Aristophanes : biography

c. 446 BC – c. 388 BC
  • Lyrics: Almost nothing is known about the music that accompanied Greek lyrics, and the metre is often so varied and complex that it is difficult for modern readers or audiences to get a feel for the intended effects, yet Aristophanes still impresses with the charm and simplicity of his lyrics. Some of the most memorable and haunting lyrics are dignified hymns set free of the comic actionGreek Drama, Peter Levi, in The Oxford History of the Classical World edited by J. Boardman, J. Griffin and O. Murray, Oxford University Press 1986, page 175 In the example below, taken from The Wasps, the lyric is merely a comic interlude and the rhythm is steadily trochaic. The syntax in the original Greek is natural and unforced and it was probably accompanied by brisk and cheerful music, gliding to a concluding pun at the expense of Amynias, who is thought to have lost his fortune gambling.MacDowell (1978) p.27
Though to myself I often seem

A bright chap and not awkward,
None comes close to Amynias,

Son of Sellos of the Bigwig
Clan, a man I once saw

Dine with rich Leogorus.
Now as poor as Antiphon,

He lives on apples and pomegranates
Yet he got himself appointed

Ambassador to Pharselus,
Way up there in Thessaly,

Home of the poor Penestes:
Happy to be where everyone

Is as penniless as he is!MacDowell (1978), Wikisource:
The pun here in English translation (Penestespenniless) is a weak version of the Greek pun , Penéstaisi-penéstĕs, "destitute". Many of the puns in the plays are based on words that are similar rather than identical, and it has been observed that there could be more of them than scholars have yet been able to identify.Barrett (2003) p.21 Others are based on double meanings. Sometimes entire scenes are constructed on puns, as in The Acharnians with the Megarian farmer and his pigs:The Acharnians lines 729-835 the Megarian farmer defies the Athenian embargo against Megarian trade, and tries to trade his daughters disguised as pigs, except "pig" was ancient slang for "vagina". Since the embargo against Megara was the pretext for the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes naturally concludes that this whole mess happened because of "three cunts".

It can be argued that the most important feature of the language of the plays is imagery, particularly the use of similes, metaphors and pictorial expressions. In ‘The Knights’, for example, the ears of a character with selective hearing are represented as parasols that open and close.Aristophanis Comoediae Tomus 1, F.W. Hall and W.M. Geldart (eds), Oxford Classical Texts, Knights lines 1347-48; In The Frogs, Aeschylus is said to compose verses in the manner of a horse rolling in a sandpit.The Frogs lines 902-4 Some plays feature revelations of human perfectibility that are poetic rather than religious in character, such as the marriage of the hero Pisthetairos to Zeus’s paramour in The Birds and the ‘recreation’ of old Athens, crowned with roses, at the end of The Knights.

Aristophanes and Old Comedy

The Greek word for ‘comedy’ (kōmōidía) derives from the words for ‘revel’ and ‘song’ (kōmos and ōdē) and according to AristotleThe Poetics 1449a11, Wikisource English translation s:The Poetics#IV section IV comic drama actually developed from song. The first, official comedy at the City Dionysia was not staged until 487/6 BC,Clouds translated by Peter Meineck with introduction by Ian Storey, Hackett Publishing 2000, page IX by which time tragedy had already been long established there. The first comedy at the Lenaia was staged later still,ibid page XIX only about 20 years before the performance there of The Acharnians, the first of Aristophanes’ surviving plays. According to Aristotle, comedy was slow to gain official acceptance because nobody took it seriouslyThe Poetics 1448b38 – 1449b, Wikisource English translation s:The Poetics#V section V yet, only sixty years after comedy first appeared at ‘The City Dionysia’, Aristophanes observed that producing comedies was the most difficult work of all.Aristophanis Comoediae Tomus 1, F.W. Hall and W.M. Geldart (eds), Oxford Classical Texts, Knights ln 516 Competition at the Dionysian festivals needed dramatic conventions for plays to be judged, but it also fuelled innovations.Aristophanes:The Frogs and Other Plays David Barrett, Penguin Classics 1964, page 12 Developments were quite rapid and Aristotle was able to distinguish between ‘old’ and ‘new’ comedy by 330 BC.Nichomachean Ethics 1128a 21-24 The trend from Old Comedy to New Comedy saw a move away from highly topical concerns with real individuals and local issues towards generalized situations and stock characters. This was partly due to the internationalization of cultural perspectives during and after the Peloponnesian War.Ralph Rosen, Aristophanes 3, D. Slavitt and P. Bovie (eds), University of Pennsylvania Press 1999, page XIVClouds translated by P. Meineck with introduction by I. Storey, Hackett Publishing 2000, page VIII For ancient commentators such as Plutarch,Comparison of Aristophanes and Menander New Comedy was a more sophisticated form of drama than Old Comedy. However Old Comedy was in fact a complex and sophisticated dramatic form incorporating many approaches to humour and entertainment.Clouds translated by P.Meineck with introduction by I.Storey, Hackett Publishing 2000, page VII In Aristophanes’ early plays, the genre appears to have developed around a complex set of dramatic conventions and these were only gradually simplified and abandoned.