Aristophanes, the Ancient Greek Comedy Writer

Close up of Roman marble bust of Aristophanes.

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Aristophanes is important today because his work is still relevant. People still laugh at modern performances of his comedies. In particular, his famous women's sex strike for peace comedy, Lysistrata, continues to resonate.

Pronunciation: /æ.rɪ.sta.fə.niz/

Examples: In Aristophanes' Frogs, Dionysus, like Hercules before him, goes to the Underworld to bring back Euripides.

The Old Comedy

Old Comedy had been performed for 60 years prior to Aristophanes.

In his time, as his work shows, Old Comedy was changing. It was bawdy and topically political, taking license with living people in the public eye. Ordinary humans played the most heroic characters. Gods and heroes could play buffoons. His style of Old Comedy is described as over-the-top, more like Animal House than How I Met Your Mother. The latter has a lineage that could be traced to an important comedy genre that came after Aristophanes. This was New Comedy, the stock character-filled comedy of manners, written by the Greek Menander and his Roman imitators. To be more completely accurate, New Comedy followed Middle Comedy, a little-known genre to which Aristophanes contributed at the end of his career.

Aristophanes wrote comedies from 427-386 B.C., which gives us approximate dates for his life: (c. 448-385 B.C.). Unfortunately, we know very little about him, although he lived in Athens during periods of turmoil, beginning his writing career after the death of Pericles, during the Peloponnesian War.

In A Handbook of Greek Literature, H.J. Rose says his father was named Philippos. Rose calls Aristophanes a member of the Athenian conservative party.

Aristophanes Makes Fun of Socrates

Aristophanes knew Socrates and poked fun at him in The Clouds, as an example of a sophist. From the other side, Aristophanes appears in Plato's Symposium, comically hiccuping before he comes up with an inspired explanation for why there are are people with different sexual orientations.

Of more than 40 plays written by Aristophanes, 11 survive. He won prizes at least six times -- but not all firsts -- four at the Lenaea (held roughly, in January), where comedy was added to the events in about 440 B.C., and two at the City Dionysia (roughly, in March), where only tragedy had been performed until about 486 B.C.

While Aristophanes produced most of his own plays, he did not initially do so. Not until the Acharnians, a pro-peace play and one of those featuring the character of the great tragedian Euripides, won a prize at the Lenaea, in 425, did he start producing. His previous two plays, the Banqueteers, and the Babylonians do not survive. The Knights (Lenaea of 424), an attack on the political figure Cleon, and Frogs (Lenaia of 405), which also features the character of Euripides in a contest with Aeschylus, also won first prize.

The generally irreverent, creative Aristophanes made fun of the gods and of real people. His portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds has been criticized for contributing to the atmosphere that condemned Socrates since he portrays Socrates as a ridiculous sophist teaching the morally worthless topics of philosophy for money.

Old Comedy Structure

A typical structure for Aristophanes' Old Comedy would be prologue, parados, agon, parabasis, episodes, and Exodus, with a chorus of 24.

Actors wore masks and had padding front and back. Costumes might include giant phalluses. He used equipment like the mechane or crane and the ekkyklema or platform. He made up long, complicated, compound words where appropriate, like cloudcuckooland.

Surviving Comedies by Aristophanes

  • The Acharnians
  • The Birds
  • The Clouds
  • The Ecclesiazusae
  • The Frogs
  • The Knights
  • Lysistrata
  • Peace
  • Plutus
  • The Thesmophoriazusae
  • The Wasps