BORN: 450 bce, Athens, Greece
DIED: 385 bce, Greece
The Acharnians (425 bce)
Peace (421 bce)
The Birds (414 bce)
Lysistrata (411 bce)
The Frogs (405 bce)
Aristophanes was the greatest writer of Old Comedy in Athens in the fifth century bce and the only playwright from that era with any complete plays surviving. Old Comedy was a form of drama that has no parallel in subsequent European literature. It was a mixture of fantasy, political and personal satire, farce, obscenity, and, in the case of Aristophanes at least, delightful lyric poetry. Although he used the language brilliantly, Aristophanes was above all an inspired creator of bizarre fantasy worlds that defy fundamental laws of rationality and logic. He paid little attention to consistency of time, place, or character and was not very interested in the logical development of a dramatic plot. He brought to his art a command of every kind of comedy, from slapstick to intellectual farce. Parody was one of his specialities, and he had a devastating way of deflating pomposity in politics, social life, and literature.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Equal-Opportunity Satirist Knowledge of Aristophanes is confined almost entirely to his career as a dramatist. It is believed that he was born in Athens, Greece, in c. 450 bce, a time when the city was one of the two leading political powers in Greece and the most important center of artistic and intellectual activity. Little is known about his family except that it was not a poor one. He had an excellent education and was well versed in literature, especially poetry, and above all Homer and the great Athenian tragic dramatists. In addition, he was well acquainted with the latest philosophical theories. All of Aristophanes' boyhood was spent in the Periclean Age, an interlude of peace between 445 and 431. When the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta broke out in 431, Aristophanes was still a youth. What part he played in the war is not known, but he probably saw some active service before it finally ended in 404.
Already famous as a young man, Aristophanes used the power of comedy throughout his long career to ridicule and deplore the shortcomings of his society. Because of Aristophanes' open sympathy toward the land-owning aristocracy, he opposed a war that spelled the destruction of agriculture, so some scholars have seen the poet as a political reactionary. It is true that Aristophanes never tired of heaping abuse on the rulers of Athens, but his comic world view kept him from partisanship of any kind. He was an equal-opportunity satirist, and one politician was just as good a target for ridicule as any other.
An Unprecedented Honor Aristophanes' career as a dramatist started in 427 bce when he put on a play, now lost, called The Banqueters. A year later he brought out another play, which has not survived, The Babylonians, that politically criticized Athens's imperial policies. As a result, Cleon—who eventually ruled Athens and represented the will of the city's powerful merchant class—hauled the author before the council, apparently on a charge of treason. No action was taken against Aristophanes.
After 410 the Peloponnesian War situation gradually worsened, and in the winter of 407–406, a generation of other great classical writers was dying. Euripides died in Macedonia, to be followed in less than a year by his great rival Sophocles. Aristophanes clearly felt that the great days of tragedy were over, and in The Frogs (405 bce), he showed Dionysus, the patron god of drama, going down to the underworld to bring Euripides back from the dead. When after many ludicrous adventures the god finally arrives in Hades, he acts as referee in a long poetic dispute between Euripides and Aeschylus, which contains much delightful comedy but also some serious criticism. After its debut, the play was given the honor of a second performance—something unheard-of at the time.
The End of War and After The Athenians eventually lost their war with Sparta, having been starved into surrender in the spring of 404. This defeat broke the spirit of many Athenians, including Aristophanes. Thereafter, the author's patriotism was colored with a nostalgic attachment to the ideal of Greek unity from earlier heroic times. Though Athenians soon regained considerable importance in both politics and intellectual life, they were
never quite the same again. In the sphere of comedy the uninhibited boisterousness of the Old Comedy disappeared, replaced by a form that was less imaginative and spirited and more cautious and reasonable.
Aristophanes continued to write plays after the end of the war. Of them, Women in Parliament, a skit about equality in marriage and in ownership of property—included ideas later put forward by Plato in his Republic. Aristophanes lived for nearly twenty years after the war. One of his three sons, Araros, became a minor comic dramatist.
Works in Literary Context
Criticism of Politics and War The principal themes of Aristophanes' comedies reflect the poet's profound dissatisfaction with the political reality of Athens. For example, in The Acharnians, Aristophanes' first play, an Athenian peasant excludes himself from the Peloponnesian War by obtaining a separate truce from Sparta. Another play addressing the issue of war, Peace, produced in 421 bce, involved a principal character who travels to Mt. Olympus on a dung-beetle to see what the gods have in store for his war-torn city. It includes a mock-mythological allegory of the Peloponnesian War.
Aristophanes' comedy Lysistrata (411 bce) is both a piece about women and one of the most powerful condemnations of war in European literature. Lysistrata (even the name puns on the idea of disbanding an army) is an Athenian woman who organizes, with the help of a Spartan ally, a sex strike with a view to putting an end to the war. All of the women of Athens agree not to have sex with their soldier and politician husbands until they end the war. Of course the plan quickly works.
Athenian Foibles In addition to war and politics, Aristophanes also ridiculed characteristics of Athenians themselves and human foibles more generally. In The Wasps, he poked fun at Athenians' obsession with unnecessary lawsuits. Bdelycleon, driven to despair by his father Philocleon's compulsive attachment to jury duty, tries to keep the old man from the law courts by allowing him to conduct a trial of two dogs, one of which is called Cleon. Aristophanes satirizes two typically Athenian foibles: one, a blend of excessive zeal and meddle-some ingenuity, which often brings about ambitious projects that fail miserably; and two, passivity and inertia. In The Clouds, a name suggesting the impermanence of intellectual abstractions, the poet blames the professional philosophers of Athens for introducing a spirit of immorality into Athenian culture. He portrays Socrates as the head of a preposterous school that encourages absurd research and logically sound dishonesty. The comedy was not well received, obtaining the third prize at a competition—a crushing defeat for the poet. Finally, in The Birds, which many critics consider Aristophanes' masterpiece, the author describes a society that is ruled by birds. Conveniently located between heaven and earth, the society manages to avoid both divine excesses and human folly.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Aristophanes' famous contemporaries include:
Euripides (c. 480 bce–406 bce): One of the three great tragedians of classical Athens and a poet, Euripides penned ninety-five plays, of which eighteen have survived in complete form.
Cratinus (c. 520–423 bce): As Aristophanes' rival in comic drama, Cratinus was considered one of three great masters of Athenian Old Comedy, along with Aristophanes and Eupolis. Only fragments of his work have survived.
Sophocles (c. 496 bce–406 bce): This Greek tragedian is one of the three greatest playwrights of ancient Greece who produced tragedies that have survived to the present day. It is believed that he wrote 120 or more plays during his lifetime, only 7 of which still exist.
Eupolis (c. 446 bce–411 bce): This Athenian poet of the Old Comedy was seen as Aristophanes' equal in the purity and elegance of his diction. He was also a master of irony and sarcasm. Seventeen plays are attributed to him.
Aeschylus (c. 525 bce–456 bce): This Greek playwright is often recognized as the founder of dramatic tragedy and is the earliest of the three great Greek tragedians that include Sophocles and Euripides.
Influence As an author, Aristophanes exerted great influence not only on people in his own era but also on authors of other eras and other countries. In western Europe, Aristophanes' fame was rekindled as a result of the revival of Greek learning during the Renaissance. Later, Aristophanes' comedies were revered as great poetic works by Romantic poets and scholars. This enthusiasm determined the comic poet's place, which subsequent scholars generally did not dispute, among the greatest representatives of European literature. Poets who acknowledged their admiration for Aristophanes include Heinrich Heine, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Browning, and T. S. Eliot. Aristophanes' influence has also been recognized as having been significant for satiric and comedic authors such as François Rabelais (1494–1553)—an avant-garde writer of fantasy, satire, the grotesque, dirty jokes, and bawdy songs—and Henry Fielding (1707–1754), an English novelist and dramatist who emulated Aristophanes, satirizng politicians with gusto.
Works in Critical Context
Among the various and conflicting interpretations of Aristophanes' works, there is a general admiration for the poet's seemingly boundless imaginative power and his habit of allowing the creative human spirit to triumph over all constraints of reality. Critics and scholars across the centuries have equated Aristophanes with the best of the Old Comedy, ignoring other representatives of this particular art, such as Cratinus or Eupolis, partly because only Aristophanes' comedies have survived in complete form.
Aristophanes' fame eventually waned after his death, but he quickly became central to the Western literary canon. Among the early authors who wrote commentaries on Aristophanes were Photius, the erudite patriarch of Constantinople, and John Tzetzes, the noted encyclopedist. Plato's attitude toward the comic poet was more ambivalent, but this was probably because of Aristophanes' devastating portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds. It is nevertheless reasonable to assume, given the prominent role played by Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium, that Plato also admired the poet's genius. Early Greek scholars compiled critical editions of Aristophanes' comedies, but they valued the comic poet solely for his magnificent language.
Later authors who represented the softer, less offensive, more refined New Comedy eclipsed Aristophanes after his death as Old Comedy's raucous hilarity stopped appealing to the tastes and sensibilities of the urban populations of the later Roman eras. Thus it was New Comedy authors, not Aristophanes, who provided a blueprint for Roman comedy, which in turn exerted a decisive influence on the European stage.
Responses to Literature
- How would you compare and contrast Aristophanes' political comedy with current books, movies, and plays that lampoon political leaders?
- How would you characterize different types of humor in Aristophanes' plays, and what are their different satirical effects?
- Why use animals rather than human beings as the main characters? What does this bring to the satire?
- Explain how The Birds depicts a utopia, or perfect world. Is this utopia still a paradise by our current standards? What, if anything, has changed in our values from the Classical era?
- Choose a subject that is very familiar to you, such as life at school, and try to satirize the parts of it that you least like or appreciate. See if you can use humor to poke fun at certain aspects of your subject. Could you use animals, perhaps including your school mascot, to heighten the satire?
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Many themes consistently appear in Aristophanes' works, including themes of humanism, opposition to war, and ridicule of wrongheaded politicians whose elaborate projects come to nothing. He satirized what he did not like (and sometimes what he did like) using a peculiar mixture of fantasy, political and personal satire, farce, obscenity, and lyric poetry, often including animals as a way of conveying meaning or telling a story. Other works that rely heavily on satire include:
Gulliver's Travels (1726), a satirical novel by Jonathan Swift. This classic of English literature is both a satire on human nature and a parody of “travelers' tales,” a literary genre popular during the eighteenth century. It also ridicules the ambitious and pointless scientific projects of intellectuals and the empty pride of political leaders.
The Parliament of Birds (c. 1372–1386), a poem by Geoffrey Chaucer. The author puts forward a satirical debate over different approaches to love and marriage within the context of a conference of birds who meet to choose their mates on Valentine's Day.
Animal Farm (1945), a novella by George Orwell. This bitter and inventive satire uses the metaphor of animals in a barnyard to discuss human politics generally, and the politics of the Soviet Union under Stalin in particular.
Bowie, Angus. Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Ehrenberg, Victor. The People of Aristophanes: A Sociology of Old Attic Comedy. New York: Schocken, 1962.
MacDowell, Douglas M. Aristophanes and Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Olson, Douglas S. Aristophanes: “Peace.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Pickard, Sir Arthur Wallace. The Dramatic Festivals of Athens. Rev. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Reckford, Kenneth. Aristophanes' Old and New Comedy: Six Essays in Perspective. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Ste. Croix, Geoffrey de. “The Political Outlook of Aristophanes.“In The Origins of the Peloponnesian War by Geoffrey de Ste. Croix. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972.
Stone, Laura. Costume in Aristophanic Comedy. Salem, NH: Ayer, 1981.
Whitman, Cedric. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Aristophanes (c. 450-after 385 B.C.) was the greatest of the writers of the Old Comedy, which flourished in Athens in the 5th century B.C., and the only one with any complete plays surviving. He wrote at least 36 comedies, of which 11 are extant.
The Old Comedy was a form of drama which has no parallel in subsequent European literature. It was a mixture of fantasy, political and personal satire, knockabout farce, obscenity (probably of ritual origin), and, in the case of Aristophanes at least, delightful lyric poetry. It paid little attention to consistency of time or place or character and was not very interested in the logical development of a dramatic plot. This art Aristophanes practiced with superb skill. He brought to it a command of every kind of comedy, from slapstick to intellectual farce. In dialogue passages he wrote colloquial Attic Greek with splendid clarity and vigor, but he could also write beautiful lyric poetry as well, and he was a parodist of the highest class. He had a devastating way of deflating pomposity in politics, social life, and literature, but above all he had an inexhaustible fund of comic invention and sheer high spirits.
Knowledge of Aristophanes is confined almost entirely to his career as a dramatist. He was born in Athens between 450 and 445 B.C. into a family of which little is known except that they were not poor. He had an excellent education and was well versed in literature, especially poetry, and above all Homer and the great Athenian tragic dramatists. In addition, he was well acquainted with the latest philosophical theories. He has often been regarded as conservative in his outlook, especially in politics, and he was certainly well aware of the absurdities of some of the new developments of his day. But in many ways he was just as much a product of the new intellectual movement of the second half of the 5th century B.C. as was the tragic poet Euripides; this truth was not missed by his older contemporary and rival in comic drama, Cratinus, who coined the verb "to Euripidaristophanize."
All of Aristophanes's boyhood was spent in the Periclean Age, that interlude of peace between 445 and 431, when Athens was one of the two leading political powers in Greece and also the most important center of artistic and intellectual activity. When the Peloponnesian War broke out in 431, Aristophanes was still a youth. What part he played in the war is not known, but he probably saw some active service before it finally ended in 404. He lived for nearly 20 years after the war and died after 388. One of his three sons, Araros, was a minor comic dramatist.
Aristophanes's career as a dramatist started in 427, when he put on a play, now lost, called The Banqueters. A year later he brought out another play which has not survived, The Babylonians, which had a political theme and expressed some outspoken criticism of Athens's imperial policies. As a result, Cleon, the most influential politician of the day, hauled the author before the Council, apparently on a charge of treason, but no action was taken against Aristophanes. In 425 he produced the earliest of the extant plays, The Acharnians; the hero, tired of the war, makes a private peace with the enemy, which brings him into conflict first with the chorus of patriotic Acharnian charcoal burners and later with a swashbuckling soldier.
The following year came The Knights, a violent and abusive but often very funny attack on Cleon, who is represented as the greedy and dishonest slave of a dimwitted old gentleman, Demos (the Athenian people personified); the slave is his master's favorite until displaced by an even more vulgar and unscrupulous character, a sausage seller. At the time Cleon was at the height of his influence and popularity, and it says much for the tolerance of the Athenians that even in wartime the play could be produced and, moreover, awarded first prize in the competition for comedies.
In 423 Aristophanes turned from politics to education with The Clouds, in which a dishonest old farmer tries to obtain from Socrates an education of the new sophistic type in an attempt to avoid paying his debts. Aristophanes himself thought highly of the play, but it was a failure. A few years later, after 420, he revised it, but the text that has survived is an incomplete revision that could not be performed as it stands. For this reason the play is not entirely satisfactory, but the comic inventiveness of several scenes and the interest of the portrayal of Socrates have always made it very popular. It has sometimes been described as an attack on Socrates, but the sympathetic picture of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium suggests that the dramatist continued to be on quite good terms thereafter with Socrates and his associates.
In 422 Aristophanes produced The Wasps, an amusing and good-natured satire on the fondness of the Athenians for litigation. A year later he greeted the prospect of peace between Athens and its enemies with Peace, a rapturous and sometimes very bawdy celebration of the delights of peacetime existence in the Attic countryside.
During the 6 years of uneasy truce which followed the conclusion of peace in 421, Aristophanes presumably continued to write plays, but none of them has survived. The next extant play was The Birds, produced in 414, soon after the war had begun again with the great Athenian expedition to Sicily. This splendid drama, one of Aristophanes's most poetic and exuberant creations, deals with the adventures of two Athenians who migrate to Birdland; they persuade the birds to found a new city in the skies, Cloudcuckoobury, and then to blockade Olympus till the gods are forced to hand over their power to the birds.
Political unrest in Athens and intrigues in the winter of 412-411 resulted in an oligarchic revolution in May 411. Shortly before this Aristophanes had produced a conspiracy of his own: in Lysistrata he depicted the women of Greece banding together to stop the war by refusing to sleep with their husbands until they have made peace. With such a plot the play is inevitably bawdy, and much of the humor is forced, as if Aristophanes did not find it easy to jest in such depressing times. However, Lysistrata herself is one of his most attractive characters, and his sympathy for the plight of women in wartime makes the play a moving comment on the folly of war.
Another of the extant plays, The Thesmophoriazousai (Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria, which was a women's festival in honor of Demeter), is also usually dated to 411, but it may equally belong to the following year when the war situation was temporarily brighter for Athens. This lighthearted comedy deals with Euripides, who, faced with a supposed threat by the Athenian women to destroy him, sends an elderly relative in female disguise to speak on his behalf. When his champion is detected, Euripides attempts to rescue him from the police in a series of clever and hilarious parodies of scenes in the plays of the actual Euripides.
After 410 the Peloponnesian War situation gradually worsened, and in the winter of 407-406 Euripides died in Macedonia, to be followed in less than a year by his great rival Sophocles. Aristophanes clearly felt that the great days of tragedy were over, and in The Frogs, produced in 405, he showed Dionysus, the patron god of Attic drama, going down to Hades to bring Euripides back. When after many ludicrous adventures the god finally arrives in the Underworld, he acts as referee in a long poetic dispute between Euripides and Aeschylus, which contains much delightful comedy but also some serious criticism. The play was given the unprecedented honor of a second performance.
Just over a year later the long war finally ended, when the Athenians were starved into surrender in the spring of 404. This calamitous defeat broke something in the spirit of the Athenians, and though they soon regained considerable importance both in politics and in intellectual matters, they were never quite the same again. In the sphere of comedy the uninhibited boisterousness of the Old Comedy disappeared, and it was replaced by a more cautious and reasonable form which points toward the more refined but less fantastic and spirited comedy of manners practiced by Menander and the other writers of the New Comedy.
Aristophanes continued to write plays after the end of the war, and two of the surviving plays date from this period: The Ecclesiazousai (Women in Parliament) of 392, a skit on the ideas of communism in marriage and in ownership of property—ideas later put forward by Plato in the Republic—and Plutus (Wealth) of 388. The two plays are not without interest, but in them Aristophanes is little more than a shadow of the tumultuous comic genius who wrote The Birds and The Frogs.
There are many translations of Aristophanes's works in prose and verse. The best complete verse translation is probably by B. B. Rogers, Aristophanes (3 vols., 1924-1927), but the in-delicacies of the original are often smoothed out, and the style of the rhymed verse is no longer fashionable. This is also true of the otherwise excellent versions by Gilbert Murray of The Frogs (1908) and The Birds (1950). Good modern verse versions of individual plays include: The Birds, translated by William Arrowsmith (1961); The Clouds, translated by William Arrowsmith (1962); The Frogs, translated by Richmond Lattimore (1962); Ladies' Day (Thesmophoriazousai), translated by Dudley Fitts (1959); Lysistrata, translated by Dudley Fitts (1954); and Aristophanes against War: The Acharnians, The Peace, Lysistrata, translated by Patric Dickinson (1957).
Gilbert Murray, Aristophanes: A Study (1933), is the best book on Aristophanes. Cedric Hubbell Whitman, Aristophanes and the Comic Hero (1964), contains a full and interesting discussion of his dramatic technique. There is a detailed treatment of Old Comedy, and of Aristophanes and the other important writers of the group, in Gilbert Norwood, Greek Comedy (1931). Katherine Lever, The Art of Greek Comedy (1956), includes a short account of Aristophanes and a quite good and not-too-technical account of the development of Old Comedy. A more detailed account of the origins of Old Comedy is in A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, Dithyramb, Tragedy and Comedy, edited by T. B. L. Webster (2d ed. 1962). There is an excellent short account of Athens in the second half of the 5th century B.C. in A. R. Burn, Pericles and Athens (1948). The social background of the period is examined in Victor Ehrenberg, The People of Aristophanes: A Sociology of Old Attic Comedy (1943; 3d ed. rev. 1962). □
Aristophanes was the greatest of the writers of the original Greek comedy, which flourished in Athens in the fifth century b.c.e., and the only one with any complete plays surviving. He wrote at least thirty-six comedies, of which eleven still exist.
Aristophanes was born in Athens between 450 and 445 b.c.e. into a wealthy family. He had an excellent education and was well versed in literature, especially the poetry of Homer (eighth century b.c.e.) and other great Athenian writers. His writings also suggest a strong knowledge of the latest philosophical theories.
All of Aristophanes' boyhood was spent while Athens was one of the two leading Greek political powers and the center of artistic and intellectual activity. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three Aristophanes began submitting his comedies for the annual Athens competition. His easy humor and good choice of words made most laugh and at least one politician take him to court. Whatever punishment resulted was mild enough to allow Aristophanes to continue his clever remarks at the leader's expense in his forthcoming comedies.
Aristophanes' special touch with comedy is best explained with a look at the original Greek comedy. The original Greek comedy, Old Comedy, was a unique dramatic mixture of fantasy, satire (literary scorn of human foolishness), slapstick, and obvious sexuality. Aristophanes used beautiful rhythmic poetry as the format for all of his comedy. He had a way of shrinking the self-importance of people involved in politics, social life, and literature, but above all he used his unlimited amount of comic invention and high spirits.
In one such comedy, The Knights, Aristophanes represented the local Athenian leader as the greedy and dishonest slave of a dimwitted old gentleman (the Athenian people come to life). The slave is his master's favorite until displaced by an even more rude and nasty character, a sausage seller. At the time the featured politician was at the height of his popularity, yet Athenian tolerance even in wartime allowed Aristophanes first prize in the competition for comedies.
Downfall and death
All of Aristophanes' comedies kept pace with the political climate of Athens. In peacetime he wrote an emotionally charged and rude celebration of favorite things to do during peacetime. In times of Athenian plots and prewar conflict, he wrote his own conspiracies, such as Lysistrata, a depiction of the women of Greece banding together to stop the war by refusing to sleep with their husbands. With such a plot the play was inevitably rude but Lysistrata herself is one of his most attractive characters, and his sympathy for the difficulty of women in wartime makes the play a moving comment on the foolishness of war.
The Peloponnesian war (431–404 b.c.e.) between Athens and the Spartans began in 431 b.c.e. The leaders of Athens decided to wage war from the sea only. Meanwhile the Spartans burned the crops of Athens. Then the plague (outbreak of disease) hit Athens in 430 b.c.e., killing many. As Athens faced her worst enemy—starvation—Aristophanes' comedy continued to be crisp and cutting. Frogs received the first time honor of the request for a second performance.
The long war finally ended, when the Athenians were starved into surrender in the spring of 404 b.c.e. This sad defeat broke something in the spirit of the Athenians, and though they soon regained considerable importance both in politics and in intellectual matters, they were never quite the same again. In the sphere of comedy the no-holds-barred rudeness of the Old Comedy disappeared and was replaced by a more cautious, refined, and less spirited New Comedy.
The political climate was uneasy with the Spartans lording over Athens. Aristophanes had to hold his tongue in his plays, no longer poking fun at leaders and politics. He died nine years after Lysistrata, which still exists, and three years after his play Plutus. Dates of death range from 385–380 b.c.e. but it is certain that Aristophanes died in his beloved city, Athens.
For More Information
Bloom, Harold, ed. Aristophanes. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2002.
David, E. Aristophanes and Athenian Society of the Early Fourth Century b.c. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1984.
Russo, Carlo Ferdinando. Aristophanes, an Author for the Stage. New York: Routledge, 1994.
c. 445 b.c.e.–c. 385 b.c.e.
Unfortunately, there are very few details about the life of Aristophanes other then the fact that he was born around 445 b.c.e. He began writing for the comic stage as a very young man, and submitted his first play, Banqueters, to the competition at the City Dionysia in 427 b.c.e. when he was only eighteen years old. The titles of 54 of his comedies are known, but unfortunately only eleven of those plays exist today. In fact, Aristophanes is the only Greek comic playwright of the fifth century b.c.e. whose works have survived even in part from this time period. Yet through literary sources, it is clear that Aristophanes was not the only comedic playwright at the time; his most famous contemporaries were Eupolis and Cratinus. Yet Aristophanes' inventive use of language and his inimitable poetic style won the admiration not only of the Athenian public (except the outraged officials) but, later, of Plato. Aristophanes is one of the guests at Plato's fictional Symposium and gives a memorable speech about the origins of love.
Of the surviving plays of Aristophanes it is known that three won first prizes at the City Dionysia. Yet he won many other awards for his plays as well. His known plays include: Acharnians (first prize at the Lenaia, 425 b.c.e.); Clouds (last place at the City Dionysia, in 423 b.c.e., later revised); Birds (second prize at the City Dionysia, 414 b.c.e.); Lysistrata and The Festival Goers (the first at the Lenaia, the second at the City Dionysia, 411 b.c.e.); Frogs (first prize at the Lenaia, 405 b.c.e.); and Women in the Assembly (perhaps 392 b.c.e.). Aristophanes was often threatened with prosecution by the statesman Cleon, whom he mocked frequently in his comedies. Comedy in fifth century b.c.e. Athens was quite different from what comedy is to modern audiences. Comedies were topical satires that derided important political and intellectual movements and figures of the day. Famous targets included Cleon, a rich politician and successor of Pericles; Euripides, the famous tragedian; and Socrates, already infamous as a philosopher and teacher, who is identified with the Sophists (itinerant professors of philosophy and rhetoric) whom Aristophanes despised. Even the gods could appear on stage in ridiculous settings. Though he was an intellectual himself, Aristophanes was not averse to including extremely crude (and crowd-pleasing) humor in his plays, which abound in sexual and scatological references. Aristophanes employed outrageous costumes and scenery in some of his fantasies, such as Birds, in which actors dressed as animals, wore padded costumes with genitalia protruding from beneath short tunics, and grotesque masks in a fictional utopia called "Cloud Cuckoo Land." Many of the heroes of his plays are common people who want solutions to problems in their daily lives and who are mystified by the machinations of politicians and diplomats.
Shifted to Middle Comedy.
There was a shift in Aristophanes' comic sensibilities as the political climate changed due to the Peloponnesian Wars with Sparta (431–404 b.c.e.). His early plays followed a rigid dramatic structure involving a strong chorus crucial to the action that gradually loosened as the playwright defined his own style. After Athens lost the war to Sparta, however, his plays lost their topicality and became less specific to Athens, and the chorus—formerly of prime importance—became largely extraneous to the plot. These plays are now designated as "Middle Comedy," as opposed to the "Old Comedy" defined by his earlier style, and influenced fourth and third century b.c.e. Greek playwrights like Menander, and later the Romans Plautus and Terence.
Circa 446-Circa 386 b.c.e.
Comedy. The works of Aristophanes are the only surviving examples of fifth-century Attic comedy known as Old Comedy. His first play Banqueters was produced in 427 b.c.e., but is nonextant. The titles of his extant works are Acharnians (425), Knights (424), Wasps (422), Peace (421), Birds (414), Lysistrata (411), Thesmophoriazousai(411) , Frogs (405), Assemblywomen (392), and Wealth (388); there is also Clouds, an incompletely revised and never performed version of his comedy of 423 b.c.e. The first two and Frogs are known to have won first prize in the Lênaia, and indeed Frogs was given the exceptional honor of a second performance and earned its author the prestige of a crown of sacred olive for its sage political advice. Although it is difficult to determine whether Athenians expected anything at all serious in the way of advice from Old Comedy, the reception of Frogs must count as some evidence that they were prepared to listen on occasion. The same judgment may be deduced from the traditions of legal action taken against comic poets in general and Aristophanes in particular. The suit brought by Cleon, the target of Aristophanes’ lost second play, Babylonians, and extant Knights, only makes sense if the medium was not regarded as simply one for clowning.
Favorite Targets. The first nine plays were written during the catastrophic Second Peloponnesian War (431-404 b.c.e.) between Athens and Sparta, and Aristophanes consistently argues for peace in them: the parabasis allows the playwright a direct utterance of views not afforded to tragedians (who in any case did not deal with contemporary events). Elsewhere, favorite targets include populist politicians (such as Cleon), corrupting philosophers (Socrates in Clouds), and new-fangled tragedians (above all Euripides in Thesmophoriazousai and Frogs). Although he is superficially a conservative in his depiction of the triumph of simple, old-fashioned heroes (often to the discomfort of more sophisticated characters), he is, in one scholar’s words, a playwright “deeply imbued with irreverence,” and he frequently ridicules traditional views and values too. The surface hostility to innovation masks a profound debt to it: a contemporary comic poet coined the verb euripidaristophanizein—“to behave like Euripides and Aristophanes”—to suggest the identity of the comedian’s targets and models. Later and friendlier critics also emphasized his innovation by presenting him as a writer who had advanced Old Comedy beyond the crude simplicity of his predecessors early in his career and, at its end, laid the foundation for New Comedy.
Angus Bowie, Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).