At the end of the Symposium Plato represents Socrates as convincing both Agathon, a tragedian, and Aristophanes that the writer of tragedy will be able to write comedy also. That the two forms are not wholly divorced is clear from the history of ancient drama itself: Each dramatist competed with four plays, three tragedies and a Satyric drama. What this last is can be plainly seen in the Cyclops of Euripides, which relates in comic form the adventures of Odysseus and Silenus in the monster's company. Further, the tendency of tragedy was inevitably towards comedy. The extant work of Aeschylus and Sophocles is not without comic touches; but the trend is clearer in Euripides who was an innovator in this as in many other matters. Laughter and tears are neighbours; a happy ending is not tragic; loosely connected scenes are the essence of Old Comedy, and loosely written tragic dialogue (common in Euripides' later work) closely resembles the language of comedy, which is practically prose in verse form. The debt which later comedy owed to Euripides is great; reminiscences of him abound; he is quoted directly and indirectly; his stage tricks are adopted and his realistic characters are the very population of the Comic stage.
The logically developed plot is the characteristic of serious drama. Old Comedy, its antithesis, is often a succession of scenes in which the connection is loose without being impossible. In it the unexpected is common, for it is an escape from the conventions of ordinary life, a thing of causes and effects. It might be more accurate to say that farce is a better description of the work which is associated with the name of Aristophanes.
This writer was born about 448, was a member of the best Athenian society of the day, quickly took the first place as the writer of comedy and died about 385. He saw the whole of the Peloponnesian war and has given us a most vivid account of the passions it aroused and its effect on Athenian life. He first won the prize in 425, when he produced the Acharnians under an assumed name. Pericles had died in 429; the horrors of war were beginning to make themselves felt; the Spartans were invading Attica, cutting down the fruit-trees and compelling the country folk to stream into the city. One of these, Dicaeopolis enters the stage. It is early morning; he is surprised that there is no popular meeting on the appointed day. He loathes the town and longs for his village; he had intended to heckle the speakers if they discussed anything but peace. Ambassadors from foreign nations are announced; seeing them he conceives the daring project of making a separate peace with the Spartan for eight drachmae. His servant returns with three peaces of five, ten and thirty years; he chooses the last.
A chorus of angry Acharnians rush in to catch the traitor; they are charcoal burners ruined by the invasion. Dicaeopolis seizes a charcoal basket, threatening to destroy it if they touch him. Anxious to spare their townsman, the basket, they consent to hear his defence, which he offers to make with his neck on an executioner's block. He is afraid of the noisy patriotism appealed to by mob-orators and of the lust for condemning the accused which is the weakness of older men. Choosing from Euripides' wardrobe the rags in which Telephus was arrayed to rouse the audience to pity, he boldly ventures to plead the cause of the Spartans, though he hates them for destroying his trees. He asserts that “Olympian Pericles who thundered and lightened and confounded Greece” caused the war by putting an embargo on the food of their neighbour Megara, his pretext being a mere private quarrel.
The Chorus are divided; his opponents send for Lamachus, the swashbuckling general; the latter is discomfited and Dicaeopolis immediately opens a market with the Peloponnesians, Megarians and Boeotians, but not with Lamachus. In an important choral ode the poet justifies his existence. By his criticism he puts a stop to the foreign embassies which dupe the Athenians; he checks flattery and folly; he never bribes nor hoodwinks them, but exposes their harsh treatment of their subjects and their love of condemning on groundless charges the older generation which had fought at Marathon.
The play ends with a trading scene; a Boeotian in exchange for Copaic eels takes an Athenian informer, an article unknown in Boeotia. Lamachus returns wounded while Dicaeopolis departs in happy contrast to celebrate a feast of rustic jollity.
Aristophanes' chief butts were Cleon, Socrates and Euripides; the last is treated with good nature in this play. To modern readers the comedy is important for two reasons; first, it attacks the strange belief that a democracy must necessarily love peace; Aristophanes found it as full of the lust for battle as any other form of government; all it needed was a Lamachus to rattle a sword. Again, the unfailing source of war is plainly indicated, trade rivalry. War will continue as long as there are markets to capture and rivals to exclude from them.
In the next year, 424, Aristophanes produced the Knights, the most violent political lampoon in literature. The victim was Cleon who had succeeded Pericles as popular leader. He was at the height of his glory, having captured the Spartan contingent at Pylos, prisoners who were of great importance for diplomatic purposes. The comedy is a scathing criticism of democracy; the subject is so controversial that it will be best to give some extracts without comment.
Two servants of Demos (the People) steal the oracles of the Paphlagonian (the babbler, Cleon) while he is asleep. To their joy they find that he will govern Demos' house only until a more abominable than he shall appear, namely a sausage-seller. That person immediately presenting himself is informed of his high calling. At first he is amazed. “I know nothing of refinement except letters, and them, bad as they are, badly.” The answer is:
“Your only fault is that you know them badly; mob-leadership has
nothing to do with a man refined or of good character, rather with
an ignoramus and a vile fellow.”
To his objection that he cannot look after a democracy the reply is,
“it is easy enough; only go on doing what you are doing now. Mix
and chop up everything; always bring the mob over by sweetening it
with a few cook-shop terms. You have all the other qualifications,
a nasty voice, a low origin, familiarity with the street.”
The Paphlagonian Cleon runs in bawling that they are conspiring against the democracy. They call loudly for the Knights, who enter as the Chorus to assist them against Cleon, encouraging the sausage-seller to show the brazen effrontery which is the mob-orator's sole protection, and to prove that a decent upbringing is meaningless. Nothing loth, he redoubles Cleon's vulgarity on his head. Cleon rushes out intending to inform the Upper House of their treasons; the sausage-seller hurries after him, his neck being well oiled with his own lard to make Cleon's slanders slip off. A splendid ode is sung in the meantime; it contains a half-comic account of Aristophanes' training in his art and a panegyric on the old spirit which made Athens great. The sausage-seller returns to tell of Cleon's utter defeat; he is quickly followed by Cleon, who appeals to Demos himself, pointing out his own services.
“At the first, when I was a member of the Council, I got in vast
sums for the Treasury, partly by torture, partly by throttling,
partly by begging. I never studied any private person's interest
if I could only curry favour with you, to make you master of all
The sausage-seller refutes him.
“Your object was to steal and take bribes from the cities, to blind
Demos to your villainies by the dust of war, and to make him gape
after you in need and necessity for war-pensions. If Demos can only
get into the country in peace and taste the barley-cakes again, he
will soon find out of what blessings you have rid him by your
briberies; he will come back as a dour farmer and will hunt up a
vote which will condemn you.”
Cleon, the new Themistocles, is deposed from his stewardship.
He appeals to some oracles of Bacis, but the sausage-seller has better ones of Bacis' elder brother Glanis. The Chorus rebuke Demos, whom all men fear as absolute, for being easily led, for listening to the newest comer and for a perpetual banishment of his intelligence. In a second contest for Demos' favours Cleon is finally beaten when it appears that he has kept some dainties in his box while the sausage-seller has given his all. An appeal to an oracle prophesying his supplanter—one who can steal, commit perjury and face it out—so clearly applies to the sausage-seller that Cleon retires.
After a brief absence Demos appears with his new friend—but it is a different Demos, rid of his false evidence and jury system, the Demos of fifty years before. He is ashamed of his recent history, of his preferring doles to battleships. He promises a speedy reform, full pay to his sailors, strict revision of the army service rolls, an embargo on Bills of Parliament. To his joy he recovers the Thirty Years' peace which Cleon had hidden away, and realises at last his longing to escape from the city into the country.
This violent attack on Cleon was vigorously met; Aristophanes was prosecuted and seems to have made a compromise. In his next comedy, the Clouds (which was presented in 423) he changes his victim. Strepsiades, an old Athenian, married a high-born wife of expensive tastes; their son Pheidippides developed a liking for horses and soon brought his father to the edge of ruin. The latter requests the son to save him by joining the academy conducted by Socrates, where he can learn the worse argument which enables its possessor to win his case. Aided by it he can rid his father of debt. As the son flatly refuses, the old man decides to learn it himself. Entering the school he sees maps and drawings of all kinds and finally descries Socrates himself, far above his head in a basket, high among the clouds, studying the sun. Strepsiades begs him to teach him the Worse Argument at his own price. After initiating him, Socrates summons his deities the Clouds, who enter as the Chorus. These are the guardian deities of modern professors, seers, doctors, lazy long-haired long-nailed fellows, musicians who cultivate trills and tremolos, transcendental quacks who sing their praises. The old gods are dethroned, a vortex governing the universe. The Chorus tells Socrates to take the old man and teach him everything.
The ode which follows contains the poet's claim to be original.
“I never seek to dupe you by hashing up the same old theme two or
three times, but show my cleverness by introducing ever-new ideas,
none alike and all smart.”
Socrates returns with Strepsiades, whom he can teach nothing. The Chorus suggest he should bring his son to learn from Socrates how to get rid of debts. At first Pheidippides refuses but finally agrees, though he warns his father that he will rue his act. The Just and Unjust arguments come out of the academy to plead before the Chorus. The former draws a picture of the old-fashioned times when a sturdy race of men was reared on discipline, obedience and morality—a broad-chested vigorous type. In utter contempt the latter brands such teaching as prehistoric. Pleasure, self-indulgence, a lax code of morality and easy tolerance of little weaknesses are the ideal. The power of his words is such that the Just Argument deserts to him.
Strepsiades, coached by his son, easily circumvents two money-lenders and retires to his house. He is soon chased out by his son, who when asked to sing the old songs of Simonides and Aeschylus scorned the idea, humming instead an immoral modern tune of Euripides' making. A quarrel inevitably followed; Strepsiades was beaten by his son who easily proved that he had a right to beat his mother also. Stung to the quick the old man burns the academy; when Socrates and his pupils protest, he tells them they have but a just reward for their godlessness.
The Socrates here pilloried is certainly not the Socrates of history; his teaching was not immoral. But Aristophanes is drawing attention to the evil effects produced by the Sophists, who to the ordinary man certainly included Socrates. The importance of this play to us is clear. We are a nation of half-trained intelligences. Our national schools are frankly irreligious, our teachers people of weak credentials. Parental discipline is openly flouted, pleasure is our modern cult. Jazz bands, long-haired novelists and poets, misty philosophers, anti-national instructors are the idols of many a pale-faced and stunted son of Britain. The reverence which made us great is decadent and openly scoffed at. What is the remedy? Aristophanes burnt out the pestilent teachers. We had better not copy him till we are satisfied that the demand for them has ceased. A nation gets the instruction for which it is morally fitted. There is but one hope; we must follow the genuine Socratic method, which consisted of quiet individual instruction. Only thus will we slowly and patiently seize this modern spirit of unrest; our object should be not to suppress it—it is too sturdy, but to direct its energies to a better and a more noble end.
Finding that the Clouds had been too wholesome to be popular, Aristophanes in 422 returned to attack Cleon in the Wasps. Early in the morning Bdelycleon (Cleon-hater) with his two servants is preventing his father Philocleon from leaving the house to go to the jury-courts. The old man's amusing attempts to evade their vigilance are frustrated, whereupon he calls for assistance. Very slowly a body of old men dressed as wasps, led by boys carrying lanterns, finds its way to the house to act as Chorus. They make many suggestions to the father to escape; just as he is gnawing through the net over him his son rushes in. The wasps threaten him with their formidable stings. After a furious conflict truce is declared. Bdelycleon complains of the inveterate juryman's habit of accusing everybody who opposes them of aiming at establishing a tyranny. Father and son consent to state their case for the Chorus to decide between them.
Philocleon glories in the absolute power he exercises over all classes; his rule is equal to that of a king. To him the greatest men in Athens bow as suppliants, begging acquittal. Some of these appeal to pity, others tell him Aesop's fables, others try to make him laugh. Most of all, he controls foreign policy through his privilege of trying statesmen who fail. In return for his duties he receives his pay, goes home and is petted by his wife and family. Bdelycleon opens thus:
“it is a hard task, calling for a clever wit and more than comic
genius to cure an ancient disease that has been breeding in the
After giving a rough estimate of the total revenue of Athens, he subtracts from it the miserable sum of three obols which the jurymen receive as pay. Where does the remainder go? It is evident that the jurymen are the mere catspaw of the big unscrupulous politicians who get all the profit and incur none of the odium. This argument convinces both the Chorus and Philocleon, old heroes of Marathon who created the Empire.
The latter asks what he is to do. His son promises to look after him, allowing him to gratify at home his itch for trying disputes. Two dogs are brought in; by a trick the son makes his father acquit instead of condemn. He then dresses him up decently and instructs him in the etiquette of a dinner-party, whither they proceed. But the old man behaves himself disgracefully, beating everyone in his cups. He appears with a flute-girl and is summoned for assault by a vegetable-woman, whose goods he has spoiled, and by a professional accuser. His insolence to his victims is checked by his son who thrusts him into the house before more accusers can appear.
It is sometimes believed that democracy is a less corrupt form of polity than any other. Aristophanes in this play exposes one of its greatest weaknesses.
Flattered by the sense of power which the possession of the vote brings with it, the enfranchised classes cannot always see that they easily become the tools of the clever rogues who get themselves elected to office by playing on the fears of the electors. The Athenian voter was as easily scared by the word “tyranny” as the modern elector is by “capital”. The result is the same. Not only do the so-called lower orders sink into an ignorant slavery; they use their power so brainlessly and so mercilessly that they are a perfect bugbear to the rest.
Literary men's prophecies rarely come true. In 421 the Peace, produced in March, was followed almost immediately by a compact between Athens and Sparta for fifty years. An old farmer, Trygaeus, sails up to heaven on the back of a huge beetle, bidding his family farewell for three days. He meets Hermes, who tells him that Zeus in disgust has surrendered men to the war they love. War himself has hidden Peace in a deep pit, and has made a great mortar in which he intends to grind civilisation to powder. He looks for the Athenian pestle, Cleon, but cannot find him—the Spartan pestle Brasidas has also been mislaid; both were lost in Thrace. Before he can find another pestle Trygaeus summons all men to pull Peace out of her prison. Hermes at first objects, but is won over by offers of presents. At length the goddess is discovered with her two handmaids, Harvest and Mayfair.
A change immediately comes over the faces of men. In pure joy they laugh through their bruises. Hermes explains to the farmers who form the Chorus why Peace left the earth. It was the trade rivalry which first drove her away; at Athens the subject cities fomented strife with Sparta, then the country population flocked to the city, where they fell easy victims to the public war-mongers, who found it profitable to continue the struggle. The god then offers to Trygaeus Harvest as a bride to make his vineyards fruitful. In the ode which follows the poet claims that he first made comedy dignified
“with great thoughts and words and refined jests, not lampooning
individuals but attacking the Tanner war-god.”
Returning to earth Trygaeus sends Harvest to the Council, while the marriage sacrifice is made ready. A soothsayer endeavours to impose on the rustics with prophecies that the Peace will be a failure. Trygaeus refutes him with a quotation from Homer. “Without kin or law or home is a man who loveth harsh strife between peoples.” The makers of agricultural implements quickly sell all their stock, while the makers of helmets, crests and breastplates find their market gone. A glad wedding song forms the epilogue.
Aristophanes believed that the war meant an extinction of civilisation and loathed it because it was useless. What would he have thought of the barbarous and bloodthirsty Great War of our own day? The causes which produced both struggles were identical—trade rivalry and a set of jingoes who found that war paid. But he was mistaken in believing that peace was the normal condition of Greek life. He was born just before the great period began during which Pericles gave Greece a long respite from quarrels, and seems to have been quite nonplussed by what to him was an abnormal upheaval. His bright hopes soon faded and he seems to have given up thinking about peace or war during a period of eight years. In the meanwhile Athens had attacked Sicily; perhaps a change had come over comedy itself owing to legal action. At any rate, the old and virulent type of political abuse was becoming a thing of the past; the next play, the Birds, produced in 414, abandons Athens altogether for a new and charming world in which there was a rest from strife.
Two Athenians, Peithetairus (Persuasive) and Euelpides (Sanguine) reach the home of the Hoopoe bird, once a mortal, to find a happier place than their native city. Suddenly, as the bird describes the happy careless life of his kind, Peithetairus conceives the idea of founding a new bird city between earth and heaven. The Hoopoe summons his friends to hear their opinion; as they come in he names them to the wondering Athenians. At first the Birds threaten to attack the mortals, their natural enemies. They listen, however, to Peithetairus' words of wisdom.
“Nay, wise men learn much from their foes, for good counsel saves
everything. We cannot learn from a friend, but an enemy quickly
forces the truth upon us. For example, cities learn from their
enemies, not their friends, to create high walls and battleships,
and such are the salvation of children, home and substance.”
A truce is made. Peithetairus tells them the Birds once ruled the world but have been deposed, becoming the prey of those who once worshipped them. They should ring round the air, like Babylon, with mighty baked bricks and send an ultimatum to the gods, demanding their lost kingdom and forbidding a passage to earth; another messenger should descend to men to require from them due sacrifices. The Birds agree; the two companions retire to Hoopoe's house to eat the magic root which will turn them into winged things. After a choral panegyric on the bird species Peithetairus returns to name the new city Cloudcuckootown, whose erection is taken in hand. Impostors make their appearance, a priest to sacrifice, a poet to eulogise, an oracle-dealer to promise success, a mathematician to plan out the buildings, an overseer and a seller of decrees to enact by-laws; all are summarily ejected by Peithetairus.
News comes that the city is already completed. Suddenly Iris darts in, on her way to earth to demand the accustomed sacrifices from men which the new city has interrupted; she is sent back to heaven to warn the gods of their coming overthrow. A herald from earth brings tidings that more than a myriad human beings are on their way to settle in the city. A parent-beater first appears, then a poet, then an informer —all being firmly dealt with. Prometheus slips in under a parasol, to advise Peithetairus to demand from Zeus his sceptre and with it the lady Royalty as his bride. Poseidon, Heracles and an outlandish Triballian god after a long discussion make terms with the new monarch, who goes with them to fetch his bride. A triumphant wedding forms the conclusion.
The purpose of this comedy has been the subject of much discussion. As a piece of literature it is exquisite. It lifts us out of a world of hard unpleasant fact into a region where life is a care-free thing, bores or impostors are banished and the reign of the usurper ends. The play is not of or for any one particular period; it is really timeless, appealing to the ineradicable desire we all have for an existence of joy and light, where dreams always come true and hope ends only in fulfilment. It is therefore one of man's deathless achievements; the power of its appeal is evident from the frequency with which it has been revived—it was staged at Cambridge this very year. Staged it will be as long as men are what they are.
Having learned that men are a naturally combative race, lusting for blood, the poet saw it was hopeless to bring them to terms. Nor could he for ever live in Cloudcuckootowns; he therefore bethought him of another expedient for obtaining peace. In 411 he imagines the women of Athens, Peloponnese and Boeotia combining to force terms on the men by deserting their homes, under the leadership of Lysistrata. She calls a council of war, explaining her plot to capture the Acropolis. A Chorus of men rush in to smoke them out, armed with firebrands, but are met by a Chorus of women bearing pitchers to quench the flames. An officer of the Council comes to argue with Lysistrata, who points out that in the first part of the war (down to 421) the women had kept quiet, though aware of men's incompetence; now they have determined to control matters. They are possessed of the Treasury, their experience of household economy gives them a good claim to organise State finance; they grow old in the absence of their husbands; a man can marry a girl however old he is. A woman's prime soon comes; if she misses it, she sits at home looking for omens of a husband; women make the most valuable of all contributions to the State, namely sons. The officer retires to report to the Council.
Lysistrata, seeing a weakness in the women's resolution, encourages them with an oracle which promises victory if they will only persist. A herald speedily arrives from Sparta announcing a similar defection in that city. Ambassadors of both sides are brought to Lysistrata who makes a splendid speech.
“I am a woman, but wit is in me and I have no small conceit of
myself. Having heard many speeches from my father and elder men
I am not ill-informed. Now that I have caught you I will administer
to you the rebuke you richly deserve. You sprinkle altars from the
same lustral-bowl, like relatives, at Olympia, Pylae, Delphi and
many other places. Though the barbarian enemy is on you in armed
force, you destroy Greek men and cities.”
She points out that both sides have been guilty of injustice; both should make surrenders and agree to a peace which is duly ratified. The Chorus of men believe that Athenian ambassadors should go to Sparta in their cups:—
“As it is, whenever we go there sober, we immediately see what
mischief we can make. We never hear what they say; what they do
not say we conjecture and never bring back the same tale about
the same facts.”
Odes of thanksgiving wind up the piece.
Exactly twenty years earlier Euripides in the Medea had written the first protest against women's subjection to an unfair social lot. By a strange irony of fortune his most severe critic Aristophanes was the first man in Europe to give utterance to their claim to a political equality. True, he does so in a comedy, but he was speaking perhaps more seriously than he would have us think. Women do contribute sons to the State; they do believe that they are as capable as men of judging political questions—with justice, in a system where no qualifications but twilight opinions are necessary. On this ground they have won the franchise. Nor has the feminist movement really begun as yet. We may see women in control of our political Acropolis, forcing the world to make peace to save our chances of becoming ultimately civilised.
The Thesmophoriazousae, staged in 411, is a lampoon on Euripides. That poet with his kinsman Mnesilochus calls at the house of Agathon, a brother tragedian whose style is amusingly parodied. Euripides informs him that the women intend to hold a meeting to destroy him for libel; they are celebrating the feast of the Thesmophoria. As Agathon refuses an invitation to go disguised and defend Euripides, Mnesilochus undertakes the dangerous duty; his disguise is effected on the stage with comic gusto. At the meeting the case against the poet is first stated; he has not only lampooned women, he has taught their husbands how to counter their knaveries and is an atheist. Mnesilochus defends him; women are capable of far more villainies than even Euripides has exposed. The statement of these raises the suspicions of the ladies who soon unmask the intruder, inquiring of him the secret ritual of the Thesmophoria.
One of them goes to the Town Council to find out what punishment they are to inflict.
Mnesilochus meanwhile snatches a child from the arms of one of them, holding it as a hostage. To his amazement it turns out to be a wine-stoup. He vainly tries some of the dodges practised in Euripides' plays to bring him to the rescue. The Chorus meantime expose the folly of calling women evil.
“If we are a bane, why do you marry us? Why do you forbid us to
walk abroad or to be caught peeping out? Why use such pains to
preserve this evil thing? If we do peep out, everybody wants this
bane to be seen; if we draw back in modesty, every man is much
more anxious to see this pest peep out again. At any rate, no
woman comes into the city after stealing public money fifty
talents at a time.”
A better plan would be
“to give the mothers of famous sons the right of place in festivals;
those whose sons are evil should take a lower place.”
In an amusing series of scenes Euripides enters dressed up as some of his own characters to save Mnesilochus. A borough officer enters with a policeman whom he orders to bind the prisoner and guard him. More disguises are adopted by Euripides who succeeds at last in freeing his kinsman by pretending to be an old woman with a marriageable daughter whom the policeman can have at a price. When the latter goes to fetch the money Euripides and his relative disappear.
The poet has in this play very skilfully palmed off on Euripides his own attack on women. We have already seen what Euripides' attitude was to the neglected sex. Feminine deceit has been a stock theme in all ages; it had already been treated in Greek literature and was to be passed through Roman literature to the Middle Ages, in which period it received more than its due share of attention. In itself it is a poor theme, good enough perhaps as a stand-by, for it is sure to be popular. Those who pose as woman-haters might consider the words of the Chorus in this play.
The most violent attack on Euripides was delivered after his death by Aristophanes in the Frogs, written in 405. This famous comedy is so well-known that a brief outline will suffice. It falls into two parts. The first describes the adventures of Dionysus who with his servant Xanthias descends to the lower world to bring back Euripides. The god and his servant exchange parts according as the persons they meet are friendly or hostile. In the second part the three great tragedians are brought on the scene. Euripides, who has just died, tries to claim sovereignty in Hades; Sophocles, “gentle on earth and gentle in death” withdraws his claim, leaving Aeschylus to the contest. The two rivals appoint Dionysus, the patron of drama, to act as umpire. In a series of admirable criticisms the weaknesses of both are plainly indicated. Finally Dionysus decides to take back Aeschylus.
This play is as popular as the Birds. It contains one or two touches of low comedy, but these are redeemed by the spirit of inexhaustible jollity which sets the whole thing rocking with life and gaiety. It is an original in Greek literature, being the first piece of definitely literary criticism. A long experience had made the sense of the stage a second nature to Aristophanes who here criticises two rival schools of poetry as a dramatist possessed of inside professional knowledge. So far his work is of the same class as Cicero's De Oratore and Reynolds' Discourses. His object, however, was not to preserve a balance of impartiality but to condemn Euripides as a traitor to the whole tradition of Attic tragedy. He does so, but not without giving his reasons—and these are good and true. No person is qualified to judge the development of Greek tragedy who has not weighed long and carefully the second portion of the Frogs.
In 393 Aristophanes broke entirely new ground in the Ecclesiazousae (women in Parliament), a discussion of social and economic problems. Praxagora assembles the women of Athens to gain control of the city. They meet early in the morning, disguise themselves with beards and open the question.
“The decisions of men in Parliament are to reflecting people like
the derangements of drunken men. I am disgusted with our policy,
we always employ unscrupulous leaders. If one of them is honest
for one day, he is a villain for ten. Doling out public money, men
have eyes only for what they can make out of the State. Let women
govern; they are the best at providing money and are not likely to
be deceived in office, for they are well versed in trickery.”
They proceed to the Assembly to execute their plot.
On the opening of the discussion one Euaeon proposed a scheme of wholesale spoliation of the property owners to support the poor. Then a white-faced citizen arose and proposed flatly that women should rule, that being the one thing which had never yet been tried. The motion was carried with great enthusiasm, the men declaring that “an old proverb says all our senseless and foolish decisions turn out for good”. When Praxagora returns to the stage, she declares she intends to introduce a system of absolute communism. All citizens are to live and dine in common and possess wives in common, existing on the work of slaves. Any person who refuses to declare his wealth is to be punished by losing his rations, “the punishment of a man through his belly being the worst insult he can suffer”. A vivid description of the workings of the new system ends the play.
Aristophanes is no doubt criticising Plato's Republic, but allowing for altered circumstances we cannot go far wrong if we see here a picture of the suggested remedy for the social distress which is inseparable from a great war. At Athens, beaten and impoverished, there must have been widespread discontent; the foundation upon which society was built must have been criticised, its inequalities being emphasised by idealists and intriguers alike. Our own generation has to face a similar situation. We have seen women in Parliament and we are deluged by a flood of communistic idealism emanating from Russia. Its one commendation is that it has never yet been tried among us and many simple folk will applaud the philosophy which persuades itself that all our mistakes will somehow come right in the end. The problem of finding somebody to do the work was easily solved in ancient Athens where the slaves were three times as numerous as the free. England, possessing no slaves, would under communism be unable to feed herself and would die of starvation.
The Plutus, written in 388 is a singular work. An honest old man Chremylus enters with Carion “his most faithful and most thievish servant”. They are holding fast a blind old man, in obedience to an oracle of Apollo. After a little questioning the stranger admits that he is Plutus, the god of wealth. Wild with joy they invite him to their house. He does not like houses, for they have never brought him to any good.
“If I enter a stingy man's abode, he immediately digs me deep in
the earth and denies he has ever seen me. If I enter a crazy
man's home, given to dicing and fast living, I am soon ejected
Learning that Chremylus is honest and poor he consents to try once again.
The rumour gets abroad that Chremylus has suddenly grown rich; his acquaintance reveal their true characters as they come to question him about his luck. The goddess Poverty enters, to be cross-examined by Chremylus who has suggested that Plutus should recover his sight under the healing care of Asclepius. Before the care is effected, she points out the dangers of his project. He is well-meaning, but foolish; Poverty is not Mendicancy, it means a life of thrift, with nothing left over but with no real want; it is the source of the existence of all the handicrafts, nor can the slaves be counted on to do the work if everybody becomes rich, for nobody will sell slaves if he has money already. Riches on the other hand are the curse of many; wealth rots men, causing gout, dropsy and bloated insolence; the gods themselves are poor, otherwise they would not need human sacrifice.
The cure is successful; Plutus recovers his eyes and can see to whom he gives his blessings; the good and the rascals alike receive their due reward. The change which wealth produces in men's natures is most admirably depicted in the Epilogue.
This is an Allegory dramatised with no little skill. The piece is full of the shrewdest hits at our human failings, aimed, however, with no ill-nature. Aristophanes' power of characterisation here shows no falling-off. Fortune's fickleness is proverbial and has received frequent literary treatment. Men's first prayer is for wealth; poverty, according to Dr. Johnson, is evidently a great evil because it needs such a long defence. Yet it is only the well-meaning but utterly unpractical idealists who desire to make us all prosperous—
“How that may change our nature, that's the question.”
Some are not fit for riches, being ignorant of their true function; self-indulgence and moral rottenness follow wealth; because of the abuse of the power which wealth brings, we are taught that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.
It is difficult to convey an adequate impression of Aristophanes to the English reader. Long excerpts are impossible and undesirable. Comedy is essentially a mirror of contemporary life; it contains all kinds of references to passing political events and transient forms of social life; its turns of language are peculiar to its own age. We who are familiar with Shakespeare know that one of our chief difficulties in reading him is the constant reference to what was obvious to the Elizabethan public but is dark to us. Yet the plays of Aristophanes in an English translation such as that of Frere read far more like modern work than the comedies of Ben Jonson, for the society in which Aristophanes moved was far more akin to ours. It was democratic, was superficially educated, was troubled by socialistic and communistic unrest exactly as we are. Some of our modern thinkers would be surprised to find how many of their dreamings were discussed twenty-three centuries ago by men quite as intelligent and certainly as honest.
Aristophanes' greatest fault is excessive conservatism. He gives us a most vivid description of the evils and abuses of his own time, yet has no remedy except that of putting back the hands of the clock some fifty years. Marathon, Aeschylus, the nascent democracy were his ideal and he was evidently put out by the ending of the period of “Periclean calm.” He then has no solution for the problems in front of him. But it might be asked whether a dramatist's business is not rather to leave solutions to the thinker, concerning himself only with mirroring men's natures. With singular courage and at no small personal risk this man attacked the great ones of his day, scourging their hypocrisies and exposing the real tendencies of their principles. If he has opened our eyes to the objections to popular government and popular poetry and has made us aware of the significance of the feminist movement, let us be thankful; we shall be more on our guard and be less easily persuaded that problems are new or that they are capable of a final solution.
On the other hand, we shall find in him qualities of a most original type. His spirits are inexhaustible, he laughs heartily and often without malice at the follies of the mass of men; Cleon and Euripides were anathema to him, but the rest he treats as Fluellen did Pistol: “You beggarly knave, God bless you”. His lyrics must be classed with the best in Greek poetry. Like Rabelais this rollicking jolly spirit disguises his wisdom under the mask of folly, turning aside with some whimsical twist just when he is beginning to be too serious. He will repay the most careful reading, for his best things are constantly turning up when least expected. His political satire ceasing with the death of Cleon, he turned to the land of pure fancy among the winged careless things; he then raised the woman's question, started literary criticism and ended with Allegory. To few has such a noble cycle of work been vouchsafed; we owe him at least a debt of remembrance, for he loved us as our brother.
Frere (verse). This spirited version of five plays is justly famous. Various plays have been rendered into verse by Rogers (Bell). The translation is on the whole rather free. The volumes contain excellent introductions and notes.
No prose translation of outstanding merit has appeared.
The Greek tragedians have not received their due from translators and admirers. There is nothing in English drama inspired by Greece to compare with the French imitations of Seneca, Plautus and Terence.