Greek Playwright Aristophanes Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

During his lifetime, Greek playwright Aristophanes was able to perfect the literary form now known as comedy.

Summary of Event

The death of Aristophanes signaled the complete demise of what has come to be known as Greek Old Comedy, a form perfected by Aristophanes. Prior to Aristophanes, there were comic works, farces, and various humorous skits performed in ancient Greece, but none of these survives as a written document. Historic commentary and evidence taken from such sources as vase paintings and terra-cotta statuary indicate that types of comic performance are as old as Greek civilization. The term comedy comes from the Greek word Komos, which literally means a wild celebration or party. Aristotle in his De poetica (c. 335-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705) indicates that comedy originated in fertility celebrations in which a chorus, often dressed in animal costume and led by a leader carrying a phallic pole, danced and sang “phallic songs.” The members of this chorus would also interact with spectators by making fun of them or hurling obscene insults at them. Tradition has it that comedy was a Doric invention and gradually migrated to Attica. From the first half of the fifth century b.c.e. onward, a comic playwriting contest was formally introduced into the Lenaea festival, which occurred in January and had originally been devoted to marriage ceremonies. In 487 b.c.e., a comic competition was also added to the tragic playwriting contests of the City Dionysia., a springtime festival devoted to Dionysus, god of fertility. Before 487 b.c.e., the City Dionysia, the main dramatic festival of Athens, had been limited to tragedies and satyr plays. Aristophanes

Aristophanes entered the Lenaea comic contest at the age of twenty with Acharnēs (425 b.c.e.; The Acharnians, 1812), a play that was produced under the pseudonym of Callistratus. Athens was at the time engaged in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.) with Sparta, and the play is fiercely antiwar, a theme that was to be repeated throughout Aristophanes’ works. The Acharnians won first prize at the festival, and the young comic genius was on his way to an illustrious career. In all, Aristophanes is credited with writing forty-four plays, eleven of which are preserved in their complete form.

Aristophanes’ second play and the first to be produced under his own name, Hippēs (424 b.c.e.; The Knights, 1812), won the first prize at the Lenaea of 424 b.c.e. Like its predecessor, The Knights is adamantly antiwar. Seemingly fearless in his criticism of the Athenian war party, Aristophanes introduces the Athenian tyrant Cleon as a character and satirizes him brutally for rejecting a Spartan peace offer. In 423 b.c.e., Aristophanes entered the Dionysian festival and won second prize with Nephelai (423 b.c.e.; The Clouds, 1708). Although the play did not win the comic competition, The Clouds has become one of Aristophanes’ most studied works. This is, perhaps, because Socrates is the butt of much of the satire of the play. Indeed, tradition has it that when the character playing Socrates first entered the playing area, the philosopher, who was in the audience, stood up so that his face could be compared with that of the character in the play. Because all Greek actors wore complete head masks, the story is a compliment to the mask designer, but it also indicates how personally Aristophanes aimed his satire. The Clouds—centered on a school for young boys—is an attack on the Sophistic philosophers, a group of teachers of argumentation and law whom Aristophanes despised as manipulators of truth. He included Socrates in the Sophistic group, although Socrates was not an avowed Sophist. The play had such an impact on Athenian audiences that it is said to be one of the main causes of the ultimate execution of Socrates for corrupting Athenian youth.

Aristophanes.

(Library of Congress)

Aristophanes returned to the Lenaea in 423 b.c.e. to win first prize there with Sphēkes (422 b.c.e.; The Wasps, 1812), another play viciously attacking the Athenian ruler Cleon. The Wasps was followed in 421 b.c.e. by Eirēnē (421 b.c.e.; Peace, 1837), which won second prize at the Dionysian festival. Although Aristophanes had introduced an element of fantasy in The Wasps, Peace is his first full fantasia, in which he has a war-weary Athenian fly to heaven on the back of a dung beetle to beg the gods for peace. The gods have abandoned the goddess Peace, and the hero has to rescue her from entombment by the god War. Another full-blown fantasy, Ornithes (414 b.c.e.; The Birds, 1824), won second prize at the City Dionysia of 414 b.c.e.

Perhaps Aristophanes’ most widely known work, the one many consider his masterpiece, is Lysistratē (411 b.c.e.; Lysistrata, 1837), produced at the Lenaea under his pseudonym, Callistratus. The play’s theme of the women of Greece going on a sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War is wildly funny, especially the scene with the young, panting husband begging his wife to return home for the “sake of the children,” but on the whole, the play is filled with a sad war-weariness and argues that the only solution is a Panhellenic peace accepted by all sides. It is also a sympathetic presentation of the lonesome suffering that war forces on a nation’s women.

Weary of the endless war and its destruction of the precious fabric of Athens’ democracy, Aristophanes turned his attention to literary criticism, especially the works of the tragic poets in two comic fantasies: Batrachoi (405 b.c.e.; The Frogs, 1780) and Thesmophoriazousai (411 b.c.e.; Thesmophoriazusae, 1837). In the first play, Aristophanes features a chorus of frogs who aid the god Dionysus descending to Hades to bring back Euripides because there are no longer any good tragic poets writing in Athens. Euripides is also the subject of Thesmophoriazusae (women celebrating the Thesmophoria), in which a group of women put the tragedian on trial for debasing their sex. In less than a year after the production of this play, Sparta defeated Athens in 404 b.c.e. and destroyed the freedoms of the ancient democracy. One thing that was not allowed was political satire, the very meat of Aristophanic comedy. Old Comedy, the form created by Aristophanes and the form devoted to the criticism and satire of public figures and social practice, was dead.

Old Comedy was replaced by a form known as Middle Comedy, which put its emphasis on comedy of manners, drawing humor from such general human types as misers or lovesick suitors rather than from the foibles of particular living persons. Aristophanes tried his hand at two such comic forms with in Ekklesiazousai (392 b.c.e.?; Ecclesiazusae, 1837) and Ploutos (388 b.c.e.; Plutus, 1651), but neither play has the bite and brilliance of his work in Old Comedy. By the time of Aristophanes’ death c. 385 b.c.e., the great period of classic Athenian dramatic art in both its tragic and comic forms was clearly finished. Only one Greek playwright, Menander, who brought the comedy of manners to new heights in New Comedy, would be Aristophanes’ successor.

Significance

Aristophanes perfected the form of the literary genre now called comedy. He took the wild singing and dancing of the komos celebrants and added poetry and structure to bring comedy in line with the tragedies being performed at the City Dionysia. His plot structure made use of a chorus, sometimes of people, sometimes costumed as birds or frogs. Known as Old Comedy, his comic structure employed a complicated plot brought to a point of ultimate conflict. At this point, the chorus stepped forward in a movement known as the parabasis and presented the thematic issues of the play. The plot was then resolved.

Although the change in government in Athens meant that Old Comedy with its social and political themes was no longer possible, the theatrical form realized by Aristophanes was rekindled later by the Greek playwright Menander and traveled from Greece to Rome and thence through the ages to modern Western culture. Finally, as Western culture began to develop an educated middle class much like ancient Athens, comedy as social and political satire has flourished in the Aristophanic tradition wherever there is freedom of speech in a society or wherever brave persons wish to call attention to social and governmental injustices or malpractice. From satires on religious hypocrisy such as Molière’s Tartuffe: Ou, L’Imposteur (pr. 1664, revised pr. 1667, pb. 1669; Tartuffe, 1732) to the delightful wit of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan and the sharp political criticism of writers such as Bertolt Brecht with his Die Dreigroschenoper (pr. 1928, pb. 1929, libretto; The Threepenny Opera, 1949), and the modern attacks on dictators such as Adolf Hitler in Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator, the influence of Aristophanes burns brightly.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bieber, Margrete. The History of the Greek and Roman Theater. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1961. This study remains the basic and most comprehensive presentation of Greek theater history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brockett, Oscar. History of the Theater. New York: Allyn and Bacon, 2000. The most respected of the general theater histories, with an excellent section on Greek theater and Aristophanes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crane, Gregory. The City as Comedy: Society and Representation in Ancient Greece. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997. Gives great insight into Old Comedy themes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hadas, Moses. The Complete Plays of Aristophanes. New York: Bantam Books, 1962. Excellent and readable translations of all the extant plays.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norwood, Gilbert. Greek Comedy. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963. A study of the whole range of Greek comedy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Segal, Eric. The Death of Comedy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. A study of the history of theatrical comedy with an excellent chapter on the importance and influence of Aristophanes.
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Aristophanes; Euripides; Menander (dramatist); Pindar; Socrates; Terence. Aristophanes

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