The History of Theatre: Aristophanes
Aristophanes (448?-385 BC), Athenian playwright, considered one of the greatest writers of comedy in
literary history. His plays have been produced through the centuries and have remained popular because
of their wit, comic invention, and poetic language.
Aristophanes is believed to have been born in Athens, Greece, in the deme, or township, of
Cydathenaeum. Presumably, he was well educated and may have had property on the island of Aegina.
He had three sons-Philippos, Araros, and Nikostratos-all of whom were comic poets.
Aristophanes was first and foremost a satirist. During his lifetime Athens underwent a period of
convulsive cultural and social change, and he found a ready target in the politicians, poets, and
philosophers of his day. It would nevertheless be misleading to describe Aristophanes as a reactionary or a
conservative, since his works show no sympathy for the aristocratic party in Athenian politics. No class,
age, or profession was exempt from his satire. Aristophanes wrote more than 40 plays, of which 11 are
extant. His first three plays were produced under pseudonyms, including The Acharnians (425 BC), a plea
for ending the war with Sparta. The Knights (424 BC), the first of the plays of Aristophanes to be
presented under his own name, is a devastating satire about Athenian politician and military leader Cleon,
champion of the democratic forces and leader of the war party. The Clouds (423 BC) satirizes Greek
philosopher Socrates, whose penetrating analysis of established values Aristophanes considered opposed
to the interests of the state. In The Wasps (422 BC) Aristophanes satirized the courts of justice of the
day, and in The Peace (421 BC) he again argued for peace between Athens and Sparta. The Birds (414
BC) is a fantasy in which an Athenian persuades the birds to build a city in the clouds and then imposes
his own terms on the gods. Lysistrata (411 BC), another satire on war, in which women strike for peace
by practicing celibacy, is his most famous work. Thesmorphoriazusae (411 BC) and The Frogs (405 BC)
include attacks on Athenian playwright Euripides. Ecclesiazusa (393 BC) is a satire on the idea of
communal ownership of property, and Plutus (388 BC) reduced to absurdity the concept of redistribution
of wealth in Athens. These works, basically fantasies, were written in a form related to that of
contemporary tragedy. They include dialogue scenes, long choral harangues, lyric passages, and a great
deal of music and dance.
The plays of Aristophanes exerted considerable influence on English satire, notably that of English
playwright Ben Jonson in the 17th century and English novelist Henry Fielding in the 18th century.
Aristophanes was born...