Aristophanes (Frere 1909)
EDITED BY ERNEST RHYS
THE PLAYS OF
ARISTOPHANES • VOL. I.
WITH AN INTRODUCTION
BY JOHN P. MAINE, M.A.
Aristophanes, the greatest of the Greek writers of comedy, was born at Kydathenaion, a deme of Athens, in the middle of the fifth century B.C. (450 B.C.) We know but little of the details of his life, save the plays he wrote, and the dates at which they were produced. Although some lines of a contemporary poet, Eupolis, complaining of the success of foreigners, have been supposed to refer to him, his full Athenian citizenship can hardly be doubted; because, when Kleon, the great leader of the democratic party at Athens, in revenge for the bitter attacks made upon him by Aristophanes, brought an accusation against the latter in 426 B.C. of fraudulently using the privileges of a full citizen, the prosecution failed.
Aristophanes tells us that he owned land in the island of Aegina, which must have been left to him by his father Philippos; and this, taken in conjunction with the facts that he produced at least eight of his plays under the names of other people—an arrangement which implies a sacrifice of pecuniary profit in order to avoid the labour of training the chorus and superintending the actual details of production—and that his whole attitude to his time is that of the independent aristocrat, warrants us in believing that he must have been a man of independent means. He died about 385 B.C. and left three sons, Philippos, Araros, and Nikostratos, all of whom were comic poets. He is said to have written in all fifty-six plays, of which only eleven have come down to us entire, though we possess many fragments of the others through their having been preserved as quotations in the works of later writers.
The "Old Comedy" of Athens, of which the plays of Aristophanes are the only extant examples, was merely a highly-developed form of the mumming which took place at the vintage and harvest festivals; festivals which were, generally speaking, celebrated in honour of some god of fruitfulness or increase, whose name varied in different localities. At these revels, with their attendant processions, the utmost license was allowed. Especially was this true in the matter of speech. The band of mummers who marched about at the festival of Pan or Dionysus not only sang songs in honour of the god, but were permitted by custom to mock at and insult those persons whose influence and authority ordinarily kept them in awe. Gradually; first, by giving them a song to sing—written specially for the occasion—next by organising their improvised clowning into definite set acting, the Komoi, or bands of revellers, developed into the chorus and actors who performed a Komoidia or comedy. We can thus understand two characteristics of Aristophanes which are apt to strike the modern reader with astonishment and repulsion. The reckless abuse and bitter satire of the old comedy were a continuation of the freedom and license of the village festivals, while his indecency is due, partly to the survival at the festivals of Dionysus of very primitive forms of worship, and partly to the simple and outspoken frankness of the Greeks on topics which modern taste leaves rigorously unmentioned. Towards that "nostalgie de la bone" which is so dangerous a snare to all emotional races, the Greek attitude of mind was one of frank recognition. If, as Aristotle says, the object of tragedy is "to purge our minds of pity and terror" by representing pathetic and awe-inspiring scenes upon the stage, then it is easy to understand how the Greeks brought themselves to believe that the lower emotions and desires might, in a similar manner, be purged away by free and outspoken comedy.
But the period during which the political outspokenness of Aristophanes and his contemporaries flourished was a short one. Comedy developed in Greece far more rapidly than tragedy. The chorus was abolished—the last plays of Aristophanes himself are almost without it—so that we may regard him as not only the greatest writer of the old comedy, but also as the first of the new school of writers in whose work the plot of the play is developed, and the old abuse of political opponents disappears. In the hands of the writers of the fourth century, comedy ceases to be a pamphlet or manifesto directed against men and opinions the poet dislikes, and becomes more and more the form of art which we ourselves describe by that name. Modern comedy aims at being much more than a faithful picture of manners; it is a criticism of life. Comedy in the time of Aristophanes, though the conception of it was changing even in his lifetime, was a criticism of opinions, and it was against all those tendencies of the time which he disliked that he directed the keen shafts of his bitter wit.
Three things in the political and intellectual life of his time especially moved the anger of Aristophanes. These were the war policy of the party of imperial expansion, which was voiced by the leader of the democratic party, Kleon, whom Aristophanes makes the object of some of the most bitter and reckless political abuse in literature; the advanced thought of the time in matters of philosophical speculation; and finally, the embodiment of that thought in contemporary literature, especially in the tragedies of Euripides. With all the keenness of a satirist of genius, Aristophanes absorbed as much current speculation as was necessary for his purpose, but he was careful not to understand too much. Had he done so he might have sympathised with his opponents, and so spoilt his mockery! Whether wilfully or not it is hard to say, but his misunderstanding of the philosophers, as exemplified by his caricature of Socrates in the Clouds, is complete, for he attributes to him views on religion, physical speculations, and methods of education which he must have gathered from the teachings of half a dozen of the leading sophists of the day. His attitude of mind towards Euripides is even more difficult to understand. He is always attacking him, and is never tired of pointing out that it is such teaching as that of the tragedian—such abandoned views of morality, such pictures of men and women—which is responsible for the corruption of the age and the degeneracy of the Athenians. And yet he can never, even for a moment, forget Euripides' plays. To such an extent does he imitate Euripides that not only is he for ever parodying single lines and even whole passages, but the contemporary writer Kratinos actually invented the word "Euriparistophanize" to describe the style of the two writers. Euripides' plays can seldom have been out of his hands. He must have known them by heart.
The following are the plays of Aristophanes which have come down to us:—
The Acharnians was produced in 425 B.C., the seventh year of the Peloponnesian war. In this play the author pleads the cause of peace, and attacks the democratic war-party. It is the oldest comedy preserved, and quite one of the best. He goes out of his way to attack Euripides, but he betrays a certain amount of caution in dealing with his powerful enemy Kleon. In the following year Aristophanes produced the Knights, the first play which he brought out in his own name. It is simply an attack on Kleon, a shower of abuse in return for the prosecution of 426. It was a brilliant success, and won the first prize. But the next play, the Clouds, was a comparative failure. Our present version is not the original one, which lacked the argument between the Just Cause and the Unjust Cause and the scene at the end in which Socrates' "thinking-shop" is burnt. Aristophanes himself thought very highly of the play, but it is more than probable that the caricature of Socrates is too distorted to have appealed to an audience which knew the original. The Wasps, which appeared in 422, is a return to politics, and is an elaborate satire on the fondness of the Athenians for sitting on juries. The Peace, the next play, has but little interest, save for the parody of the Bellerophon (a lost play of Euripides) with which it opens. It is really an elaborate manifesto in favour of the Peace of Nikias, which gave Athens a temporary respite from the war. Seven years later the Birds was produced. This play is Aristophanes' masterpiece. In genuine humour, in interest, and in imaginative and poetic beauty it far surpasses the others. It appeared at a time of intense excitement at Athens, during the preparations for the Sicilian expedition. For the moment Aristophanes' political opinions were too unpopular to be safe, so the Birds turns away from the turbulent world of war and affairs, and takes refuge in the realm of pure fancy.
The three plays dealing with the "woman question" may be considered together. The Lysistrata and the Thesmophoriazusae were produced in the same year (411 B.C.) Athens was now under an oligarchy, and no references to politics was possible, so Aristophanes tries to make up by indecency in the first play and by a witty attack on Euripides in the second. Many years later Aristophanes returned to the subject of the position of women, and wrote the Ecclesiazusae or Women in Parliament. It is really an attack on the communistic ideas which were afloat at the time. Though it contains some witty repartees, it is really the poorest of his plays. In 406 B.C. Euripides died, and the Frogs, which appeared in the following year, was evidently suggested by that event. It is really elaborate literary criticism in the form of a play. As a criticism on Euripides it is preposterously unfair, though the parodies in which it abounds are brilliant. The fun of the opening scenes is in Aristophanes' best vein, and probably of all the comedies it is the one which appeals most to the modern reader. The last of the plays which is preserved, the Plutus, is entirely different from all the rest. It is a satire on human life and on the unjust distribution of wealth. With it we take our leave of the boisterous, hearty, scandalous old comedy, and meet a new kind of play, which tries to tell a story and aims at the delineation of character.
It cannot be doubted that Aristophanes is one of the really great writers of the world; but it is open to question whether the soundness of his political views, his moral earnestness, and his patriotism have not been overrated by his admirers. His motto always is "stare super antiquas vias," and he is ever contrasting the degenerate men of his own day with their grandfathers who fought at Marathon. More often than not he failed to sympathise with what was best in the movements of his time. The earlier years of his life were passed in an Athens which was still "bright and famous," full of the enthusiasm breathed into her by Perikles and his followers; and he lived through the long-drawn agony of the Peloponesian war, which culminated so terribly in the disaster before Syracuse in 413, when every Athenian must have felt like the King of the Epeans in Pindar, who beheld "his rich native land, his own city, sink down beneath fierce fire and blows of iron into the deep abyss of calamity." Aristophanes, it may be, was little affected by this final breakdown of Athenian hopes. His political views prevented him from sympathising much with them. Nevertheless he has many passages which are inspired by a real and nobly-expressed patriotism. He is essentially a product of his own age in his strange combination of broad farce and poetic beauty—for his lyrics, careless as they may seem compared with the choruses of Sophocles, have yet a charm and an enduring freshness which place their writer among the great poets of the world. And finally, though the conception of humour has changed with the centuries, yet the high spirits that surcharged all his comedy, his incomparable energy and rapidity, his power of making his quaintest fancies real and credible, have given him a hold upon the modern world as sure as that of any other Greek poet except Homer.
J. P. MAINE.
English Translations of works and of two or more plays: T. Mitchell (four plays), 1820-22; J. W. Warter (four plays), 1830; C. A. Wheelwright, 1837; B. D. Walsh (three plays), 1837; W. J. Hickie (from Dindorf's text), Bohn, 1848, etc.; J. H. Frere (Acharnians, Knights, Birds), 1839, 1840; L. H. Rudd (eight plays), 1867; with occasional comments by J. H. Frere and introduction by Morley (three plays), Morley's Universal Library, 1886; Β. B. Rogers (Gr. and Eng.), 1902, etc.; World's Classics (four plays by J. H. Frere), introduction by W. W. Merry. 1907; New Universal Library (five plays, translation, and essay on Aristophanic Comedy by J. H. Frere), 1908; see also Lubbock's Hundred Best Books, No. 69 (Frere's translation of Aristophanes, with plays by Sophocles and Euripides by other translators); Selections from Aristophanes with notes, A. Sidgwick, 1871, 1876-79. Other translations of single plays.
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