At the outset of the Wasps, we are presented with two slaves who are awakening after drinking. They have been tasked with keeping guard over the entrances and exits of their house. A huge net has been cast over the house. Their instructions come from their master, Bdelykleon (“Kleon despiser” -in the play, Aristophanes continues his ridicule of Kleon), who tells them not to let his father escape from the house.
We learn that Bdelykleon’s father, Philokleon (“lover of Kleon”) suffers from a rare disease. The two slaves invite guesses as to his malady from the audience – gambling? drinking? No. Philokleon suffers from an obsession, a love for the law courts -he is a “trialophile.” We also learn that Philokleon is paid for this work, per Kleon’s new ruling in Athens at the time, and as such the income for the house of Philokleon is dependent upon his participation in the law courts. Philokleon loves exacting punishment, or vengeance, as he lives for the high drama of the courts. He is something of a rabble-rouser, a trouble-maker, and he yearns to bring ever more convictions (rather than acquittals) in the courts.
Just then the Chorus of old men from the law courts comes walking up to the house, guided by young men through morning darkness. They arrive to pick up Philokleon for another day’s work at the law courts. Upon discovering the imprisonment of Philokleon they spring into action, making several attempts to physically free Philokleon. The chorus of men headed to the law courts are the stinging “wasps.”
Unable to escape, Philokleon and Bdelykleon decide to settle their disagreement in a mock court scene. Philokleon claims he gains a great deal from the law courts -flattery, prestige, and money. Bdelykleon responds with arguments claiming the law court juries are actually the tools of politicians who profit the most from the Athenian empire, while the juries are actually underpaid for their work. The real money of the city is taken by men like Kleon. In flattering the jury, and the universal belief of each man that he is underpaid, the Chorus of wasps sides with Bdelykleon. Philokleon is distraught but not wholly cured of his disease.
The second part of the play focuses inward -on the home- as the household of Philokleon is turned into a mock court-room and he judges a disagreement between the household dogs, one who appears like Kleon and the other who appears like Laches. Bdelykleon is happy to indulge and oblige his father’s obsession for a trial, so long as it remains within the home. Bdelykleon plays a trick on Philokleon and the trial ends in acquittal, leaving Philokleon disappointed. He prefers convictions, rather than a just and fair trial. There is a late parabasis in which Aristophanes addresses the audience about the dangers of men like Kleon, and he defends his previous play, The Clouds.
At the conclusion, Bdelykleon attempts to convert his obsessive father into an upstanding gentleman. In a strange turn of events, Philokleon ruins the party and storms out attempting to fight anyone, he also steals a woman from the party. A line of people follow him down the street to his house threatening lawsuits. Philokleon attempts to talk his way out of the legal disputes until his son drags him in the house. A vague moral lesson is instructed at the end -old men like Philokleon cannot be changed.
The play exposes the tensions between justice in the home, which is to say families and households, and justice in the city, or the polis. The city relies heavily upon participation in the jury courts, while harmony at home demands attention, time, and order (recall the slaves were drinking and sleeping at the outset). But a just city relies on harmonious homes, and the two are closely related to one another. Recall from Plato’s Republic that in order for justice to be found, harmony also must also be found, with each person doing his part, not unduly concerning himself with his neighbor’s business. In Aristophanes’s Wasps Bdelykleon is neglecting his role in watching over his slaves who have grown lazy, Philokleon is neglecting his household for an obsession with the power and prestige offered him through the courts system (also his main source of income). He is concerned mainly with the affairs of others, rather than looking after his own (an indication of injustice also found in Plato’s Republic). However, Bdelykleon is also worthy of further criticism -he is impatient and compassionless toward his father. He makes little effort to reorient his ailing father, and he when he does it fails miserably. The play was released during a one-year armistice in the Peloponnesian War, performed at the Lenaia in 422 BC, however peace and justice have not come for the families of Athens. As with most Aristophean comedy, he points us to lowly things, or things worthy of ridicule, in order to direct our attention at high things, like justice.
The key point of the play is Bdelykleon’s attempt to cure his father of an ill. He wishes to transform his father, through punishment and restraint, a punishment which cannot overcome the nature of Philokleon, who is naturally drawn to mischief. Kleon’s courts, in contrast, provide a better outlet for Philokleon’s base desires. How can Bdelykleon overcome his father’s malady? Surely not by forcibly restraining, nor by exposing him to the new sophistications of Athenian youth (his party at the end). Perhaps the crux of the problem lies not with Bdelykleon, but rather with Kleon who has created this new court system which offers payment to juries, thus incentivizing mischief.
In many ways, Aristophanean comedy mirrors the nastiness and “waspishness” of Philokleon, as the comedies are filled with accusations and condemnations (such as of Kleon). Audiences come to a comedy yearning for a public trial, and there is no better way to kill something than to laugh at it (to paraphrase Nietzsche). Aristophanes’s comedies are a kind of trial, wherein something, or more likely someone, is brought before the eyes of the people and ridiculed, under the guise of innocent comedy. Humor is likely never innocent, especially when the comedy is political, as in the case of Aristophanes. Aristophanes’s comedies point to the broader problem of Athenian social degradation -as old men have become obsessed with law courts so they can behave like stinging “wasps,” while young men also neglect their duties by partying and imitating the new foreign sophist’s teachings. It is not the same city as the Athens of the old Marathon fighters. By laughing, Athenian citizens acknowledge this fact, and expose an underlying truth of their city -for laughter can be considered a kind of release from political and social mores. To rephrase Aristotle in the Poetics, laughter exposes the noble things by forcing us to recognize the lowly things. To “get the joke” is to be made aware of this discrepancy. The distinction between laughter and pity is the issue of suffering -we laugh at lowly things that strive to be noble but miss the mark, while we weep with noble characters who suffer and are thus brought below their station through tragic circumstances.
For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.