Places Discussed

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*Athens. Capital and city-state of the peninsula of Attica, a province of east central Greece. Firmly established as a cultural, political, and commercial center by 429 b.c.e., Athens became an imperialistic empire and naval power. In 431 b.c.e. it began its war with Sparta, the powerful city-state of southern Greece’s Peloponnesian Peninsula. Aristophanes depicts Athens at a time when it was suffering naval and military disasters and undergoing chaotic political and social conditions, which he uses to give Athenian women a motivation for striking. It is significant that the play’s women consist of the strong and weak-willed, suggestive of the city’s fickle population. Their strike ends the war. (The historical Athens surrendered in 404 b.c.e. and lost its empire and military power.)


*Acropolis. Citadel and highest point in Athens, and the place containing the city’s treasury and the Parthenon, a temple significantly holding a statue of Athena, goddess of wisdom, arts, and the preserver of the state. On the Acropolis Lysistrata has the women seize the treasury that finances Athens’s war. They are aided by Athenian old women and repel an attacking group of Athenian old men and male officials trying to oust them. Suffering the effects of sexual abstinence, warriors throughout Greece come to the Acropolis, where they agree to make peace on the women’s terms, and reunite with them for a joyous celebration.


*Greece. In addition to Athens, Lysistrata’s female company come from other Greek city-states that represent Athens’s most bitter enemies whose defecting women signify the theme of antiwar Panhellenism. These cities also bear features that characterize superior Athenian attitudes toward their inhabitants. Sparta is the Peloponnesian capital known for its military prowess and physically fit women, such as the play’s Lampito. Corinth, noted for general dissoluteness produces a full-figured lass of possibly easy virtue; and from Boeotia a fertile east central Grecian land with people reputedly dulled by plenty, comes a pretty, well-fed girl.

Historical Context

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The Peloponnesian War was in its twentieth year when Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata . Athens and Sparta had been long-standing enemies, but they had finally negotiated an uneasy peace in 445 B.C. When Athens wanted to extend its empire, the uneasy peace was broken, and war erupted. When the war began in 431 B.C., Greece was not a country as we know it today. Instead it was a collection of small, rival city-states, located both on the mainland and on the surrounding islands. The war began after Sparta demanded certain concessions of Athens, and the Athenian leader Pericles convinced the Athenians to refuse, and instead, go to war. There was a short truce after ten years of fighting, when it appeared that the war was deadlocked between the two city-states; but soon the war resumed. Initially Athens seemed to be winning; in spite of having lost many people to the plague, they were winning some battles and appeared to be stronger than their enemy, Sparta. Sparta even suggested peace, which Athens rejected. But soon, the war changed, with Sparta in the stronger position. Athens had a stronger navy than Sparta, and the Athenian forces commanded the seas, but when the battle shifted, Sparta emerged as the stronger force. A major shift in the war occurred when Athens attempted to invade Sicily. This unsuccessful attack led to serious losses at land and at sea. These losses made Athens more vulnerable to Sparta’s land forces, which had always been stronger than those of Athens. In addition, Athens’ navy, which had always been its strongest force, had been destroyed in the...

(This entire section contains 544 words.)

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ill-fated invasion of Sicily. Although Athens’ navy was later rebuilt, it was eventually destroyed again by Sparta. By 405 B.C., the war was over and Athens had lost, having suffered near ruin. WhenLysistrata reminds the audience of the terrible losses that the city has endured, everyone in the audience would have recognized the truth of her words. The chorus in Lysistrata is made up of old men because there are no young men remaining. Lysistrata laments the shortage of men because there are no grooms for the young women who seek husbands. The war, which has lasted twenty long years, shows no sign of ending, when Aristophanes is staging his play. The war will end in another seven years, but only after the Athenians are starved into surrendering.

The end of the war was a major defeat for Athens, one from which it could not recover. A peace agreement was signed in 404 B.C., and Sparta imposed severe penalties on Athens. In addition to surrendering almost all of their remaining ships, Athens was also forced to tear down the city walls, and adhere to the same foreign policy as Sparta. The Peloponnesian War was a catastrophe for Athens, leading to the destruction of her empire. The city continued to exist as a center for culture and wealth, but its political strength was never the same. The city treasury, which Lysistrata and the old women hoped to preserve, was laid waste by a war that lasted twenty-seven years. The government of Athens changed, as well. There were many political murders, most at the hands of the committee of thirty that Sparta placed in control of Athens’ government.

Literary Style

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Audience The people for whom a drama is performed. Authors usually write with an audience in mind. Aristophanes writes for an audience interested in drama as entertainment, but this is also an audience that would expect the playwright to include important lessons about life. In this case, the lesson is about an effective society and government that allows a war to continue after so many years. This comedy uses satire and humor to suggest to the audience that the men in power have not been effective in dealing with the war.

Character A person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multifaceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. Characterization is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. As is usually the case in Greek drama, the character’s names in Lysistrata suggest their function. Lysistrata’s name means ‘‘she who disbands the army.’’

Chorus In ancient Greek drama, a chorus consisted of a group of actors who interpreted and commented on the play’s action and themes, most often singing or chanting their lines. Initially the chorus had an important role in drama, as it does in Lysistrata, but over time its purpose was diminished, and as a result, the chorus became little more than commentary between acts. Modern theatre rarely uses a chorus.

Drama A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. Historically, drama has consisted of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. Lysistrata is traditional Greek drama. Just as drama educates and warns, comedy can provide important lessons for men about how they govern. The laughter of the audience makes comedy a safer forum for criticism of the governing body.

Genre Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means ‘‘kind’’ or ‘‘type.’’ Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy, or romance. Lysistrata is a Greek comedy, in this case an Old Comedy, which refers to earthy and humorous sexuality.

Farce Much of the action and most of the dialogue in this play is farcical, filled with nonsense and exaggeration. The action of the play is suppose to be divided over a period of five days, with the women organizing and seizing the Acropolis, and the meeting between Athenian and Spartan ambassadors occurring five days later. Periods of time are never exactly noted, but the time lapse is certainly not long enough to account for the state of misery that the men portray. The emphasis in the play is on their physical discomfort and the obvious signs of that discomfort. The humor is ribald and lewd, with risque references to just what it is that the women are denying the men.

Plot This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Lysistrata is how women decide to withhold sex to force the men to stop the war. But the theme is how ineffective men have been in bringing an end to a war that has lasted twenty years and which will last another seven years.

Scene Traditionally, a scene is a subdivision of an act and consists of continuous action of a time and place. However, Aristophanes is not using acts, and so the action, is contained in one scene, covering an unspecified period of time, perhaps a few days at most.

Setting The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The primary location for Lysistrata is Athens. The action spans a space of several days; five days is suggested in the text.

Compare and Contrast

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c. 411 B.C.: The democracy of Athens is overthrown by extremists, who are in open negotiation with Sparta. These extremists are soon overthrown, and the Athenian navy defeats the Spartan navy a few months later.

Today: Greece is a united country at this time, with no city-state attempting to seize control over the country.

c. 411 B.C.: The war between Sparta and Athens has continued for twenty years. The Peloponnesian War will end in 404 B.C., with Athens’ defeat.

Today: Greece, which has been dominated by military coups and turmoil with neighboring Turkey since the end of World War II, is no longer considered a dominant military force.

c. 411 B.C.: In 429 B.C., a plague killed one third, and perhaps as many as two thirds of the population of Athens. Because of this plague, many Athenians ceased to believe in their gods, and much of the population fell into drunkenness, gluttony, and licentiousness. The effect of this change can be seen in the drama, Lysistrata, in which there is little mention of the gods-as there had been in many earlier Greek dramas.

Today: Medicine has helped to identify the cause of disease, and most modern populations no longer blame the gods for the plague. But occasionally, as was the case with the initial discovery of AIDS, a segment of the population will attribute the victims’ disease to a punishment of god and a judgment on behavior.

c. 411 B.C.: The annual drama prizes at the Dionysus competition continue to draw the most talented dramatists. The prizes are sought after, and even in the midst of war, the leading dramatists of the period continue to challenge one another for prizes and recognition as the greatest playwright.

Today: Drama competition continues with prizes for film and theatre eagerly sought each spring. Winners of the Best Film at the Academy Awards or the Best Play at the Critic Circle Awards are assured of accolades and monetary rewards that will ease the production of subsequent work.

c. 411 B.C.: 25–35 percent of the population of Greece are slaves, many of whom work in the silver mines.

Today: Slavery has long since ended, but Greece is now dealing with severe poverty and a shrinking economic base.

Media Adaptations

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There are no filmed adaptations of this play. However, Lysistrata, was adapted as an opera in 1963–1967, to be performed by the Wayne State University opera workshop. There is a 90-minute cassette of the music available from Greenwich Publishers in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Aristophanes, Lysistrata, edited by Jeffrey Henderson, The Focus Classical Library, 1992.

Arkins, Brian, ‘‘Sexuality in Fifth-Century Athens,’’ in Classics Ireland, University College, 1994.

Barnes, Clive, compilation of reviews of the 1930 production of Lysistrata, in New York Times Directory of the Theatre, Arno Press, 1973.

Coleman, Robert, review of Lysistrata, in Daily Mirror, November 25, 1959.

McCain, John, review of Lysistrata, in Journal American, November, 15, 1959.

Motto, Anna Lydia, and John R. Clark, ‘‘Lysistrata: Overview,’’ in Reference Guide to World Literature, 2nd ed., edited by Lesley Henderson, St. James Press, 1995.

Tyrrell, William Blake, and Larry J. Bennett, ‘‘Pericles' Muting of Women's Voices in Thuc. 2.45.2,’’ paper delivered at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference, 1999.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘‘A Room of One's Own: Shakespeare's Sister,’’ in The Lexington Reader, D.C. Heath & Co., 1987, pp. 50-60, originally published in 1929.

FURTHER READING Bowie, A. M., Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual, and Comedy, Cambridge University Press, 1996. This book uses the techniques of cultural anthropology to compare Aristophanes' plays with Greek myths and rituals. This book also attempts to reconstruct the probable reaction of the audience to these plays.

MacDowell, Douglas M., Aristophanes and Athens: An Introduction to the Plays, Oxford University Press, 1995. This book provides information about the political background of Aristophanes' plays and is very helpful to new readers or audiences, who might lack an understanding of the political and social forces behind this writer's work.

Rehm, Rush, Greek Tragic Theatre, Routledge, 1994. This book is helpful to readers who want to understand how Greek tragedy works. This author looks at performances of several plays and encourages readers to consider the context in which the plays were performed.

Strauss, Barry S., Fathers and Sons in Athens: Ideology and Society in the Era of the Peloponnesian War, Princeton University Press, 1993. This text examines how social upheaval, especially during time of war, affects the family, especially the relationship between father and son. Strauss also draws connections between the problems that faced Athenian families and the dynamics of modern families.

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, Penguin Classics, 1986. Thucydides' great history of the war between Sparta and Athens remains one of the great histories of all time.

Walton, J. Michael, Living Greek Theatre, Greenwood, 1987. This text focuses on the staging and performance of Greek theatre. The author attempts to integrate classical and modern theatre, while providing a great deal of information about a number of the most important plays from the classical Greek period.

Wise, Jennifer, Dionynsus Writes: The Invention of Theatre in Ancient Greece, Cornell University Press, 1998. The author discusses the relationship between literature and theatre by examining the influences of a newly emerging literary world on drama. This text also provides some interesting ideas about the role of the oral tradition on theatre.


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Bowie, A. M. Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual, and Comedy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1993. An interesting structural anthropological approach that places Aristoph-anes’ plays in their contemporary context. The analysis of Lysistrata includes a discussion of earlier myths and rituals that demonstrate feminist power.

Dover, K. J. Aristophanic Comedy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. A tribute to Artistophanes’ plays in their cultural context by a distinguished classical Greek scholar. A separate chapter on Lysistrata provides a synopsis and examines the lyrics and characters. Also includes a discussion of war and incorporates useful notes on transliteration.

Reckford, Kenneth J. Aristophanes’ Old-and-New Comedy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Six essays on interpreting Aristophanes. The author, who views Lysistrata as living theater, offers unusual staging possibilities and discusses the play within the context of loyalty to comic truths, ritual, and sexual equality. Lengthy bibliography included.

Solomos, Alexis. The Living Aristophanes. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974. The author, the director who first staged all of Aristophanes’ plays at the classic theater at Epidaurus, discusses Lysistrata as Aristophanes’ first attempt at comedy as popular entertainment. Argues that Aristophanes was indulging his theatrical fancies rather than moralizing as a social reformer.

Spatz, Lois. Aristophanes. Boston: Twayne, 1978. Sound introduction to Aristophanes’ plays. A separate chapter on Lysistrata examines the political and historical background, secondary role of women in Athenian society, and the elusive and idyllic quest for peace. Also includes chronology, notes, and selected bibliography.




Critical Essays