Born the son of Philippus into a privileged family in the heyday of Classical Athens, Aristophanes (ar-uh-STAHF-uh-neez) wrote comedies and entered them in the competitions held at the annual Dionysia and Lenaea festivals. His Daitales (427 b.c.e.; Banqueters, now lost) won second prize in 427 b.c.e. and there followed a career of more than forty plays in as many years. Of his personal life, little is known; he had three sons and held no significant political office.
Aristophanes is the best known of a group of poets who produced what is termed Old Comedy. This was a carnivalesque form, with its origins in rituals of fertility and verbal abuse. Its defining features were grotesque costumes, obscene language, and fantastic plots. It made fun of individuals, institutions, and issues of the day. Each play centered on a formal debate, an agōn, where a matter of topical interest was argued.
Eleven of Aristophanes’ plays survive. They include Nephelai (423 b.c.e.; The Clouds, 1708), which pokes fun at Socrates and the new educational techniques of the Sophists, and Batrachoi (405 b.c.e.; The Frogs, 1780), in which Dionysus holds a contest to see if Aeschylus or Euripides is the better tragedian. For much of Aristophanes’ career, Athens was at war with Sparta, and several of his plays deal with the question of war versus peace. In the Lysistratī (411 b.c.e.; English translation, 1837), the women of Athens seize power in order to end the war, and Ornithes (414 b.c.e.; The Birds, 1824) describes the construction of a new utopian city in the sky, Cloudcuckooland, as an escape from war-weary Athens. From Eirīnī (421 b.c.e.; Peace, 1837), it is clear that Aristophanes was opposed to the continuation of the war after the abortive Peace of Nicias in 421 b.c.e. and that he was out of sympathy with the radical democrats in the city. His plays appear to voice cautionary, even conservative, views and have been seen as a kind of “unofficial opposition” to the policies of prowar leaders such as Cleon of Athens.
In his last play, Ploutos (388 b.c.e.; Plutus, 1651), Aristophanes begins the turn toward descriptions of ordinary lives and family relationships that defines his successors in new comedy. Old Comedy was the unique product of a specific cultural setting, the radical democracy of the late fifth century in Athens, and...
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