Presented to the Calgary Women’s Literary Club
November 20, 2018
By Anne Tingle
Aristophanes, one of the greatest writers of antiquity, was a comic poet and playwright in Athens during the Peloponnesian War. This was a time when it was conventional for a poet to assume the role of teacher and Aristophanes used this role to teach about the destructiveness and sheer stupidity of war through his comic dramas.
His writing is variously described as “pungent political satire” and “racy anti-war farce”. By way of differentiation, farce is comedy that relies heavily on overly exaggerated, dramatic events, while satire is comedy that relies heavily on insults and the ridiculing of people, groups, society, or political parties.
According to Paul Roche, who has translated a number of Aristophanes’ plays, he uses a vocabulary that is almost Shakespearean in its variety and richness. In spite of this, his comedy was slow to gain official acceptance because nobody took it seriously. Yet, Aristophanes’ plays are serious. He saw the role of the poet to preserve a world of order.
Nobody was above mockery in Greek comedy: the patron god, other gods, artists, politicians and ordinary citizens were legitimate targets. Comedy was a kind of licensed buffoonery and there was no legal redress for anyone who was slandered in a play. Comedy is a product of its time and culture. Playwrights presented their plays at competitive festivals where the audience presented a wide range of targets, not just political or religious ones. Anyone known to the audience could be mocked for any reason such as diseases, physical deformities, ugliness, family misfortunes, bad manners, perversions, dishonesty, cowardice in battle and clumsiness. In Aristophanes’ comedy, the hero is an independent-minded and self-reliant individual. He has the ingenuity of Homer’s Odysseus and needs to be shrewd because he is subject to corrupt leaders and unreliable neighbours.
[Following the presentation for background, the club members performed a Reader’s Theatre of several pivotal scenes in Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata.]