5th century Athens was a place filled with all manner of celebrations and mystery cults. Each year, around fall, the women of Athens gathered and celebrated the Thesmophoria, a three day celebration honoring the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, welcoming a good harvest. The activities of the Thesmophoria remain a mystery.
This play, whose title means “Women-celebrating-the-festival-of-Thesmophoria” is like the Lysistrata (appropriately produced in the same year) in that it returns to the gender question. In it, men imitate women at the instigation of Euripides, whose ploy fails.
It tells the story of the lugubrious playwright Euripides who has been accused by the women of Athens for falsely portraying them in a negative light. He drags his unbeknownst compatriot by marriage, Mnesilochos, to the home of Agathon. Euripides brings his kinsman as he believes Mnesilochos and Agathon have had sexual relations, Agathon is notoriously ‘womanish’ in his looks and homosexuality. Recall Agathon portrayed in Plato’s Symposium. They encounter Agathon’s servant making a sacrifice for a pleasing play that Agathon is drafting. Agathon emerges and Euripides explains his plot -for Agathon to dress as a woman and infiltrate the Thesmophoria to convince them of Euripides’s goodness. The persecution of Euripides mirrors the persecution of Socrates in Aristophanes’s Clouds.
Thus the theme of the play is the persecution of a poet, Euripides, who requires the defense of a fellow tragic poet, Agathon. However Agathon refuses, so Euripides’s kinsman must suffice. They comically shave and dress him as a woman. The tragic poet dons his kinsman in women’s clothes in order to infiltrate a religious cult in Euripides’s defense. This is notably different than the kind of defense, or apologia, given by Socrates for his persecution.
At any rate, the kinsman of Euripides enters the sacred Thesmophoria, however the women behave more like men running a democracy. The first order of business is Euripides -he has committed sacrilege against the gods and has harmed the public view of women. The attack is responded to by the Euripidean kinsman, who cleverly avoids the charge of atheism, and instead justifies the claims about women, praising Persephone, and lamenting the present state of women in Athens. Just then Cleisthenes, the notorious homosexual, appears and claims a man has infiltrated the Thesmophoria on behalf of Euripides. Soon, Euripides’s kinsman is revealed and the women threaten to burn him alive so he takes a baby hostage in defense. He beckons Euripides to rescue him, so they act scenes from Euripides’s Helen and Andromeda. In fact, much of the play is a parody of various Euripides tragedies. Euripides’s varying ploys fail to rescue his kind from certain death, so he presents himself naturally to the women and negotiates a peace. He promises not to insult them again in future plays. In the end, Euripides disguises himself one more time as an old woman with a dancing girl playing the flute to distract the archer-guard who is watching over Mnesilochos’s imprisonment, and Euripides and his kin escape running free, with the help of the Chorus.
The play is a warning, about the successful disguise of the dramatic poet. In order to salvage his reputation, Euripides requires the defense of a fellow poet, however his ploy ultimately fails. He is required to provide an apology for himself to the women he has offended. Euripides requires a defense, his rescue of his kinsman requires a disguise. In other words, the tragic poet must be political, if he is to save himself from persecution.
For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.