Who Is Aristophanes?

There is an old legend that Dionysus, ruler of Syracuse, wrote to prominent Athenians requesting reading on the “polity of Athenians.” In response Plato sent to him Aristophanes’s comedies.

Aristophanes is the great producer of Attic “Old Comedy” -the name given by latter scholars to a particular brand of 5th century Athenian satirical comedy plays (the word “comedy” stems from the greek word  kōmōidia when joining the words for “revel” and “singer” or “song”). There were certainly other writers of “Old Comedy,” such as Cratinus, Crates, Pherecrates, and Eupolis, but their works have not survived. Indeed only 11 plays from Aristophanes have survived (out of a total of forty-four that were ascribed to him) and have come down to us from antiquity, and Old Comedy lasted for only a brief glimpse in ancient Athens. After the end of Peloponnesian War, and the ensuing disillusionment, new forms of comedy emerged, which some have called “Middle Comedy” and “New Comedy” (i.e. Menander) but these works have only survived in highly fragmented forms.

We know very little about the life of Aristophanes. He lived sometime during the 5th century Athens, and was therefore a contemporary of Pericles and Socrates. He was from an urban deme (Cydathenaeum), and he was a conservative, always yearning for the “good old days” -the glory of the Athenian fighters at Marathon rather than the decline of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, the heights of tragedy under Aeschylus rather than the moral decay in Euripides, the political virtue of the assembly of men of the past rather than the imperial ambitions among the likes of Pericles and Cleon, the seat of intellectualism under teachers like Homer and Herodotus rather than the apparent sophistry of Socrates and the sophists. This image of Aristophanes holds true in his surviving plays, as well as his portrayal in Plato’s Symposium, wherein at the conclusion of the play Socrates and Aristophanes (along with Agathon) are left awake and sobering from the night’s drinking party. Ultimately Aristophanes agrees with Socrates that a good tragic poet is also a good comedic poet, and vice versa.

Comedy can be said to be a mis ox pleasure and pain. It is pleasurable to see our friends believe they have a greater amount of wisdom than they actually do. The audience’s knowledge surpasses the main character’s, and the character may appear to be ridiculous. However, comedy is painful in that there is a certain envy we have toward the main character (see Plato’s Philebus). For example, we envy Don Quixote’s childlike imagination, and his desire to pursue life’s ultimate adventure with the noble quest of a knight errant. Likewise, Aristophanes is envious of Socrates for his perfect freedom, as he is not bound by the applause of the theatre the same way that Aristophanes is. Recall that Aristophanes was crowned the victor many times at the Dionysia and the Lenaia. However, Aristophanes also sees himself as an educator of Athens, a man who teaches civic virtue to the assembly.

Perhaps Aristophanes is right, and that comedy is not merely innocent and impartial. To paraphrase Nietzsche: there is no better way to kill something than to laugh at it. Consider Aristophanes’s second (and now lost) play the Babylonians which made him an enemy of Cleon who then sued Aristophanes for slander, but the case was thrown out of court. In addition, The Clouds, is cited by Socrates in Plato’s Apology as one of the chief reasons the people of Athens turned against Socrates. Aristophanes’s plays, therefore, are gravely consequential.

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