Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

The Knights satirizes Athenian politics in the form of an allegory. Although not named in the play, the two slaves in the opening scene are recognizable as representing the Athenian generals Demosthenes and Nicias. These were prominent figures in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.) between Athens and Sparta. The two generals were upstaged and humiliated by the demagogue Cleon. A particular incident that is mentioned frequently in the play is Cleon’s intervention at a late stage in the battle for Spartan-controlled Sphacteria. Later, Cleon arrogantly took full credit for the Athenian victory. Aristophanes depicts these three political figures as slaves of a fickle and gullible master Demus (from the Greek world demos, “people”). The political rivalries among these figures from Athenian history are thus depicted—in a comic reduction—as a kind of domestic squabble with which most Athenians could identify.

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Cleon dominated Athenian politics after Pericles died of the plague in 429 b.c.e. Although there is evidence that he was a capable leader, Aristophanes and many contemporaries saw Cleon as little more than a political manipulator who directed the will of the people in the assembly, which decided on all matters of policy, by appealing to the people’s basest instincts. Accordingly, to secure the favor of his master Demus, the Paphlagonian tanner (Cleon operated a leather industry) uses bribes and shamelessly manipulates oracles. Not surprisingly, in late fifth century Athens there were countless charges among leaders of bribery and of abuse of authority, including the fabrication of forged oracles to support one political program or another.

The Peloponnesian War and the proposals for winning or ending the conflict form the dramatic backdrop for The Knights, but the play is not simply a critique of contemporary politics. The focus is on the personality of Cleon, who is represented as a foreign-born slave. In fact, the name of Cleon is used only once in the play, in a remark by the chorus, but from various clues the audience certainly knew who was the object of Aristophanes’ ridicule. Two years before The Knights was produced, Cleon was offended by Aristophanes’ unrelenting criticism (in his Babylonians, a play now lost) and threatened the poet with a lawsuit. Cleon’s object was to silence the comic poet. Very soon afterward, by way of answer, The Knights appeared, filled with vicious, personal criticism of Cleon’s character. The Paphlagonian is a vulgar, loud, unscrupulous, and totally obnoxious character. These traits, along with the depiction of Cleon as a calculating and ruthless politician, suggest that The Knights reveals more about the poet’s personal loathing of Cleon than about the political debates of the time.

The dramatic structure of the play depends on a fantastic contest in which the Paphlagonian experiences a humiliating fall from grace in the eyes of his master. In order to rid themselves of the obnoxious Cleon-figure, who wins the favor of Demus with lies and trickery (and, significantly, by claiming credit for the work of others), his fellow slaves concoct a plan. Most of Aristophanes’ plays depend for their central plot on some such plan, termed a great idea, by means of which an unpleasant situation is to be remedied. In this play the great idea is suggested by an oracle, stolen from the Paphlagonian, revealing that he will ultimately be supplanted in the city by a sausage seller. The content of the oracle may seem somewhat inconsistent with the allegory that Aristophanes constructs, since the sausage seller will presumably be a free man and not one of the household slaves. The outstanding qualification of the sausage seller, who happens to appear, is that he is even more shameless and calculating than the slave he is supposed to overthrow. He is also of bad family, virtually illiterate, and otherwise disreputable. Aristophanes could certainly have chosen a worthier alternative to Cleon. It suits his comic message, however, that the sausage seller, precisely because he is so vile, is the perfect person to remove the Paphlagonian from his master’s affections and take charge of Demus.

Once the sausage seller is examined and approved, much of the rest of the play is concerned with the contest. The chorus of dashing knights, who provide the title for the play, represent a class in Athenian society that might ordinarily support the program of Cleon. Despite flattery and threats from the Paphlagonian, these knights stoutly support Demosthenes, Nicias, and the sausage seller in their struggle to win the favor of Demus. The first part of the contest is little more than a war of shouted boasts, in which the sausage seller seems almost at a loss, and yet he is victorious. The rivals soon turn their attention to winning over the Council. The sausage seller outdoes the Paphlagonian in utter shamelessness and bribery. The final part of the competition is the direct appeal to Demus. As befits the allegory, all of the methods used to flatter Demus are thinly veiled representations of techniques used by politicians to manipulate the Athenian people.

With the final victory of the sausage seller, Aristophanes offers a surprise for his audience. The allegory of a disreputable contest between slaves for the attention of their master gives way to an open political message. The sausage seller, now bombastically named Agoracritus (the people’s choice), transforms Demus and extracts a promise from him that from now on he will be more sensible and less gullible to the manipulative influence of politicians such as Cleon. The paradoxical result, that the depraved protagonist manages to reform Demus, is an inconsistency. The Knights moves with ease, however, between humble household allegory and weightier political satire, suggesting a larger message that proper management of the household resembles the proper governance of a city.

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