Biography

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Life

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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 was never recreated.

Influence

Although recognized as the sole surviving representative of Old Comedy, Aristophanes has not been central to the Classical tradition or to the later development of comedy. Traces of influence can, however, be detected in the Roman satirist Juvenal, Greek satirist Lucian, English playwright Ben Jonson, and French dramatist Jean Racine, as well as in some of the more topical and satirical modern television programs.

Further Reading:

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 Aristophanes: Studies in Athenian Old Comedy. London: Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 2000. Twenty-eight essays on the other comic poets of Athenian Old Comedy, based on the fragments and citations that survive. Includes bibliography.

Henderson, J., trans. Aristophanes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Lada-Richards, Ismene. Initiating Dionysus: Ritual and Theatre in Aristophanes’ “Frogs.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. The author uses literary and anthropological approaches in looking at how a member of Greek society would have viewed the play and Dionysus as a dramatic figure. Includes bibliography and indexes.

MacDowell, Douglas M. Aristophanes and Athens: An Introduction to the Plays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. MacDowell provides an introduction to Aristophanes’ plays, including information about Athens and the political climate, essential to understanding some of the allusions in Aristophanes’ works. Includes bibliography and index.

Murray, Gilbert. Aristophanes: A Study. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. Concentrates on analyzing the plays and their revelation of Aristophanes’ attitudes. Also gives useful information about dramatic conventions and historical events that influenced the plays.

Reckford, Kenneth J. Aristophanes’ Old-and-New Comedy: Six Essays in Perspective. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Examines Aristophanes and his world from six perspectives: religious, psychological, theatrical, poetic, political, and literary-historical.

Russo, Carlo Ferdinando. Aristophanes: An Author for the Stage. Translated by Kevin Wren. New York: Routledge, 1994. Explores the theatrical seasons of Athens and the dawn of Greek comedy.

Spatz, Lois. Aristophanes. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A good beginning place for discussion of the world of Athens and the social and artistic aspects of the plays.

Strauss, Leo. Socrates and Aristophanes. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Discusses the confrontation between Socrates and Aristophanes in Aristophanes’ comedies. Analyzing eleven plays, Strauss argues that this confrontation is basically one between philosophy and poetry.

Taaffe, Lauren K. Aristophanes and Women. New York: Routledge, 1993. Looks at what the plays say about contemporary concerns of women’s rights and the value of women’s contributions to Greek society.

Ussher, Robert Glenn. Aristophanes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. Part of the New Surveys in the Classics series, this work offers an excellent brief introduction to the poet and his plays. Includes a chronology of the surviving comedies and discusses them in terms of structure, theme, character, language, staging, and performance. Contains a good bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

Biography

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Little is known of Aristophanes, except that his father, who was from Athens, may have been a property owner. When Aristophanes was born, Athens was at its most glorious, both culturally and politically. Born at about 450 B.C., Aristophanes was a young man when the Peloponnesian war was fought between Athens and Sparta. This war (431- 401 B.C.) provided some of the historical framework for Aristophanes’ comedies. Athen’s loss in this war affected Aristophanes, and in response, he used comedy to ridicule the political order responsible for the war and the city’s loss. Aristophanes’ sympathy with the aristocratic landowners and condemnation of the rulers of Athens makes him appear more revolutionary than many of his cohorts. Aristophanes is associated with the Old Comedy, or comoedia prisca, which is earthy and irreverent and willing to attack prominent people.

Aristophanes’ comedies are the only ones to have survived from this period. Of the forty-four comedies he wrote, eleven have survived. The Athenian festival of Dionysis was the first festival, in 486 B.C., to officially include comedy. Aristophanes entered the festival and won three first prizes, which was less than either of his rivals, Cratinus and Eupolis. The themes of Aristophanes’ eleven surviving comedies reflect the poet’s dissatisfaction with the government of Athens. Aristophanes wrote many of his plays during the war between Athens and Sparta. The works that have survived include Acharnians, 425 B.C.; Knight, 424 B.C.; Clouds, 423 B.C. (revised c. 418 B.C.); and Wasps, 422 B.C. Other surviving plays include Peace,421 B.C.; Birds, 414 B.C.; Lysistrata, 411 B.C.; Thesmophoriazusae (Women Keeping the Festival of the Thesmophoriae), 411 B.C.; and Frogs, 405 B.C. The remainder of Aristophanes’ extant work includes Ecclesiazusae (Assemblywomen or Women in Parliament ), 392 B.C.; and Plutus (Wealth), 388 B.C. A number of other plays have been lost. Three of these comedies—Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazusae,and Ecclesiazusae—depict women as the moving force in human society. After his death, Aristophanes’ popularity ceased, and he was not rediscovered until the Renaissance, and it was not until modern times that Aristophanes reentered the Western literary canon. In the Byzantine world, however, Aristophanes always held the rank of a major author: he was assiduously copied, studied, and appreciated by scholars.

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Critical Essays