Whether his target is the war between the sexes or his fellow playwright Euripides, Aristophanes is the most important Greek comic dramatist—and one of the greatest comic playwrights of all time. His writing—at once bawdy and delicate—brilliantly fuses serious political satire with pyrotechnical bombast, establishing the tradition of comedy as high art. His messages are as timely and relevant today as they were in ancient Greece, and his plays still provoke laughter—and thought.
This volume features four celebrated masterpieces: Lysistrata, The Frogs, The Birds, and The Clouds, translated by three of the most distinguished translators and classicists of our time.
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Aristophanes was born, probably in Athens, c. 449 BC and died between 386 and 380 BC. Little is known about his life, but there is a portrait of him in Plato's Symposium. He was twice threatened with prosecution in the 420s for his outspoken attacks on the prominent politician Cleon, but in 405 he was publicly honored and crowned for promoting Athenian civic unity in The Frogs. Aristophanes had his first comedy produced when he was about twenty-one, and wrote forty plays in all. The eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes are published in the Penguin Classics series as The Birds and Other Plays, Lysistrata and Other Plays, and The Wasps/The Poet and the Women/The Frogs.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The dates of Aristophanes’ birth and death are variously given, but 445–375 B.C. is a possibility. We know that he was considered too young to present his first three plays in his own name: the lost Daiteleis (The Banqueters), which won second prize at the Lenaea in 427 B.C., when he would only have been about eighteen; the lost Babylonians, which won second prize in 426 B.C.; and The Acharnians, which brought him first prize in 425 B.C. when he was barely twenty. These plays and the four that followed over the next four years are the work of a very young man endowed with the courage to level unrelenting attacks on no less than the head of state—the demagogic Cleon.
Like the great tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (and, I expect, the poets of all ages), he decried the destructiveness and sheer stupidity of war, and in his most celebrated plays he warned and pleaded against it. Yet for twenty-seven years of his writing life, with one brief interval, Athens was at war with Sparta in an internecine struggle that finally left her exhausted and shorn of her glory, never fully to recover.
Aristophanes had no respect for shoddy politicians like Cleon, who plunged Athens into campaigns that led to defeat and decline, and he lampooned them without mercy. He himself came from a landowning family and his political outlook was conservative. Not necessarily in favor of oligarchy, he believed that democracy was best served by the brightest minds and not by selfish, clamorous demagogues. He was conservative too in his general thought, defending religion though he laughed at the gods, and he was suspicious of contemporary philosophy. He mocked Socrates as a Sophist knowing full well he was as anti-Sophist as Aristophanes himself; it was just too easy to use him as a scapegoat because he was well known and easy to parody. Aristophanes’ conservatism did not extend to his language, which is almost unimaginably rich and varied. The obscenity that crops up here and there is funny because it is unexpected. When one considers the milieu in which the plays were presented—“under the auspices of the state, to the entire population, at a religious festival under the presidency of a priest and on consecrated ground”1—how could it not be hilariously incongruous? It was as if somebody (preferably the grandest dignitary present) trumpeted a fart in a solemn moment at high mass.
But it is incongruous too because the rest of Greek literature from Homer to Thucydides (if we except Sappho) is so well behaved. Yet we ought not to be surprised by the phallic thrust of Aristophanes’ jokes, because the origins of comedy are undoubtedly found in fertility rites at the dawn of drama. Sex, after all, is the oldest human hobby.
Having said all this, it is important to add that the plays of Aristophanes are serious. In them he confronts and dares to laugh out of court some current trend or action or human aberration. He recognized that the prime function of the poet is to reduce to order—Shelley’s “unacknowledged legislator of this world”—in other words, to preserve a world worth living in, with the greatest political and personal freedom consonant with order, and the leisure to enjoy it all.
This is essential teaching at an organic level, and it is done not by giving information—the way of prose—but by lifting the spirit to a new plane of truth and beauty. “Ut doceat, ut demonstrat, ut delectat.”2 Such is the brief of the poet, and it is this last, “to please,” which is the touchstone of lasting poetry. This does not mean that poetry deals only with the beautiful but that when it deals with ugliness it remains in itself beautiful.
Not only was Aristophanes one of the greatest poets of antiquity but, in the words of Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary, “the greatest comic dramatist in world literature: by his side Molière seems dull and Shakespeare clownish.”
Be that as it may, the lyrics of Aristophanes present the translator with an irresistible but crippling challenge, and the best he can do to meet it—if he is really trying to translate and not just to paraphrase or adapt—is ineluctably doomed to be a poor reflection of the original. Nevertheless, even this pittance is well worth trawling for.
* * *
Of Aristophanes’ forty-four comedies, only eleven have come down to us: The Acharnians, which won first prize at the Lenaea in 425 B.C. when he was about twenty; The Knights, a courageous attack on Cleon, then at the height of his power, which also won first prize, in 424 B.C; The Clouds, in 423 B.C., which for some reason was not a success and which he rewrote (it is this second version that survives); The Wasps, winning second prize in 422 B.C.; and Peace, again with second prize, in 421 B.C.
After this comes a gap of six years in which what he wrote is unknown to us, but in 414 B.C. came The Birds, perhaps his masterpiece and another second-prize winner. Thereafter we have no record of prizes, but we do know that he produced Lysistrata in 411 B.C.; the Thesmorphoriazusae (Women at the Festival of Demeter) in 411 B.C.; The Frogs in 405 B.C.; Ecclesiazusae (A Parliament of Women) in 392 B.C.; and Plutus (Wealth) in 388 B.C. (There were two additional comedies of which we do not even have the titles.)
In the Ecclesiazusae, produced when Aristophanes was about fifty-three—not old in our day but comparable to sixty-five or seventy then—there is a slackening of the youthful zest of his earlier comedies, and the choruses that were so essential to their lyric ebullience are greatly reduced. This perhaps is the first step in the evolution of what is known as Old Comedy into New. In Plutus, some four years later, the transmogrification is complete.
The chief features of New Comedy are that it virtually did away with the choruses, turning them into musical interludes (a direction already taken by Euripides); it presented characters as types rather than as individuals; it constructed elaborate plots rather than letting the context itself of a story dictate the setting; it discarded topical allusions, political satire and direct attacks on individuals, and it introduced the ups and downs, the torture and the ecstasy, of romantic love.
As to this last, New Comedy was the progenitor of the boy-meets-girl story, as well as all the clever Cox-and-Box mix-ups of mistaken identity. It is in fact the blueprint of drama such as we know it, with its complex but logical plots, its love entanglements, and its domestic comedy of manners. The chief exponent of New Comedy was Menander (ca. 342–292 B.C.), the Aristophanes of his generation, of whose work we have extensive fragments and one almost-complete play, Dyskolos (The Grouch). It is, however, mainly through Roman adaptors, Plautus and Terence, that we know his work.
* * *
CHORUS, COSTUMES, STRUCTURE, MUSIC
There were twenty-four actors in the chorus, which was divided into two sets of twelve that could sing and dance against each other. The chorus members were elaborately dressed in costumes on which large sums of money were spent. The choruses wore masks suitable to their parts—birds, frogs, wasps—and these masks in themselves must have generated a good deal of merriment. One can imagine the laughter that must have greeted the appearance of the “dog” Cleonacur in The Wasps, almost certainly wearing a mask that was an unmistakable caricature of the despised Cleon. Reflecting back to the Dionysiac fertility rituals of the Comus—the origins of comedy—the members of the chorus wore long floppy phalluses strapped to them, but these need not have been always visible and could be hidden if need be by a variety of clothing.
Though the members of the chorus were not professional actors, as were the leading players, they were rigorously trained in dance and song—at least six months’ preparation being thought necessary. Music, dance, and song were at the heart of the performance, and one wouldn’t be far wrong in regarding an Aristophanic comedy more as a musical than a play.
All parts, including female, were played by men. The naked flute girl Dardanis, for instance, in The Wasps, would have been a boy or young man dressed in tights with female breasts painted on him.
As to its general structure, the Aristophanic comedy followed this pattern: (1) Prologue, which could be a dialogue; (2) Parados, or entry of the Chorus, singing and dancing in character; (3) the Agon, or debate; and (4) the Parabasis, or address of the Chorus to the audience in the name of the author. Each of these sections was characterized by its own particular meters and system of prosodic repetition akin to the strophe and antistrophe of Tragedy. The music was provided by flute, lyre and kettledrum.
Strophe literally means “turning (one way),” so antistrophe would mean “turning the other.” These refer to movements of the Chorus: either the whole Chorus or the Chorus split into two, each part balancing the other. Normally strophe and antistrophe are identical in the number, meter, and length of lines.
* * *
Aristophanes is not easy to translate: He stretches the Greek language—that most elastic of tongues—to the breaking point and uses a vocabulary almost Shakespearian in its variety and richness: five or six times as large as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. And as if it were not enough, he puns and coins words at the drop of an iota subscript. Moreover, the plays are in verse that shifts from one intricate meter to another throughout.
Some translators have valiantly set out to reflect this teeming prosody by using rhyme, but the results for the most part seem merely forced or fussy. My own solution is first of all to reflect the meter as far as I can, and then to echo rhyme more often than to use it, though I do use it fairly strictly in the choral parts where the sound pattern of the Greek becomes emphatic and condensed. Did Aristophanes himself use rhyme? Yes, but not in the way we do.
Greek versification compared to English is more like a plum pudding than a blancmange. In blancmange you get what you see. In a plum pudding you get what you don’t see. Greek prosody is stuffed with every kind of syllabic analogy—assonance, consonance, alliteration, rhyme—but because Greek is a polysyllabic language these sounds are buried in the middle of words, and even if they are at the end of lines they don’t get the same stress that they would in English. Consequently, this matching of sound with sound, Greek with English, is not subtle enough, especially when it comes to rhyme.
Putting Aristophanes into the straitjacket of English versification is like trying to turn plum pudding into a blancmange; perhaps this is a misleading simile, though, for English, far from being a blancmange, shares with Greek the delight in a rich variation of sounds. The difference ultimately is between a constantly polysyllabic language and a seldomly polysyllabic one.
To use rhyme in an attempt to reflect Aristophanes’ verbal effulgence produces something that is not nearly subtle enough. For this reason, I use rhyme warily, though I do use it, and instead I put the burden of capturing Aristophanes’ variations of sound, tone, and rhythm on a novel system of prosody that I call, rather grandly, “sonic intercoping.” This means that the end syllable of every line is “coped,” that is, topped with or tied into the endings of other lines before and after. Thus one gets the effects of verse without actually using verse.
Let me demonstrate this by taking a page at random from Lysistrata and showing how all the lines are sonically linked. One need not be conscious of this while reading the play. It will have its effect willy-nilly, so long as the flow of a passage reads naturally and the tie-ins of the preceding and succeeding lines do not seem forced. If on occasion they do, the fault is mine.
that comes with women. (a)
MEN’S LEADER: Wait till you hear how they’ve gone (a)
completely beyond the pale with their jars of water (b)
and almost drowned us, so that (c)
we had to wring out our clothing later (b)
as if we’d peed in it. (c)
MAGISTRATE: Great briny Poseidon, we get (c)
exactly what we deserve. (d)
We ourselves collaborate with our womenfolk (e)
and abet them in behavior that’s absurd. (d)
What follows is a blooming herbacious border of nonsense.
We go into a jeweler’s and say something like: (e)
“Goldsmith, you know that torque, (3)
the one you made my wife,
she was dancing with it on (f)
the other night, and the prong (f)
slipped out of its groove. (g)
I have to go to Salamis, so do you think (e)
you could spare the time one evening
to pop into her
and fit the prong inside her groove?” (g)
Any reader who wants to stop and analyze the system will see that sonic intercoping is based on a play of consonance, assonance, and alliteration, occasionally bolstered by rhyme.
Let me take five lines from A Parliament of Women and trawl them in my English translation and see how much can be retrieved. But first, let us be clear about the following.
Assonance: the same vowel sound enclosed by different consonants: boat, soul
Consonance: the same consonants enclosing different vowels: boat, but
Alliteration: syllables beginning with the same consonants or vowels: watered, wine; angry, assassins
Rhyme: the same vowel sound preceded by different consonants: boat, coat; at, bat
The English translation
If he can do it, I swear by this dawning day
that we too can carry out a coup and essay
something for our city, but as things are
we lie stuck in the doldrums
with power of neither sail nor oar.
Line 1: 4 assonances: if, it, ing, this
2 half consonances: can, dawn
6 alliterations: if, it, I; do, dawn, day
Line 2: 6 assonances: that, can, car, and; too, coup
4 half consonances: can, car; that, out
3 alliterations: can, carry, coup
4 rhymes: too, coup; day, say
Line 3: 5 assonances: thing, things, cit; our, are
5 half consonances: thing, things; for, our, are
Line 4: 2 assonances: stuck, drums
2 half consonances: stuck, drums
2 alliterations: dol, drums
Line 5: 4 half consonances: power, neither, nor, oar
2 alliterations: neither, nor
2 rhymes: nor, oar
Sonic intercoping line endings: day, essay; are, oar.
Perhaps the most perennial and greatest difficulty of all is that Greek, compared to English, is devilishly condensed. A single word often can only be done justice by a phrase, or sometimes only by a whole sentence. Mere transcription is not enough. One is trying to bring...
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