Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 965
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criticism reaches beyond the person of Cleon to the whole institution of popular juries, making The Wasps an important historical document regarding contemporary attitudes toward this Athenian institution.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 merits and defects of the Athenian jury system are debated. The appearance of the chorus, dressed as wasps equipped with a fearsome sting with which to strike at litigants, means that Philocleon will have support in his advocacy of the joys of jury service. Like Philocleon, the chorus is composed of poor, elderly men who enjoy the feeling of power that comes with passing judgment over those who stand before them as litigants or defendants. In taking the opposite side in the debate, Bdelycleon can only argue that they are duped by individuals such as Cleon. Bdelycleon then openly appeals to their greed and barely manages to win the debate by persuading Philocleon and the chorus that they are poorly compensated for their heroic efforts.
The purpose of the formal debate is to free Philocleon from his obsession, but interestingly enough this object is not accomplished by the end of the contest. Philocleon agrees only to transfer the apparatus of the court to his own home. This is indicative of the strong and stubborn character of Philocleon. At his home the mock trial of the dog by Cuon (Greek for “dog”; the word also sounds like “Cleon”) takes place, recalling Cleon’s statement that he is the watchdog of Athens and incidentally revealing in the middle of the parody little-known aspects of the workings of the Athenian system of justice. The dog is acquitted of the crime because Bdelycleon sophistically marshals all the manipulative power of oratory in defense of his client, who can only bark. The outcome—it is implied that Philocleon never before voted for acquittal—is a disturbing revelation. Philocleon is free to give himself to new pleasures that are supposedly more appropriate to his age and status. A rejuvenated Philocleon leaves jury duty behind and indulges in food, drink, and sex to his heart’s content. The Wasps ends with such a burst of riotous celebration that one may suspect, in the view of the proper Bdelycleon, his father’s cure is perhaps worse than the original disease.