Aristophanes
Scarcely anything is known of Aristophanes' life apart from some few facts concerning his comedies. He was born about 445 B. C. in Attica. While he was still a boy his family removed to Aegina, in which island they had a small estate. In 427 he gained the second prize with the Banqueters, and next year with the Babylonians. In 425 appeared his earliest extant play, the Acharnians, an attack on the Athenian war-party, which won the first prize against the great poets Cratinus and Eupolis. As Aristophanes was so youthful, he produced these three comedies under the name of friends. Nevertheless he was attacked by the statesman Cleon whom he ridiculed in the Babylonians. Next year he delivered in the Knights, under his own name, a ferocious onslaught upon Cleon, and was again victorious. But in 423 his Clouds gained only the third place. The poet, surprised and annoyed, rewrote it. This version is that now extant (an elaborate attack upon the sophists, under the person of Socrates) but it was not acted. The Wasps, which ridiculed the Athenian passion for law-business, gained the second prize in 422. The Peace was produced next year, in support of the negotiations by which Nicias brought about a lull in the Peloponnesian War. Our next surviving comedy is the Birds ( 414), in which a great city, Cloudcuckootown (Nephelococcygia) is built in the air, dominating both gods and men; it was placed second. The Lysistrata ( 411) exhibits a sex-strike of Greek women aimed at forcing the men into cessation of war. In the same year came the Thesmophoriazusae ('Women at the Festival of Demeter') showing a supposed attempt of Euripides to rehabilitate himself with the Athenian women. The first (and lost) version of the Plutus appeared in 408, and in 405 the Frogs, a comparison of Aeschylus and Euripides (to the latter's detriment) which gained the first prize and was produced a second time. In 404 the Peloponnesian War came to an end with the collapse of Athens, and Comedy was profoundly affected. The expense of mounting plays in the old manner could no longer be borne, and the chorus was reduced: there is no parabasis in the last two plays of Aristophanes. We are told, moreover, that a law was passed forbidding attacks on individuals. But the poet's flexible genius survived these blows. In 392 he produced the Ecclesiazusae ('Women in Parliament'), a satire on contemporary feminist theories such as we find in Plato's Republic. The Plutus ('Wealth') in its extant form appeared in 388, and dealt with a redistribution of wealth according to merit. Aristophanes later composed the Cocalos and the Eolosicon (both lost) in order to launch his son Araros as a comic poet. The date of his death is unknown.
In all, then, we possess eleven comedies, from the forty or forty-four which he is said to have written. Of these the best is the Birds, next to which come the Frogs, Clouds, and Thesmophoriazusae. But it would serve no purpose to set out in full the plot of these or any; for, strictly speaking, the 'story of the play' is unimportant. What matters is the one great explosive idea and its brilliant treatment in small scenes and lyrics beautiful or witty. Most of the eleven follow the same scheme. First is propounded a fantastic but highly desirable project, which is carried through by the chief character despite immense difficulties. Then comes the parabasis or address by the chorus to the audience in the poet's name. Finally we have a series of little scenes depicting the beneficent working of the accomplished object, ending with a kind of apotheosis of the hero.
The first element, the governing idea, is perhaps his greatest work. To say that he composes comedy is not merely to say that he writes amusing passages: a play of Aristophanes is one immense joke in action. He conceives a plan which sets society, or the whole universe, upside down, and logically works out the result. Even if no character uttered a single joke, the whole play would still be a comedy. In the Acharnians, Dicaeopolis, while Athens is at war with the Peloponnesians, makes peace on his own account and so enjoys an oasis of happiness and delight in the centre of his harassed country. Peisthetaerus persuades the birds to fortify a great city in the air and dictate terms to men and gods. Dionysus in the Frogs, bored by the surviving poetasters of Athens, enters Hades to fetch back Euripides (and returns with Aeschylus). Chremylus, chafing at the unfairness of fortune, cures the blindness of the god of wealth. Trygaeus in the Peace flies up to Heaven on a winged beetle to expostulate with Zeus for destroying Greece, and then rallies the States to haul up the goddess of Peace from the hole in which she has been buried. The Ecclesiazusae shows women in the Athenian parliament--as fantastic a miracle (the poet suggests) as Cloudcuckootown. And the incidental events are conceived in the same manner. Instead of perons standing about and uttering witty or grotesque conversation on politics or marriage, we find visible, acted, jokes. The war is not merely stated to be destroying the Greek cities: the poet shows us the War-Spirit compounding a gigantic salad, throwing into his vast mortar leeks (Prasiae), onions (Megara), cheese ( Sicily), honey ( Athens), and foiled only because the two pestles are missing-Cleon and Brasidas, leaders of the war-party at Athens and Sparta, are dead. In the Knights the rival demagogues bid for the People's favour not only with fine speeches, but with dainties and cushions.
Aristophanes is a poet of ideas, not of psychology. There is little character-drawing throughout his work: his invented people are ordinary, though they move in fantastic surroundings. What of his 'historical characters'--his presentation of distinguished real persons--Cleon, Socrates, Lamachus, Euripides? We know from other sources something about all these, and conclude that the poet is wildly burlesquing them. About Socrates we know a very great deal, and though the pictures painted by Xenophon and Plato differ, they both show a saint, a sage, a man of the world; Aristophanes depicts a conceited pretentious swindler. The explanation of this 'incorrectness' is not simple. First, fantastic attacks upon distinguished men were a part of the general licence allowed to writers of the Old Comedy. Second, he is assailing a whole class--the Sophists, with whom it was possible on some grounds to confuse Socrates, and at the head of whom he is therefore placed, being not only eminent, but also 'a character'. The dramatist knew as well as we that Socrates studied neither fleas nor thunder. Finally, our notions about good taste, slander, fairness in attack, and so forth existed at Athens only in rudimentary form at any season of the year, still less at the Dionysiac festivals. Here the opportunity may be taken to remark that Aristophanes is one of the most indecent writers in the world.


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