The Wasps Summary
by Aristophanes

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The Wasps Summary

In the beginning of Aristophanes’s The Wasps, two slaves guard the rooftop of Bdelycleon and Philocleon (“hater of Cleon” and “lover of Cleon,” respectively). The three are watching the father of Bdelycleon, Philocleon. The conflict is that Philocleon is addicted to his action at the law courts. Bdelycleon tries to ease his pain by staging a mock trial between two dogs. The chorus is comprised of other old jurors who behave like a swarm of wasps. Philocleon acquits a dog accused of stealing cheese. Then Bdelycleon decides that his father needs more social training in order to enjoy a life of entertainment and luxury befitting a man of his age. After some training of this nature, he sends him off to a party, where his father behaves drunkenly. In the closing scene, Philocleon participates in a dancing contest, while the chorus praised his son’s devotion to helping his father, though it is difficult for him to change the ways of an old man.


(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 irrelevant lyric that plays upon the nature of the wasp, the issue is defined (lines 316-525) by Philokleon and the leader of the chorus and formally debated (lines 526-727) by Philokleon and Bdelykleon before the chorus. Bdelykleon’s argument prevails, convincing not only the chorus but also, intellectually if not emotionally, his father. The episode is extended (lines 728-1008), again with interlayered lyric, by dramatizing the agon, in a pretended domestic litigation intended to cure Philokleon of his illness by having him acquit a defendant. The context provides occasion to pan the actual politician Kleon, presumably in the audience.

The lengthy parabasis (lines 1009-1121), balanced between the leader and his chorus, and displaying the particular requirements of Attic lyric style with its highly technical linguistic components, serves to narrate the conflict that the playwright has had with his judges and audiences on previous occasions, upon which they have failed to understand him. Considerable insight into biographical matters emerges.

The play intentionally breaks down in the episodes that follow, for much buffoonery and satire occur. Philokleon warns of excessive drinking (lines 1122-1264), anticipating his own drunkenness, illustrated in the final scene (lines 1292-1449). In between comes the second parabasis (usually lines 1265-1291), wherein Aristophanes places in the mouth of the chorus leader, who is wearing a mask to represent the author, his bitter diatribe against Kleon for that earlier prosecution. Some translators prefer to switch this parabasis with the choral ode (lines 1450-1473) that would otherwise...

(The entire section is 1,643 words.)