Discussion Topic

Comedic techniques and stereotypes in Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Women at the Thesmophoria


In Lysistrata and Women at the Thesmophoria, Aristophanes uses and breaks stereotypes of Athenian women to create humor. In Lysistrata, women boldly withhold sex to end a war, challenging their submissive stereotype, yet some display typical weakness. In Women at the Thesmophoria, women angrily plot against Euripides, reinforcing quarrelsome stereotypes but also showing manipulation and strength. Both plays debunk the stereotype of women being sexually obsessed.

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How does Aristophanes create humor using stereotypes about Athenian women in Lysistrata and Women at the Thesmophoria?

In Lysistrata and Women at the Thesmophoria, Aristophanes both uses stereotypes about Athenian women and breaks those stereotypes to create plenty of humor. Let's look at each play to see how that works.

In Lysistrata, the women of Athens and Sparta are tired of war between their city-states, so they determine to do something to end it. Led by the title character, the women swear an oath to withhold intimate relations from their husbands until the war ends. This is uncharacteristically bold for these women, and some of the women are reluctant to enter into the agreement, suggesting the stereotype of their submissiveness to their husbands.

Later in the play, the Athenian women take over the city from the old men who are guarding it, once again revealing their cleverness and boldness. Lysistrata scolds the magistrate, and the men try to bind her, only to be attacked and beaten by the women. The women control the treasury now, too, so they will stop the war one way or another, and they declare themselves to be the new rulers of Athens. Again, this is far from stereotypical behavior, yet some of the women prove to be weak and try to sneak away (a stereotypical action, perhaps). Lysistrata must stop them, and she does. The women get their way in the end, and the men give in to their demands, ending the war mostly because they have been conquered by their own lust.

Women are again shown as both acting according to stereotypes and breaking them in Women at the Thesmophoria. In this play, the women are ready to do something horrible to the playwright Euripides because of how he has been depicting them in his plays. They claim that his representations of women are making their husbands suspicious of them. Euripides's father-in-law, Mnesilochus, agrees to dress up as a woman and attend the women's gathering to spy on them.

The fact that the women are angrily gathering seems to support the stereotype that they are complaining and quarrelsome. Mnesilochus makes the mistake of offering a long list of women's faults, and this gets him attacked. The women prepare to roast him, literally.

Euripides manages to rescue Mnesilochus by making an agreement with the women and outwitting the guard, and they both escape. The women have now changed their minds about Euripides (another stereotype?) and, deciding to help the pair they so recently wanted to punish, send the guard off in the wrong direction.

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Does Aristophanes reinforce the Greek stereotype (women were often thought of being constantly preoccupied with sex) or does he challenge it in Lysistrata?

This hilarious and often quite challenging play definitely seeks to debunk this cultural stereotype about Greek women. Clearly, if Lysistrata is proposing that women bring about peace in the Pelopennesian War by deliberately refusing their men sex until they achieve peace between Greece and Sparta, this indicates that they are not so constantly obsessed by sex as the cultural stereotype would suggest. On the contrary, the women show that they are able to put aside their own sexual urges to achieve their purpose of forcing their menfolk to do what they want. The play presents women as being a force to be reckoned with, and this is reinforced through the sense in which the women reinforce their image as being rather underhand and deceitful in their methods of getting what they want. Note for example how this is underlined in the following conversation between Lysistrata and Calonice:

Lysistrata: Calonice, it's more than I can bear,
I am hot all over with blushes for our sex.
Men say we're slippery rogues--

Calonice: And aren't they right?

Women therefore are definitely presented as being forceful and manipulative, using whatever power they have over men to get what they want, but Aristophanes definitely challenges the stereotype that women are constantly obsessed with sex. With men walking around with erections because they have been refused sex, it is the men who are shown as sex-crazed, not the women. 

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What comedic techniques does Aristophanes use in Lysistrata?

Aristophanes's Lysistrata is widely considered to be his most popular work thanks to its bawdy comedy and clever exchanges, all focused on the battle of the sexes. Modern audiences may find certain elements of the comedy more humorous than others, and these elements may be different to the ones that inspired the Greek audiences who first attended productions of Lysistrata to laughter.

For example, one very funny element that would have amused Greek audiences is the fact that the women in the play felt in the first place that they could actively influence the men in their lives by withholding sex. This overarching principle is perhaps the biggest joke of all, as women in this day and age had very little power at all. As well, the tradition of staging Lysistrata, whether back then or now, involves only male actors. The audience's experience of dramatic irony, hearing women speak of their men in sexual terms while knowing men were playing the wives, could also inspire laughter. Finally, the play is full of sexual innuendo and double-entendres. These subtle jokes are often pleasing to an audience mature enough to appreciate such humor.

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