Aristophanes : biography

c. 446 BC – c. 388 BC

A full appreciation of Aristophanes’ plays requires an understanding of the poetic forms he employed with virtuoso skill, and of their different rhythms and associations.MacDowell (1978) p.21 There were three broad poetic forms: iambic dialogue, tetrameter verses and lyrics:Barrett (2003) pp.7-8

  • Iambic dialogue: Aristophanes achieves an effect resembling natural speech through the use of the iambic hexameter (corresponding to the effects achieved by English poets such as Shakespeare using iambic pentameters). His realistic use of the metreMacDowell (1978) p.16 makes it ideal for both dialogue and soliloquy, as for instance in the prologue, before the arrival of the Chorus, when the audience is introduced to the main issues in the plot. The Acharnians opens with these three lines by the hero, Dikaiopolis (rendered here in English as iambic pentameters):
How many are the things that vex my heart!
Pleasures are few, so very few — just four –
But stressful things are manysandthousandsandheaps!Original Greek, Wikisource The Acharnians
Here Aristophanes employs a frequent device, arranging the syntax so that the final word in a line comes as a comic climax.MacDowell (1978) p.17 The hero’s pleasures are so few he can number them ( four) but his causes for complaint are so many they beggar numerical description and he must invent his own word for them ( literally ‘sandhundredheaps’, here paraphrased ‘manysandthousandsandheaps’). The use of invented compound words is another comic device frequently found in the plays.MacDowell (1978) p.13Aristophanes:Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds Alan Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1973, page 37
  • Tetrameter catalectic verses: These are long lines of anapests, trochees or iambs (where each line is ideally measured in four dipodes or pairs of feet), used in various situations within each play such as:
    • formal debates or agons between characters (typically in anapestic rhythm);
    • excited dialogue or heated argument (typically trochaic rhythm, the same as in early tragedy);
    • long speeches declaimed by the Chorus in parabases (in either anapestic or trochaic rhythms);
    • informal debates barely above the level of ordinary dialogue (typically iambic).
Anapestic rhythms are naturally jaunty (as in many limericks) and trochaic metre is suited to rapid delivery (the word ‘trochee’ is in fact derived from trechein, ‘to run’, as demonstrated for example by choruses who enter at speed, often in aggressive mood)L.P.E. Parker, The Songs of Aristophanes, Oxford, 1997, p. 36 However, even though both these rhythms can seem to ‘bowl along’Barrett (2003) p.27 Aristophanes often varies them through use of complex syntax and substituted metres, adapting the rhythms to the requirements of serious argument. In an anapestic passage in The Frogs, for instance, the character Aeschylus presents a view of poetry that is supposed to be serious but which leads to a comic interruption by the god, Dionysus:
AES.:It was Orpheus singing who taught us religion and how wrong people are when they kill,
And we learned from Musaeus medicinal cures and the science of divination.
If it’s farming you want, Hesiod knows it all, when to plant, when to harvest. How godlike
Homer got to be famous, I’ll tell if you ask: he taught us what all good men should know,
Discipline, fortitude, battle-readiness. DIO.: But no-one taught Pantocles — yesterday
He was marching his men up and down on parade when the crest of his helmet fell off!Aristophanis Comoediae Tomus 2, F.W.Hall and W.M.Geldart (eds), Oxford Classical Texts, Frogs lines 1032-38

The rhythm begins at a typical anapestic gallop, slows down to consider the revered poets Hesiod and Homer, then gallops off again to its comic conclusion at the expense of the unfortunate Pantocles. Such subtle variations in rhythm are common in the plays, allowing for serious points to be made while still whetting the audience’s appetite for the next joke.