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One function of most comedies is to satirise, to mock, to subvert, to correct. To what extent
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does ‘Lysistrata’ conform to this notion?!
1
People, it seems, like to laugh at themselves. Self-depreciation is a classic pillar of humour, erected by the Greeks in plays of the Old Comedy genre and remaining even now in the modern- day stand-up show. Satirisation is, of course, the manifestation of humanity’s awareness of its own flaws - one way in which we recognise our foibles is to laugh at them. However, there is an even more intrinsic human desire that humour highlights, something that we choose to mock more than our own actions. It seems also that people like to laugh at other people - particularly when the r!ecipient of the criticism is one who is in a position of power or authority.!
‘Lysistrata’ - one of the most profoundly influential works of the classical comic Aristophanes - is an example of just that. Aristophanes takes his surroundings and synthesises a contrary scenario, making his audience laugh, but more importantly making radical arguments about the state of affairs in Athens in 411BC. Through the voice of his actors, he provides an amusing but pertinent s!ocial commentary that can pique the interest of the residents of his city. !
There are two social conditions that Aristophanes subverts in ‘Lysistrata’, giving clues about the attitudes at the time and the problems that the real-life characters were facing. One of these is familiar: the established patriarchy and gender-based societal inequality that one who reads any pre-21st century literature will be familiar with. The second is somewhat more nuanced and contextual: the almost omnipresent inter-state warfare of Ancient Greece. The way in which they interact is the concept with which Aristophanes plays; by envisaging a revolt of the female class, a!nd the stupidity and inadequacy to rule of men. !
War - Arisophanes insinuates through his mouthpiece Lysistrata - is a dire situation. She says that “The whole future of the country rests with us”. In that, he both condemns war and characterises it as an inherently masculine act - the men are fixated on conflict and the women must work together to dissuade them. Of course, war is a largely unnecessary act, the Grecian wars are a particular example of fruitless conflict. The corrective function of this play emerges within the revolutionaries’ attitudes towards war - typically, a play such as this will favour those who seek to upset the established order. Mandela famously said that one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter; the w!omen in this case are almost certainly the latter. !
With the idiocy of the men (blowing smoke in their own eyes, for example) Aristophanes creates a biased narrative which encourages the audience to ‘side’ with the women’s cause. He uses lines such as “We hear some old half-wits are coming” to diminish the significance of the men. The inclusion of short words with few syllables conveys a more impactful message - it sounds very much like a chant. Aristophanes makes heavy use of imagery in the choruses - “I think a mad dog in disguise has jumped up and bitten my eyes!” and the ‘stories’ of Melanion and Timon. There is also constant reference to mythology in the chanting - “of a Fury born” and “Hippias’ tyranny”. The effect of all of these devices is rhetorical; it aims firstly to mimic the nature of a political coup, but also to persuade the audience. Being a social commentary, the primary role of the play is to mock the behaviour of others, by convincing the audience that the satirisation is accurate and pertinent. The use of mythology is also typical of a Greek comedy, where reference to characters that the a!udience already know helps them to familiarise and associate with the play.!
Another clever ploy of the playwright is to insert the belligerent, warlike tendencies of the men into their other behaviour in the play. They march, they follow one leader, they chant and they threaten the women in a variety of physical ways - “if you don’t keep quiet, you old crone, I’ll flay you out of your skin!”. This has two effects. Firstly, it shows that the men aren’t able to engage with the debate on the intellectual level it requires; they just want to deal with a physical threat. As the issues at hand are fundamentally ideological, their approach is inappropriate and therefore doomed. Also, because the tactics of the men don’t work, embarrassingly, it implies further that war is not the way and that the women must therefore be right. The men undermine the physical
Tony Diver approach by getting “smoke in their eyes” - multiple times. The audience has no doubt about which is the superior gender.!
!
The second area of contention within the play is the treatment of women. By establishing a strong female protagonist from the very start, Aristophanes instantly challenges the institutional patriarchy. Ironically, all of the actors performing this play would have been male, with some donning female masks, but nevertheless the dominance of women in the plot line is both unusual and interesting. Lysistrata, the character that gave the play its title, is the leader of the female revolution. She takes complete control over the rest of the women from the very start - speaking in declaratives and imperatives. “I’ve called a meeting to discuss a very major matter, and they’re all still fast asleep!”. The stage directions for Lysistrata for her very first line are ‘[annoyed]’, which demonstrates her passion for her cause and willingness to assert her authority, something which the frequency of exclamation marks corroborates.!
This prevalence of women is uncommon in Old Comedy and Greek literature in general; where in most areas of society men took the lead roles. Aristophanes subverts society’s perceived role of women - to “sit at home looking pretty” - in order for his characters to use it as a bargaining chip for political reform. Naturally, sex provides an amusing motivation for an otherwise dry story of a coup - but it also is worth noting that it is precisely because of the prettiness and materialised nature of women that they are able to make a stand against the men - by denying them sex.!
A message of female emancipation is coupled here with the erosion of the established social ruling class - men. The magistrate, a man of very high social status, is built up in several lines of pomp and self-importance - “That’s the sort of impudent behaviour you get from women” - and then very obviously subjugated - “My bowmen have been utterly defeated!”. This is an excellent example of Aristophanes both mocking and correcting the magistrate’s behaviour; where he is exposed as foolish and egotistical. Where the Men’s Leader insults the women in line 1014, asserting “neither fire nor leopard is more ruthless”, he actually reinforces the suggestion that the women are shrewder. This suggests further idiocy of the man, who creates a metaphor in which two very strong and impressive comparisons are made with his enemy.!
It would seem that in both an ideological and a rhetorical sense, Aristophanes seeks to support the insurrectionist characters in ‘Lysistrata’. He challenges two main societal axioms, of the righteousness of factional warfare and the oppression of women. Far ahead of his time, the playwright’s message is progressive and subversive - yet portrayed in an entertaining work which uses the ‘weaknesses’ of women in “see-through silk gowns” “at home” as political assets. By contrasting the women’s resourcefulness and honour with the men’s fatuousness disdain, the ‘point’ of the play is clear: women should be listened to more, especially when rebutting needless (and male-dominated) war. Aristophanes here uses a technique imitated today on satirical television or between the pages of Private Eye; we often see that mocking the established system in order to generate support for a reformatory cause is both effective and amusing. Perhaps it is worth noting that society has repeatedly divided itself on these principles of women and war since 411BC - in the words of Lysistrata herself, “let us for the future all endeavour not to repeat our errors, never ever!”. !
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