Among the extant plays of Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae is easily the poet’s best marriage of literary parody with comic farce. The actual date of production is not precisely known; the play was probably presented in 411 b.c.e., notably the same year in which Lysistrat (411 b.c.e.; Lysistrata, 1837) was performed. Both plays deal in different ways with the tension between the sexes and depend for their comic effect on a temporary inversion of sexual roles, which were very clearly defined in classical Athens. Through the device of farcical transvestism and elaborate imitation of the elevated tragic diction of Euripidean drama, Aristophanes achieves in Thesmophoriazusae a masterpiece that satirizes sexual politics and literary pretension.
The play’s title might be translated as “Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria,” referring to an Athenian fertility festival that rigorously excluded men from its celebration. A central element of the plot, a man, disguised as a woman, trying to spy on the festival, is not entirely far-fetched. Women’s festivals at Athens naturally aroused the curiosity and suspicion of the men who were obliged to support them financially but who were often excluded from participation. Few details are known about what happened at such festivities, but it is clear that they gave women a temporary autonomy and allowed them to conduct sacred fertility rites. Stories from legend and history refer to attempts made by men to infiltrate these all-female rites, often with such dire results as death or castration on discovery. Male anxiety that women secretly indulged in wine or sex or (worse yet) plotted to subvert male domination is the realistic background of the comic fantasy of Thesmophoriazusae.
In the play, as the women gather for the festival, they begin to debate a proposal to prosecute the tragic poet Euripides for his slanders against women. Euripides is perfectly suited to be the focus of their hatred. His reputation for misogyny, whether deserved or not, is frequently mentioned in ancient sources. The reputation seems to have arisen from a (superficial) reading of the characterization of women in his tragedies....
(The entire section is 927 words.)