Aristophanes’s The Birds: A New City in the Sky

Aristophanes The Birds (“Ornithets”) is the only comedy written by Aristophanes whose entire action takes place far from the city of Athens. Consequently, the play makes little mention of the circumstances of the Peloponnesian War, or of contemporary Athenian politics. It won second prize at the Dionysia in 414 BC.

It is a play about the Arcadian ideal, the pastoral romance that every man has felt at one point or another in his life -to escape the drabness of the city and live out a dream in a quiet, rural town. In The Birds, we follow two men: Eulpides (meaning “Hopeful” or “son of Hopeful”) and Peisthetairos (a hybrid of “persuader of his comrade” and “trustworthy comrade”). They have literally turned their backs on Athens, tired of the endless lawsuits, and they are guided by two birds who are leading them to the fabled king, Tereus. Tereus once morphed himself into a bird, so perhaps he can help them find a better place to live, since he knows the politics of mankind but also has a better perspective, i.e. he can fly and see all things from above.

When they meet Tereus, Peisthetairos persuades the birds that they should build a great human-inspired city in the clouds like those of men, one that will rival the gods. They decide to name this new city “cloud-cuckoo-land.” In the end, the birds begin making new laws, but nevertheless gods and men start sneaking into the new city, from Iris to Prometheus. Peisthetairos’s cleverly politically outmaneuvers the new presence in the city to be crowned king. The play closes with a joyful scene of marriage between Peisthetairos and Zeus’s lovely maiden, Sovereignty (note: not every Aristophanes play concludes on a positive note, recall the ending to The Clouds). Why does Aristophanes present the ruin of Socrates in The Clouds but the triumph of Peisthetairos in The Birds? Aristophanes claims not simply to entertain his audiences, but to teach of the just things. In The Clouds he presents Socrates, the gatekeeper of the new-fangled intellectualism of Athens, a particular kind of sophistry that allows for the possibility of the non-existence of the gods, a radically a-political skepticism. He welcomes new sciences from across the Mediterranean into his “Thinkery” while turning young men against their fathers. Peisthetairos, on the other hand, maintains the validity of the gods, though he proposes to replace to the traditional pantheon at one point, convincing the birds they are the new gods. He is, no doubt, shocking in that he upends the gods and their power, even replacing himself as king of a new city in the sky. However, he expels the astronomer and is rigidly opposed to father-beating. In this way, Peisthetairos is more in line with the necessities of the city, than Socrates. Hence why Peisthetairos meets his triumph and Socrates meets his downfall in Aristophanes. To what extent does this presentation of political necessity agree with Socrates’s exposition as found in Plato’s Republic? The one obvious distinction is the musical character of Peisthetairos’s new city -his Chorus sings praises of his new Orphic theogony, whereas Socrates comes across as aloof and unmusical, intellectual and silly.

We cannot understand the play without disentangling the relationship of the two chief characters: Peisthetairos is the dreamer, the visionary builder of a new city, while on the other hand, Eulpides is the devotee to the retired, quiet, and rustic life. He is closer to Aristophanes, in a word. Thus, since Euplides disappears midway through the play, the poet expresses his disagreement with Peisthetairos’s vision -a vision sometimes echoed today by people who wish to found a new city, amongst only friends and people they agree with, a mythical dream. However, Aristophanes suggests this vision is nevertheless feasible in concept (to found a new city) but of course it is absurd and manifestly impossible to construct a city in the clouds.

However, Euplides’s rejection of the city (Athens) as well as the new city in the clouds, points us to the tension between the poet and the city, and his role as a citizen. For if ‘no man is an island entire of itself’ (to quote John Donne), even the rustic must rely upon the city for at least defense and resources. In this way, Arcadia is a dreamland, yet still within the defensible bounds of the Peloponnesus.

For this reading I used the Loeb Edition translated by Jeffrey Henderson.

Notes on Aeschylus

Often called the “father of tragedy”, Aeschylus is known for taking the tragic art to new heights by introducing a creative new approach to ancient theatron. Prior to Aeschylus, drama typically included one protagonist and a chorus, however Aeschylus minimizes the role of the chorus and introduces a crop of new characters. Aristotle later noted the importance of the plot for Aeschylus, more so than characters.

Aeschylus is rumored to have been born near Athens at Eleusis where he worked at a vineyard until the god Dionysus visited him in a dream and he began writing tragedies. He was a devoted supporter of the Greek cause, as it is generally believed he fought against the army of Darius at Marathon in 490 BC where his brother was killed. He is believed to have died in 455-456 BC at Gela on the coast of Sicily. A later comedian developed an amusing story of Aeschylus dying due to a bird dropping a tortoise onto his bald plate. His grave, which made no mention of his dramatic achievements, makes clear mention of his defense of the Greeks against the Persians.

Contemporary estimates suggest he wrote upwards of ninety plays, seven of which have survived. He is also believed to have won at least 13 first prizes at festival competitions, such as the Great Dionysia, a celebration of Dionysus. The oldest tragedy from the classical world is Aeschylus’s Persai written in 472, and it recounts the Persian defeat of Xerxes at Salamis as they return home to Susa dejected and unfavored by the gods for venturing too far beyond their bounds. It notable for being told from the Persian perspective. The Seven Against Thebes, is the third part, and only surviving part, of Aeschylus’s Oedipus trilogy. Part one apparently told of how Lauis transgressed the gods, having a son despite the oracle’s warnings, part two tells the story of Oedipus and how he killed his own father, and Seven Against Thebes tells of Oedipus’s two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, who battle one another for control of Thebes, ultimately killing one another and ending the curse on their family brought on by Laius. In the Suppliants, the Danaids have fled Egypt and are granted asylum by Pelasgus in Argos. The Oresteia is, of course, Aeschylus’s masterpiece and is unique for favoring human justice over divine retribution and fate. The last play is dubiously written by Aeschylus and is called Prometheus Bound, it tells of Prometheus who is bound on a rocky crag as several gods approach him wanting to know a secret that will destroy the tyrant Zeus. When Prometheus refuses, he is cast into Hades for more torture.

At one time in the classical world only one complete edition of his works survived and it was taken to Alexandria, Egypt to be reproduced, however the library burned and the complete edition of Aeschylus was lost forever.

His plays were performed at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens at the great festival. The backdrop of the plays was called the skene, where we derive the word “scene” or “scenery” from. On the first day of the festival, men and boys would sing dithyrambs, songs accompanied by a flute dedicated to the god Dionysus and recounting a certain part of his life. The next three days would each include a tragedian who would present a tragic cycle each day, and each would end with a burlesque, overtly sexual satyr play. The the sixth day of the festival comedies would be performed.

Aeschylus’s influence has been enormous. As recently as 1968, Bobby Kennedy quoted Edith Hamilton’s translation of Aeschylus while on the presidential campaign trail. He quoted it in the context of his own sorrow for losing John, but also as a plea for unity on the night of Martin Luther King jr.’s death. The quote was later inscribed on Kennedy’s gravestone.

For this reading I used the David Grene translation as part of his translations of the complete Greek tragedies with Richmond Lattimore.

Dialectic in Agamemnon

The central dialectic of the first part of Aeschylus’s famous trilogy occurs between the infamous Clytemnestra, a queen rivaled only by Lady Macbeth, and the Chorus of older men of the city of Mycenea. Both are skeptical of each others’ motivations and ambitions. In considering an historical example, recall the feud between King John of Lackland and his ongoing quarrel with the gentry of greater England -though this struggle produced the Magna Carta and the struggle between Clytemnestra and the Chorus is yet to find a solution.

Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon (with Aegisthis urging her on) by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin in 1817

Throughout Agamemnon, we encounter a recurring question of vengeance -on whose shoulders should the blame for villainy lie? With the backdrop of the ten year Trojan War (recall that in Homer’s Iliad we find ourselves immersed in only a few weeks of the ninth year of the war outside Ilium’s walls), Aeschylus forces the audience to question the inherent injustice in requital -a force of passion, rather than reason. Helen, appropriately meaning “death”, falls in love with Paris and elopes with him causing her husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon to muster all of the Achaeans, including the reluctant Odysseus, to enter into battle against the Trojans. The war is eventually won not thanks to the aggressive passions of the greatest Achaean warrior, Achilles, but rather to the skill and tact of Odysseus who devises the plan to enter the city through a wooden horse and level it from within, as recounted in Homer’s Iliad.

In Agamemnon, we do not find the same nostalgia, or homecoming with the house of Atreus. Unlike Odysseus who returns home disguised as a beggar or traveler, Agamemnon returns home undisguised, expecting a fond welcoming. He returns home with only one ship, and having had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia to gain favor from the gods on Aulis as they were trapped by inclement weather and winds. Clytemnestra, unbeknownst to Agamemnon, has fallen in love with his banished cousin, Aegisthus and she has sent their son, Orestes away under false pretenses. She has set the scene for an ambush as she greatly disrespects his decisions.

Agamemnon justifies his assault on the city of Priam by recalling the fact that the Trojans welcomed Helen and Paris into their walls and their protection. He also has justifications for why he needed to sacrifice Iphigenia, an act that Clytemnestra never forgets nor forgives, and why he returns home with a captured woman from Troy, Cassandra, who claims to be able to foretell the future thanks to a curse from Apollo to whom she promised a child, but she later denied it and he cursed her by making it so that no one alive would believe her prophecies.

A 1st century fresco depicting the moments before the sacrifice of Iphigenia

Agamemnon’s return is anticlimactic and foreboding. Standing outside the palace, the Chorus of men begin to grow restless until finally Clytemnestra opens the doors to the palace of Mycenea showing the murdered corpses of Agamemnon and Cassandra, both of whom she killed. She still holds the bloody two sided axe used to murder him, by stabbing him thrice. This sows unrest among the people of Mycenea (Chorus), particularly when Aegisthus appears and they speak of how they will rule the people and take Agamemnon’s wealth.

As with other great works of tragedy, counting Aeschylus as the founder of the tragic “goat-song” art, we encounter the theme of a just regicide. When is power illegitimate and when does it require the use of force to end its claim? Clytemnestra justifies her act of murder to a horrified and skeptical Chorus of men, elders in the city, stating that her new claim to power has brought balance and peace to the city, though it clearly has not. The only hope is for the return of her banished son, Orestes, to avenge his father and presumably set things on the right path. However, are we not still posed with the same problem? To what extent is Orestes faced with the same problem that plagued Clytemnestra in her decision to gain justice for the wrongs levied against her by her husband, Agamemnon, and also the deep wrongs inflicted upon Agamemnon when the Trojans accepted the elopement of Paris and Helen under their protection? One recalls the famous Biblical account of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” -referring to the ancient law of retaliation found Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy and elsewhere. It is the principle of reciprocal punishment, exacting revenge. It is a primitive form of judicial thinking, one that we moderns still cannot escape as we are tragically bound by our fate, and is predicated on the tribal factionalism of groups like the Achaeans, where it is challenging to find a mode where saner heads, like Odysseus, prevail. It is a seemingly endless dialectic that Aeschylus provides a solution to at the close of the Oresteia, or at least what we moderns consider the close of the Oresteia as we have no access to the Satyr play found at the end of the classical quadrilogy.

For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.