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Aristophanes: Biography & Plays

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, the Father of Comedy. He lived during the Golden Age of Athens and was one of the most famous intellects of his time.

A Portrait of Aristophanes
Aristophanes

Historical Context

When you think of the playwright Aristophanes, you should imagine the wit of Oscar Wilde. Aristophanes was also a brilliant writer, innovative like Shakespeare, complex like the best dramatists, and with as much slapstick as Mel Brooks or the Three Stooges. In his time, Aristophanes was the undisputed master of comedy.

Aristophanes was born in 446 B.C.E. during the Peloponnesian Wars, a group of conflicts between Athens and her tributaries against Sparta and its allies. His first few plays were written while Athens was winning the war and his home was still the most wealthy and powerful city-state in the world. Aristophanes lived until 386, several years after the wars were over and while Athens was transforming from an economic powerhouse back to the intellectual city-state it had been. As a genius at his art, Aristophanes changed his style and the art of comedy along with it as Athens changed.

Spoof Artist

One of Aristophanes' most revered and feared qualities was his ability to spoof any individual or situation. In plays like Lysistrata he makes fun of the wars and points out just how silly they are by having the women of Athens refuse to sleep with their husbands until they make peace.

Women insisting on their rights from Lysistrata
Lysistrata

More vicious was his attack on people. His Oscar Wilde came out when talking about his favorite subject, Cleon. Cleon was at the time one of the leaders of Athens and every decision he made was exaggerated for comedy's sake in Aristophanes' plays. He wasn't the only one attacked though. Plato once pointed out Aristophanes' attack on Socrates as one of the main reasons he was brought to trial. Euripides was another of his favorite subjects. He attacked politicians, thinkers, and fellow playwrights equally.

Elements of the Old Comedy

Aristophanes was what we would call a satirist. He happily pointed out the mistakes of people in the audience if he didn't agree with their policies. He also liked to use the theater to tease or even taunt foreigners; imagine the leader of North Korea being brought to the premiere of The Interview and you will have a good idea of what Aristophanes was like.

He was also bawdy, with obvious costumes, caricature masks, and dirty jokes. His plays were extravaganzas, with the chorus sometimes fighting choreographed battles with the actors.

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