The Wasps is a brilliant combination of political and social satire. Produced in 422 b.c.e., this play, like Aristophanes’ earlier work, is an attack on Aristophanes’ personal enemy Cleon, who in Aristophanes’ plays is a demagogue and a manipulator of the Athenian people. In this play Aristophanes does not criticize Cleon for advocating continuation of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.), which was in a temporary lull at the time the play was presented. Instead, Cleon’s supposed control of the democratic juries is the focus of the playwright’s scorn. The poet’s criticism reaches beyond the person of Cleon to the whole institution of popular juries, making The Wasps an important historical document regarding contemporary attitudes toward this Athenian institution. The Wasps is, however, more than a political critique. Its plot revolves around a single elderly juror whose son wishes to cure the old man’s addiction to jury service. The Wasps is a brilliant social satire, partly as a result of its clever depiction of tensions between young and old and between rich and poor in Athenian society.
The system of trial by popular jury was a hallmark of Athenian democracy and one of Athens’s unique contributions to the world. Most lawsuits were heard by large juries, sometimes composed of more than five hundred volunteers, whose only qualifications were to possess Athenian citizenship and to be over thirty years of age. For their service on juries participants received a small sum, too small to make jury service attractive to most, but enough to enlist the very indigent, infirm, and elderly. Juries were therefore largely peopled by such individuals. The Athenians stubbornly maintained the fiction that the popular juries were representative of the people as a whole. The continuing relevance of this issue is clear. From their verdicts there was no appeal, no matter how capricious or unjust the decision. This background is necessary for understanding the thrust of Aristophanes’ comedy. The play suggests that Cleon, by promising greater pay or otherwise manipulating the verdicts of popular juries, exercised undue influence over the courts. Cleon claimed that he was merely acting as the watchdog of Athens, but others, like Aristophanes, apparently saw his activities as another aspect of his vulgar and dangerous political ambition.
One way that Aristophanes makes his topical political satire explicit is by naming his crazed juryman Philocleon (“Cleon-lover”) and his son Bdelycleon (“Cleon-hater”). Philocleon, who retired from working his farm and handed over his estate to his son, is in some respects a stereotype of the kind of juryman whom Cleon supposedly could control: He is elderly, he counts on his small income from jury service, and most of all he is drunk with the power he possesses as a jury member over rich and poor alike. All the same, Aristophanes does not depict Philocleon, who is the protagonist of the play, as a mindless stooge. He is extremely clever in frustrating the efforts of his son to curb his appetite for jury duty, and as he articulates the pleasures of sitting in judgment, one is inclined to sympathize with him. On the other hand, although Bdelycleon seems perfectly justified in trying to free his father from his unusual obsession, he appears as a staid, personality free, and generally much less sympathetic character than his father. That Aristophanes probably shared the political views of the less-attractive character is testimony to his outstanding ability as a comic writer.
The Wasps is unique among the surviving plays of Aristophanes in that it contains all of the formal parts of a Greek comedy that scholars consider to be the traditional constituents of the genre. In particular, the play contains a fully developed contest (agon ) in which the...
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- Critical Essays