Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Wasps (Greek: Sphēkes) is a comedy written by ancient Greek comic playwright Aristophanes (c. 445 to c. 386 BCE). It is assumed that the play was written sometime in 422 BCE, since its first production was at the Lenaia theater festival in the same year, where it won second place for best comedy.
Aristophanes wrote about forty plays in his lifetime; however, only eleven of them remain intact and complete to this day. The Wasps is chronologically the fourth of those plays, and all of them are a part of an ancient literary genre called Old Comedy, where the writers present and often mock the (anti)hero, who is usually based on a real person and tries to solve an issue that is politically or socially similar and relevant to actual societal issues.
Old Comedy is a genre that celebrates the Greek god of wine and comedy, Dionysus, and focuses on entertainment and the humor rather than on the complexity or the sophistication of the plot. The Wasps is the only play where all of the conventions and elements of Old Comedy are present, and as such, it is considered to be one of the best comedies in the history of drama.
The Wasps is written in two acts, and it is basically a satire that mocks the Athenian court and the jurisdictions that are controlled by the unjust and corrupt Kleon—a real Athenian general in the Peloponnesian war. He is often portrayed by Aristophanes as an unethical and unscrupulous rabble-rouser, as Aristophanes was against the war between Sparta and Athens. The main characters of the play are Philokleon (Kleon-lover), an old, ill-tempered and stubborn juror, who is addicted to his job and Kleon’s way of thinking, and his son, Bdelykleon (Kleon-hater), a young, smart, and honest man who tries to reason with his father and cure his 'addiction.' Because of its focus on the political climate, many consider The Wasps to be a political comedy as well.
Essentially, The Wasps is Aristophanes’s critique of all supporters of the Peloponnesian war and of the corrupt Athenian legal system, and the title is a metaphor for the jurors who, with their characteristic behavior, resemble a swarm of wasps. Through his main characters, Aristophanes skillfully presents his own opinions on the matter and boldly suggests a change in the old system, firmly stating that a younger, smarter, more honorable and more sophisticated leadership is due to take over.