Masterpieces of Greek Literature (1902)/Aristophanes

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Although Comedy originated about the same time as Tragedy, the middle of the sixth century before Christ, it was not recognized by the Athenian State until after the Persian Wars, when it was admitted to the official programme of the City Dionysia. The subject of the comic performances was far less restricted than that of the tragic,—mythology, the basis of tragedy, being here treated only in parody,—and the chorus was often used as the mouthpiece of the poet to speak directly to the audience. The essence of the Old Comedy, says Sir Richard Jebb, "was a satirical censorship, unsparing in personalities, of public and of private life—of morality, of statesmanship, of education, of literature, of social usage—in a word, of everything which had an interest for the city or which could amuse the citizens. Preserving all the freedom of banter and of riotous fun to which its origin gave it an historical right, it aimed at associating with this a strong practical purpose—the expression of a democratic public opinion in such a form that no misconduct or folly could altogether disregard it. . . . At Athens the poet of the Old Comedy had an influence analogous, perhaps, rather to that of a journalist than to that of the modern dramatist."

The eleven Greek comedies which have come down to us are all from the hand of one author—fortunately for us by far the greatest of the comedians—Aristophanes. Little is known of his life beyond the fact that he brought out his first play in 427 B. C., when "almost a boy." His birth was probably in or about the year 448 B. C., and his death about 385 B. C. He was an "Athenian of the Athenians." He belonged to the conservative party, and seemed opposed to every sign of democracy or innovation.

It was on this ground that he was so bitter an enemy of the poet Euripides, who had deviated from the established path of tragedy. The Frogs, presented to the public in 405 B. C. shortly after the death of both Sophocles and Euripides, is the culmination of the attack upon the latter. In this play Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back a poet, since all the great poets of Athens were now dead, and his festivals, at which all plays were presented, were left without fitting celebration. Aeschylus and Euripides contend in the lower world for the palm of tragedy, which Sophocles yields without a contest to the former, and it is at length awarded to Aeschylus.

In the Birds, an earlier play of 414 B. C., Peithetaerus (Plausible) and Euelpides (Hopeful), two enterprising Athenians, who are weary of the unending lawsuits in their own town, persuade the birds under the leadership of King Hoopoe to build a city—Cloud-cuckooborough [1]—in mid-air. This cuts off the gods from men, and causes the gods so much inconvenience that they send envoys to treat with the birds. Finally Peithetaerus marries Basileia (Princess), the daughter of Zeus. The play was probably intended in part to ridicule the ambition of the Athenians in making the disastrous expedition which went the year before against Syracuse under Alcibiades and Nicias; but it is as fanciful as the Midsummer Night's Dream."

The following translations are by John Hookham Frere. Often they are free paraphrases, strongly contrasted with Mr. Browning's literalness.

  1. Nephelococcugia. See page 267.