Aristophanes : biography

c. 446 BC – c. 388 BC


The development of New Comedy involved a trend towards more realistic plots, a simpler dramatic structure and a softer tone.Aristophanes D. Slavitt and P. Bovie (eds), University of Pennsylvania Press 1999, page XIII Old Comedy was the comedy of a vigorously democratic polis at the height of its power and it gave Aristophanes the freedom to explore the limits of humour, even to the point of undermining the humour itself.Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy M.S.Silk, Oxford University Press 2002, page 418

  • Inclusive comedy: Old Comedy provided a variety of entertainments for a diverse audience. It accommodated a serious purpose, light entertainment, hauntingly beautiful lyrics, the buffoonery of puns and invented words, obscenities, disciplined verse, wildly absurd plots and a formal, dramatic structure.
  • Fantasy and absurdity: Fantasy in Old Comedy is unrestricted and impossibilities are ignored.Aristophanes: Clouds K.J.Dover, Oxford University Press 1970, page XIII Situations are developed logically to absurd conclusions, an approach to humour that is echoed for instance in the works of Lewis Carroll and Eugene Ionesco (the Theatre of the Absurd).Aristophanes: Wasps Douglas MacDowell, Oxford University Press 1978, page 12 The crazy costume worn by Dionysus in The Frogs is typical of an absurd result obtained on logical grounds — he wears a woman’s saffron-coloured tunic because effeminacy is an aspect of his divinity, buskin boots because he is interested in reviving the art of tragedy, and a lion skin cape because, like Heracles, his mission leads him into Hades. Absurdities develop logically from initial premises in a plot. In The Knights for instance, Cleon’s corrupt service to the people of Athens is originally depicted as a household relationship in which the slave dupes his master. The introduction of a rival, who is not a member of the household, leads to an absurd shift in the metaphor, so that Cleon and his rival become erastai competing for the affections of an eromenos, hawkers of oracles competing for the attention of a credulous public, athletes in a race for approval and orators competing for the popular vote.
  • The resourceful hero: In Aristophanic comedy, the hero is an independent-minded and self-reliant individual. He has something of the ingenuity of Homer’s Odysseus and much of the shrewdness of the farmer idealized in Hesiod’s Works and Days, subjected to corrupt leaders and unreliable neighbours. Typically he devises a complicated and highly fanciful escape from an intolerable situation.Clouds Peter Meineck (translator) and Ian Storey (Introduction), Hackett Publishing 2000, page VIII Thus Dikaiopolis in The Acharnians contrives a private peace treaty with the Spartans; Bdelucleon in The Wasps turns his own house into a private law court in order to keep his jury-addicted father safely at home; Trygaeus in Peace flies to Olympus on a giant dung beetle to obtain an end to the Peloponnesian War; Pisthetairus in Birds sets off to establish his own colony and becomes instead the ruler of the bird kingdom and a rival to the gods.
  • The resourceful cast: The numerous surprising developments in an Aristophanic plot, the changes in scene, and the farcical comings and goings of minor characters towards the end of a play, were managed according to theatrical convention with only three principal actors (a fourth actor, often the leader of the chorus, was permitted to deliver short speeches).Aristophanes: The Frogs and other Plays David Barrett (ed), Penguin Classics 1964, page 17 Songs and addresses to the audience by the Chorus gave the actors hardly enough time off-stage to draw breath and to prepare for changes in scene.
  • Complex structure: The action of an Aristophanic play obeyed a crazy logic of its own and yet it always unfolded within a formal, dramatic structure that was repeated with minor variations from one play to another. The different, structural elements are associated with different poetic meters and rhythms and these are generally lost in English translations.