|Born||c. 446 BC|
|Died||c. 386 BC (aged c. 60)|
|Years active||427 BC – 386 BC|
|Known for||Playwright and director of Old Comedy|
† Although many artists' renderings of Aristophanes portray him with flowing curly hair, several jests in his plays indicate that he may have been prematurely bald.
Aristophanes (//; Ancient Greek: Ἀριστοφάνης, pronounced [aristopʰánɛːs]; c. 446 – c. 386 BC), son of Philippus, of the deme Kydathenaion (Latin: Cydathenaeum), was a comic playwright or comedy-writer of ancient Athens and a poet of Old Attic Comedy. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete. These provide the most valuable examples of a genre of comic drama known as Old Comedy and are used to define it, along with fragments from dozens of lost plays by Aristophanes and his contemporaries.
Also known as "The Father of Comedy" and "the Prince of Ancient Comedy", Aristophanes has been said to recreate the life of ancient Athens more convincingly than any other author. His powers of ridicule were feared and acknowledged by influential contemporaries; Plato singled out Aristophanes' play The Clouds as slander that contributed to the trial and subsequent condemning to death of Socrates, although other satirical playwrights had also caricatured the philosopher.
Aristophanes' second play, The Babylonians (now lost), was denounced by Cleon as a slander against the Athenian polis. It is possible that the case was argued in court, but details of the trial are not recorded and Aristophanes caricatured Cleon mercilessly in his subsequent plays, especially The Knights, the first of many plays that he directed himself. "In my opinion," he says through that play's Chorus, "the author-director of comedies has the hardest job of all."
Less is known about Aristophanes than about his plays. In fact, his plays are the main source of information about him and his life. It was conventional in Old Comedy for the chorus to speak on behalf of the author during an address called the parabasis and thus some biographical facts can be found there. However, these facts relate almost entirely to his career as a dramatist and the plays contain few clear and unambiguous clues about his personal beliefs or his private life. He was a comic poet in an age when it was conventional for a poet to assume the role of teacher (didaskalos), and though this specifically referred to his training of the Chorus in rehearsal, it also covered his relationship with the audience as a commentator on significant issues.
Aristophanes claimed to be writing for a clever and discerning audience, yet he also declared that "other times" would judge the audience according to its reception of his plays. He sometimes boasts of his originality as a dramatist yet his plays consistently espouse opposition to radical new influences in Athenian society. He caricatured leading figures in the arts (notably Euripides, whose influence on his own work however he once grudgingly acknowledged), in politics (especially the populist Cleon), and in philosophy/religion (where Socrates was the most obvious target). Such caricatures seem to imply that Aristophanes was an old-fashioned conservative, yet that view of him leads to contradictions.
It has been argued that Aristophanes produced plays mainly to entertain the audience and to win prestigious competitions. His plays were written for production at the great dramatic festivals of Athens, the Lenaia and City Dionysia, where they were judged and awarded prizes in competition with the works of other comic dramatists. An elaborate series of lotteries, designed to prevent prejudice and corruption, reduced the voting judges at the City Dionysia to just five. These judges probably reflected the mood of the audiences yet there is much uncertainty about the composition of those audiences. The theatres were certainly huge, with seating for at least 10,000 at the Theatre of Dionysus. The day's program at the City Dionysia for example was crowded, with three tragedies and a satyr play ahead of a comedy, but it is possible that many of the poorer citizens (typically the main supporters of demagogues like Cleon) occupied the festival holiday with other pursuits. The conservative views expressed in the plays might therefore reflect the attitudes of the dominant group in an unrepresentative audience.
The production process might also have influenced the views expressed in the plays. Throughout most of Aristophanes' career, the Chorus was essential to a play's success and it was recruited and funded by a choregus, a wealthy citizen appointed to the task by one of the archons. A choregus could regard his personal expenditure on the Chorus as a civic duty and a public honour, but Aristophanes showed in The Knights that wealthy citizens might regard civic responsibilities as punishment imposed on them by demagogues and populists like Cleon. Thus the political conservatism of the plays may reflect the views of the wealthiest section of Athenian society, on whose generosity all dramatists depended for putting on their plays.
When Aristophanes' first play The Banqueters was produced, Athens was an ambitious, imperial power and the Peloponnesian War was only in its fourth year. His plays often express pride in the achievement of the older generation (the victors at Marathon) yet they are not jingoistic, and they are staunchly opposed to the war with Sparta. The plays are particularly scathing in criticism of war profiteers, among whom populists such as Cleon figure prominently. By the time his last play was produced (around 386 BC) Athens had been defeated in war, its empire had been dismantled and it had undergone a transformation from being the political to the intellectual centre of Greece. Aristophanes was part of this transformation and he shared in the intellectual fashions of the period—the structure of his plays evolves from Old Comedy until, in his last surviving play, Wealth II, it more closely resembles New Comedy. However it is uncertain whether he led or merely responded to changes in audience expectations.
Aristophanes won second prize at the City Dionysia in 427 BC with his first play The Banqueters (now lost). He won first prize there with his next play, The Babylonians (also now lost). It was usual for foreign dignitaries to attend the City Dionysia, and The Babylonians caused some embarrassment for the Athenian authorities since it depicted the cities of the Delian League as slaves grinding at a mill. Some influential citizens, notably Cleon, reviled the play as slander against the polis and possibly took legal action against the author. The details of the trial are unrecorded but, speaking through the hero of his third play The Acharnians (staged at the Lenaia, where there were few or no foreign dignitaries), the poet carefully distinguishes between the polis and the real targets of his acerbic wit:
ἡμῶν γὰρ ἄνδρες, κοὐχὶ τὴν πόλιν λέγω,
People among us, and I don't mean the polis,
Aristophanes repeatedly savages Cleon in his later plays. But these satirical diatribes appear to have had no effect on Cleon's political career—a few weeks after the performance of The Knights—a play full of anti-Cleon jokes—Cleon was elected to the prestigious board of ten generals. Cleon also seems to have had no real power to limit or control Aristophanes: the caricatures of him continued up to and even beyond his death.
In the absence of clear biographical facts about Aristophanes, scholars make educated guesses based on interpretation of the language in the plays. Inscriptions and summaries or comments by Hellenistic and Byzantine scholars can also provide useful clues. We know from a combination of these sources, and especially from comments in The Knights and The Clouds, that Aristophanes' first three plays were not directed by him—they were instead directed by Callistratus and Philoneides, an arrangement that seemed to suit Aristophanes since he appears to have used these same directors in many later plays as well (Philoneides for example later directed The Frogs and he was also credited, perhaps wrongly, with directing The Wasps.) Aristophanes's use of directors complicates our reliance on the plays as sources of biographical information because apparent self-references might have been made with reference to his directors instead. Thus for example a statement by the chorus in The Acharnians seems to indicate that the "poet" had a close, personal association with the island of Aegina. Similarly, the hero in The Acharnians complains about Cleon "dragging me into court" over "last year's play."
Comments made by the Chorus referring to Aristophanes in The Clouds have been interpreted as evidence that he can hardly have been more than 18 years old when his first play The Banqueters was produced. The second parabasis in Wasps appears to indicate that he reached some kind of temporary accommodation with Cleon following either the controversy over The Babylonians or a subsequent controversy over The Knights. It has been inferred from statements in The Clouds and Peace that Aristophanes was prematurely bald.
Aristophanes was probably victorious at least once at the City Dionysia (with Babylonians in 427) and at least three times at the Lenaia, with The Acharnians in 425, Knights in 424, and Frogs in 405. Frogs in fact won the unique distinction of a repeat performance at a subsequent festival. A son of Aristophanes, Araros, was also a comic poet and he could have been heavily involved in the production of his father's play Wealth II in 388. Araros is also thought to have been responsible for the posthumous performances of the now lost plays Aeolosicon II and Cocalus, and it is possible that the last of these won the prize at the City Dionysia in 387. It appears that a second son, Philippus, was twice victorious at the Lenaia and he could have directed some of Eubulus’ comedies. A third son was called either Nicostratus or Philetaerus, and a man by the latter name appears in the catalogue of Lenaia victors with two victories, the first probably in the late 370s.
Plato's The Symposium appears to be a useful source of biographical information about Aristophanes, but its reliability is open to doubt. It purports to be a record of conversations at a dinner party at which both Aristophanes and Socrates are guests, held some seven years after the performance of The Clouds, the play in which Socrates was cruelly caricatured. One of the guests, Alcibiades, even quotes from the play when teasing Socrates over his appearance and yet there is no indication of any ill-feeling between Socrates and Aristophanes. Plato's Aristophanes is in fact a genial character and this has been interpreted as evidence of Plato's own friendship with him (their friendship appears to be corroborated by an epitaph for Aristophanes, reputedly written by Plato, in which the playwright's soul is compared to an eternal shrine for the Graces). Plato was only a boy when the events in The Symposium are supposed to have occurred and it is possible that his Aristophanes is in fact based on a reading of the plays. For example, conversation among the guests turns to the subject of Love and Aristophanes explains his notion of it in terms of an amusing allegory, a device he often uses in his plays. He is represented as suffering an attack of hiccoughs and this might be a humorous reference to the crude physical jokes in his plays. He tells the other guests that he is quite happy to be thought amusing but he is wary of appearing ridiculous. This fear of being ridiculed is consistent with his declaration in The Knights that he embarked on the career of comic playwright warily after witnessing the public contempt and ridicule that other dramatists had incurred.
Aristophanes survived The Peloponnesian War, two oligarchic revolutions and two democratic restorations; this has been interpreted as evidence that he was not actively involved in politics despite his highly political plays. He was probably appointed to the Council of Five Hundred for a year at the beginning of the fourth century but such appointments were very common in democratic Athens. Socrates, in the trial leading up to his own death, put the issue of a personal conscience in those troubled times quite succinctly:
The language of Aristophanes' plays, and in Old Comedy generally, was valued by ancient commentators as a model of the Attic dialect. The orator Quintilian believed that the charm and grandeur of the Attic dialect made Old Comedy an example for orators to study and follow, and he considered it inferior in these respects only to the works of Homer. A revival of interest in the Attic dialect may have been responsible for the recovery and circulation of Aristophanes' plays during the 4th and 5th centuries AD, resulting in their survival today. In Aristophanes' plays, the Attic dialect is couched in verse and his plays can be appreciated for their poetic qualities.
For Aristophanes' contemporaries the works of Homer and Hesiod formed the cornerstones of Hellenic history and culture. Thus poetry had a moral and social significance that made it an inevitable topic of comic satire. Aristophanes was very conscious of literary fashions and traditions and his plays feature numerous references to other poets. These include not only rival comic dramatists such as Eupolis and Hermippus and predecessors such as Magnes, Crates and Cratinus, but also tragedians, notably Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, all three of whom are mentioned in e.g. The Frogs. Aristophanes was the equal of these great tragedians in his subtle use of lyrics. He appears to have modelled his approach to language on that of Euripides in particular, so much so that the comic dramatist Cratinus labelled him a 'Euripidaristophanist' addicted to hair-splitting niceties.
A full appreciation of Aristophanes' plays requires an understanding of the poetic forms he employed with virtuoso skill, and of their different rhythms and associations. There were three broad poetic forms: iambic dialogue, tetrameter verses and lyrics:
The rhythm begins at a typical anapestic gallop, slows down to consider the revered poets Hesiod and Homer, then gallops off again to its comic conclusion at the expense of the unfortunate Pantocles. Such subtle variations in rhythm are common in the plays, allowing for serious points to be made while still whetting the audience's appetite for the next joke.
Though to myself I often seem
A bright chap and not awkward,
None comes close to Amynias,
Son of Sellos of the Bigwig
Clan, a man I once saw
Dine with rich Leogorus.
Now as poor as Antiphon,
He lives on apples and pomegranates
Yet he got himself appointed
Ambassador to Pharsalus,
Way up there in Thessaly,
Home of the poor Penestes:
Happy to be where everyone
Is as penniless as he is!
It can be argued that the most important feature of the language of the plays is imagery, particularly the use of similes, metaphors and pictorial expressions. In The Knights, for example, the ears of a character with selective hearing are represented as parasols that open and close. In The Frogs, Aeschylus is said to compose verses in the manner of a horse rolling in a sandpit. Some plays feature revelations of human perfectibility that are poetic rather than religious in character, such as the marriage of the hero Pisthetairos to Zeus's paramour in The Birds and the "recreation" of old Athens, crowned with roses, at the end of The Knights.
It is widely believed that Aristophanes condemned rhetoric on both moral and political grounds. He states, "a speaker trained in the new rhetoric may use his talents to deceive the jury and bewilder his opponents so thoroughly that the trial loses all semblance of fairness" He is speaking to the "art" of flattery, and evidence points towards the fact that many of Aristophanes' plays were actually created with the intent to attack the view of rhetoric. The most noticeable attack can be seen in his play Banqueters, in which two brothers from different educational backgrounds argue over which education is better. One brother comes from a background of "old-fashioned" education while the other brother appears to be a product of the sophistic education
The chorus was mainly used by Aristophanes as a defense against rhetoric and would often talk about topics such as the civic duty of those who were educated in classical teachings. In Aristophanes' opinion it was the job of those educated adults to protect the public from deception and to stand as a beacon of light for those who were more gullible than others. One of the main reasons why Aristophanes was so against the sophists came into existence from the requirements listed by the leaders of the organization. Money was essential, which meant that roughly all of the pupils studying with the sophists came from upper-class backgrounds and excluded the rest of the polis. Aristophanes believed that education and knowledge was a public service and that anything that excluded willing minds was nothing but an abomination. He concludes that all politicians that study rhetoric must have "doubtful citizenships, unspeakable morals, and too much arrogance".
The Greek word for comedy (kōmōidía) derives from the words for 'revel' and 'song' (kōmos and ōdē) and according to Aristotle comic drama actually developed from song. The first official comedy at the City Dionysia was not staged until 487/6 BC, by which time tragedy had already been long established there. The first comedy at the Lenaia was staged later still, only about 20 years before the performance there of The Acharnians, the first of Aristophanes' surviving plays. According to Aristotle, comedy was slow to gain official acceptance because nobody took it seriously, yet only 60 years after comedy first appeared at the City Dionysia, Aristophanes observed that producing comedies was the most difficult work of all. Competition at the Dionysian festivals needed dramatic conventions for plays to be judged, but it also fuelled innovations. Developments were quite rapid and Aristotle could distinguish between 'old' and 'new' comedy by 330 BC.
The trend from Old Comedy to New Comedy saw a move away from highly topical concerns with real individuals and local issues towards generalized situations and stock characters. This was partly due to the internationalization of cultural perspectives during and after the Peloponnesian War. For ancient commentators such as Plutarch, New Comedy was a more sophisticated form of drama than Old Comedy. However, Old Comedy was in fact a complex and sophisticated dramatic form incorporating many approaches to humour and entertainment. In Aristophanes' early plays, the genre appears to have developed around a complex set of dramatic conventions, and these were only gradually simplified and abandoned.
The City Dionysia and the Lenaia were celebrated in honour of Dionysus, the god of wine and ecstasy. (Euripides' play The Bacchae offers the best insight into 5th century ideas about this god.) Old Comedy can be understood as a celebration of the exuberant sense of release inherent in his worship. It was more interested in finding targets for satire than in any kind of advocacy. During the City Dionysia, a statue of the god was brought to the theatre from a temple outside the city, and it remained in the theatre throughout the festival, overseeing the plays like a privileged member of the audience. In The Frogs, the god appears also as a dramatic character, and he enters the theatre ludicrously disguised as Hercules. He observes to the audience that every time he is on hand to hear a joke from a comic dramatist like Phrynichus (one of Aristophanes' rivals) he ages by more than a year. This scene opens the play, and it is a reminder to the audience that nobody is above mockery in Old Comedy—not even its patron god and its practitioners. Gods, artists, politicians and ordinary citizens were legitimate targets; comedy was a kind of licensed buffoonery, and there was no legal redress for anyone who was slandered in a play. There were certain limits to the scope of the satire, but they are not easily defined. Impiety could be punished in 5th century Athens, but the absurdities implicit in the traditional religion were open to ridicule. The polis was not allowed to be slandered, but as stated in the biography section of this article, that could depend on who was in the audience and which festival was involved.
For convenience, Old Comedy, as represented by Aristophanes' early plays, is analysed below in terms of three broad characteristics—topicality, festivity and complexity. Dramatic structure contributes to the complexity of Aristophanes' plays. However, it is associated with poetic rhythms and meters that have little relevance to English translations and it is therefore treated in a separate section.
Old Comedy's emphasis on real personalities and local issues makes the plays difficult to appreciate today without the aid of scholarly commentaries—see for example articles on The Knights, The Wasps and Peace for lists of topical references. The topicality of the plays had unique consequences for both the writing and the production of the plays in ancient Athens.
The Lenaia and City Dionysia were religious festivals, but they resembled a gala rather than a church service.
The development of New Comedy involved a trend towards more realistic plots, a simpler dramatic structure and a softer tone. Old Comedy was the comedy of a vigorously democratic polis at the height of its power and it gave Aristophanes the freedom to explore the limits of humour, even to the point of undermining the humour itself.
The structural elements of a typical Aristophanic plot can be summarized as follows:
The rules of competition did not prevent a playwright arranging and adjusting these elements to suit his particular needs. In The Acharnians and Peace, for example, there is no formal agon whereas in The Clouds there are two agons.
The parabasis is an address to the audience by the chorus or chorus leader while the actors leave or have left the stage. In this role, the chorus is sometimes out of character, as the author's voice, and sometimes in character, although these capacities are often difficult to distinguish. Generally the parabasis occurs somewhere in the middle of a play and often there is a second parabasis towards the end. The elements of a parabasis have been defined and named by scholars but it is probable that Aristophanes' own understanding was less formal. The selection of elements can vary from play to play and it varies considerably within plays between first and second parabasis. The early plays (The Acharnians to The Birds) are fairly uniform in their approach however and the following elements of a parabasis can be found within them.
|Elements in The Wasps||1st parabasis||2nd parabasis|
|parabasis proper||lines 1015–1050||---|
|strophe||lines 1060–1070||lines 1265–1274|
|epirrhema||lines 1071–1090||lines 1275–1283|
|antepirrhema||lines 1102–1121||lines 1284–1291|
Textual corruption is probably the reason for the absence of the antistrophe in the second parabasis. However, there are several variations from the ideal even within the early plays. For example, the parabasis proper in The Clouds (lines 518–562) is composed in eupolidean meter rather than in anapests and the second parabasis includes a kommation but it lacks strophe, antistrophe and antepirrhema (The Clouds lines 1113–1130). The second parabasis in The Acharnians lines 971–999 can be considered a hybrid parabasis/song (i.e. the declaimed sections are merely continuations of the strophe and antistrophe) and, unlike the typical parabasis, it seems to comment on actions that occur on stage during the address. An understanding of Old Comedy conventions such as the parabasis is necessary for a proper understanding of Aristophanes' plays; on the other hand, a sensitive appreciation of the plays is necessary for a proper understanding of the conventions.
The tragic dramatists, Sophocles and Euripides, died near the end of the Peloponnesian War and the art of tragedy thereafter ceased to develop, yet comedy did continue to evolve after the defeat of Athens and it is possible that it did so because, in Aristophanes, it had a master craftsman who lived long enough to help usher it into a new age. Indeed, according to one ancient source (Platonius, c.9th Century AD), one of Aristophanes's last plays, Aioliskon, had neither a parabasis nor any choral lyrics (making it a type of Middle Comedy), while Kolakos anticipated all the elements of New Comedy, including a rape and a recognition scene. Aristophanes seems to have had some appreciation of his formative role in the development of comedy, as indicated by his comment in Clouds that his audience would be judged by other times according to its reception of his plays. Clouds was awarded third (i.e. last) place after its original performance and the text that has come down to the modern age was a subsequent draft that Aristophanes intended to be read rather than acted. The circulation of his plays in manuscript extended their influence beyond the original audience, over whom in fact they seem to have had little or no practical influence: they did not affect the career of Cleon, they failed to persuade the Athenians to pursue an honourable peace with Sparta and it is not clear that they were instrumental in the trial and execution of Socrates, whose death probably resulted from public animosity towards the philosopher's disgraced associates (such as Alcibiades), exacerbated of course by his own intransigence during the trial. The plays, in manuscript form, have been put to some surprising uses—as indicated earlier, they were used in the study of rhetoric on the recommendation of Quintilian and by students of the Attic dialect in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries AD. It is possible that Plato sent copies of the plays to Dionysius of Syracuse so that he might learn about Athenian life and government.
Latin translations of the plays by Andreas Divus (Venice 1528) were circulated widely throughout Europe in the Renaissance and these were soon followed by translations and adaptations in modern languages. Racine, for example, drew Les Plaideurs (1668) from The Wasps. Goethe (who turned to Aristophanes for a warmer and more vivid form of comedy than he could derive from readings of Terence and Plautus) adapted a short play Die Vögel from The Birds for performance in Weimar. Aristophanes has appealed to both conservatives and radicals in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—Anatoly Lunacharsky, first Commissar of Enlightenment for the USSR in 1917, declared that the ancient dramatist would have a permanent place in proletarian theatre and yet conservative, Prussian intellectuals interpreted Aristophanes as a satirical opponent of social reform. The avant-gardist stage-director Karolos Koun directed a version of The Birds under the Acropolis in 1959 that established a trend in modern Greek history of breaking taboos through the voice of Aristophanes.
The plays have a significance that goes beyond their artistic function, as historical documents that open the window on life and politics in classical Athens, in which respect they are perhaps as important as the writings of Thucydides. The artistic influence of the plays is immeasurable. They have contributed to the history of European theatre and that history in turn shapes our understanding of the plays. Thus for example the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan can give us insights into Aristophanes' plays and similarly the plays can give us insights into the operettas. The plays are a source of famous sayings, such as "By words the mind is winged."
Listed below are some of the many works influenced (more or less) by Aristophanes.
Alan H. Sommerstein believes that although there are good translations of Aristophanes' comedies in English, none could be flawless, "for there is much truth in the paradox that the only really perfect translation is the original." In spite of that, it is crucial to be cited that there are competent respectable translations in other languages such as Farsi (by Reza Shirmarz, a well-known Iranian playwright, translator and researcher), French and German which seems quite fascinating not only for the scholars and academics, but also for theater professionals to be stages or performed in radio. Additionally, despite the fact that English translations of Aristophanes might not be perfect, "the reception of Aristophanes has gained extraordinary momentum as a topic of academic interest in the last few years."
Most of these are traditionally referred to by abbreviations of their Latin titles; Latin remains a customary language of scholarship in classical studies.
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