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.
Further Reading on Aristophanes
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).