The War Between the Sexes in Lysistrata

Lysistrata is the only surviving Aristophanean play whose title designates the name of the main character. Most other plays convey the collective name of the Chorus, or else another chief theme of the play. Lysistrata means something like “releaser of war” or “army disbander” and we are invited by Aristophanes to consider her character above all others, as the title of the play suggests.  

The play opens with a complaint -Lysistrata is a political woman, caring chiefly for the concerns of the city (though there is no Euripidean soliloquy, as the play assumes the characters are free peoples engaged in a free enterprise. In other words, there is no need for the audience to be aware of Lysistrata’s private thoughts). Currently, Athens is engaged in the long war with Sparta, and Lysistrata longs for the war to end. She calls together the women of Greece, though they arrive late, in order to propose an unorthodox end to the Peloponnesian War. When the women finally show up, most of the women echo the opinions of other Athenian men -that women should prefer to stay home to care for the servants, the men, and, above all, the babies. One is left to wonder whether or not Lysistrata has any children. We are given scant information about her home, husband, or children in the text.

Lysistrata gathers together the women of Greece (not just of Athens, but also of Sparta and Boeotia, as well) to save Greece from certain destruction. Her plan is for the women of Greece to withhold sexual intercourse with men, until the men can make peace and end the war. The women sacrifice one immediate good, namely sexual intercourse between men and women, for the greater good of peace among the Grecians. The way to achieve peace is by means of war, by waging conflict on those who engage in war. Their ultimate objective is peace through deprivation. The power of the women is not in their actions, but rather in their lack of actions, or at least withholding of actions. The only potential problem with the plan is whether or not women have greater self-control and can successfully withhold sex (Lampito, a representative from Sparta, notes that in Sparta the women have greater power over the men). The implication is the one thing men desire more than victory in war (i.e. victory over other men) is victory in the bedroom. The comparison between war and sexual gratification is striking.

The women depart one another after making a solemn oath over wine, and the women of Sparta go home to the Peloponessus while the women of Athens (who have less power over their men as they are a less orderly polis) occupy the Treasury of Athens. The old men of Athens suddenly realize the female rebellion and attempt to smoke out the sacred treasury building by lighting a fire, but more old women come to aid the occupation with buckets of water.

The play inverts the old Homeric axiom to “let war be the business of the men” so that the more modest sex (women) must take charge over the imbecilic war that has been so foolishly managed by men (recall the botched Sicilian Expedition). Eventually, some of the women start to give in, longing for sex with their husbands, and Lysistrata must continually rally them to the cause. She seems to be the only one capable of perfect continence. Her political power, however, is merely protest. She can only withhold provisions. The women’s political protest takes the form of a strike, and they starve the men of sex, abandoning natural desires in favor of political desires. The debate between men and women is exemplified beautifully between two competing choroi (one of old men and one of old women) as the debate (or “agon”) continues. Indeed, the war has brought about new agonies for Athens as threats of Greek destruction implies destruction of the homes of the women, as well. Thus, the war turns internal and transpolitical as the women build a new alliance based on gender across the Greek territories, and they bring civil strife until peace can be achieved.

Eventually delegates of Sparta and Athens meet (with erections showing forth from their tunics) to bring about a peace agreement in the name of a naked and sexually gratifying woman named “Reconciliation.” Men respond to the actions and in-actions of the women. The play ends in a Dionysian celebration, and a praise of Athena at the Acropolis, though surely it was Aphrodite who brought about the ultimate peace. The normal order and peace among the nations are brought about thanks to Lysistrata and her army of women.

Lysistrata is the most indecent of Aristophanes’s plays, making private and sexual matters public and political, yet it is also the most harmless and perhaps the most moral and just of Aristophanes’s plays. The war of Lysistrata is intended to bring about a harmony of Physis (nature) and Nomos (law or custom) by inverting the two temporarily, in order to bring about a better political order. Her actions are civil, her ends virtuous, though her means are indecent. She is not a revolutionary in the proper sense. 

Lysistrata is likely the most popular of Aristophanes’s works, likely due to its harmlessness and graphic innuendos. Lysistrata is the natural partner of The Knights, which also features an Athenian savior, and in another way of The Acharnians and the Peace, both of which point to the ultimate objective of peace and harmony in the end. However, Lysistrata is also impossible. Few women exist like Lysistrata, seemingly absent of love and family ties, resistant to natural desires, and capable of marshaling an army of other women. Additionally, the alliance of Spartan and Athenian women is also unbelievable, as they are natural enemies. The extension of the inversion of physis and nomos is what makes the joke of the sexual and political dominance  of women over men humorous (i.e. “women on top”). The impossibility made possible by the comedy play is what makes the play laughable, aside from its vulgar thematic content. The true teaching of the play can only be a “likely story” however we are left to wonder whether the poet’s true ambition was to bring about a regime change in Athens.

Both Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae were staged within months of the infamous Athenian oligarchic revolutions in 411 BC.

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

The Courts Ridiculed in the Wasps

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.

What is the Chorus in Greek Tragedy?

In Classical Greek drama, the existence of a Chorus strikes the modern audience as odd. Why is there a Chorus? What role does it play? Where did the Chorus come from?

The origin of the word “khoros” is cloaked in mystery, however it has been suggested by modern scholars that the word references an open dance floor, or a group of dancers. The contemporary belief is that the Chorus was the original form of performance – tragodia, meaning “goat-song” – in which small groups of men sang dithyrambs, or hymns to the god Dionysus. Gradually, as time went on, the musical performance became a full theatrical performance – mimesis – a representation of the tales of Greek myths. The representation moved to a picture of the dance of life. It has been said that Thespis was the first actor (from which we derive our modern word “Thespian”), and he is said to have been the first person to speak to the Chorus.

Then, Aeschylus added additional actors, as Aristotle notes in his Poetics, and the tragic art was further expanded upon by Sophocles and Euripides. Prior to Aeschylus, the Chorus typically numbered 50 people, then he brought it down to 12, and Sophocles raised its number to 15 where it remained until the decline of Athens. The Chorus was confined primarily to the orchestra or “dancing floor” portion of the stage.

In essence, the Chorus in Greek tragedy is the embodiment of the city. It is a group of people intended to represent the opinions, hopes, fears, and sorrows of the collective Greek polis. They act as one single unit and present the opinion of history, the judgement of the audience. However, the Chorus is not merely a source of opinion, but also attempts to influence the action in the play, as in the case of the Chorus of Theban women in Sophocles’s Antigone. The Chorus plays the role of both spectator and actor. Aristotle addresses the Chorus in Chapter 18 of his Poetics, in which the Chorus resembles a kind of “collective character”, and Aristotle also dismisses the Choruses of later Greek tragedy (Agathon or Euripides) as they employ the use of a Chorus broadly so that it need not necessarily apply to any particular play. That is, later tragedy, following Sophocles, does not relate make Chorus as relevant to the plot. To echo Nietzsche’s theory of Greek tragedy, that Greek tragedy is the child of both Apollonian and Dionysian instincts, the Chorus is the embodiment of the the Dionysian element – singing and dancing – whereas the actors fulfill the contemplative Apollonian element. Therefore, it makes sense that the Chorus reaches an apex in its early forms with Aeschylus and Sophocles, and declines in use in latter tragedy as the intellectualism of Euripides takes over the play and the Dionysian Chorus becomes less relevant until it is finally destroyed.

In Elizabethan England there is no analog to the Greek Chorus, however we might think of it as akin to a single character making an aside to the audience. In this way, the audience is clued-in to the plot before it unfolds. Today, there have been some contemporary playwrights who have attempted to revive the use of the Chorus, such as Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) and T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935).

For the modern mind, it is difficult to imagine a singing dancing Chorus. Our theatre tends to be intellectual and austere with the introduction of song and dance only in whimsical light-hearted comedies. In the classical Greek world the Chorus played a role in comedies, as well, embodying as many as 24 people at a time. In contrast, our world is far more heavy, and Apollonian. Perhaps this is why Nietzsche’s prescription for the modern mind is to live lightly and find ways to sing and dance again.

Euripides and the Gods: Ion

Ion is an odd play for a Euripidian tragedy. Unlike many of his other works, Ion prominently features the gods, including a closing scene in which Athena resolves the impending conflict of the play. Apollo, though silent throughout the play, is portrayed in an unflattering light, while Athena is cast as all-knowing, not unlike the Athena who appears at the end of Aeschylus’s Oresteia. Nevertheless, Euripides’s impiousness is more prevalent elsewhere in his writings, plays which have often been accused of taking part in the jaded intellectualism spawned by Socrates and his followers.

The play tells the story of Ion, the ancient forefather of the Ionian race of peoples. Like Oedipus, he does not know of the origins of his birth. The Greek tragic art is obsessed with man’s search for his own origins, the true nature of his birth, Aristotle first “material” cause. Creusa was the daughter of Erechtheus, the king of Athens. When she was young, she was seduced by Apollo and gave birth to a child. She left the baby alone to die in the wilderness. Apollo sent Hermes to take the child and leave it at the foot of the Temple at Delphi. The child was raised by the prophetess of Delphi in a happy and pious childhood. Meanwhile his mother, Creusa, married Xuthus, a foreigner who won his bride for his service to Athens in war. Together they come to the Oracle at Delphi to consult why they cannot conceive a child. Creusa unknowingly speaks to her long-lost orphan child, while her husband Xuthus receives a prophecy that the first man he meets at the temple will be his son. Separately, he runs into Ion and begins hugging him as his son, while Creusa and the Chorus become jealous, believing Xuthus to be engaging in infidelity. She devises a plan to poison Ion. She is discovered by Ion and he tries to kill her as she flees back into the temple. At the last moment, Athena appears and resolves the crisis by revealing Ion’s true identity and predicting that his name will last through the land of Greece.

During his day, Euripides was often attacked for degrading the tragic art from its heights with Aeschylus and Sophocles. He took the illusory worlds created by prior tragedians, and instead put the spectator, or the common audience member on the stage and in the shoes of the suffering characters. With the Ion, Euripides plays to his audience. He attacks Apollo as a thieving rapist, and vindicates Athena as the dea ex machina at the close of the play. As mentioned above, Euripides’s atheism comes to the fore more prominently elsewhere in his writings.

For this reading I used the Ronald Frederick Willetts translation.