(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.)