Aristophanes : biography

c. 446 BC – c. 388 BC

The City Dionysia and the Lenaia were celebrated in honour of Dionysus, a god who represented Man’s darker nature (Euripides’ play The Bacchae offers the best insight into 5th Century ideas about this god).Clouds P.Meineck (translator) and I.Storey (Introduction), Hackett Publishing 2000, page VIII Old Comedy can be understood as a celebration of the exuberant sense of release inherent in his worshipClouds P.Meineck (translator) and I.Storey (Introduction), Hackett Publishing 2000, page XIX It was more interested in finding targets for satire than in any kind of advocacy.Greek Society Antony Andrewes, Pelican Books 1981, page 247 During the City Dionysia, a statue of the god was brought to the theatre from a temple outside the city and it remained in the theatre throughout the festival, overseeing the plays like a privileged member of the audience.Aristophanes: Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds A.Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1975, page 18 In The Frogs, the god appears also as a dramatic character and he enters the theatre ludicrously disguised as Hercules. He observes to the audience that every time he is on hand to hear a joke from a comic dramatist like Phrynichus (one of Aristophanes’ rivals) he ages by more than a year.Frogs Wikisource English translation s:The Frogs; original Greek text The scene opens the play and it is a reminder to the audience that nobody is above mockery in Old Comedy — not even its patron god and its practitioners! Gods, artists, politicians and ordinary citizens were legitimate targets, comedy was a kind of licensed buffooneryGreek Society Antony Andrewes, Pelican Books 1981, page 248 and there was no legal redress for anyone who was slandered in a play.Aristophanes: The Frogs and Other Plays David Barrett, Penguin Classics 1964, page 27 There were some limits to the scope of the satire, but they are not easily defined. Impiety could be punished in 5th century Athens but absurdities implicit in traditional religion were open to ridicule.Aristophanes: Lysistrata, The Acharnians, Clouds A. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1975, page 17 The polis was not allowed to be slandered but, as stated in the biography section of this article, that could depend on who was in the audience and which festival was involved.

For convenience, Old Comedy, as represented by Aristophanes’ early plays, is analysed below in terms of three broad characteristics — topicality, festivity and complexity. Dramatic structure contributes to the complexity of Aristophanes’ plays. However it is associated with poetic rhythms and meters that have little relevance to English translations and it is therefore treated in a separate section.


Old Comedy’s emphasis on real personalities and local issues makes the plays difficult to appreciate today without the aid of scholarly commentaries — see for example articles on The Knights, The Wasps and Peace for lists of topical references. The topicality of the plays had unique consequences for both the writing and the production of the plays in ancient Athens.

  • Individual masks: All actors in classical Athens wore masks, but whereas in tragedy and New Comedy these identified stereotypical characters, in Old Comedy the masks were often caricatures of real people. Perhaps Socrates attracted a lot of attention in Old Comedy because his face lent itself easily to caricature by mask-makers.Aristophanes: Lysistrata, The Acharnians, Clouds A. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1975, page 31 In The Knights we are told that the mask makers were too afraid to make a caricature of Cleon (there represented as a Paphlagonian slave) but we are assured that the audience is clever enough to identify him anyway.Knights lines 230-33
  • The real scene of action: Since Old Comedy makes numerous references to people in the audience, the theatre itself was the real scene of action and theatrical illusion was treated as something of a joke. In The Acharnians, for example, The Pnyx is just a few steps from the hero’s front door, and in Peace Olympia is separated from Athens by a few moments’ supposed flight on a dung beetle. The audience is sometimes drawn or even dragged into the action. When the hero in Peace returns to Athens from his flight to Olympia, he tells the audience that they looked like rascals when seen from the heavens, and seen up close they look even worse.Peace 821-23 In The Acharnians the hero confronts the archon basileus,The Acharnians lines 1224-25 sitting in the front row, and demands to be awarded first prize for a drinking competition, which is a none too subtle way for Aristophanes to request first prize for the drama competition.