Last reviewed: June 2018
Aristophanes (ar-uh-STAHF-uh-neez) is considered the greatest writer of Greek comedy, and his plays numbering at least forty were produced for centuries because of their wit, comic invention, poetic language, and characterization. Eleven complete plays remain extant. Politically, Aristophanes was noted for his aristocratic, rather than democratic, views of government. Very little is known of the life of Aristophanes; even the dates given for his birth and death vary as much as five to ten years. His parents were Philippus and Zenodora, and their son was born around 450 Aristophanes
Aristophanes inherited the traditions of the Greek Old Comedy, consisting of broad political and personal abuse, low-comedy farce of an earthy nature, inappropriate flights of poetic fancy, and theatrical conventions of costume, mask, music, and dance. The Age of Pericles allowed its comedians great license and freedom for political satire, a tradition which Aristophanes followed assiduously. He hated the age of decadence, compromise, departure from the vigorous way of life, and the “new” sophistries and systems. He used his plays to influence the political, moral, and religious life of his times, and his was a vigorous campaign. Under their farcical exteriors, his plays were serious allegories aimed at the emotions rather than the intellect he so mistrusted. His art passed through three major periods and bridged the gap between the Old Comedy and the New.
In the first of the extant plays, The Acharnians, Aristophanes won the first prize at the Lenaea in 425
In his middle period, Aristophanes wrote his best-known and greatest plays. The Birds, the play he liked best and one containing some of the greatest lyric poetry of all time, advances the utopian theory that humankind should begin to build a simpler kingdom. The plan fails when this heavenly birdland is overrun by the same old Athenian complications: litigation, demagoguery, and warfare. Lysistrata takes its name from the feminist protagonist, who decides that women can end the sad spectacle of war by resisting men’s amorous advances. The play’s risqué wit and humor make this one of the best comedies of manners and the most frequently produced Greek play of the modern theater. The Thesmophoriazusae (or Women at the Thesmophoria), presented that same year, continues a theme begun earlier, that of dramatic criticism, especially of Euripides, whom Aristophanes criticized as unfairly as he did Socrates and for about the same reasons. In The Frogs he combines many elements of criticism—of state, art, reason—into a masterpiece of theater in which Dionysus goes to the underworld to bring back the greatest poet for troubled times. The chorus of frogs chides, admonishes, and exhorts, while the arguments for and against finally agree on Aeschylus, the tragedian of the great period of Greek drama.
Aristophanes’ last period bridges the final gap from the old Dionysian revel to the bourgeois comedy of Menander. The Ecclesiazusae (or Assemblywomen) fails to support the facetious view held in Lysistrata, for when women intrude themselves into office they establish a novel form of communism, foreshadowing platonic sophistries and satirizing them in advance. Plutus (Wealth), the last extant play under the old master’s name, appeared probably a few years before Aristophanes’ death, dated around 385
Aristophanes’ three sons carried on the dramatic tradition with some success, for one play—probably written by the father—won a prize in 387