Aristophanes : biography
Plato’s The Symposium appears to be a useful source of biographical information about Aristophanes, but its reliability is open to doubt.Aristophanes:Clouds K.J.Dover (ed), Oxford University Press 1970, Intro. page IX note 1. It purports to be a record of conversations at a dinner party at which both Aristophanes and Socrates are guests, held some seven years after the performance of The Clouds, the play in which Socrates was cruelly caricatured. One of the guests, Alcibiades, even quotes from the play when teasing Socrates over his appearanceSymposium 221B; Plato Vol.3, Loeb Classical Library (1975), page 236 and yet there is no indication of any ill-feeling between Socrates and Aristophanes. Plato’s Aristophanes is in fact a genial character and this has been interpreted as evidence of Plato’s own friendship with himAristophanes: Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds Alan Sommerstein (ed), Penguin Books 1973, page10 (their friendship appears to be corroborated by an epitaph for Aristophanes, reputedly written by Plato, in which the playwright’s soul is compared to an eternal shrine for the Graces).Barrett (2003) p.10 Plato was only a boy when the events in The Symposium are supposed to have occurred and it is possible that his Aristophanes is in fact based on a reading of the plays. For example, conversation among the guests turns to the subject of Love and Aristophanes explains his notion of it in terms of an amusing allegory, a device he often uses in his plays. He is represented as suffering an attack of hiccoughs and this might be a humorous reference to the crude physical jokes in his plays. He tells the other guests that he is quite happy to be thought amusing but he is wary of appearing ridiculous.The Symposium original Greek text:The Symposium (English translation) (scroll half way down). This fear of being ridiculed is consistent with his declaration in The Knights that he embarked on a career of comic playwright warily after witnessing the public contempt and ridicule that other dramatists had incurred.Aristophanis Comoediae Tomus 1, F.W.Hall and W.M.Geldart (eds), Knights ln 507-550
Aristophanes survived The Peloponnesian War, two oligarchic revolutions and two democratic restorations; this has been interpreted as evidence that he was not actively involved in politics despite his highly political plays.Aristophanes: Clouds K.J. Dover (ed), Oxford University Press 1970, Introduction page IX He was probably appointed to the Council of Five Hundred for a year at the beginning of the fourth century but such appointments were very common in democratic Athens.Barrett (2003) p.7 Socrates, in the trial leading up to his own death, put the issue of a personal conscience in those troubled times quite succinctly:
- Wikisource, Plato’s Apology, John Burnet (ed)
- "…he who will really fight for the right, if he would live even for a little while, must have a private station and not a public one.Plato’s Apology, Benjamin Jowett (trans) section 23.
Aristophanes the Poet
The language in Aristophanes’ plays, and in Old Comedy generally, was valued by ancient commentators as a model of the Attic dialect. The orator Quintilian believed that the charm and grandeur of the Attic dialect made Old Comedy an example for orators to study and follow, and he considered it inferior in these respects only to the works of Homer.The Orator’s Training Quintilian 10.1.65-6, cited in Barrett (2003) p.15Quintilian 10.1.65-6 A revival of interest in the Attic dialect may have been responsible for the recovery and circulation of Aristophanes’ plays during the 4th and 5th centuries AD, resulting in their survival today. In Aristophanes’ plays, the Attic dialect is couched in verse and his plays can be appreciated for their poetic qualities.
For Aristophanes’ contemporaries the works of Homer and Hesiod were as instructive as the Bible became for many Greeks in the Christian era. Thus poetry had a moral and social significance that made it an inevitable topic of comic satire.Barrett (1964) pp. 151-52 Aristophanes was very conscious of literary fashions and traditions and his plays feature numerous references to other poets. These include not only rival comic dramatists such as Eupolis and HermippusAristophanis Comoediae Tomus 1, F.W.Hall and W.M.Geldart (eds), Oxford Classical Texts, Clouds lines 553-54 and predecessors such as Magnes, Crates and Cratinus,Aristophanis Comoediae Tomus 1, F.W. Hall and W.M. Geldart (eds), Oxford Classical Texts, Knights lines 519-40 but also tragedians, notably Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, all three of whom are mentioned in e.g. The Frogs. Aristophanes was the equal of these great tragedians in his subtle use of lyrics.Barrett (1964) p.30 He appears to have modelled his approach to language on that of Euripides in particular, so much so that the comic dramatist Cratinus labelled him a ‘Euripidaristophanist’ addicted to hair-splitting niceties.