the freedom from responsibility that Old Comedy permits to create a world of fantasy and wish-fulfillment. Though Aristophanes addresses real political issues, the solutions he offers are not political but poetic ones.

The Acharnians

The Acharnians, Aristophanes’ earliest surviving play, deserves close consideration not only because of its intrinsic merit but also because it exemplifies two strands that run throughout his work: a celebration of the joys of peace (with its corollary, an attack on the evils of war) and a fantasy of limitless possibility for the protagonist. These two strands are intimately interwoven, for the “pacifism” of Aristophanes is by no means the selfless and idealistic stance evoked by that word in modern times. His heroes hate war not because it entails the shedding of blood but because it results in a dearth of good things: food, wine, sex, and the freedom to do what one pleases and go where one pleases. Therefore, Dikaiopolis, the hero of The Acharnians, after trying in vain to raise the issue of peace negotiations in the assembly, makes his own private treaty with Sparta and proceeds to enjoy the benefits: freedom to celebrate the rural Dionysia, to trade with former enemies for imported delicacies, and to stay at home and feast while General Lamachos goes off to battle with his rations of salt fish and onions. The agon in this play is a debate between Dikaiopolis and a chorus of Acharnian charcoal-burners (from Acharnai, one of the demes of Attica), who hate the Spartans for ravaging their lands and can think of nothing but revenge. Dikaiopolis wins them over with a comic version of the war’s causes (a parody of Herodotus’s account of the reasons for enmity between Greece and Asia Minor) and a reminder that poor men have the least to gain from war. Like many of Aristophanes’ heroes, Dikaiopolis is a “little man” of middle age or older whose triumph over the powers that be is symbolized by his rejuvenation or restored sexual potency at the end of the play. As Lamachos returns wounded from battle, Dikaiopolis returns drunk from the feast, ready for a night of lovemaking with two courtesans. Yet this play is hardly a straightforward plea for the “little man,” for once he has his treaty, Dikaiopolis refuses to extend it to include another farmer whose two oxen have been seized by the enemy.

The consistency of the play lies in its imagery. On the level of dramatic action, each Aristophanic comedy is built on one or more controlling images that assume a life of their own; in the choral odes, these and other images appear in a “crystallized” form. (In Old Comedy, as in Greek tragedy, the choral poetry provides a kind of lyric reflection on the action it interrupts.) In The Acharnians, the central comic image is that of wine, which becomes a metaphor for peace thanks to a pun: The Greek for “truce” is spondai, literally the “libations” that accompanied ratification of treaties. Dikaiopolis is offered three kinds of spondai by the Spartans and picks the best “vintage”—that is, the longest truce. The image is appropriate in other ways as well, for peace was associated with the euphoria of drunkenness and the freedom to celebrate festivals (many of which were curtailed during the war). At the play’s end, Dikaiopolis is proclaimed the winner in a drinking contest—a standard feature of the Lenaia, the festival at which the play was produced—and his victory is made to suggest (before the fact) the poet’s own victory in the dramatic contest. It should be obvious that such “pacifism” as the play contains is fully compatible with the most vigorous forms of competition; within the comic universe of his plays, Aristophanes loves a good fight as much as anyone. Nor would his Greek audience have perceived this as a paradox: There was a traditional distinction, going back at least to Hesiod’s Erga kai Emerai (c. 700 b.c.e.; Works and Days, 1618), between useful and destructive eris, “strife.” Only the latter was considered hateful; rivalry and emulation were encouraged as the means to excellence and prosperity.


This preoccupation with competition is visible, though somewhat more restrained, in the two other extant antiwar plays of Aristophanes. Peace is unusual in that it has no agon; instead, the members of the chorus, farmers from all the city-states, are made to “pull together” (literally and figuratively) as they raise the goddess Peace from the pit to which War has consigned her. Exhumation is only one of a constellation of images presiding over the action of this most earthy play, which opens with two slaves kneading cakes of excrement to feed a giant dung-beetle....

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