Although most people would consider it “before their time,” many ancient Greek comedians, and even some poets and tragedians, injected a sardonic, satirical attitude that the modern era sees in its own work. Of course, the sense of humor is on a completely different spectrum and must be interpreted by scholars of the subject, but the idea is the same. Playwrights had ideas and views that they wanted to express in a form of entertainment that could be enjoyed by the masses during tumultuous times, therefore ancient Greece saw the explosion of comedy. Aristophanes, considered the Father of Comedy, is a prime example of such a playwright. Much of his work was written during wartime and caricatured leading politicians, war heroes and popular issues. An analysis of the humor Aristophanes uses in Lysistrata, one of his more well-known and still widely performed dramas, will follow in this particular article.
In a brief summary, Lysistrata takes place during the Peloponnesian War when it seemed that Sparta and Athens were at a deadlock for establishing peace. Lysistrata is the Athenian woman who devises a plan to end the war. This plan involves the women of Greece banding together to boycott intimacy with their husbands to force them into peace. They do just that and hold their strike at the Acropolis in Athens in order to prevent the men from getting any more funding for the war.
In the beginning of the drama, the first woman to come to the meeting that Lysistrata has called is Calonice, a fellow Athenian. Asking for an explanation, Calonice begins a sarcastic banter with Lysistrata as she explains her plan, indicated by the following:
Lysistrata: There is not a man will wield a lance against another…
Calonice: Quick, I will get me a yellow tunic from the dyer’s.
Lysistrata: …or want a shield.
Calonice: I’ll run and put on a flowing gown.
Lysistrata: …or draw a sword.
Calonice: I’ll haste and buy a pair of slippers this instant.
Lysistrata: Now tell me, would not the women have done the best to come?
Calonice: Why, they should have flown here!
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The audience now has a flavor for the humor Aristophanes will be projecting in this play; sarcastic and cynical. The retorts by Calonice imply the lack of seriousness that the other Greeks will be attributing to Lysistrata’s idea that women can change the tide of war. This is held firmer still by the character of the Magistrate, who is employing every tactic he can find to arrest the Greek women as seen later by his long soliloquy. He comments, “We men must share the blame of their ill conduct; it is we who teach them to love riot and dissoluteness and sow the seeds of wickedness in their hearts (Aristophanes ed. Crofts, Thomas, 19). The Magistrate is portraying the common attitude men had toward women during the time of the Peloponnesian War, that of which being women were unintelligent, evil and conniving creatures. Aristophanes uses this character to emphasize that attitude as being the fault of the war-hungry men who are setting the example for the rebellious women to follow.
A common aspect of Greek comedies is the use of overt sexual innuendos that could not be expressed in normal day to day life. The following is a small sample of the sexual humor Aristophanes uses in Lysistrata:
A Woman: Suppose I up and broke your jaw for you!
Old Man: I am not a bit afraid of you.
A Woman: Suppose I let fly a good kick at you?
Old Man: I should see your backside then.
A Woman: You would see that, for all my age, it is very well attended to.
The wit exchanged between these characters is a fairly innocent taste of what many playwrights, including Aristophanes himself, used in their work to expound on the satirical nature of their plays. Not only did he poke fun at political issues and gender roles but he also showed no inhibitions when it came to his characters stepping outside the bounds of proper Greek culture.
Lysistrata is not entertaining merely because it is still ancient Greek work that is still intact or because the theme is the boycotting of sexual interactions but it is honestly funny; it has funny characters, funny dialogue and a funny main idea. It is comedy in its truest form, even if it is “before our time.”
© 2017 Ali