HIST 101

Lysistrata, by Aristophanes (411 BCE)

Reading guide and questions for discussion

 

Helps in our edition:

·         A quick, painless preface.

·         Handy, informative notes. I do not expect you to read all of them, but consider reading the longer ones, which often fill you in on important background material. Aristophanes' comedies are hardly intelligible without helps like these. (After all, do you get the Chevy Chase/Gerald Ford jokes on the old Saturday Night Live reruns?)

·         Longer, but very readable, commentaries on issues of relevance to the play at the back of the book.


Historical context

Aristophanes put on his comedy during the spring of 411 BCE. Athens had only recently suffered a great reverse in her long war against Sparta and her allies (the Peloponnesian War, which began in 431BCE): a massive Athenian expedition to Sicily had been wiped out. Many of Athens’ allies (in reality, on the whole, unwilling subjects of the Athenian empire) had revolted from her, and for some time it looked as if the war was lost. But the Athenians had managed to rebuild their fleet and restore the stability of their empire, at least for a time. They would in fact be able to continue the war for seven more years, until their final terrible defeat in 404BCE.


Main Characters

Lysistrata. Our heroine, an Athenian woman. Her names means "Dissolver of Armies" (which could mean one who disrupts the enemy’s army, but here implies something rather different). We are told nothing of Lysistrata’s age or marital status. She may be loosely based on a real Athenian woman, Lysimache (whose name means "Dissolver of battle"), who was the chief priestess of Athena in 411 and appears to have been an opponent of the war. See footnote 1 on page 1.

 

Lampito. Lysistrata’s Spartan counterpart. Her name sounds like the Greek for "shining" or "brilliant." Our translator gives her a hick accent to mimic the Spartan accent she has in the original. See footnote 16 on page 6.

 

Myrrhine. An Athenian woman, wife of Cinesias. Her names means "myrtle" in Greek; this was a frequent slang term for the female genitalia. Compare one of James Bonds' catches, Ms. Pussy Galore. (Our translator's "Bearded Clam" in fn 14 on page 6 is apparently meant to have the same connotations in English.

 

Cinesias. Myrrhine’s horny husband. His name calls to mind the Greek word kinein, which can

mean, um…"to screw." (I suppose he'd have to be named “Richard (i.e. “Dick” in a modern rendition of the play.) See footnote 120 on page 47.

 

Councilor. A pompous, bumbling bureaucrat, one of a special panel the Athenians set up to help manage affairs after their recent defeat in Sicily. See footnote 61 on page 24.


Questions

You should come to class having carefully considered these, including jotting down some of your responses—that will aid your discussion enormously.

 

    1. Just what do Lysistrata and the women want?
    2. What does the play have to teach us about the status of women in Athens?
    3. Describe the characteristics Aristophanes attributes to women. What is his opinion of women, and what are their proper roles?
    4. Although treated comically, the play expresses serious themes: name two and discuss how the play treats them.
    5. What is the function of obscenity (including double meanings) in the play?
    6. Explore some information on the Peloponnesian War from your textbook and notes, keeping in mind that the play was written in 411 BCE. Analyze how current events might have influenced the play.
    7. What serious messages, other than a general anti-war message, are expressed in the play, and by whom?
    8. If, as one critic claims, "comedy has something subversive about it," what do you think was (or is) most subversive about Lysistrata?

 

Outline

Prologue (lines 1-253)
Lysistrata persuades the young women of Athens, and those of other Greek cities, to engage in a sex strike to get their husbands to stop fighting. She also reveals her plan for the older women to take possession of the Acropolis, the hill at the center of Athens which housed the temple to Athena, the Parthenon, where the Athenian treasury was stored: if the men cannot get access to this they will have no way to fund the war.

 

Line 23. What is it? Is it . . . . big?  

 

Yes, this is a sexual joke. Be on the lookout for them. Consider jokes as clues, windows into what a culture finds “funny.”  That can tell us a lot about that society.  And sexual jokes inevitably involve gender issues, so sexual jokes can tell us much about perceived gender roles.  Keep in mind also that this play has a male author.

(And you're getting college credit for reading this stuff! Wow.)

 

Occupation of the Acropolis (lines 254-705)
A chorus of old men (the young men are presumably off fighting) attempts to smoke the women out of the Acropolis, but fails when a chorus of old women soaks them and their torches. A Councilor arrives (line 387), eager to remove funds from the treasury stored on the Acropolis, but he too fails when his force of Scythian archers (slave archers from Scythia, in modern Iran, were the closest thing Athens had to a police force) is routed by the women and he loses a debate with Lysistrata about how to run the city. Finally (line 614) the two choruses again debate, and the old men are again defeated in word and deed.

 

The sex-strike in action (lies 706-1013)
Lysistrata has to restrain women who are attempting to desert from the Acropolis, so eager are they for sex; she then reads an oracle, no doubt one composed for this occasion, that appears to promise the women victory. Then (781) the choruses again debate, this time through examples; the men sing of a misogynist (woman-hater); the women speak of woman of Timon, the misanthrope, who hated all people—but they choose to claim he hated only women. Then (829) a husband, Cinesias, appears, rather eager to bed his wife, Myrrhine; she teases him and abandons him. The Chorus joins him in a mock-tragic lament. A Spartan Herald arrives (980), suffering acutely from the sex-strike back in Sparta, and he and Cinesias arrange to have Spartan Ambassadors come to Athens for a peace conference.

 

Reconciliation (1014-1320)
The two Choruses kiss and make up after the women take the initiative and help the men get dressed again. Then (1043) the Chorus sings as one, jokingly offering money and food to the audience, only to take their promises back. Spartan Ambassadors enter (1076) with painful erections, and they and the similarly beleaguered Athenian Ambassadors call upon Lysistrata to help them works things out. She appears (1112) with a personification of Reconciliation accompanying her in the form of a beautiful naked woman (played by a man wearing tights, with artificial breasts and genitalia tied up front). Lysistrata explains to the Athenians and Spartans what pieces of territory each must give up, though each side is far more interested in the woman Reconciliation as one fine piece.

 

As the ambassadors and Lysistrata feast on the Acropolis, the chorus again makes phoney offers to the audience (1189). Tipsy ambassadors appear and give the slaves sleeping outside comic beatings (1216). A Spartan and an Athenian then sing joyous songs in honor of their newfound friendship (1247).