Term Paper: Lysistrata of Aristophanes' 11 Plays

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[. . .] In this case, the warring elements of the women and the men absurdly pun on the concept of the warring states of Sparta and Greece.

Indeed, Lysistrata, in speaking to the men convened before her and the naked Peace by her side, attempts to argue for a unified Hellenistic world. In this speech, she points out all of the things that the warring parties share in common:

First I must bring a reproach against you that applies equally to both sides. At Olympia, and Thermopylae, and Delphi, and a score of other places too numerous to mention, you celebrate before the same altars ceremonies common to all Hellenes; yet you go cutting each other's throats, and sacking Hellenic cities, when all the while the barbarian yonder is threatening you!


Here, Lysistrata's point is that both sides of the war worship at the same altars, meaning that they have a common religion, a common heritage and a common culture. Their decision to fight each other seems absurd when there are many "barbaric" peoples outside of Greece who pose a significant threat to their safety. In this way, Lysistrata is attacking the war as an unnatural and absurd state of affairs. Now, we can see the parallels between the obviously absurd and unnatural war of the sexes and the war between the states. Aristophanes point here is that the division and argument between the Hellenistic states is just as absurd as the battle currently raging between the husbands and wives. Here, Aristophanes reveals the thoughtful construction behind his seemingly absurd conceit. What is most impressive is the manner in which he is able to use the plot as an engine, which drives both the comedy and the political commentary. In this way, Aristophanes manages to harness the dramatic arc of comedy for multiple purposes.

Viewed in this fashion, we can also what the figurative and symbolic importance of sex in the play is and what the idea of a "sex strike" metaphorically suggests. Sex, aside from its obvious use as both a form of physical gratification and a means of procreation, also acts as a symbol if human unity, both in the marriage bond and the act of creating new life. The idea of withholding sex, then, suggests disunity and discord, a divide not unlike the one which Greece is experiencing in this war between its own states. Sex in this case suggests unity by the method of synecdoche, which is "naming a part for the whole in which it is included: hence, 'head' for 'man' in the expression 'I know not the fate of so dear a head'" (De Certeau 136). Unity continues as an immense theme throughout Aristophanes play, as is highlighted in this scene in which effective governance is compared to the weaving of a tunic:

First we wash the yarn to separate the grease and filth; do the same with all bad citizens, sort them out and drive them forth with rods-they're the refuse of the city. Then for all such as come crowding up in search of employments and offices, we must card them thoroughly; then, to bring them all to the same standard, pitch them pell-mell into the same basket, resident aliens or no, allies, debtors to the State, all mixed up together. Then as for our Colonies, you must think of them as so many isolated hanks; find the ends of the separate threads, draw them to a centre here, wind them into one, make one great hank of the lot, out of which the public can weave itself a good, stout tunic.


This extended metaphor between weaving and the state sews together many of the themes that have been floating around throughout this paper. First of all, the metaphor chosen is one from the domestic work of women, which further reinforces the earlier argument that the women achieve their rise to power by treating Greece as their extended household. In this movement, perhaps Aristophanes wishes us to view Greece as if it were a single household, and asks us to consider the viability of a household at war with itself. Abraham Lincoln's famous quotation about a "house divided" likely suggests itself here. Secondly, it reveals a vision of the state as a primary unity, an organic whole, and a true monism. In this way, the unity involved in sex and in governance are similar, and the decision to violate either of these unities only results in absurdities that usurp the very natural order of things.

Thus, Aristophanes Lysistrata is an intriguing comedy because it utilizes an absurd conceit in order to make a very complex point. What initially grabs us as readers is not these deeper arguments, but the intense and hysterical complicating action the begins the play as Lysistrata and the other women plan a revolt that will save Athens by depriving their husbands of Sex. As the play develops along with the antipathies between the men and women and their opposing camps that we see represented by the choruses of old men and old women, however, we begin to see the ways in which the two warring genders represent the two Greek factions at war. In this manner, Aristophanes is commenting on the absurdity of the Greek states warring with themselves, and suggests that this state is as unnatural as if the two genders were at war with each other. Moreover, Aristophanes uses the idea of sex as an example of unity to comment on the way in which the wars between Athens and Sparta have destroyed Hellenistic unity. His suggestion here is that the destruction of Hellenistic unity is comparable to the cessation of procreation and the usurping of the natural order of fertility.

Aristophanes Lysistrata is an intriguing and unusual play and for many reasons it seems almost timeless. Among the most interesting of its aspects is the fact that its main conceit -- the woman of Athens go on a sexual strike against their husbands in order to protest the ongoing war with Sparta -- is itself an almost modern concept. The women's use of nonviolent methods, in this case a sort of absurd boycott, is reminiscent of the ideas of many political activists of the last two hundred years, and seems to prefigure, although in comic fashion, Thoreau's essay "On Civil Disobedience," Gandhi's nonviolent campaign in India, and the boycotting and nonviolent marches of the early American Civil Rights Movement. Aside from these intriguing political elements, the play continues to be of interest to modern scholarship because of the ways in which it tackles themes and topic that relate to the interaction of different genders. Lysistrata tells us much about the manner in which women and men interacted in Greece and what role women played in daily life. The play, although an absurd and farcical comedy, offers a unique window into the way that women ran their household, as well as teaching us a good deal about the stereotypical interactions between Athenian men and women.


Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Apr. 23, 2003. http://eserver.org/drama/aristophanes/lysistrata.txt

De Certeau, Michel. "Practices of Space." On Signs. Marshall Blonsky, ed. Baltimore:

John's Hopkins UP, 1995.

Hadas, Moses, ed. Complete Plays of Aristophanes. New York: Bantam Books, 1962.

Halliwell, Stephen, ed. Aristophanes" Birds and other Plays. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Henderson, Jeffrey. Staging Women: Three Plays by Aristophanes. New York:

Routledge, 1996.

Parker, Douglas, ed. Aristophanes' Lysistrata. New York: Penguin, 1964.

Sommerstein, Alan H., ed. Aristophanes: Lysistrata/The… [END OF PREVIEW]

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