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A vase depicting a scene from Aristophanes’ play ‘The Birds.

The Controversial Plays of Aristophanes: How the Ancient Greek Father of Comedy Created a Legacy

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In the theater of Ancient Greece, one of the three main dramatic forms was comedy (the other two being tragedy and satyr plays). Greek comedy has been divided by the Alexandrian grammarians into three periods – Old Comedy, Middle Comedy, and New Comedy. Old Comedy may be dated back to around 450 BC, when democracy was established in Athens by Pericles. Whilst it is certain that there were numerous playwrights who wrote comedy, the best-known of these is Aristophanes, a man sometimes referred to as the ‘Father of Comedy.’

The Mysterious Figure Behind the Plays

Much less is known about Aristophanes as a person as compared to the plays he wrote. Moreover, much of the information we have about this playwright only comes from references to his life inserted within his plays. For example, implicit references in later plays suggest that Aristophanes was born around 446 or 448 BC, and that he was possibly the son of a man named Philippos, who lived on the island of Aegina. It has been pointed out, however, that the comedic writer was almost certainly educated in Athens, and was perhaps even a disciple of the sophist Prodicus of Ceos.

Portrait of Aristophanes based on a bust.

Portrait of Aristophanes based on a bust. (Project Gutenberg). Little is known about the life of the famous playwright.

Aristophanes Takes on War

Aristophanes was writing during a period of time when Athens was engaged in the Peloponnesian War, and some of his plays addressed the issues of this war directly. For example, The Knights, which won first place at the Lenaia festival in 424 BC, is a caricature of Cleon, a prominent Athenian statesman and general during the Peloponnesian War.

In another play, Lysistrata (meaning ‘Army Disbander’), written in 411 BC, the women of Greece are persuaded by the eponymous character to help end the Peloponnesian War. The plan was for the women to refuse to have sex with their husbands and lovers until a peace treaty was struck between the two warring sides.

Illustration of Lysistrata (1896).

Illustration of Lysistrata (1896). (Public Domain) In Aristophanes’ play ‘Lysistrata,’ the women of Greece withhold sex to encourage an end to the Peloponnesian War.

A Strike at Socrates, Aeschylus, and Euripides

The comic plays of Aristophanes, it may be mentioned, were not limited to the Peloponnesian War. For example, in The Clouds, written in 423 BC, Aristophanes pokes fun at the philosopher Socrates. In this play, Socrates is depicted as a sophist who runs the Phrontisterion (meaning ‘the Thinkery’ or ‘the Think Shop’), a place where he teaches his students the art of ‘speaking well’.

Engraving of a scene from Aristophanes’ Old Comedy play ‘The Clouds’ in which two of the characters speak while Socrates hangs in a basket in the air.

Engraving of a scene from Aristophanes’ Old Comedy play ‘The Clouds’ in which two of the characters speak while Socrates hangs in a basket in the air. (1564) (Public Domain)

In another play, The Frogs, written in 405 BC, the tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides are shown engaging in a debate in order to decide which of them is the better poet. Through this argument, it can be seen that Aristophanes is making fun of and criticizing both the works of Aeschylus and Euripides. It has also been suggested that this is the oldest piece of literary criticism.

Critical Acclaim Somewhat Eluded Aristophanes in the Past…

Aristophanes might not have actually been the most successful playwright during his lifetime. Only one of his works, The Babylonians (now lost), is known to have won first prize at the City Dionysia, a prestigious festival held annually in Athens in honor of the god Dionysus. As a comparison, the tragedians Sophocles and Aeschylus are known to have each won first place five times in the festival’s Tragedy category. Aristophanes, however, had been more successful at the less prestigious Lenaia festival, and his works are known to have won first place there at least three times.

Ruins of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, Greece.

Ruins of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens, Greece. (Marcus Cyron/Wikimedia Commons)

The Best-Known Playwright of Old Comedy Has Created a Legacy

In spite of this, Aristophanes is today the best-known playwright of Old Comedy. This is due to the fact that most plays of this genre are now lost, or preserved only in fragments. By contrast, a number of Aristophanes’ works have been preserved in their entirety. Of the forty plays that are known to us, 11 of them are available in their complete form. Additionally, up to 1000 brief fragments of his other works are also available.

As his plays are the only real examples of Old Comedy available at present, Aristophanes’ plays have served to define this genre of Greek drama. Furthermore, Aristophanes’ style, i.e. the satirical treatment of various issues, has had an influence on European writers over the ages, and even finds resonance in today’s society. This lasting influence, perhaps, may be the legacy of Aristophanes.

Cast of Aristophanes (left) and Menander.

Cast of Aristophanes (left) and Menander. (CC BY SA 3.0) Aristophanes has been called the master of Old Comedy and Menander the master of New Comedy.

Featured image: A vase depicting a scene from Aristophanes’ play ‘The Birds.’ (Public Domain)  Insert: Aristophanes (1893) by Alfred John Church. (Public Domain)

By: Ḏḥwty

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dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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