Aristophanes (c. 456 BC - c. 380 BC) was an ancient Greek playwright. Aristophanes only wrote comedy, often political satire, and his comedies, which are of the "Old Comedy school, are the only stage comedies which survive from ancient Greece. In all, 11 of his 40 works have come down to us today. Among his works are the anti-war comedies The Acharnians and Lysistrata, the raunchy satire of Athenian jurisprudence entitled The Wasps, and a satire of the philosopher Socrates entitled The Clouds.
Aristophanes also appears as a character in Plato's Symposium. Plato's Symposium tells the story of a wine drinking party in ancient Athens, at which all the guests are required to make a speech in praise of love. Among the guests are Socrates, Alcibiades, and Aristophanes. Aristophanes tells a comedic tale to explain why some people are heterosexual and some homosexual.
By the time Aristophanes began to write his comedies, democracy had already begun to sour for the Athenians. The people were increasingly demoralized by the ongoing conflicts of the Peloponnesian War and the loss of their greatest hero, Pericles, had been taken from them and replaced by unscrupulous politicians such as Cleon and Hyperbolus. It is little wonder, therefore, that Aristophanes laughter is tinged, even from the beginning, with tones of apprehension and grief.
Love is simply the name for the desire and the pursuit of the whole.
Men of sense often learn from their enemies. It is from their foes, not their friends, that cities learn the lesson of building high walls and ships of war.
Open your mouth and shut your eyes and see what Zeus will send you.
Works by Aristophanes
- "The Archarnian' (426) calls for peace in the midst of the Peloponnesian War.
- "The Knights" (424) satirises the popularity of the demagogue Cleon amongst the Athenian people.
- "The Clouds" (423) is critical of Socrates and the sophists.
- "The Wasps" (422) satirises the Athenian fondness for litigation.
- "Peace" (421) is another anti-war play, as Zeus is beseeched by a peasant who has ridden a snail to his abode in the sky to release Peace who is locked in a cavern.
- "The Birds" (414), where two Athenians found a city in the sky (Cloudcuckooville) where there are no taxes.
- "Lysistrata" (411), where the women of Athens withdraw their “favours” until their men make peace with Sparta.
- "The Thesmophoriazusae" (411), about the dramatist Euripides’ fear of the consequences of his mysogeny.
- "The Frogs" (405), where the death of all the good Athenian dramatists forces the god of drama Dionysus, to go down to hell to find a replacement.
- "The Ecclesiazusae" (392) satirises the “communist” and “feminist” tendencies of certain Athenian women and has them sharing their goods and themselves with all.
- "Plutus" (388) deals with the distribution of wealth and the problems it can cause.
Aristophanes’ humour was rough and crude, frequently obscene, but not as much so as most Old Comedy, which had originated in the Dark Ages in Dionysian rites and revels and was the humour of the masses. He used the comedy of the people in order to get them to look at themselves and hopefully better themselves. And, of course, he was always attempting to win the dramatic competitions by making people laugh.
His mockery, even of the gods, he considered to be in a good cause. He is recorded as saying that “comedy also knows what is right.” Mostly, he mocked the over-traditional and the straight laced and those who took themselves too seriously. As can be seen from the above plays, he addressed surprisingly modern concepts.