Aristophanes : biography

c. 446 BC – c. 388 BC

Dramatic structure

The structural elements of a typical Aristophanic plot can be summarized as follows:

  • prologue – an introductory scene with a dialogue and/or soliloquy addressed to the audience, expressed in iambic trimeter and explaining the situation that is to be resolved in the play;
  • parodos – the arrival of the chorus, dancing and singing, sometimes followed by a choreographed skirmish with one or more actors, often expressed in long lines of tetrameters;
  • symmetrical scenes – passages featuring songs and declaimed verses in long lines of tetrameters, arranged symmetrically in two sections such that each half resembles the other in meter and line length; the agon and parabasis can be considered specific instances of symmetrical scenes:
    • parabasis – verses through which the Chorus addresses the audience directly, firstly in the middle of the play and again near the end (see the section below Parabasis);
    • agon – a formal debate that decides the outcome of the play, typically in anapestic tetrameter, though iambs are sometimes used to delineate inferior arguments;Aristophanes:Wasps D.MacDowell (ed.), Oxford University Press 1971, page 207 note 546-630
  • episodes – sections of dialogue in iambic trimeter, often in a succession of scenes featuring minor characters towards the end of a play;
  • songs (‘strophes’/’antistrophes’ or ‘odes’/’antodes’) – often in symmetrical pairs where each half has the same meter and number of lines as the other, used as transitions between other structural elements, or between scenes while actors change costume, and often commenting on the action;
  • exodus – the departure of the Chorus and the actors, in song and dance celebrating the hero’s victory and sometimes celebrating a symbolic marriage.

The rules of competition did not prevent a playwright arranging and adjusting these elements to suit his particular needs.Aristophanes: Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds A. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1975, page 27 In The Acharnians and Peace, for example, there is no formal agon whereas in The Clouds there are two agons.


The parabasis is an address to the audience by the Chorus and/or the leader of the Chorus while the actors are leaving or have left the stage. The Chorus in this role speaks sometimes out of character, as the author’s mouthpiece, and sometimes in character, but very often it isn’t easy to distinguish its two roles. Generally the parabasis occurs somewhere in the middle of a play and often there is a second parabasis towards the end. The elements of a parabasis have been defined and named by scholars but it is probable that Aristophanes’ own understanding was less formal.Aristophanes: Wasps Dougles MacDowell, Oxford University Press 1978, page 261 The selection of elements can vary from play to play and it varies considerably within plays between first and second parabasis. The early plays (The Acharnians to The Birds) are fairly uniform in their approach however and the following elements of a parabasis can be found within them.

  • kommation: This is a brief prelude, comprising short lines and often including a valediction to the departing actors, such as (Go rejoicing!).
  • parabasis proper: This is usually a defense of the author’s work and it includes criticism of the audience’s attitude. It is declaimed in long lines of ‘anapestic tetrameters’. Aristophanes himself refers to the parabasis proper only as ‘anapests’.
  • pnigos: Sometimes known as ‘a choker’, it comprises a few short lines appended to the parabasis proper as a kind of rapid patter (it has been suggested that some of the effects achieved in a pnigos can be heard in "The Lord Chancellor’s Nightmare Song", in act 2 of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe).Aristophanes Wasps Douglas MacDowell (ed), Oxford University Press 1978, page 27
  • epirrhematic syzygies: These are symmetrical scenes that mirror each other in meter and number of lines. They form part of the first parabasis and they often comprise the entire second parabasis. They are characterized by the following elements:
    • strophe or ode: These are lyrics in a variety of meters, sung by the Chorus in the first parabasis as an invocation to the gods and as a comic interlude in the second parabasis.
    • epirrhema: These are usually long lines of trochaic tetrameters. Broadly political in their significance, they were probably spoken by the leader of the Chorus in character.Aristophanes: Clouds K.J. Dover (ed), Oxford University Press 1970, page 126
    • antistrophe or antode: These are songs that mirror the strophe/ode in meter, length and function.
    • antepirrhema. This is another declaimed passage and it mirrors the epirrhema in meter, length and function.