(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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),...

(The entire section is 788 words.)

The Birds Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, two disgruntled citizens, want to escape from the pettiness of life in Athens. They buy a jay and a crow, which Philocrates, the bird seller, tells them can guide them to Epops, a bird not born of birds; from Epops they hope to learn of a land where they can live a peaceful life.

The jay and the crow guide the pair into the mountains and lead them to a shelter hidden among the rocks. They knock and shout for admittance. When Trochilus, Epops’s servant, comes to the door, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus are prostrate with fear; they insist that they are birds, not men, a species the birds intensely dislike. Epops, a hoopoe with a triple crest, emerges from the shelter; he does not present a very colorful aspect, since he is molting. Epops informs the Athenians that he was once a man named Tereus, whom the gods transformed into a hoopoe.

When the Athenians reveal the purpose of their visit, Epops suggests that they move on to the Red Sea, but they say they are not interested in living in a seaport. Epops suggests several other places, but on one ground or another the pair rejects them all. The truth is that they want to stay among the birds and establish a city. Interested in this novel idea, Epops summons the birds, that they, too, might hear of the plan.

The birds swarm to the shelter from all directions until every species of Old World bird is represented at the gathering. The leader of the birds, fearful of all men, is dismayed when he learns that Epops talked with Euelpides and Pisthetaerus, and he incites all the birds to attack, threatening to tear the Athenians to pieces. To defend themselves, Euelpides and Pisthetaerus take up stewpots and other kitchen utensils. Epops rebukes the birds for their precipitous behavior. Finally, heeding his suggestion that perhaps they can profit from the plan of the two men, they settle down to listen. Epops assures the birds that Euelpides and Pisthetaerus have only the most honorable of intentions.

Pisthetaerus tells the birds that they are older than human beings. In fact, the feathered tribes were once sovereign over all creation, and even within the memory of people birds were known to have been supreme over the human race. For that reason, Pisthetaerus declares, birds are used as symbols of power and authority. The eagle, for example, is Zeus’s symbol, the owl is Athena’s symbol, and the hawk is Apollo’s.

Seeing that the birds are interested in his words, Pisthetaerus propounds his plan: The birds are to build a wall around their realm, the air, so that communication between the gods and human beings will be cut off. Both gods and people will then have to recognize the supremacy of the birds. If human beings prove recalcitrant, the sparrows will devour their grain and crows will peck out the eyes of their livestock. If they accede, the birds will control insect plagues and help them store up earthly treasures.

The birds are delighted with his plan. Epops ushers the Athenians into his shelter, where the pair momentarily forget their project when they see Epops’s wife, Procne, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a desirable young maiden. Meanwhile the leader of the birds speaks of humankind’s great debt to the birds. Urging human beings to look upon the birds as the true gods, he invites them to join the birds...

(The entire section is 1371 words.)