Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Aristophanes (c. 448–c. 388 B.C.)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Paul Shorey (1857–1934)
THE BIRTH-YEAR of Aristophanes is placed about 448 B.C., on the ground that he is said to have been almost a boy when his first comedy was presented in 427. His last play, the ‘Plutus,’ was produced in 388, and there is no evidence that he long survived this date. Little is known of his life beyond the allusions, in the Parabases of the ‘Acharnians,’ ‘Knights,’ and ‘Wasps,’ to his prosecution by Cleon, to his own or his father’s estate at Ægina, and to his premature baldness. He left three sons who also wrote comedies.  1
  Aristophanes is the sole extant representative of the so-called Old Comedy of Athens; a form of dramatic art which developed obscurely under the shadow of Attic Tragedy in the first half of the fifth century B.C., out of the rustic revelry of the Phallic procession and Comus song of Dionysus, perhaps with some outside suggestions from the Megarian farce and its Sicilian offshoot, the mythological court comedy of Epicharmus. The chief note of this older comedy for the ancient critics was its unbridled license of direct personal satire and invective. Eupolis, Cratinus, and Aristophanes, says Horace, assailed with the utmost freedom any one who deserved to be branded with infamy. This old political Comedy was succeeded in the calmer times that followed the Peloponnesian War by the so-called Middle Comedy (390–320) of Alexis, Antiphanes, Strattis, and some minor men; which insensibly passed into the New Comedy (320–250) of Menander and Philemon, known to us in the reproductions of Terence. And this new comedy, which portrayed types of private life instead of satirizing noted persons by name, and which, as Aristotle says, produced laughter by innuendo rather than by scurrility, was preferred to the “terrible graces” of her elder sister by the gentle and refined Plutarch, or the critic who has usurped his name in the ‘Comparison of Aristophanes and Menander.’ The old Attic Comedy has been variously compared to Charivari, Punch, the comic opera of Offenbach, and a Parisian ‘revue de fin d’année.’ There is no good modern analogue. It is not our comedy of manners, plot, and situation; nor yet is it mere buffoonery. It is a peculiar mixture of broad political, social, and literary satire, and polemical discussion of large ideas, with the burlesque and licentious extravagances that were deemed the most acceptable service at the festival of the laughter-loving, tongue-loosening god of the vine.  2
  The typical plan of an Aristophanic comedy is very simple. The protagonist undertakes in all apparent seriousness to give a local habitation and a body to some ingenious fancy, airy speculation, or bold metaphor: as for example, the procuring of a private peace for a citizen who is weary of the privations of war; or the establishment of a city in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land where the birds shall regulate things better than the featherless biped, man; or the restoration of the eyesight of the proverbially blind god of Wealth. The attention of the audience is at once enlisted for the semblance of a plot by which the scheme is put into execution. The design once effected, the remainder of the play is given over to a series of loosely connected scenes, ascending to a climax of absurdity, in which the consequences of the original happy thought are followed out with a Swiftian verisimilitude of piquant detail and a Rabelaisian license of uproarious mirth. It rests with the audience to take the whole as pure extravaganza, or as a reductio ad absurdum or playful defense of the conception underlying the original idea. In the intervals between the scenes, the chorus sing rollicking topical songs or bits of exquisite lyric, or in the name of the poet directly exhort and admonish the audience in the so-called Parabasis.  3
  Of Aristophanes’s first two plays, the ‘Banqueters of Hercules’ (427), and the ‘Babylonians’ (426), only fragments remain. The impolitic representation in the latter of the Athenian allies as branded Babylonian slaves was the ground of Cleon’s attack in the courts upon Aristophanes, or Callistratus in whose name the play was produced.  4
  The extant plays are the following:—  5
  ‘The Acharnians,’ B.C. 425, shortly after the Athenian defeat at Delium. The worthy countryman, Dicæopolis, weary of being cooped up within the Long Walls, and disgusted with the shameless jobbery of the politicians, sends to Sparta for samples of peace (the Greek word means also libations) of different vintages. The Thirty Years’ brand smells of nectar and ambrosia. He accepts it, concludes a private treaty for himself and friends, and proceeds to celebrate the rural Dionysia with wife and child, soothing, by an eloquent plea pronounced in tattered tragic vestments borrowed from Euripides, the anger of the chorus of choleric Acharnian charcoal burners, exasperated at the repeated devastation of their deme by the Spartans. He then opens a market, to which a jolly Bœotian brings the long-lost, thrice-desired Copaic eel; while a starveling Megarian, to the huge delight of the Athenian groundlings, sells his little daughters, disguised as pigs, for a peck of salt. Finally Dicæopolis goes forth to a wedding banquet, from which he returns very mellow in the company of two flute girls; while Lamachus, the head of the war party, issues forth to do battle with the Bœotians in the snow, and comes back with a bloody coxcomb. This play was successfully given in Greek by the students of the University of Pennsylvania in the spring of 1886, and interestingly discussed in the Nation of May 6th by Professor Gildersleeve.  6
  ‘The Knights,’ B.C. 424: named from the chorus of young Athenian cavaliers who abet the sausage-seller, Agoracritus, egged on by the discontented family servants (the generals), Nicias and Demosthenes, to outbid with shameless flattery the rascally Paphlagonian steward, Cleon, and supplant him in the favor of their testy bean-fed old master, Demos (or People). At the close, Demos recovers his wits and his youth, and is revealed sitting enthroned in his glory in the good old Marathonian Athens of the Violet Crown. The prolongation of the billingsgate in the contest between Cleon and the sausage-seller grows wearisome to modern taste; but the portrait of the Demagogue is for all time.  7
  ‘The Clouds,’ B.C. 423: an attack on Socrates, unfairly taken as an embodiment of the deleterious and unsettling “new learning,” both in the form of Sophistical rhetoric and “meteorological” speculation. Worthy Strepsiades, eager to find a new way to pay the debts in which the extravagance of his horse-racing son Pheidippides has involved him, seeks to enter the youth as a student in the Thinking-shop or Reflectory of Socrates, that he may learn to make the worse appear the better reason, and so baffle his creditors before a jury. The young man, after much demur and the ludicrous failure of his father, who at first matriculates in his stead, consents. He listens to the pleas of the just and unjust argument in behalf of the old and new education, and becomes himself such a proficient that he demonstrates, in flawless reasoning, that Euripides is a better poet than Æschylus, and that a boy is justified in beating his father for affirming the contrary. Strepsiades thereupon, cured of his folly, undertakes a subtle investigation into the timbers of the roof of the Reflectory, with a view to smoking out the corrupters of youth. Many of the songs sung by or to the clouds, the patron deities of Socrates’s misty lore, are extremely beautiful. Socrates is made to allude to these attacks of comedy by Plato in the ‘Apology,’ and, on his last day in prison, in the ‘Phædo.’ In the ‘Symposium’ or ‘Banquet’ of Plato, Aristophanes bursts in upon a company of friends with whom Socrates is feasting, and drinks with them till morning; while Socrates forces him and the tragic poet Agathon, both of them very sleepy, to admit that the true dramatic artist will excel in both tragedy and comedy.  8
  ‘The Wasps,’ B.C. 422: a jeu d’esprit turning on the Athenian passion for litigation. Young Bdelucleon (hate-Cleon) can keep his old father Philocleon (love-Cleon) out of the courts only by instituting a private court in his own house. The first culprit, the house-dog, is tried for stealing a Sicilian cheese, and acquitted by Philocleon’s mistaking the urn of acquittal for that of condemnation. The old man is inconsolable at the first escape of a victim from his clutches; but finally, renouncing his folly, takes lessons from his exquisite of a son in the manners and deportment of a fine gentleman. He then attends a dinner party, where he betters his instructions with comic exaggeration and returns home in high feather, singing tipsy catches and assaulting the watch on his way. The chorus of Wasps, the visible embodiment of a metaphor found also in Plato’s ‘Republic,’ symbolizes the sting used by the Athenian jurymen to make the rich disgorge a portion of their gathered honey. The ‘Plaideurs’ of Racine is an imitation of this play; and the motif of the committal of the dog is borrowed by Ben Jonson in the ‘Staple of News.’  9
  ‘The Peace,’ B.C. 421: in support of the Peace of Nicias, ratified soon afterward (Grote’s ‘History of Greece,’ Vol. vi., page 492). Trygæus, an honest vine-dresser yearning for his farm, in parody of the Bellerophon of Euripides, ascends to heaven on a dung-beetle. He there hauls Peace from the bottom of the well into which she had been cast by Ares, and brings her home in triumph to Greece, when she inaugurates a reign of plenty and uproarious jollity, and celebrates the nuptials of Trygæus and her handmaid Opora (Harvest-home).  10
  ‘The Birds,’ B.C. 414. Peisthetærus (Plausible) and Euelpides (Hopeful), whose names and deeds are perhaps a satire on the unbounded ambition that brought ruin on Athens at Syracuse, journey to Birdland and persuade King Hoopoe to induce the birds to build Nephelococcygia or Cloud-Cuckoo-Burgh in the air between the gods and men, starve out the gods with a “Melian famine,” and rule the world themselves. The gods, their supplies of incense cut off, are forced to treat, and Peisthetærus receives in marriage Basileia (Sovereignty), the daughter of Zeus. The mise en scène, with the gorgeous plumage of the bird-chorus, must have been very impressive, and many of the choric songs are exceedingly beautiful. There is an interesting account by Professor Jebb in the Fortnightly Review (Vol. xli.) of a performance of ‘The Birds’ at Cambridge in 1884.  11
  Two plays, B.C. 411: (1) at the Lenæa, ‘The Lysistrata,’ in which the women of Athens and Sparta by a secession from bed and board compel their husbands to end the war; (2) The ‘Thesmophoriazusæ’ or Women’s Festival of Demeter, a licentious but irresistibly funny assault upon Euripides. The tragedian, learning that the women in council assembled are debating on the punishment due to his misogyny, implores the effeminate poet Agathon to intercede for him. That failing, he dispatches his kinsman Mnesilochus, disguised with singed beard and woman’s robes, a sight to shake the midriff of despair with laughter, to plead his cause. The advocate’s excess of zeal betrays him; he is arrested: and the remainder of the play is occupied by the ludicrous devices, borrowed or parodied from well-known Euripidean tragedies, by which the poet endeavors to rescue his intercessor.  12
  ‘The Frogs,’ B.C. 405, in the brief respite of hope between the victory of Arginusæ and the final overthrow of Athens at Ægospotami. Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are dead. The minor bards are a puny folk, and Dionysus is resolved to descend to Hades in quest of a truly creative poet, one capable of a figure like “my star god’s glow-worm,” or “His honor rooted in dishonor stood.” After many surprising adventures by the way, and in the outer precincts of the underworld, accompanied by his Sancho Panza, Xanthias, he arrives at the court of Pluto just in time to be chosen arbitrator of the great contest between Æschylus and Euripides for the tragic throne in Hades. The comparisons and parodies of the styles of Æschylus and Euripides that follow, constitute, in spite of their comic exaggeration, one of the most entertaining and discriminating chapters of literary criticism extant, and give us an exalted idea of the intelligence of the audience that appreciated them. Dionysus decides for Æschylus, and leads him back in triumph to the upper world.  13
  The ‘Ecclesiazusæ’ or ‘Ladies in Parliament,’ B.C. 393: apparently a satire on the communistic theories which must have been current in the discussions of the schools before they found definite expression in Plato’s ‘Republic.’ The ladies of Athens rise betimes, purloin their husbands’ hats and canes, pack the Assembly, and pass a measure to intrust the reins of government to women. An extravagant and licentious communism is the result.  14
  The ‘Plutus,’ B.C. 388: a second and much altered edition of a play represented for the first time in 408. With the ‘Ecclesiazusæ’ it marks the transition to the Middle Comedy, there being no parabasis, and little of the exuberant verve of the older pieces. The blind god of Wealth recovers his eyesight by sleeping in the temple of Æsculapius, and proceeds to distribute the gifts of fortune more equitably.  15
  The assignment of the dates and restoration of the plots of the thirty-two lost plays, of which a few not very interesting fragments remain, belong to the domain of conjectural erudition.  16
  Aristophanes has been regarded by some critics as a grave moral censor, veiling his high purpose behind the grinning mask of comedy; by others as a buffoon of genius, whose only object was to raise a laugh. Both sides of the question are ingeniously and copiously argued in Browning’s ‘Aristophanes’ Apology’; and there is a judicious summing up of the case of Aristophanes vs. Euripides in Professor Jebb’s lectures on Greek poetry. The soberer view seems to be that while predominantly a comic artist, obeying the instincts of his genius, he did frequently make his comedy the vehicle of an earnest conservative polemic against the new spirit of the age in Literature, Philosophy, and Politics. He pursued Euripides with relentless ridicule because his dramatic motives lent themselves to parody, and his lines were on the lips of every theatre-goer; but also because he believed that Euripides had spoiled the old, stately, heroic art of Æschylus and Sophocles by incongruous infusions of realism and sentimentalism, and had debased the “large utterance of the early gods” by an unhallowed mixture of colloquialism, dialectic, and chicane.  17
  Aristophanes travestied the teachings of Socrates because his ungainly figure, and the oddity (atopia) attributed to him even by Plato, made him an excellent butt; yet also because he felt strongly that it was better for the young Athenian to spend his days in the Palæstra, or “where the elm-tree whispers to the plane,” than in filing a contentious tongue on barren logomachies. That Socrates in fact discussed only ethical problems, and disclaimed all sympathy with speculations about things above our heads, made no difference: he was the best human embodiment of a hateful educational error. And similarly the assault upon Cleon, the “pun-pelleting of demagogues from Pnux,” was partly due to the young aristocrat’s instinctive aversion to the coarse popular leader, and to the broad mark which the latter presented to the shafts of satire, but equally, perhaps, to a genuine patriotic revolt at the degradation of Athenian politics in the hands of the successors of Pericles.  18
  But Aristophanes’s ideas interest us less than his art and humor. We have seen the nature of his plots. In such a topsy-turvy world there is little opportunity for nice delineation of character. His personages are mainly symbols or caricatures. Yet they are vividly if broadly sketched, and genuine touches of human nature lend verisimilitude to their most improbable actions. One or two traditional comic types appear for the first time, apparently, on his stage: the alternately cringing and familiar slave or valet of comedy, in his Xanthias and Karion; and in Dicæopolis, Strepsiades, Demos, Trygæus, and Dionysus, the sensual, jovial, shrewd, yet naïve and credulous middle-aged bourgeois gentilhomme or ‘Sganarelle,’ who is not ashamed to avow his poltroonery, and yet can, on occasion, maintain his rights with sturdy independence.  19
  But the chief attraction of Aristophanes is the abounding comic force and verve of his style. It resembles an impetuous torrent, whose swift rush purifies in its flow the grossness and obscenity inseparable from the origin of comedy, and buoys up and sweeps along on the current of fancy and improvisation the chaff and dross of vulgar jests, puns, scurrilous personalities, and cheap “gags,” allowing no time for chilling reflections or criticism. Jests which are singly feeble combine to induce a mood of extravagant hilarity when huddled upon us with such “impossible conveyance.” This vivida vis animi can hardly be reproduced in a translation, and disappears altogether in an attempt at an abstract enumeration of the poet’s inexhaustible devices for comic effect. He himself repeatedly boasts of the fertility of his invention, and claims to have discarded the coarse farce of his predecessors for something more worthy of the refined intelligence of his clever audience. Yet it must be acknowledged that much even of his wit is the mere filth-throwing of a naughty boy; or at best the underbred jocularity of the “funny column,” the topical song, or the minstrel show. There are puns on the names of notable personages; a grotesque, fantastic, punning fauna, flora, and geography of Greece; a constant succession of surprises effected by the sudden substitution of low or incongruous terms in proverbs, quotations, and legal or religious formulas; scenes in dialect, scenes of excellent fooling in the vein of Uncle Toby and the Clown, girds at the audience, personalities that for us have lost their point,—about Cleonymus the caster-away of shields, or Euripides’s herb-selling mother,—and everywhere unstinted service to the great gods Priapus and Cloacina.  20
  A finer instrument of comic effect is the parody. The countless parodies of the lyric and dramatic literature of Greece are perhaps the most remarkable testimony extant to the intelligence of an Athenian audience. Did they infallibly catch the allusion when Dicæopolis welcomed back to the Athenian fish-market the long-lost Copaic eel in high Æschylean strain,—
  “Of fifty nymphs Copaic alderliefest queen,”
and then, his voice breaking with the intolerable pathos of Admetus’s farewell to the dying Alcestis, added,
                      “Yea, even in death
Thou’lt bide with me, embalmed and beet-bestewed”?
Did they recognize the blasphemous Pindaric pun in “Helle’s holy straits,” for a tight place, and appreciate all the niceties of diction, metre, and dramatic art discriminated in the comparison between Æschylus and Euripides in the ‘Frogs’? At any rate, no Athenian could miss the fun of Dicæopolis (like Hector’s baby) “scared at the dazzling plume and nodding crest” of the swashbuckler Lamachus, of Philocleon, clinging to his ass’s belly like Odysseus escaping under the ram from the Cyclops’s cave; of the baby in the Thesmophoriazusæ seized as a Euripidean hostage, and turning out a wine bottle in swaddling-clothes; of light-foot Iris in the rôle of a saucy, frightened soubrette; of the heaven-defying Æschylean Prometheus hiding under an umbrella from the thunderbolts of Zeus. And they must have felt instinctively what only a laborious erudition reveals to us, the sudden subtle modulations of the colloquial comic verse into mock-heroic travesty of high tragedy or lyric.
  Euripides, the chief victim of Aristophanes’s genius for parody, was so burlesqued that his best-known lines became by-words, and his most ardent admirers, the very Balaustions and Euthukleses, must have grinned when they heard them, like a pair of augurs. If we conceive five or six Shakespearean comedies filled from end to end with ancient Pistols hallooing to “pampered jades of Asia,” and Dr. Caiuses chanting of “a thousand vagrom posies,” we may form some idea of Aristophanes’s handling of the notorious lines—
  “The tongue has sworn, the mind remains unsworn.”
“Thou lovest life, thy sire loves it too.”
“Who knows if life and death be truly one?”
  But the charm of Aristophanes does not lie in any of these things singly, but in the combination of ingenious and paradoxical fancy with an inexhaustible flow of apt language by which they are held up and borne out. His personages are ready to make believe anything. Nothing surprises them long. They enter into the spirit of each new conceit, and can always discover fresh analogies to bear it out. The very plots of his plays are realized metaphors or embodied conceits. And the same concrete vividness of imagination is displayed in single scenes and episodes. The Better and the Worse Reason plead the causes of the old and new education in person. Cleon and Brasidas are the pestles with which War proposes to bray Greece in a mortar; the triremes of Athens in council assembled declare that they will rot in the docks sooner than yield their virginity to musty, fusty Hyperbolus. The fair cities of Greece stand about waiting for the recovery of Peace from her Well, with dreadful black eyes, poor things; Armisticia and Harvest-Home tread the stage in the flesh, and Nincompoop and Defraudation are among the gods.  23
  The special metaphor or conceit of each play attracts appropriate words and images, and creates a distinct atmosphere of its own. In the ‘Knights’ the air fairly reeks with the smell of leather and the tanyard. The ‘Birds’ transport us to a world of trillings and pipings, and beaks and feathers. There is a buzzing and a humming and a stinging throughout the ‘Wasps.’ The ‘Clouds’ drip with mist, and are dim with aërial vaporous effects.  24
  Aristophanes was the original inventor of Bob Acres’s style of oath—the so-called referential or sentimental swearing. Dicæopolis invokes Ecbatana when Shamartabas struts upon the stage. Socrates in the ‘Clouds’ swears by the everlasting vapors. King Hoopoe’s favorite oath is “Odds nets and birdlime.” And the vein of humor that lies in over-ingenious, elaborate, and sustained metaphor was first worked in these comedies. All these excellences are summed up in the incomparable wealth and flexibility of his vocabulary. He has a Shakespearean mastery of the technicalities of every art and mystery, an appalling command of billingsgate and of the language of the cuisine, and would tire Falstaff and Prince Hal with base comparisons. And not content with the existing resources of the Greek vocabulary, he coins grotesque or beautiful compounds,—exquisite epithets like “Botruodōré” (bestower of the vine), “heliomanes” (drunk-with-sunlight), “myriad-flagoned phrases,” untranslatable “portmanteaus” like “plouthugieia” (health-and-wealthfulness), and Gargantuan agglomerations of syllables like the portentous olla podrida at the end of the ‘Ecclesiazusæ.’  25
  The great comic writer, as the example of Molière proves, need not be a poet. But the mere overflow of careless poetic power which is manifested by Aristophanes would have sufficed to set up any ordinary tragedian or lyrist. In plastic mastery of language only two Greek writers can vie with him, Plato and Homer. In the easy grace and native harmony of his verse he outsings all the tragedians, even that Æschylus whom he praised as the man who had written the most exquisite songs of any poet of the time. In his blank verse he easily strikes every note, from that of the urbane, unaffected, colloquial Attic, to parody of high or subtle tragic diction hardly distinguishable from its model. He can adapt his metres to the expression of every shade of feeling. He has short, snapping, fiery trochees, like sparks from their own holm oak, to represent the choler of the Acharnians; eager, joyous glyconics to bundle up a sycophant and hustle him off the stage, or for the young knights of Athens celebrating Phormio’s sea fights, and chanting, horse-taming Poseidon, Pallas, guardian of the State, and Victory, companion of the dance; the quickstep march of the trochaic tetrameter to tell how the Attic wasps, true children of the soil, charged the Persians at Marathon; and above all—the chosen vehicle of his wildest conceits, his most audacious fancies, and his strongest appeals to the better judgment of the citizens—the anapæstic tetrameter, that “resonant and triumphant” metre of which even Mr. Swinburne’s anapæsts can reproduce only a faint and far-off echo.  26
  But he has more than the opulent diction and the singing voice of the poet. He has the key to fairy-land, a feeling for nature which we thought romantic and modern, and in his lyrics the native wood-notes wild of his own ‘Mousa lochmaia’ (the muse of the coppice). The chorus of the Mystæ in the ‘Frogs,’ the rustic idyl of the ‘Peace,’ the songs of the girls in the ‘Lysistrata,’ the call of the nightingale, the hymns of the ‘Clouds,’ the speech of the “Just Reason,” and the grand chorus of birds, reveal Aristophanes as not only the first comic writer of Greece, but as one of the very greatest of her poets.  27
  Among the many editions of Aristophanes, those most useful to the student and the general reader are doubtless the text edited by Bergk (2 vols., 1867), and the translations of the five most famous plays by John Hookham Frere, to be found in his complete works; and the complete translation of B. B. Rogers. There is also an admirable version of the ‘Frogs’ by Sir Gilbert Murray.  28

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.