Greek drama is considered to be the very basis of modern-day theater. Originating in ancient Athens, it was initially used as form of religious ritual. Its goal was to explain the following to the audience: “…the relation of the human to the divine, of the human to the material world, … [of] violence and its origins, and [how] to control the irrational and the material worlds.” (Hooker, 1996)
The basic background of Greek drama was a chorus, which had a leader who would sing a song about a particular legend or hero. Eventually, the leader progressed from just singing to acting out what was being sung. Then, dialogue and additional actors were added, although not all had a speaking role. Finally, in the 5th century B.C. was the emergence of a theater, which had a large circular orchestra for the chorus that was partially surrounded by the audience. On the side not surrounded was a low stage that allowed for easy communication with the orchestra. Directly behind the stage was a building that had a large door on it, and was most likely used as an entry point for the actors and chorus.
Greek drama can be broken down into three types: tragedy, comedy, and satyr plays. Only the first two were truly focused on in ancient Greek society. Ancient Greeks defined tragedy and comedy in two very different ways. The first was the Aristotelian tradition, which defined tragedy as being “a drama which concerns better than average people (heroes, kings, gods) who suffer a transition from good fortune to bad fortune, and who speak in elevated language” (no author, 2007). Tragedy was thus meant as a way of purging the soul. This same tradition defined comedy as being concerned with “…average, or below average, people who enjoy a transition from bad circumstances to good (but not too good) and who speak every language” (no author, 2007).
The second was the rhetorical tradition, which defined comedy as being fiction that may not be true, but is believable, while tragedy was defined as being fiction that is not true or believable. It is this more simplified rhetorical tradition that Aristophanes employed in writing his comedies.
Considered to be the greatest writer of the original Greek comedy, which was extremely popular in 5th century B.C. Greece, Aristophanes was born into a wealthy family in Athens between 450 and 445 B.C. He was given an excellent education, through which he became knowledgeable in literature, particularly the writings of Homer and other great Athenian writers. Furthermore, his writings show a deep knowledge of the philosophical theories of his day.
His entire boyhood encompassed the period in which Athens was one of the two leading powers in the Greek world, as well as being a center of artistic and intellectual activity. From age 17 to age 23, Aristophanes would submit his comedies to the annual writing competition in Athens. The plays he submitted were humorous to most who heard them. However, in one instance, he was taken to court by a politician, but the punishment was light enough that he was able to continue on with making clever remarks about politicians in further plays.
All of Aristophanes’ comedies reflected the political climate of Athens. When there was peace, he would write of all the favorite things Athenians could do during peacetime. When there was warfare, he would write his own “conspiracies” such as the comedy Lysistrata, which presents a story of Greek women banding together to end the Peloponnesian War. The Peloponnesian War ultimately ended with Sparta being victorious over Athens. As a result of this, Aristophanes had to curb his tactic of poking fun at leaders and politics in his comedies. He would eventually die nine years after writing Lysistrata, with the actual date ranging from 385 – 380 B.C.
As stated previously, Aristophanes used his comedic works to discuss political issues of the day. This is seen in Lysistrata, which discussed the impact the Peloponnesian War was having on Athenian society. However, another theme Aristophanes addresses is that of gender relations in Athens, and to some extent, throughout the ancient world. The common attitude held during Aristophanes’ time, and well into the 20th century A.D. for that matter, was that women were fragile and lacking the required strength and intelligence to deal with anything other than domestic issues, meaning being a wife, mother, maid, and consummate party-thrower. Aristophanes pokes fun at this assessment by presenting women who in some ways adhere to these stereotypes, yet in other ways completely break away from.
The play begins with the title character, Lysistrata, being quite angry with her fellow female neighbors for not wanting to meet and discuss the war raging between Athens and the Boetians. Clearly, the topic of warfare is considered to be the domain of men, yet Lysistrata is determined to discuss it to find a way to bring the war to an end. This is the first instance that Aristophanes challenges the usual attitude held by society with regard to women, which is that they are not intelligent enough to understand the intricacies of war.
Listening to Lysistrata rage on about the lack of concern from the other women of the community is Cleonice, who Aristophanes presents to the audience as the typical Greek stay-at-home mother and wife. Cleonice shows sympathy to the anger and frustration that Lysistrata is feeling, but is not exactly on the same page with the feelings Lysistrata is expressing. The title character is furious that the women are not concerned with bringing peace to their city and country, and is further disgusted by the fact that none of the women are willing to break out of the stereotypical mold that they have been placed in.
Eventually, a few women arrive for the meeting that Lysistrata has called. Once they are settled, Lysistrata informs the women that it is up to them to stop the war. Cleonice questions this, in a manner that emphasizes the stereotypical view of women being extremely delicate held by both ancient and modern men: “But how should women perform so wise and glorious an achievement, we women who dwell in the retirement of the household, clad in diaphanous garments of yellow silk and long flowing gowns, decked out with flowers and shod with dainty little slippers?” (Aristophanes).
Lysistrata replies that those very things are what will serve as the anchor of their salvation, as no man will want to raise his sword against a woman. She then goes on to outline her plan, after playing on the feelings of longing and loneliness the women have with regard to their husbands, who are off fighting in the war.
Initially, she asks whether or not the women will support her if she has found a solution to end the war. They all immediately answer yes, but when she explains the actual plan, they all change their answer. The plan itself entails the women refraining from having any intimate, sexual contact with their husbands. Hearing this, the women all refuse to go along. They refused to be robbed of what Cleonice called “… the sweetest thing in all the world…”
When they question Lysistrata about what to do in response to the anger they are certain the men will display when refused sexual contact, Lysistrata tells them not to worry. If the men insist on having sex, the women should “…yield to their wishes, but with a bad grace…” She goes further to say that “… there are a thousand ways of tormenting them. Never fear, they’ll soon tire of the game; there’s no satisfaction for a man, unless the woman shares it.”
Throughout this entire exchange, Aristophanes is using the stereotype of how women use their bodies and sex to get what they want. In some ways that is quite true, but the actual point Aristophanes is trying to demonstrate is how easily Lysistrata goes from being a trailblazing sort of woman, determined to assert and use her intelligence, to becoming the very type of woman she despises: one who uses feminine wiles in order to get something from a man. Aristophanes has her encouraging the women to use their sexuality, and even goes as far as examining the bodies of the women to find the physical attributes that would catch the attention of the men. Once they are found, the women are encouraged to emphasize those particular aspects of their bodies so that they are practically irresistible to their husbands.
In the end, the goal that Lysistrata was trying to achieve – ending the war – is accomplished. It is accomplished because the assessment Lysistrata makes regarding the men was correct: by the end of the play, they are desperate to have sex with their wives, and are thus willing to do anything. Because Lysistrata is more masculine than feminine, she is able to understand how plausible her plan was. Her ability to use sex, which men think so highly of, as a tool against them is what ultimately allows her to bring peace to Athens, and to Greece overall.
The tactic of subduing femininity and promoting masculinity is seen throughout history with regard to particular female rulers. They all do what Lysistrata does in this play: use the stereotypes about the female gender against the very men who created them in such a way that it is the woman who gains the upper hand over the man.
Ultimately, Aristophanes makes it clear through the character of Lysistrata that stereotypes are dangerous. They can be used to keep a person or group of persons at a low level in society, but at the same time, they can be used against the very person or persons who created them. Aristophanes seems to have had the goal of emphasizing that humans are too complex to have them be defined by stereotypes. He succeeds in accomplishing that goal with the creation of Lysistrata.
1. Hooker, Richard. (1999). Greek Drama. In World Civilizations. Retrieved October 14, 2008,
2. Biography of Aristophanes. (2007). In Notable Biographies online. Retrieved October 14,
2008 from http://www.notablebiographies.com/An-Ba/Aristophanes.htm.
3. Aristophanes. (n.d.) Lysistrata. In Exploring Ancient World Cultures: Readings from Ancient
Greece. Retrieved October 15, 2008 from http://eawc.evansville.edu/anthology/lysistrata.htm.