Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
First shown at the City Dionysia festival in 414 b.c.e., The Birds, although it only won second prize at the festival, is commonly regarded as Aristophanes’ finest work. Richly imaginative and full of scintillating wit and lovely lyrical songs, The Birds is unquestionably a comic masterpiece. In it, Aristophanes takes a fantastic and amusing idea and quite literally soars into infinity with it. The entire play is a sustained and wonderful joke.
Some critics have concluded that this play satirizes the airy hopes of conquest that gripped Athens at the time the comedy was being written. In 415 b.c.e., a huge military expedition had sailed to subdue Sicily and establish an empire in the west. Two years later, the expedition was proved to have been a fiasco, but in the meantime Athens was rife with grand rumors and expectations. The grand, crazy scheme proposed in The Birds seems to convey some of the ebullience of the time. Aristophanes also uses the fantasy as a means of delivering several well-aimed kicks at contemporary figures, at Athens, and at human beings and gods in general. Nevertheless, later readers and audiences with no knowledge of its topical allusions can appreciate the work simply for its comedy and its beautiful language. The important facts are contained in the play itself.
In The Birds, Aristophanes adapts an idea he used earlier in Nephelai (423 b.c.e.; The Clouds, 1708), where Socrates explores the starry heavens in a basket. Debt-ridden, plagued by lawsuits in Athens, and seeking a restful retirement community, the hero, Pisthetaerus, conceives the ingenious idea of founding a kingdom in the sky. By organizing the birds to intercept the offerings made by human beings to the gods, he can starve the gods into submission. He can bring human beings to their knees by using the birds to control harvests and livestock. Elderly, quick-witted, and confident, Pisthetaerus is likable as well, a kind of supersalesman. He convinces the birds to collaborate with him and, by his through-the-looking-glass logic, he gains absolute mastery of the cosmos, winning a goddess, Zeus’s former maidservant Basileia, for a bride in addition.
However, his true glory rests in the kingdom to which he gives birth—Nephelo-Coccygia, or Cloudcuckooland. It is the equivalent of the Big Rock Candy Mountain, a place where all one’s dreams come true. This utopia is in harmony with nature, as represented by the birds, but it attracts idlers, parasites, and nuisances. Bad poets, a false prophet, a magistrate, a process server, an informer, a surveyor, and a sycophant flock to Cloudcuckooland, which gives Pisthetaerus the chance either to reform or to repel them. Even the gods are not really welcome. Pisthetaerus’s own companion, Euelpides, leaves of his own accord, sick of being ordered about. The hero exercises his power mainly to exclude undesirables, with the result that when he is finished, his only comrades are the birds.
This rejection of human pests allows Aristophanes’ satirical gift free play. The parasites in The Birds are the types the dramatist often lampooned, including representatives of the legal profession, fake seers, awful poets, toadies, cowards, pederasts, scientists, informers. Aristophanes is not just saying that without these types a community can be a paradise. He goes further than this. The birds, particularly the chorus, sing exquisitely beautiful and lyrically virtuosic songs that are vastly superior to anything the poets in the play invent. Almost all the birds have beautiful plumage, whereas by contrast the human beings are shabbily dressed. Moreover, whereas the birds are friendly once Pisthetaerus wins them over, the human beings are typically rapacious or looking for a handout. In short, the birds are altogether more desirable as companions than human beings. Even the gods come off poorly by comparison, for they are merely immortal “humans,” full of greed and anxious to take advantage of their position.
The Birds is not completely misanthropic, for it pays ample tribute to the eternal human desire to achieve birdlike freedom and beauty. It suggests that human beings can best gain a utopia by their own wits and in friendly communion with nature. The stage called for in the play is singularly bleak, with a single bare tree and a rock, yet it is precisely here that Pisthetaerus founds his fabulous empire. It is a realm of sheer imagination, where anyone can erect castles in the air, fashioned of daydreams and free of life’s demands. This is the place where Pisthetaerus can find peace with friends of his own choosing, the kingdom where he can win out over the gods and his human foes alike. Imagination is the single area where a human being can enthrone himself as ruler of the universe. In a sense, The Birds is a dramatic hymn to schizophrenia. All the shackles of reality and of human limitation are in abeyance, while the play sails straight up into the wild blue yonder. It is escapist of course, but a daring, witty, songful, exhilarating kind of escape.
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