Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 409
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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 239
Athens street. Street scene outside the home of Bdelycleon (whose name means “Cleon hater”), where two slaves stand guard. They explain that their master is holding his old father, Philocleon (“Cleon lover”), captive inside the house to keep him from joining the other old jurors who follow the philosophy of the ruling tyrant Cleon by daily sentencing anyone brought before them, especially political prisoners. A chorus of old jurors, resembling wasps because of the way they “sting the accused,” come to call for their colleague. The house is covered with a net, and although Philocleon attempts to escape by chewing through the net, he is restrained. To placate his father, Bdelycleon stages a mock trial of a dog. The dog, accused of stealing cheese, is tried in front of the house in much the same manner as all Athenian trials were staged outdoors and open to the public.
House of Bdelycleon
House of Bdelycleon (DEH-lih-klee-on). As a final gesture in changing the attitudes of his father, Bdelycleon takes him inside his house to introduce him to elite society. The audience does not see this indoor scene, but listens instead to the chorus of Wasps, being told about how the old man is insulting everyone inside. Soon Philocleon returns outdoors—to the proper location for action in a Greek play—with a young woman entertainer and challenges his old colleagues to a dance contest as the play ends.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 202
Aristophanes. Wasps. Edited and translated by Alan H. Sommerstein. Warminster, Wiltshire, England: Aris and Phillips, 1983. Provides scholarly introduction, bibliography, Greek text, facing English translation, and commentary keyed to the translation. Sommerstein’s translation supersedes most earlier versions.
Dover, K. J. Aristophanic Comedy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972. Useful and authoritative study of the plays of Aristophanes. Chapter 9 provides a synopsis of the play, discussion of problems with theatrical production, a discussion of the character of Philocleon, and relevant information on the Athenian courts. An essential starting point for study of the play.
Harriott, Rosemary M. Aristophanes: Poet and Dramatist. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986. A recent study of all the plays of Aristophanes. The plays are discussed not in individual chapters but as each illustrates the central themes and techniques of Aristophanes’ work.
Spatz, Lois. Aristophanes. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A reliable introduction to the comedy of Aristophanes for the general reader. Chapter 4 summarizes the play and offers discussion of the plot and the major themes.
Whitman, Cedric. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1964. A standard work on the characterization of the Aristophanic protagonist. Chapter 4 discusses The Wasps, with special emphasis on the generational conflict depicted by the play.