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,...
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