Authors: Aristophanes

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Greek playwright

c. 450 b.c.e.

Cydathenaeon, Greece

c. 385 b.c.e.

Athens, Greece


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 b.c.e. into the Athenian township of Cydathenaeon of the tribe Pandionis. The father was a landowner in Aegina, which gave the young playwright certain status, and he may even have owned land at a young age. He may not have been out of his teens when his first play, The Banqueters (427 b.c.e.), which is no longer extant, was produced to great applause. As to his appearance, he was certainly bald by the time he produced Peace in 421 b.c.e. His vitality must have been great, since he produced and acted in several of his earlier plays. {$I[AN]9810000665} {$I[A]Aristophanes} {$I[geo]GREECE;Aristophanes} {$I[tim] 0450 b.c.e.;Aristophanes}


(Library of Congress)

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 b.c.e., a remarkable feat for the young actor-director-playwright. This play is remarkable as well in that he introduces the antiwar theme for the first time in history, and he played the part of the protagonist, a simple country man who thoroughly routs the antagonist, a warmonger. The Knights, following the next year, so soundly berated the tyrant and usurper Cleon that litigation was put in motion to prove the playwright of foreign birth and therefore disqualify him from competition. Continuing the one-play-a-year routine, Aristophanes presented next The Clouds, satirizing the modern sophistries personified, although unfairly, by Socrates. This was one of his most widely read and discussed plays. Athens’s love of litigation, which Aristophenes thought wasteful of time and energy, he attacked in The Wasps; in the second part he demonstrates how the populace could have benefited from art, literature, and music were it not for this involvement in demagoguery. Peace returns to his original theme, suggesting strongly that Athens should accept the Spartan peace offer and demonstrating the contrast of rural peace and strident war.

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 b.c.e.. This work looks backward to the preoccupation of the middle period with mythological themes; blind Plutus is given sight and wisdom to see that wealth belongs to those who can sanely use it, while the way of the foolish is poverty. This play, with its simple (and not topical) allusions, struck a vibrant chord for playgoers and readers from antiquity down through the Renaissance.

Aristophanes’ three sons carried on the dramatic tradition with some success, for one play—probably written by the father—won a prize in 387 b.c.e. The youngest son evidently won honors in the New Comedy. Centuries later, the plays of Aristophanes exerted considerable influence on English satire, especially on William Congreve, Ben Jonson, Henry Fielding, Somerset Maugham, and Noël Coward.

Author Works Drama: The Banqueters, 427 b.c.e. Babylonians, 426 b.c.e. Acharnēs, 425 b.c.e. (The Acharnians, 1812) Hippēs, 424 b.c.e. (The Knights, 1812) Nephelai, 423 b.c.e. (The Clouds, 1708) Sphēkes, 422 b.c.e. (The Wasps, 1812) Eirēnē, 421 b.c.e. (Peace, 1837) Ornithes, 414 b.c.e. (The Birds, 1824) Lysistratē, 411 b.c.e. (Lysistrata, 1837) Thesmophoriazousai, 411 b.c.e. (Thesmophoriazusae, 1837) Batrachoi, 405 b.c.e. (The Frogs, 1780) Ekklesiazousai, ca. 392 b.c.e. (Ecclesiazusae, 1837) Ploutos, 388 b.c.e. (Plutus, 1651) Fragments, 2008 Bibliography Bowie, A. M. Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual, and Comedy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Bowie uses anthropological techniques in comparing Aristophanes’ plays with Greek myths and rituals with similar story lines in an attempt to discover how the original audiences would have responded to the plays. Includes bibliography and index. Cartledge, P. Aristophanes and His Theater of the Absurd. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1999. Contextualizes Aristophanes' comedies, examines his political thought, and discusses his legacy and continued relevance. Croiset, Maurice. Aristophanes and the Political Parties at Athens. Translated by James Loeb. 1909. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1973. Focuses on the political implications of Aristophanes’ plays. He offers a good discussion of the military, political, social, and economic milieu of Aristophanes’ Athens. David, Ephraim. Aristophanes and Athenian Society of the Early Fourth Century b.c.e. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1984. Seeks to fill a gap in studies of Aristophanes, which concentrate on his contributions to Old Comedy and his comments on Athens during the Peloponnesian War. David instead examines the two extant plays dating from the 300’s, giving special attention to the economic situation they address. Harvey, David, and John Wilkins, eds. The Rivals of Aristophanes: Studies in Athenian Old Comedy. London: Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 2000. Twenty-eight essays on the other comic poets of Athenian Old Comedy, based on the fragments and citations that survive. Includes bibliography. Henderson, Jeffrey, translator and editor. Aristophanes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998–2002. A multivolume, unexpurgated collection of Aristophanes' extant plays. Contains notes, select bibliographies, and indexes. Lada-Richards, Ismene. Initiating Dionysus: Ritual and Theatre in Aristophanes’ “Frogs.” New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. The author uses literary and anthropological approaches in looking at how a member of Greek society would have viewed the play and Dionysus as a dramatic figure. Includes bibliography and indexes. MacDowell, Douglas M. Aristophanes and Athens: An Introduction to the Plays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. MacDowell provides an introduction to Aristophanes’ plays, including information about Athens and the political climate, essential to understanding some of the allusions in Aristophanes’ works. Includes bibliography and index. Murray, Gilbert. Aristophanes: A Study. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, 1964. Concentrates on analyzing the plays and their revelation of Aristophanes’ attitudes. Also gives useful information about dramatic conventions and historical events that influenced the plays. Reckford, Kenneth J. Aristophanes’ Old-and-New Comedy: Six Essays in Perspective. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Examines Aristophanes and his world from six perspectives: religious, psychological, theatrical, poetic, political, and literary-historical. Russo, Carlo Ferdinando. Aristophanes: An Author for the Stage. Translated by Kevin Wren. New York: Routledge, 1994. Explores the theatrical seasons of Athens and the dawn of Greek comedy. Spatz, Lois. Aristophanes. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A good beginning place for discussion of the world of Athens and the social and artistic aspects of the plays. Strauss, Leo. Socrates and Aristophanes. Reprint. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Discusses the confrontation between Socrates and Aristophanes in Aristophanes’ comedies. Analyzing eleven plays, Strauss argues that this confrontation is basically one between philosophy and poetry. Taaffe, Lauren K. Aristophanes and Women. New York: Routledge, 1993. Looks at what the plays say about contemporary concerns of women’s rights and the value of women’s contributions to Greek society. Ussher, Robert Glenn. Aristophanes. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979. Part of the New Surveys in the Classics series, this work offers an excellent brief introduction to the poet and his plays. Includes a chronology of the surviving comedies and discusses them in terms of structure, theme, character, language, staging, and performance. Contains a good bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

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