Friday, October 23, 2015

ARTICLE | The Socio-Political Condition of Aristophanes' Time

The Socio-Political Condition of Aristophanes' Time

Aristophanes has been held to be a self-conscious, a systematic pacifist, and a social reformer. These views, however, though comedy and satire were anciently regarded as morally salutary, are hard to document in the case of Aristophanes himself, and it is doubtless a mistake to read into his works a consistent and programmatic political allegory. His allegiance lies with the conservative element in Athens; yet comedy was traditionally conservative, the new being easier to  make fun of  the old. There is certainly nothing to indicate that Aristophanes favored the extreme conservatives, for instance, those who brought about the Revolution of 411. His opposition to the Peloponnesian War and his wish for peace need indicate no pacifist principle, but simply the war weariness he must have shared with every person in Athens, except those self-interested leaders whom he tirelessly condemns[1].

It is perhaps in this respect that Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata, an antiwar play built around the idea that the women of Greece can put an end to the Peloponnesian War if they deny the men fighting it, their sexual favor. In the play first performed in 411 BC, when Greece was torn by civil war, the women led by the proud Lysistrata, unite in chastity against their husbands and lovers until the love-starved men succumb and peace is restored. The plot of Lysistrata is simple and language ribald, and the situations often hilarious[2].

The Peloponnesian War

To further understand the antiwar premise of Lysistrata, it would be helpfl to discuss the ongoing war during that time- the Peloponnesian War. From 431 to 404 BC, the conflict between Athens and Sparta and  their respective allies raged, resulting in Athens being defeated and stripped of its empire and in Sparta becoming the acknowledged leader of the Greek world. The underlying cause was Spartan fear of Athens' expansive power. But the war was triggered by hostility between Athens and Corinth, Sparta's major ally, when Athens interfered with Corinth's colonies and placed an embargo on nearby Megara.

Because the Spartans had a superior army, the strategy of the Athenian leader Pericles was to avoid land battles and rely instead on control of the sea. When the war broke out, most Athenians crowded into the city, leaving the outlying areas of Attica open to invasion. Sparta's strategy was to invade yearly, hoping  to break Athens' will and encourage its subjects to rebel.

The first stage of  the war ended in a stalemate in 421 BC with the Peace of Nicias. Athens had remained firm and had suppressed the dangerous rebellion of the Mytilene in 427. It was most damaged by the onset of plague, which killed about a quarter of the Athenian population including Pericles[3].

Aristophanes' Intentions

Aristophanes wanted this war to end and using his prowess to reflect realities in his time, made the audience pause and think. In spite of its remoteness from reality, or perhaps because of  this conscious remoteness, his escapism in Lysistrata testified to his courage and humanity.

At a moment when Athens was making heroic and successful efforts to avoid final defeat, when every word of peace must have seemed weakness; this play of peace was boldest defeatism. The poet avoids committing himself in the party-struggle, he is even somewhat antagonistic to the rising oligarchs. But he seems not to have fully realized the dangers of an oligarchic revolution or if he did he was most not sufficiently interested in the domestic issues. The only real issue to him was to end the war. Aristophanes makes the women attain by methods only too feminine a truly pan hellenic peace, marked by a general reconciliation. The fight for peace becomes possible only when the Spartan women supports Lysistrata's proposal that the women shall den their husbands the pleasures of love; the rest of the women do not feel strong enough. This plot provides ample scope for some of the best fun the poet ever wrote, but it is at the same time one of the rare occasions when Aristophanes looks beyond the confines of his own polis: here he is, like many of the Sophists, a champion of Pan-Hellenic unity[4].

Lysistrata as a Comedy  Literary Genre

What we have learned about the poet and the audience gives us the ultimate reason for our assumption that comedy pictures reality, the real pulsating body of life. Tragedy using mythological themes only, could rely on the audience's having a general knowledge of the story. Comedy lacking this aid was in need of some analogous starting point. Moreover, the tragic style provided a medium of immediate impact by its very language, while the comedians had to find a form of speech near to everyday talk and yet to be spoken within the same theatrical setting as that of tragedy. The difficulty affected the plot and the dramatic personae, as an early writer of Middle Comedy declared. But the main trouble was the lack of any common basis of understanding. The average spectator of comedy, as of tragedy must have familiar ground to stand on, before he could follow the daring flight into the unfamiliar and unreal[5].

Lysistrata can be called Utopian not only because of the part played by women, but also because of its conciliatory Panhellenic trend, which was indeed Utopian at such a time. It is a conception of Utopia, in which solemn , almost tragic, strains continually make themselves heard through the light-hearted burlesque. The idea of a Panhellenic peace is proclaimed by a woman- her very name she who disbands the army, shows what she stands for- and so the war ends. The role of the woman is in itself enough to introduce into the idea an element of warm and uncorrupt humanity. Even the comedy of some of the scenes, loose and often obscene, draws some of its life from the same source. The ideal of a peaceful and carefree existence is set up as the vital principle and basis of life as a whole[6].

Aristophanes' wit is opportunistic. to say the least and if he had a program, it is hard to say what it was. He seems not to have been recognized as an intellectual leader of any kind, and the likelihood was that he regarded it as his poetic responsibility to reflect the experience of his times and not to mold policy. Clearly he felt the cruelties of war and sensed the spreading decay of Athenian society under the guidance f the radical demagogues who succeeded Pericles. He doubtless also felt the these demagogues, as the younger tragedians, acquired much of their evil from the Sophistic teachers of rhetoric and political theory with whom he deliberately confuses Socrates. But these are all negative observations, acute though they be, upon the temper of the times. When it comes to positive, constructive suggestion, he has only comic fantasy to offer, and the impudent demand that all should follow the sound advice of the best poets- himself[7].

Though we do not know what place was assigned to the play in the competition, the Athenian people at any rate, stand out in an exceptionally brilliant light, if words and thoughts such as those in the Lysistrata could be said and thought at a time of overwhelming danger, of great military and financial efforts, of grave political troubles. The poet displayed a fine courage. A few years earlier when Athens was intoxicated with power and imperialist ambition, this play could hardly have been written and would not have been produced.

[1] "Aristophanes." Colliers Encyclopedia. Colliers: New  York, 1996: 605-606
[2] "The Peloponesian War." Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge. Grolier Incorporated, Connecticut, 195: 415
[3] Ibid, 288-289
[4] Ehrenberg, Victor. The People of Aristophanes: A Sociology of Old Attic Comedy. Shocken Books: New York, 1962.
[5] Ibid, 37.
[6] Ibid, 61.
[7] "Aristophanes." Colliers Encyclopedia. Colliers: New  York, 1996: 605-606

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