Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1013
Thematically, The Acharnians is the most inclusive of Aristophanes’ plays; in it audiences find his powerful wit and satire against militarism and war, his contempt for petty politicians and informers, his delight in earthy sex play, and his spirited spoofing of Euripides—qualities that make it the most personal of Aristophanes’ works. When Dicaeopolis speaks directly to the audience, he does so with the voice of Aristophanes, eloquently asserting his intellectual honesty and independence and declaring that he will always fight for the cause of peace and justice. Aristophanes directed the play and acted in it, taking the part of the protagonist.
Presented in 425 b.c.e., The Acharnians is the earliest surviving play of Aristophanes, who began his career as a dramatist in 427. The play is set in the sixth year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), which was fought by Athens and Sparta. The conflict had already inflicted grave hardship on Athens. Some Athenians apparently wished to pursue the war more aggressively to exact revenge on Sparta. The protagonist of The Acharnians, Dicaeopolis, takes a different approach and concludes a private peace treaty with the Spartans. Much of the play depicts the opposition to Dicaeopolis’s treaty and the way in which the hero thwarts his opponents and sets about enjoying the rewards of his private peace.
Most plays of Aristophanes are built around some great idea, which is a plan undertaken by the main character to remedy some unsatisfactory political or private situation. This fantastic project is the main character’s way of setting things right, and he or she usually encounters strong opposition to the proposal. Overcoming this opposition, the protagonist eventually implements the plan, and the good (or bad) consequences follow. The role of the great idea in The Acharnians is somewhat different: Dicaeopolis achieves his object—a private peace treaty with Sparta—very early in the play. For the remainder of the play he rebuffs his opponents and enthusiastically enjoys the benefits of his treaty. The result is an apparently lopsided dramatic structure. Aristophanes bypasses the usual dramatic struggle regarding implementing the plan and indulges instead in broad satire of leading Athenians of his day, such as Cleon, Lamachus, and the poet Euripides. Another consequence of this design is a lingering impression of the protagonist’s selfishness. Dicaeopolis’s peace treaty is for himself and his family alone. The implicit message is that peace is good for everyone. Through the greater part of the play Dicaeopolis extravagantly enjoys the benefits of his treaty and refuses (with one exception) to share his wineskin of peace with anyone else.
The private nature of Dicaeopolis’s peace should also constitute a warning against reading The Acharnians simply as a political tract. The central concern of Dicaeopolis is to achieve peace and to end the personal hardships caused by the protracted struggle with Sparta. Although The Acharnians may therefore seem to advocate a political program, the dramatist’s message is clearly different from that of a political pamphlet. On the one hand, like many Athenians, Aristophanes probably believed that conflict among Greeks was foolish and wasteful. The gist of the argument that Dicaeopolis presents to the chorus is that the causes of the war are trivial. This viewpoint should not be confused with pacifism or opposition to all war, since in the opening scenes of the play there are suggestions of a greater military threat from outside Greece, that is, Persia. There is no evidence that an organized peace movement at Athens existed at the time of the play’s first production, and the play generally depicts the war more as a nuisance than as something unjust.
Aristophanes has a reputation for conservatism in politics and social mores. He was, however, no enemy of democracy, only of its abuse in the hands of leaders such as Cleon. After all, it was the famous free speech and democracy of the Athenians that allowed the poet to speak in support of peace with Sparta in the midst of war. As for Aristophanes’ championing of old-fashioned virtues, it is to be noted that the Acharnians, who violently oppose Dicaeopolis, represent the older generation and its values. They are staunch advocates of war with Sparta. It is possible that as an artist Aristophanes was primarily interested in depicting the great polarities of Athenian life, such as the old and the new, city and country, and peace and war. The political content of his plays should be understood more as a dramatic opposition of competing ideas than as advocacy of a specific political program.
Parody is one element that gives The Acharnians its special appeal, and the objects of parody range from the political and social to the literary and artistic. Using the power of slapstick parody, Aristophanes creates a broad satire of Athenian politics, society, and art. Although the figure of Cleon lurks in the background, it is the soldier Lamachus who is specifically held up for ridicule. He is depicted as the typical braggart soldier and militarist, although the historical Lamachus appears to have been a brave and admirable soldier, who actually helped to negotiate the Peace of Nicias in 421 b.c.e. It is, however, the tragic poet Euripides who is Aristophanes’ favorite object of satire. Aristophanes apparently resented the political message of some of Euripides’ plays that contain anti-Spartan sentiments, but he also has a literary argument with the dramatist who experimented with technical innovations and depicted new kinds of characters (beggars like Telephus) on the tragic stage. Still, Aristophanes’ criticism of Euripides, in this play and elsewhere, shows intimate familiarity with his tragedies. One cannot escape the impression of grudging admiration for the tragic poet’s work.
Aristophanes’ play won first prize in the dramatic competition of 425 b.c.e., taking precedence over works by the veteran poets Cratinus and Eupolis. Although it will never be known on what explicit basis the judges of the festival made their verdicts, it is probable that the fantasy of Dicaeopolis, with his private peace, was a great success with its Athenian audience.
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