Aristophanes is considered by most scholars to be the foremost Greek playwright and poet of the old “Attic” style of comedy. He was born in 447 BC, in the deme of Cydathenaeum. He was known to be the son of Philippos, and he enjoyed the benefits of an aristocratic life and education. Little is known about the personal life of Aristophanes, but it was known that he served as a councilor early in the fourth century. He sired three sons, Philippos, Araos, and Nikostratos, all of whom became comedic playwrights upon reaching adulthood. He was characterized as a “joker and a lover of jokes” by Plato, and he was depicted as being at ease with the intellectual and social elite of Athens. One account reported that he was seen walking home with Socrates after a gathering debating whether a writer could pen both tragedy and comedy. It was also said that the renowned playwright lost enough hair during his twenties that he could be called bald.
Aristophanes’ career spanned four decades and had the battle-worn, waning power of Greece as its backdrop. He was known to have authored forty-four plays attributed to him, eleven of which are extant. He staged his first comedy in 247, and his last was staged in 386. At the famed annual Dionysia festival held in Athens each March, Aristophanes won six first prize awards, four second prize awards and two last place awards. In a gesture unusual for the times, Aristophanes contracted a producer-director to stage his plays early and late in his career.
Although Aristophanes was awarded an honorific crown of olive leaves for his advisory parabasis in Frogs in 405, his popularity was transitory. He lampooned every institution sacred to the Greeks. No person, no matter how exalted the personage was safe from Aristophanes’ critical eye. From the political leaders, to the Athenian populace, to the Gods themselves, Aristophanes unabashedly attacked pretense at any level. He satirized Socrates and philosophy of the day in Clouds. Aristophanes’ caricature of the venerable thinker remained a lasting perception of Socrates for years to come. It was even asserted by Plato that Clouds played an integral role in the execution of Socrates some years later, as the charges against him read like a summary of the play.
Aristophanes’ penchant for ridicule embroiled him in a four-year battle with the most influential political leader in Athens, Cleon. After being satirized in the play Babylonians at the Dionysian festival in 426, Cleon leveled charges of slander against the playwright for his depiction of magistrates, councillors, and Athenians. Aristophanes responded with another unabashed attack of Cleon and his political career with his play Knights.
Aristophanes was also known for his blatant use of profanity and humor about bodily functions and sex. Athenians at the time were not offended by his coarse dialogue and themes, but staging of many of his plays were not possible until the twentieth century. Athenians’ thick skin may have come from the ancient Greek ritual of cursing and hurling invectives as a means of thwarting evil spirits.
Thematically, Aristophanes dealt with the foibles of the common man. His comedic protagonists were usually common men, with common vices, who had extraordinary ideas that made the impossible possible. The plots were fantastic in origin. He depicted the conflicts between generations, sexes, and classes. He derided the oppressors, and revealed hypocrisy for what it was.
Aristophanes’ practiced “Old Comedy”, which were satires of politics and society. Over the tense political situation of constant warring with the Spartans and the Peloponnesian War, the terse criticism of Old Comedy did not survive and it gave way to comedies of manners. Structurally, the comedies of Aristophanes were noteworthy in that the chorus was reduced to twenty-four members, and spoke directly to the audience in the parabasis. The main conflict of the play was debated by the two main characters in the agon. Plot was introduced, although there was much music and dancing. There was a continuity of structure as it proceeded from prologue to exodus.
Aristophanes’ comedies have endured as classic Greek Theater for many reasons. He originated comedy lampooning a specific political official, a form that has survived over a thousand years until today. He shaped the manner in which the history of his time is recorded. His opinions influence how history measures the leaders and thinkers of ancient Greece. Most of all, however, Aristophanes’ plays hold special relevance to twentieth century audiences, especially Western audiences. Although we love our democracy as the Greeks did, political intrigue has soured idealism for many. Many more can appreciate a playwright that can deal with these ironies while still reminding us how lucky we are to have that right, and how that is a test of how our governments function.