The Ecclesiazusae

by Aristophanes

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268

First published: 392 b.c.e.? (English translation, 1837)

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Utopian comedy

Time of work: Early fourth century b.c.e.

Locale: Athens

Principal Characters:

Praxagora, leader of the revolution

Blepyrus, her husband


A young man

Three old women


The ECCLESIAZUSAE is not one of Aristophanes' best plays. Written late in his career, it lacks the wit and ingenuity of LYSISTRATA, the play which it most resembles. The scatological humor seems gratuitous, but the satire on the communistic Utopia enforced by the women of Athens is effective and the action moves swiftly, especially since the role of the chorus has been reduced to practically nothing. Although the play appeared some twenty years before Plato's REPUBLIC, some critics believe that the playwright is here deriding the philosopher's ideas as they circulated in discussion.

The Story:

Praxagora, who had stolen her husband's clothes and escaped from the house before dawn, was waiting in the street for her fellow conspirators to appear. As they arrived she inspected them to see if they had made all the preparations that had been agreed upon at the feast of the Scirophoria. Had they let the hair under their armpits grow? Had they darkened their complexions by rubbing themselves thoroughly with oil and standing all day in the sun? Had they prepared false beards? Had they stolen their husbands' shoes, cloaks, staffs, and clubs? Assured that they had done everything possible to disguise themselves as men, Praxagora opened the discussion of their plot to save Athens by taking over the government from the men. This was to be achieved by invading the assembly disguised as men and dominating the vote. The first problem was to select a spokesman. When woman after woman failed the practice test by invoking goddesses or addressing the audience in feminine terms, Praxagora herself took on the responsibility of speaking for them. At dawn they departed for the assembly.

Meanwhile, Blepyrus, Praxagora's husband, had awakened with a need to relieve himself, only to find both his wife and his clothes missing. His need was so great, however, that he dressed in his wife's saffron robe and rushed outdoors. Before he could return to the house, he was accosted by his friend Chremes, who gave him a detailed account of the strange proceedings at the assembly. He told how, after several citizens had proposed stupid suggestions for curing the economic plight of the city, a rather fair young man had taken the floor to urge that the government be hereafter entrusted to the women. The speaker had been enthusiastically applauded by a large crowd of strange shoemakers. Chremes himself was rather in favor of the idea, since it was the one and only solution that had hitherto not been tried.

After supervising a secret change back to feminine dress among the women, Praxagora returned to her husband with the excuse that she had been called during the night to aid a friend in labor and had taken his clothes for greater warmth. When Blepyrus described the decision of the assembly, Praxagora expressed great surprise and delight and immediately launched into a detailed list of the revolutionary reforms she intended to carry out. Every conceivable kind of private property—land, money, food, and even husbands and wives—was to be common to all. All cheating, bribery, and lawsuits would disappear, since no one would have to engage in such activities to achieve what he wanted. Robbery, gambling, and the exchange of money would be abolished. Prostitutes would be outlawed so that decent women could have the first fruits of the young men. Upon Blepyrus's protest that complete sexual freedom would result in chaos, Praxagora established the rule that all the youth would first have to satisfy the prior claims of the aged before mating with other young people and that all children would look upon the oldest people in the community as their parents. Blepyrus, thrilled, looked forward to the prospect of being known as the dictator's husband.

Chremes, also eager to cooperate, began to pack up all his belongings to contribute to the common store, despite the taunts of a skeptical citizen who reminded him that all previous decrees, such as the reduction of the price of salt and the introduction of copper coinage, had failed. But Chremes insisted that the new reform was thoroughgoing and departed for the common feast, leaving the citizen to devise some scheme whereby he, too, might participate without abandoning all his goods.

The first great test of the new society occurred when a young man, about to enter the house of a voluptuous girl, was stopped by an old woman, a veritable hag, who insisted on her prior claim. The young man tried every conceivable stratagem to avoid relations with the aged flat-nose, but the old woman stubbornly insisted on her legal rights. At first the young man decided to do without sex altogether, rather than yield to the disgusting hag first; but, finding such renunciation impossible, he at last reluctantly submitted. Before the old woman could get him into her house, an even older and uglier hag appeared on the scene to demand her prior right to him. While he quarreled with her, a third and truly horrendous old woman seized him. He was last seen being carried off by two frightful old hags.

Praxagora's maid, returning from the great banquet, met Blepyrus, who had not yet dined, and regaled him with a frenzied account of the delicious viands that were being served there. Taking some young girls with him, Blepyrus hurried off to gorge himself on rich food and drink.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

The Greek title of this play means "Assembly women"—a contradiction to the male-oriented society and politics of ancient Greece. Yet, like the LYSISTRATA, this play must not be seen as a vehicle of feminine protest. In both plays Aristophanes is criticizing the mismanagement of affairs of state and is turning toward women not as the proper alternative but as the last desperation. Both situations and solutions are intolerable, but in the course of each drama the playwright exposes the vanity of power and its consequences.

As Aristophanes' penultimate play, THE ECCLESIAZUSAE tends away from personal invective and reliance on the chorus. The play contains no parabasis, a device essential to Old Comedy, whereby frequently the chorus would address the audience with the playwright's indignation over contemporary or current social or political outrages. This, then, marks the beginning of Middle Comedy, the fourth century transition to New Comedy. In THE ECCLESIAZUSAE we see the stock types so popular in later comedy—such as the shrewish wife, the hellish hag, the amorous young man, and the lecherous old one. Yet, unlike New Comedy, plays of this period still rely heavily on misrepresentation of philosophic schools. The communism of goods and sex proposed by Praxagora was not Plato's, since in THE REPUBLIC the philosopher aimed at removing from the guardians of the state any temptations to selfish interests; in Aristophanes the motive for shared property is basely selfish. While Socrates wants to manage the breeding of the best class, Praxagora wants sex to be widely available to those who have the least chance for it.

There is little doubt that Aristophanes is cynically warning his fellow Athenians against yearning for Utopia; simplistic solutions bring abominable consequences. Praxagora ("Mrs. Forum-Business") does away with prostitution but dissolves marriage, thereby turning wives into loose women and their husbands into free men. She provides a free dinner for everyone, but only at the expense of one's entire property.

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