The following entry presents criticism of Aristophanes's Archarnians (425 b.c.) For more information on Aristophanes's life and career, see CMLC, Volume 4.
The Acharnians was the third play written by Aristophanes, but is the first of his early works to have survived. The satire is remembered for its inventive storyline, which includes a private peace treaty between an ordinary Athenian farmer and Sparta; for its comic use of Euripidean tragic elements; for its metatheatrical element—calling attention to itself as a play; and for championing an ordinary man as hero. The Acharnians was also Aristophanes's first prize-winning play.
Aristophanes was born around 450 b.c. in Athens. His first play, Banqueters, was produced in 427, but is no longer extant. Also lost is his second, Babylonians, of 426. In the Babylonians, Aristophanes criticized Athenian government administrators, including an official named Kleon. In retaliation Kleon brought charges against Aristophanes, telling the council that the playwright had maliciously ridiculed them and, further, questioned Aristophanes's ties with the island of Aigina, thereby casting doubt on his Athenian citizenship. Aristophanes was cleared and further attacked Kleon in the Acharnians, in which he called Kleon a liar and a slanderer. This did not inhibit Kleon's rise to power; he would soon receive high honors and become a general. Aristophanes's career flourished as well, and he wrote some forty plays, which won for him six first-place prizes and four second-places, in dramatic competitions at Lenaea. Aristophanes died probably between 386 and 380.
Plot and Major Characters
The Acharnians opens with the common farmer Dikaiopolis talking to himself, waiting for the assembly to convene, and frustrated that there has been little or no movement towards a peace with Sparta. The first speaker, Amphitheos, declares that the gods have enjoined him to discuss peace with the enemy, but that he needs funding from the assembly for his journey. Instead of helping Amphitheos, the assembly ignores him and listens to one pompous and unrealistic ambassador after another. The assembly then dissolves and Dikaiopolis makes an offer to Amphitheos: Dikaiopolis will pay for his trip to Sparta if he will bring back a peace treaty between the Spartans and Dikaiopolis personally. Amphitheos accepts and quickly returns, his mission accomplished. Having negotiated privately with their hated enemy, Amphitheos has enraged some men from the village of Acharnai, who are in hot pursuit. Amphitheos then exits the play. The Acharnians mistake Dikaiopolis for Amphitheos, and are set to stone him. Dikaiopolis manages to put off his execution and visit Euripides, busy at work on a new tragedy. He borrows the beggar's costume of Euripides's pathetic hero Telephos to wear when arguing his case for peace to the Acharnians. In an eloquent speech, Dikaiopolis lays blame for the war not on Athens but on her leaders, some of whom are corrupt liars. A general named Lamachus declares that nothing will persuade him against never-ending warfare with Sparta. Dikaiopolis mocks him, and declares an area as his private market place. In a series of fantastic, humorous episodes, he makes numerous bargains with assorted traders and allies of the Spartans. General Lamachus is ordered off to fight and Dikaiopolis prepares for a feast. After an interlude the general returns, suffering painful injuries from an unsuccessful attempt to jump over a ditch, closely followed by a well-fed Dikaiopolis, who has won a national drinking contest and walks with a courtesan on each arm.
Critics have interpreted Acharnians as an eloquent plea for peace on the part of Aristophanes. Presenting war as a senseless endeavor that wreaks havoc with the lives of ordinary citizens, Aristophanes savagely satirizes the selfish and ineffectual politicians who carry on with their schemes but are deaf to the pleas of their constituents. In an absurd twist, therefore, an ordinary Greek farmer succeeds where all the politicians could not: he personally travels to Sparta and signs a private peace treaty with the enemy. Critics have also pointed out Aristophanes's highly effective emphasis on the everyday effects of war on Greek citizens, their impassioned determination to bring about peace, and, finally, on the benefits of living in peaceful times.
Unlike many other Greek playwrights, a large amount of Aristophanes's work has survived, including eleven complete comedies and more than a thousand fragments. In ancient times he was recognized as the greatest of the writers of Old Attic Comedy and he maintains this position in contemporary critical study as well, partly because no complete examples of Old Attic Comedy by any other writers are extant. In addition to being a comedy with many elements of Greek tragic theater, the Acharnians also has much to reveal to students of theater. Some of these technical elements of the Acharnians as a production are discussed by K. J. Dover, Carlo Ferdinando Russo, and Alan H. Sommerstein, while Aristophanes's expertise in characterization is analyzed by Tom Rothfield. In her discussion of the use of characters, Lois Spatz in particular emphasizes a major breakthrough: the use of a common member of the populace as hero instead of a semi-divine figure. Critics are also intrigued by Aristophanes calling attention to the fact that the audience is watching a play. His varied use of this and other metatheatrical elements is studied by Lauren K. Taaffe in her essay. Another technique which fascinates critics is Aristophanes's use of Euripides and Euripidean tragic elements. Both Douglas M. MacDowell and Helene Foley examine how these elements are parodied in Acharnians. Critics praise Aristophanes's wit, inventiveness, and elegant language while historians relish what he reveals of life in Athens, in both domestic and political spheres.