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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788

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The longest of the surviving comedies by Aristophanes is The Birds. It was entered at the City Dionysia, where it was awarded second prize. It is without a doubt Aristophanes’ singular achievement of dramatic spectacle. The play’s brilliantly plumaged chorus of birds appears to be based on a genuine knowledge of birds in their great variety, for beginning at line 268 Aristophanes introduces each different bird in the chorus, commenting upon its respective dress.

Peace had been the concern of the state in the preceding decade, and Peace had been the theme of Aristophanes’ play that took second prize at the Greater Dionysia in 421 b.c.e. Yet peace had not come in the continuing war between Athens and Sparta. While The Birds was presented in a moment of impending success, for Athens it was merely a matter of months before the most disastrous events of the war. It is hard to be certain how perceptive the poet was, yet there is a haunting underlying mood.

The prologue (lines 1-259) begins with Athenian citizens Peisthetairos and Euelpides having abandoned the city, with its incessant penchant for litigation, earlier satirized in The Wasps, in search of some quieter country. Having been guided in their journey by birds, respectively a crow and a jackdaw, they call upon the mysterious Tereus, who, according to a tragedy by Sophocles, had been turned into a hoopoe, a multicolored bird with a large crest. After some explanatory conversation, Peisthetairos has the idea that the birds should build a city-state between heaven and earth, where they can intercept the sacrificial smoke of offerings made by humans to the gods, reestablishing the original supremacy of birds over both. The prologue ends with the hoopoe’s song, full of marvelous plays upon birdcalls, summoning the other birds.

A long parodos follows (lines 260-450), wherein the chorus of birds enters upon the stage one by one, to be introduced, to be descriptively identified, and to receive comic association with leading personalities of the day. Since humans regularly eat birds, the initial reaction by the birds is hostility, but the hoopoe intervenes. The parodos concludes with the hoopoe’s instruction to Peisthetairos to explain his idea to the birds.

The agon (lines 451-675) provides the extended conversation involving the hoopoe and the chorus leader, a partridge, as the idea is expounded. The birds are gradually convinced. The establishment of the new land will require human assistance for structural details, but for the humans to participate in the construction enterprise it would be best if they grew wings. The agon ends with the hoopoe giving the humans a root to chew on that will produce wings, thereby preventing any threat that other birds might have against their former adversaries.

Parabases alternate with episodes. In the initial relatively brief parabasis (lines 676-800), the chorus of birds addresses the theater audience on the origin of birds and their value to humankind, concluding with an invitation to come live with them and an explanation of the advantage of having wings. The shorter first episode (lines 801-1057) brings back Peisthetairos and Euelpides, now with wings, of which they remain somewhat self-conscious. Yet it proceeds to the building of Nephelo-kokky-gia (“Cloud-cuckoo-land”), with Peisthetairos completely in charge. Both Euelpides and the hoopoe disappear from the play—a necessity of the limitation upon the number of speaking actors and of the large number of roles required in the two episodes. Various human personality types and bureaucratic functionaries appear looking for jobs in the new city-state, only to be driven off, with much good humor suggestive of the role that comedy had in the parodying of the pompous nature of local government. The second parabasis (lines 1058-1117) sees the chorus of birds proclaiming its divinity, reflecting upon the carefree life it leads, but concluding with the appeal to the judges to award the prize to it.

A long second episode (lines 1118-1705) follows. After a description of the completed structures, it becomes evident that the Olympian gods are being warned of this new competition, and there follows, with plays upon the control of opposition within the democratic political process, the necessity to effect some kind of truce with the gods. Prometheus, the well-known opponent of Zeus, assists Peisthetairos in the negotiations; Poseidon, Herakles, and a Triballian god who speaks an unintelligible form of Greek represent the peace envoys from Olympus. When terms are finally established, preparations are made for the wedding of Peisthetairos to Basileia (“Miss Sovereignty”), Zeus’s housekeeper, who together will reign over all from the palace of Zeus.

The exodos (lines 1706-1765) combines the wedding hymns, sung by the adoring chorus of birds, with the departure of the royal couple to assume their regnal place.

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