Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508
Demos (DEE-mos), a personification of the Athenian people to whom all citizens owe obeisance. He is represented as a selfish, testy, and sometimes foolish old man who seems to ignore the corruption in the officials and politicians who minister to him. The play opens with Cleon, his favorite (his “servant” or his “slave”), firmly entrenched in power, ostensibly by virtue of his whining, obsequious, insolent, arrogant, and cunning qualities. Before the play is concluded, however, Demos displays his strength and craftiness (the strength and craftiness of the people themselves) in that he tolerates such knavish managers as Cleon because he can control them, because he can raise them and dash them down at will. The farcical relations of Demos and those who govern him (Cleon, succeeded by the Sausage-Seller) generate the major dramatic action of the play.
Cleon (KLEE-on), the Tanner, so called because of his ownership of a leather-processing factory. He also is called the Paphlagonian, a nickname given him to ridicule his mode of speaking (paphlazo means “to foam”). He assumes that his political power over Demos is secure, and he is the terror of his fellow officials. A secret oracle, however, has predicted that he will lose his position and power to one even more base than himself. Accordingly, the Sausage-Seller challenges him. They engage in vigorous debate and eventually wrestle. Cleon loses. Each displays, through the long harangue and dialogue, those mean qualities of self-interest that the playwright suggests are at the root of the political mind and that he exposes through the characters’ degradation of public oratory, infected with vulgar jargon and low metaphor.
The Sausage-Seller, Agoracritus (ag-oh-RAK-rih-tuhs), named for the area in which he plies his trade. He is favored by the oracle to supersede Cleon because he is a villain and trickster whose abilities (loud shrieks) make him, in the playwright’s ironic view, more suitable to hold public office. After a long struggle against Cleon, his overwhelming vulgarity is crowned with success when he is installed as the governor of Demos.
Nicias (NIHSH-ee-uhs) and
Demosthenes (dih-MOS-theh-neez), two able and successful Athenian generals of opposite characters. Nicias is cautious and superstitious, whereas Demosthenes is blunt, hearty, resolute, a lover of good wine, and a religious skeptic. They appear in the opening scenes of the play, having been mistreated by Cleon, who is at the height of his power. Because of their grievances against him, they set the machinery in motion to have him deposed when they consult the oracle as to a successor.
The Chorus, the “knights” of the title. Representing the middle order of the state, they are hostile to Cleon. They consistently ridicule the senate and government of Athens, jeer at Cleon, and applaud the Sausage-Seller. Their emotional involvement and lack of perception, as well as their endorsement of change in government for the sake of change alone, define the playwright’s most pointed thrust at the weakness in these citizens, a weakness that promotes corruption and dishonor in the state.