(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Having failed in 423 b.c.e. with his intellectual parody, The Clouds, Aristophanes returned to the more vulgar arena of politics. Considered to be the most perfectly structured of Aristophanes’ plays, The Wasps took second prize at the Lenaia. It provides a complete pattern against which other plays can be measured.

The prologue (lines 1-229) begins on an early morning before the house of Philokleon (“Lover of Kleon”) and his son Bdelykleon (“Hater of Kleon”), with two of their slaves, Sosias and Xanthias, discussing the peculiar illness of Philokleon, who has an obsession to serve daily on juries within the law courts—spelled out in a lengthy monologue(lines 85-135) by Xanthias—from which Bdelykleon is equally determined to prevent him. To get out of the house, Philokleon climbs the chimney pretending to be smoke, while Bdelykleon appears on the roof to stop him. The theme for the subsequent action is stated in lines 158-160: Philokleon fears the gods will punish him if any guilty defendant goes unpunished.

The arrival of the chorus in the parodos (lines 230-315), spectacularly costumed as “wasps” so that they may “buzz” around, over which are the garb of the jurors whose action often “stings,” signals the beginning of the play’s action. They are exclusively old men of Philokleon’s generation.

The agon is twofold: In a scene interlayered with an...

(The entire section is 552 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Afflicted with a constant desire to judge and to convict the people brought before the courts of Athens, Philocleon is locked up in his own house by his son, Bdelycleon, who previously tried all rational means of persuading his father to give up his mania and become a gentleman. Bdelycleon even resorts to a net cast around the house in order to keep his father from leaving. Two slaves, Sosias and Xanthias, are set to guard the house, and Bdelycleon, as an added precaution, watches from the roof.

The three men are kept busy thwarting Philocleon’s attempts to escape. He tries to crawl out through the chimney, threatens to chew his way through the net, and, at last, is almost successful when he crawls beneath the belly of his ass, in the manner of Odysseus, and then insists that the beast be taken out and sold. The ass moans and groans so intently, however, that Xanthias notices the concealed burden. Philocleon is caught and thrust back into the house just before the other jurymen, the Wasps, arrive to escort him to the courts.

When the Wasps arrive, Philocleon appears at an upper window, tells them of his plight, and begs them to help him find some means of escape. Between them they decide that his only hope is to gnaw through the net and then lower himself to the ground. In this manner Philocleon all but regains his freedom when Bdelycleon, who, worn out with watching, fell asleep, awakens and again detains him. Although the Wasps quickly come to the aid of their friend, they are no match for the stones and clubs used against them by Bdelycleon and the two slaves, and they are soon driven back.

In the argument that follows, Bdelycleon explains that he simply wants his father to lead the joyous, easy life of an old man rather than concern himself constantly with the tyranny and conspiracy of the courts. He argues convincingly enough to force Philocleon into a debate on the merits of his occupation. Philocleon agrees that if Bdelycleon can convince the Wasps, who are to act as judges, that a public career is disreputable, then he will give it up. The old man, speaking first, defends the jury system on the basis of the pleasures and the benefits that he personally derives from it. Bdelycleon, on the other hand, proves that the...

(The entire section is 926 words.)