“Even if you persuade me, you won’t persuade me.”
Witty remarks like this undoubtedly made Aristophanes the master of words. Aristophanes was a comic playwright living during the Classical Greek Period. Long before he came to the scene, the genre of old comedy was well-established. However, it was Aristophanes who brought comedy to the limelight through his witty dramas. Naturally, he is hailed as the Father of Comedy. His cutting commentaries and satiric views on his contemporary Athenians made him a force to be reckoned with. From Euripides to Socrates, he spared nobody. Through his works, he enlivened the life and times of ancient Athens.
Aristophanes penned 40 dramas during his lifetime. Out of these, 11 are still intact. We are also fortunate enough to have 1000 fragments from some of his other works. Today, Aristophanes’ dramas are the only relics of the genre of the old comedy. Centuries after his lifetime, his works still manage to make us laugh out loud and brighten our days.
Let us have look at some of Aristophanes’ comedies that still make us cry from laughing too hard.
Time: 411 BC
Lysistrata is one of those plays that never loses its relevance. Even though it is set during the Peloponnesian War, the war between the genders portrayed in it is identifiable by anyone and everyone even two millennia after its production. The play revolves around Lysistrata, an Athenian woman who is sick and tired of the war. She secretly convenes a Council of Women wherein ladies from different parts of Greece are present. She asks the women to refrain from sexual activities till the men agree to end the war. With the help of the Spartan Lampito, Lysistrata overcomes all objections and convinced the ladies to implement their plan. They even sign a detailed oath to this effect. The women also take control of the Acropolis where the treasury is located. This leads to mayhem. Though the women feel as bereft as men, they remain steadfast. Finally, with the help of the enchanting girl called Diallage, Lysistrata persuades the men to bring about peace. Lysistrata’s appeal to the masses is still intact. This is proven by its countless reinterpretations and staging. It has been given the form of an opera as well. Recently, Lysistrata was made into a film named Chi-Raq.
Time: 405 BC<a title="Serensipar, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons” href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Frogs-Aristophanes.jpg”>
Photo credit: Serensipar, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
The Frogs was first staged at Lenasia in 405 BC. The play sheds light on the complicated nature of humans. It revolves around Dionysus as he undertakes a journey to the underworld with his sharp slave, Xanthias. Dionysus is not happy with the theatre world. He misses Euripides and believes that bringing him back from death is the solution. Dionysus consults his half-brother Heracles about ways to approach Hades in the underworld. He is less than thrilled with Heracles’ suggestions of jumping off a tower or hanging himself. Dionysus comes up with the idea of crossing Lake Acheron in Heracles’ clothes. While on the river, Dionysus gets flustered by the frogs croaking “Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax.” His mock debate with the frogs is one of the highlights of the drama. He then goes on to have a plethora of misadventures along with Xanthias. They keep swapping Heracles’ attire between themselves to get out of scrapes. They finally find Euripides and Aeschylus debating their merits as playwrights. To everyone’s astonishment, Dionysus decides to bring Aeschylus back to the mortal world. One of the greatest highlights of the play is the retelling of some of the greatest Greek dramas as parodies. The Frogs is one of those plays that makes you laugh yet provokes your thoughts.
Time: 414 BC
Aristophanes’ The Birds has stood the test of time. First performed in the City of Dionysia in 414 BC, the play won second prize at the competition held there. The story follows Peisthetaerus and Euelpides as they convince the human-king-turned-bird, Tereus, to build a city in the sky. The Athenians make Tereus and his fellow birds realize that they could ask for sacrifices from humans by blocking off the Olympian Gods. Peisthetaerus and Euelpides acquire wings and help build the city of Cloudcuckooland. The Birds is a classic and one of the oldest surviving plays of Aristophanes. This satire explores the delicate theme of the oppressed becoming the oppressors. The apt mimicry of birds and their stunning songs make it a wonderful instance of fantastical comedy. It is no wonder that The Birds is widely studied throughout the world.
Time: 423 BC
The Clouds make critical comments on Athenian philosophers. The play’s focus is the renowned thinker Socrates and his followers. The Clouds follows Strepsiades, a father who becomes increasingly worried about his son, Pheidippides. Pheidippides has a penchant for accumulating debts due to his passion for horses. Stepsiades thinks that it would be best to enroll his son in Socrates’ school as that might help him debate his way out of paying debts. When Pheidippides refuses, Strepsiades himself becomes a pupil of the school. Soon, Pheidippides also joins. Surprisingly, he turns out to be a better student than his father. Confident in his son’s debating skills, he refuses to pay his debts. To his utmost horror, Pheidippides uses his newfound skills to justify beating his parents. An enraged and heartbroken Stepsiades decides to destroy Socrates’ school. However, his fatherly concern for his son stops him from taking such a drastic step. With no recourse, Stepsiades concedes to pay off his son’s debts. The Clouds was first performed in Dionysia in 423 BC. As it came last in the competition, Aristophanes revised the plot and circulated the manuscript for the people to read. Today, The Clouds remains quite popular and critically acclaimed. Many believe that Socrates’ portrayal in the play led to his downfall and ultimate execution. Socrates’ pupil, Plato claims so in his Apology as well.
Aristophanes was a master storyteller. More than reaching the hallowed intellectual high grounds, he aimed to touch the hearts of his audiences. He strove to bring the stories of the common man onto his stage. His way was to make people think and laugh at the same time. Aristophanes’ works are filled with age-old tropes like mistaken identity, the battle of the genders, sexual jokes, and commentaries on politicians among others. All this makes his comedies relevant even today. After all, the mass still loves these tropes.
Do comment and let me know which of Aristophanes’ comedies intrigue you the most.
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2 thoughts on “Laugh Out Loud: Aristophanes’ Masterpieces”
Great one, I want to read more posts like this!
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Humor is such a subjective thing. Not only does it vary individually (I don’t like crass jokes, but I love sarcastic comments, for example), but it’s very much a cultural thing. I wonder if would still find these works funny, but I understand their importance.
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