Aristophanes: The Clouds, The Wasps, The Birds, The Knights

I’ve finally finished all 11 of Aristophanes’ plays in the Great Books collection in the last 3 weeks. It took longer because of finals week, which is finally over!

Aristophanes is unique compared to the three previous Greek dramatists that we have read through, as he is a comedian, not a tragedian. Aristophanes’ dramas are very well aware of this division, and in fact gleefully celebrate it. The tragedies of Euripedes, Aeschylus, and Sophocles are referenced, quoted, or even performed mockingly during scenes. In several of the plays the playwrights themselves are characters, such as in The Frogs, which features a comical showdown between Euripedes and Aeschylus as its main treat. In general, Greek comedy as represented by Aristophanes is vividly self-aware, as shown by the regular feature of the parabasis, a passage where the chorus breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, often in the very voice of the playwright, defending and explaining the purpose of the drama. Aristophanes interacts with the Greek past and the Greek canon, a real-life exemplar of someone engaging in the so-called Great Conversation.

This conversation is carried mostly through the medium of parody and irony. The amount of parody and slapstick humor in Aristophanes is copious, much more than would be tolerable in a modern-day so-called “serious” film. Tragic passages are quoted mockingly at moments of mock distress and mock sadness. Scatological, sexual, and slapstick humor (especially in the familiar form of slaves being beaten helplessly by their masters) are regularly used. All of the comedies have happy endings, and nude women are frequently featured at the end, sometimes personifying a goddess or some force of nature (such as Harvest and Festival in Aristophanes’ Peace). But despite the crude, inane, even lowbrow material, all of Aristophanes plays carry obviously serious messages. Even as they ostensibly engage with the Greek past, this is merely a medium to say something about contemporary Greek institutions, beliefs, or daily life practices.

The Clouds

In The Clouds, philosophy is Aristophanes’ main target. Today Ancient Greece is famous as being the birthplace of philosophy. Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle are touted as the great forefathers of all of subsequent Western thought. Yet not all Greeks thought of it the same way, and references to The Clouds feature in Plato’s Apology, contributing to the demise of Socrates. The plot centers on a father, Strepsiades, who is looking for a way out to avoid paying creditors for the debts incurred by his son Pheidippides due to his fondness for horses. Knowing that Socrates’ Thinkery (literally, the Phrontisterion, as I recall fondly from taking Greek 111 in college) teaches argumentation, he enrolls in the school, hoping to be able to debate his way out of his debts. Socrates’ disciples are presented as being snobbish,  having a haggard appearance and immense reverence for their teacher, who is able to do things such as measuring how far a flea can jump by sticking little shoes on them.

Aristophanes’ clearly mocks the otherworldly and seemingly nonsensical obsessions of philosophers like Socrates. When he appears, he is depicted as descending in a basket from the ceiling. Much fun is made out of Strepsiades’ ineptness and stupidity, which is genuine – he can’t even understand the purpose of a map. But at the same time there is a clearly political purpose to the drama’s insinuations: accusing Socrates of undermining belief in traditional Greek deities. In a particularly revealing passage, the titular Clouds (which take the form of beautiful goddesses that stun Strepsiades) are declared by Socrates to be the only gods existing. There is no Zeus nor other gods:

But by the Earth! is our father, Zeus, the Olympian, not a god

Zeus! what Zeus! Are you mad? There is no Zeus.

What are you saying now? Who causes the rain to fall? Answer me that!

Why, these, and I will prove it. Have you ever seen it raining without clouds? Let Zeus then cause rain with a clear sky and without their presence!

By Apollo! that is powerfully argued! For my own part, I always thought it was Zeus pissing into a sieve. But tell me, who is it makes the thunder, which I so much

These, when they roll one over the other.

But how can that be? you most daring among men!

Being full of water, and forced to move along, they are of necessity precipitated in rain, being fully distended with moisture from the regions where they have been floating; hence they bump each other heavily and burst with great noise.

But is it not Zeus who forces them to move?

Not at all; it’s the aerial Whirlwind.

Socrates here seems to be advocating a protoscientific worldview which eliminates the excessive and unnecessary presence of multiple gods. In the world of The Clouds, this eventually leads to absurdity. Strepsiades gives up on becoming a disciple and sends his son instead, but when he comes back, he starts beating his father, proudly declaring that he has now been taught the justification for doing such a thing. He argues that he is doing so only for his own good. At some point Zeus is invoked, but Pheidippides points out that Zeus does not exist – only the Clouds.

It’s unclear to me ultimately what Aristophanes is trying to say – does Socrates’ philosophy inevitably lead to a reductio ad absurdum, or is it that the philosophy successfully reveals arbitrary moral practices in Greek society? But at no point is Socrates’ philosophy engaged seriously. Thus the play can be regarded as an anti-scientific, anti-philosophical diatribe, perhaps a warning for philosophers to remember the “real world” as opposed to the ivory towers of the Phrontisterion.

The Wasps

The Wasps is similar to The Clouds in many aspects, both thematic and dramatic: its main focus is lampooning an established institution, in this case that of the courts of law. This is accomplished by an extended scene of direct parody of the object of lampooning: in The Clouds it was the process of Socratic dialogue and education. Here it is the trial. It also uses the vehicle of a smart son and an incompetent, bumbling old father. Here the father, Philocleon (“love of Cleon,” a reference to the Greek politician Cleon which was Aristophanes’ target), is obsessed with being on jury duty, fantasizing about the respect and financial benefits it will give him. His son Bdelycleon tries to get him back to his senses, arguing that a juror is truly a slave of the state. He is really being paid a pittance compared to the available tax revenue, making him poor and dependent on the state, ready to unleash his wrath when they want him to.

Philocleon is persuaded by this line of reasoning, but still retains his love for judging, so Bdelycleon offers to accommodate his father’s obsession by holding a mock trial where a dog is accused of stealing cheese, and the witnesses included several household objects such as a cheese grater. Thus the court of justice is reduced to absurdity. Philocleon takes the charade seriously, immediately suggesting a death sentence for the dog. When the time comes to vote for the guilt of the accused, Bdelycleon physically manipulates his father into casting a vote of acquittal. After the parabasis, there is more comedic material such as Philocleon’s creditors appearing on stage and attempting to extract their debts from him, but the main thrust of the drama is done.  In The Wasps, as in The Clouds, we have the casting of the chorus as a device to emphasize the irony and parody of the play’s subject. Here the Wasps represent old men like Philocleon who serve as jurors. During the parabasis, they compare themselves to wasps: they are always found in swarms, react disproportionately, “stinging” others and living at their expense.

As a whole, The Wasps illustrates the absurdity of having a professional class of easily manipulable people who are paid full-time to serve as jurors. Luckily, in a modern justice system jury members are usually not angry, idle old men but random members of the community. In fact usually they are selected to be people without any preconceived notions about the case. That being said, even the US has state-funded judges who play an important role in the judiciary system. In addition, there are ample instances all over the world where powerful political figures are able to intimidate and manipulate the judiciary system in the same way that Cleon was doing in the 5th century B.C. Thus, while Aristophanes’ play does point out the basic flaws of the Greek system, it doesn’t offer a universal solution that would make it impermeable to demagogues like Cleon. It should be understood more as a political act of protest rather than a philosophical argument about how a judiciary system should function.

The Birds

In this fantasy play, a pair of old men, Pisthetaerus and Euelpides, convince the birds that they should be the true rulers of the world, not the gods. He tells elaborate legends about the “true” origins and history of the birds: for example, that the lark existed even before the Earth, the cock used to rule over the Persians, and the kite over the Greeks. He provides them with a plan of action to usurp power from Zeus and his fellow Olympians. Amazingly, the plan works, and the birds manage to set up a new city in the air called Nephelococcygia (or Cloud Cuckoo Land), a new set of laws, and a large wall to guard the city, built astonishingly quickly through the birds’ cooperation. Pisthetaerus, the main original provocator, serves as a judge and ruler of the new kingdom (despite not being a bird himself), organizing the defenses of the city when a security breach in the wall occurs (it turns out to be the goddess Iris). Finally at the end, Prometheus approaches covertly, bringing news that Zeus and the gods are starving as the smoke of the offerings no longer reaches them. He advises Pithetaerus to demand Zeus’ sceptre and Basileia (Sovereignty), his “general manager” who makes lightning for him, in the event that Zeus sues for peace. (Prometheus, as supported by what we saw in Prometheus Bound, hates the gods for what their punishment of him.) This is exactly what happens: the play ends with the birds being triumphant and Pithetaerus marrying Basileia.

The most striking takeaway from The Birds to me is the ease by which Pithetaerus constructs an entirely new reality for the birds: he effortlessly reinterprets the roles of birds in history, depicting them as rulers instead of pets of mankind throughout history. His fluency in storytelling and persuasion of the birds result in an effortless bending of reality that feels just as convincing as the “real” Greek order of gods in Olympia, bringing into question the legitimacy of the latter. Pithetaerus’ prominent role in the new bird order (despite not being a bird himself) is also striking: it almost makes the whole plot a clever step by him to usurp power for himself. Despite being flattered and put in charge, the Birds are merely inert vehicles; they do not have their own mind or agency, being entirely buejct to Pithetaerus’ will and manipulation.

This interpretation may point to the ease by which the Athenians were manipulated into going into the unrealistic expedition into Sicily (415-413 BC). This was an attempt at expansion which ultimately ended in complete failure. Nephelococcygia has been commonly interpreted as representing Sicily, and Pithetaerus as the commanding general Alcibiades. The unrealistic nature of Cloud Cuckoo Land is thus a subtle critique of the chances of the Athenian expedition.

The Knights

Our last play in this post, The Knights, has a much smaller scope compared to the previous plays. It is mainly concerned with the clever, manipulating slave Paphlagonian/Cleon, who is initially favored by his master Demos, but is eventually overcome by the sausage-seller Agoracritus. Initially, we have the slaves Nicias and Demosthenes, who complain about the beatings they get and the special status of Paphlagonian. They obtain a prophecy that says that one day Paphlagonian would be defeated by a sausage-seller. Finding the sausage-seller, they persuade him of his true destiny and the takeover goes smoothly: everything Agoracritus does is interpreted favorably by Demos, while the reverse is true for Paphlagonian. Agoracritus reinterprets Pahplagonian’s treatment of Demos as actually oppressing and manipulating his master:

You pretend to love him and for eight years you have seen him housed in casks, in crevices and dovecots, where he is blinded with the smoke, and you lock him in without pity; Archeptolemus brought peace and you tore it to ribbons; the envoys who come to propose a truce you drive from the city with kicks in their arses.

The purpose of this is that Demos may rule over all the Greeks; for the oracles predict that, if he is patient, he must one day sit as judge in Arcadia at five obols per day. Meanwhile, I will nourish him, look after him and, above all, I will ensure to him his three obols.

No, little you care for his reigning in Arcadia, it’s to pillage and impose on the allies at will that you reckon; you wish the war to conceal your rogueries as in a mist, that Demos may see nothing of them, and harassed by cares, may only depend on yourself for his bread.

Demos is quickly persuaded by Agoracritus’ arguments – Paphlagonian has no chance, eventually resigning himself to his natural fate. Just like in Sophocles’ tragedy (most famously the Oedipus plays), fate becomes the most prominent aspect controlling the story. As the whole drama is a critique about Cleon manipulating and oppressing the people (or Demos), perhaps Aristophanes is suggesting that there is a “magic bullet” that can instantly dismantle Cleon’s grip: something to do with the agora (perhaps gathering and open discussion?). Nicias and Demosthenes, despite their best intentions, are initially powerless to resist Paphlagonian, but once the right person is found, everything falls into place. This idea of finding a certain foreign, previously unknown person who will become the chosen hero is a common theme in literature up to the present day. (In tragedy, such as in Oedipus the King, the unknown person can ironically and inadvertently become the catalyst for destruction.) Aristophanes’ use of this device highlights again the facility by which his comedy utilizes common literary devices as a medium of parody, but at the same time he is often able, as in this case, to combine that straight-up parody with a wider critique of society, including offering a solution (the agora).

Parting Thoughts

We’ve talked a bit about the subject matter of each of these four plays, but only remarked briefly about the use of the chorus. We’ve already seen while covering Greek tragedy that the role of the chorus can be varied, from integral participant in the action (as found in Aeschylus) to passive commentators, active mainly during interludes (Sophocles and Euripedes). In these four plays, the use of the chorus is closer to the latter. The leader of the chorus often interacts with the main protagonist(s), but they rarely play a direct role in the action. But it would be misleading to suggest that the chorus doesn’t matter much in Greek comedy. We’ve already mentioned the important role of the chorus in addressing the audience during the parabasis, which communicates the intention of the author. It’s telling that there is no analogous passage in any of the tragedies we’ve read. There are many passages (especially in Sophocles and Euripedes) where in the middle of the tragedy, the action takes a break and the chorus sings imaginative lines about the background of the plot. The audience, however, is never addressed directly. Perhaps the parabasis is used in comedy to remind the audience that despite all the crude humor, there is still a serious intent behind the author’s creation. In other words, it’s meant to enlighten the less prescient members of the audience.

In addition to the parabasis, in these four plays, Aristophanes names each of these plays after the chorus. During the course of the dramas’ action, they are a central part of the background. They often encapsulate the central parody that Aristophanes in trying to achieve. In The Wasps, it’s parodying the professional jurors as angry, parasitic wasps; in The Clouds, it’s parodying the only gods that Socrates believes exists; and in The Birds, it’s mockingly displaying the beastly usurpers of the gods’ positions. In The Knights, the chorus is the powerful support behind Agoracritus against Pamphlagonian. They represent the masses that are given voice by the protagonist. Thus in Greek political comedy, the chorus plays an indispensable part in bringing forth the political points that the author is trying to achieve. While they might not directly do much through their actions, they accomplish their important roles through what they are.

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