Because the plays of his contemporaries and rivals have all been lost, it is impossible to credit Aristophanes with specific innovations in the development of Greek comedy. In his eleven surviving plays, however, one can trace an evolution in his own work. Although this evolution corresponds to a broader trend (the movement from Old Comedy to Middle and New Comedy), which in turn was influenced by changes in political and social conditions, Aristophanes’ own development as an artist undoubtedly influenced such larger developments as much as it was shaped by them.
Aristophanes was recognized as a great comic poet in his lifetime, winning many first prizes in dramatic competitions and almost never taking less than second prize. His first two plays have been lost, but his third, The Acharnians, displays an early mastery of comic technique and a profound unity of theme. Only later did Aristophanes develop unity of action; it was clearly not expected of Old Comedy, which had grown out of two or more heterogeneous elements (including the animal chorus and primitive forms of farce). Indeed, the unity of plot to be discerned in Aristophanes’ later comedies (Lysistrata, Ecclesiazusae, and Plutus) is to some extent a compensation for the loss of certain features of the early plays—notably the freedom of the chorus to engage in wild ad hominem attacks and unbridled political satire.
The outstanding features of Aristophanes’ art are the audacity of his comic metaphors and the beauty of his choral lyrics. These are best displayed in his early and middle plays, as well as in The Frogs, a brilliant post mortem on Greek tragedy and the culture of imperial Athens (the Athenian defeat, marking the end of the Peloponnesian War, was imminent when the play was produced). Though Aristophanes survived his city’s defeat and continued to develop as an artist, the postwar plays betray a certain weariness, a flagging of comic invention, corresponding to the political and cultural exhaustion of Athens in the early fourth century b.c.e. Perhaps the greatest single achievement of Aristophanes is the fact that his are the only plays of the Old Comedy to have survived—a tribute, surely, to his superb comic craftsmanship.
Aristophanes Discussion Topics
What do we need to know about comedy in Athenian life of Aristophanes’ time to understand his plays?
Plays in ancient Athens were performed competitively. According to modern critics, one of Aristophanes’ best plays, The Clouds, did not win. How can we have a better idea of the value of a play than the people who originally saw it?
One character in The Clouds, a rather foolish one, is the philosopher Socrates. To what extent could a playwright do a similar thing with a philosopher today?
Consider the appropriateness of the title The Wasps.
Aristophanes’ plays were musical comedies, but we do not have the music. Can we properly judge his plays without knowing the music?
Offer some possible reasons for the popularity of the play Lysistrata today.
Bowie, A. M. Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual, and Comedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Bowie uses anthropological techniques in comparing Aristophanes’ plays with Greek myths and rituals with similar story lines in an attempt to discover how the original audiences would have responded to the plays. Includes bibliography and index.
Cartledge, P. Aristophanes and His Theater of the Absurd. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1999.
Croiset, Maurice. Aristophanes and the Political Parties at Athens. Translated by James Loeb. 1909. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1973. Focuses on the political implications of Aristophanes’ plays. He offers a good discussion of the military, political, social, and economic milieu of Aristophanes’ Athens.
David, Ephraim. Aristophanes and Athenian Society of the Early Fourth Century b.c.e. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1984. Seeks to fill a gap in studies of Aristophanes, which concentrate on his contributions to Old Comedy and his comments on Athens during the Peloponnesian War. David instead examines the two extant plays dating from the 300’s, giving special attention to the economic situation they address.
Harvey, David, and John Wilkins, eds. The Rivals of...
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