Aristophanes was born in Athens around 446 BCE during a time of significant political and social upheaval. During this time, the city was grappling with the devastating consequences of the Peloponnesian War, which ultimately resulted in a decline in the political and cultural influence of Athens; a subject especially deliberated in his plays. Aristophanes wrote over forty plays, of which only eleven have survived in their entirety, using them as a medium to satirize the political and social issues of his time. Aristophanes’ style of comedy, known as Old Comedy, was characterized by its irreverence, satire, and mockery of individuals and institutions, often employing buffoonery and sexual innuendo. However, beneath the humor and the raunchiness, he was a master of societal ridicule, using his plays to expose the corruption and immorality of politics, warfare, and philosophy of his time.
1. The Acharnians
The Acharnians took place during the Peloponnesian War, the long-standing conflict between Athens and Sparta which began in 431 BCE. The story follows the protagonist, Dicaeopolis, a frustrated Athenian citizen who has grown tired of the war’s devastating impact on his life.
In an attempt to protect his family, he negotiates a personal peace treaty with Sparta, allowing him to trade goods and luxuries with the enemy. This draws strong opposition from his fellow Athenians, who view him as a betrayer of their cause. Aristophanes presents a powerful anti-war message, shining a light on the corruption and ineffectiveness of Athenian politicians. He highlights the pointless brutality and cruelty of the war through the struggles of the ordinary citizens of Athens.
2. The Knights
The Knights follows the toils of two slaves, Demosthenes, and Nicias, who are trying to get rid of their fellow slave, Paphlagonian, who is manipulating their master Demos to abuse them. Paphlagonian’s character acts as a representative of Cleon – the Athenian statesman and general — and is portrayed as a grotesque and buffoonish figure, with exaggerated physical features and a comically pompous manner of speaking.
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Aristophanes uses the character of Cleon to mock the demagoguery and corruption prevalent among the Athenian politicians of his era, depicting them as selfish and self-serving individuals whose only concern is their personal gain and status. Also, the comedy highlights the Athenians’ susceptibility to being fooled by the rhetoric of charismatic leaders, even when it contradicts their own interests.
3. The Clouds
The play centers on the story of Strepsiades, an old Athenian man. Deeply in debt, Strepsiades seeks the help of Socrates to learn the art of sophistry in order to win his legal battles. Strepsiades’ son, however, is more interested in studying natural philosophy and the stars. He persuades his father to enroll him in Socrates’ school, the Thinkery, where he hopes to learn the secrets of the universe. The Thinkery is a parody of the philosophical schools of Athens; in the play, its teachings are portrayed as absurd and nonsensical. Socrates and his followers, known as the Clouds, are depicted as peddling empty rhetoric and sophistry, using language to manipulate and deceive rather than to reveal the truth. The play also mocks the growing trend of intellectualism in Athenian society, which is portrayed as divorced from practical concerns and real-world problems.
4. The Wasps
The Wasps opens with Philocleon’s son, Bdelycleon, attempting to cure his father of his addiction to jury duty by setting up a mock trial in their home. Bdelycleon portrays himself as the defendant and uses clever arguments and manipulation to convince his father that he is innocent. However, Philocleon remains unconvinced, and the trial ends in chaos. The second half of the play takes place in the jury room, where Philocleon and his fellow jurors are charged with hearing a real case. Aristophanes uses this setting to ridicule the corruption and dysfunction of the Athenian legal system, as the jurors are depicted as being easily swayed by bribes and rhetoric. The play also exposes the elite who manipulate the system and evade accountability while the commoners are left to suffer.
Aristophanes presents a group of women led by the determined and fierce Lysistrata. They decide to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from their husbands. Throughout the play, the women use humor and their sexuality to gain power over men and to argue for their cause. Despite facing resistance from the men, who are frustrated by the women’s stance, the women’s efforts pay off and lead to a peace treaty. Aristophanes parodies the traditional gender roles and power dynamics of ancient Greek society while emphasizing the corrupt and destructive nature of war, as well as the adverse effects on society. The paly portrays women as politically and socially marginalized but showcases their potential to mobilize and achieve a political objective.
Peace follows the protagonist, Trygaeus, who is tired of the war and decides to travel to Mount Olympus to ask the gods to intervene and bring peace. Trygaeus travels to Mount Olympus on a giant dung beetle, where he meets Hermes and other gods. With their help, he discovers that the goddess Peace has been trapped in a pit, and he works to free her.
Once freed, Peace returns to Earth with Trygaeus, ending the story with a celebration of peace and the promise of a bountiful harvest. The play emphasizes the potential for political change and social reform. Trygaeus, as the protagonist, embodies this potential by seeking peace and engaging with the gods to achieve his goal. Aristophanes encourages the audience to question societal norms by considering alternative paths to prosperity.
7. The Birds
In this play, the character of Pisthetaerus and his friend Euelpides leave Athens and seek refuge in the bird kingdom. Pisthetaerus and Euelpides work together with the King of the Birds to build a new city in the sky, called Cloudcuckooland. This new society is depicted as a utopia, free from the problems of Athens, where birds are elevated above humans.
The birds gain control over the gods and the humans only to become tyrannical and abusive in their rule. This is considered as a a reflection of Athenian politics, where leaders often sought power and influence, but often became corrupt and abusive in the process. In addition, Aristophanes depicts the birds as possessing their own language and being skilled in the art of persuasion. This serves as a commentary on the significance of language and rhetoric within Athenian culture, where the ability to speak persuasively and engage in debates (oratory) was highly prized as a means of attaining status.
The main character of Thesmophoriazusae is Euripides, the famous playwright, who has been accused by a group of women of slandering their gender in his works. The women plan to take revenge by punishing Euripides. So the tragic playwright enlists the help of the tragic poet Mnesilochus to infiltrate the secret festival, the Thesmophoria, and spy the women on his behalf. Mnesilochus, dressed as a woman, is eventually caught and put on trial, leading to a series of comical misunderstandings climaxing with Euripides ultimately being pardoned. Aristophanes critiques the misogyny and patriarchal values of Greek society, and highlights the hypocrisy of men who, while holding women to strict moral standards, engage in promiscuous behavior themselves. He challenges traditional gender roles and the idea of a fixed gender identity, suggesting instead that gender is performative and can be manipulated.
9. The Frogs
Dionysus, mourning the decline of Greek tragedy, journeys to the underworld to bring back the great tragic poet Euripides. During his journey, he encounters the god Heracles, who agrees to accompany him. The play explores the significance of art and literature in society, with Aristophanes delving into the notion that great art can bring about social transformation. Similarly, the decline of art may point to underlying societal issues. Employing the character of Dionysus, Aristophanes laments the state of Greek theatre, utilizing his writing as a call to action for artists and intellectuals to reinvigorate the cultural life of Athens.
10. Assemblywomen (Ecclesiazusae)
In Assemblywomen, a group of Athenian women disguise themselves as men and attend the Assembly to take control of the government. They aim to create a utopian society based on equality and fairness, but their plan encounters various challenges and ultimately fails. Aristophanes employs the character of Praxagora, the leader of the women’s group, to critique the Athenian government and the politicians who run it. He suggests that they are corrupt and ineffective, advocating that the government needs radical change. However, the play also questions the feasibility of a utopian society, as the women’s plan encounters various obstacles and ultimately fails.
11. Wealth (Plutus)
The play tells the story of a poor Athenian named Chremylus who embarks on a journey to cure Plutus, the god of wealth, of his blindness. Through their journey, they encounter various characters, including corrupt priests and wealthy Athenians, who offer insights into the relationship between wealth and morality. Plutus, being blind, is unable to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving, serving as a metaphor for how wealth can corrupt individuals’ perceptions and actions, blinding them to the true value of things.
The character of Chremylus, who is poor yet honest, is portrayed as valuing compassion and morality over wealth. Through him, Aristophanes challenges the idea that poverty is a result of moral failing. In contrast, the wealthy Athenians are presented as morally ambiguous and corrupt. As such, he critiques Athenian society’s values and social hierarchy, suggesting that compassion and morality should take precedence over wealth.