Aristophanes was a "craft" comedy poet in the fourth
century B.C. during the time of the Peloponnesian War.
Aristophanes' usual style was to be too satirical, and
suggesting the outlandish. He shows little mercy when
mocking Socrates and his "new-fangled ideas" which were
most likely designed to destroy the cohesiveness of society
and lead to anarchy, in his play " The Clouds".
The most absurd and humorous of Aristophanes' comedies are
those in which the main characters, the heroes of the
story, are women; smart women.
One of the most famous of Aristophanes' comedies depicting
powerful, effectual women is Lysistrata, named after the
female lead character of the play. It portrays Athenian
Lysistrata and the women of Athens teaming up with the
women of Sparta to force their husbands to end the
To make the men agree to a peace treaty, the women seized
the Acropolis, where Athens' financial reserves are kept,
and prevented the men from squandering them further on the
war. They then beat back an attack on their position by the
old men who have remained in Athens while the younger men
are out on campaign. When their husbands return from
battle, the women refuse to have sex with them. This sex
strike, which is portrayed in a series of (badly)
exaggerated and blatant sexual innuendoes, finally
convinces the men of Athens and Sparta to agree to a peace
The play, Lysistrata, shows women acting bravely and even
aggressively against men who seem resolved on ruining the
city-state by prolonging a pointless war and excessively
expending reserves stored in the Acropolis. This in turn
added to the destruction of their family life by staying
away from home for long stretches while on military
campaign. The men would come home when they could, sexually
relieve themselves, and then leave again to continue a
The women challenge the masculine role model to preserve
the traditional way of life of the community. When the
women become challenged themselves, they take on the
masculine characteristics and attitudes and defeat the men
physically, mentally but most of all strategically. Proving
that neither side benefits from it, just that one side
loses more than the other side.
It's easy to see why fourth century B.C. Athenian women
would get tired of their men leaving. Most Athenian women
married in their teens and never had to be on their own,
and probably wouldn't know what to do if they were ever on
their own. The men leave for war and some don't return
because of death or whatever reasons, so now a widow finds
herself on her own, probably with children, and no one to
take care of her or her children. She might be able to
enter her male children as a journeyman/ward to a wealthy
family (who either have no male children, or most likely
lost their son(s) in one of the wars) and they will raise
him. The widow has few prospects. If she's young and
attractive enough with the right domestic skills she might
be able to remarry. But her lot isn't too promising. After
all, why would you want a widow, when you could get a
"fresh" wife to "break-in" the way you want and start a
family from your own seed?
According to Lysistrata it is easier to untangle
multinational politics, stop wars and fighting than the
women's work of sorting out wool. If you just stop war,
it's settled, but with wool all tangles must be physically
labored out by hand. Women's work is never done.
Lysistrata insists that women have the intelligence and
judgment to make political decisions. She came by her
knowledge, she says, in the traditional way:
"I am a woman, and, yes, I have brains. And I'm not badly
off for judgment. Nor has my education been bad, coming as
it has from my listening often to the conversations of my
father and the elders among the men."
Lysistrata was schooled in the traditional fashion, by
learning from older men. Her old-fashioned training and
good sense allowed her to see what needed to be done to
protect the community. Like the heroines of tragedy,
Lysistrata wants to put things back to the way they were.
To do that, however, she has to become a revolutionary.
Aristophanes is telling Athenian men that ending the war
would be so easy that even women could do it. He is also
saying that Athenians should concern themselves with
preserving the old ways, lest they be lost.
Aristophanes (through the eyes of the women) mocks man's
inclination for fighting. His catalyst was Lysistrata,
feminist champion over war through peace. The idea of role
reversal was as funny to the Athenians as the movie Tootsie
is to modern America. Their culture was such that each
gender had very defined roles, and there really wasn't any
room for leeway.
Women were property, "Something beautiful to own, to gaze
upon, to fulfill your sexual needs and desires and to bear
and raise your children in the appropriate cultural
aspect". Except for sex and the family element, women
really didn't have any redeeming social values. To even
consider putting a woman into any position where she would
be required to think, or to make decisions outside of the
home was laughable. This is the root of their humor. Role
reversal was true humor because to imagine a
one-dimensional woman in a multifaceted role was just
insane. The " sky would fall first".
Whether a Lysistrata could have existed is really mute. The
point is that it never would have happened.
In the opening scenes of the play, Lysistrata says "I'm
furious with women and womankind. Don't all of our husbands
say we are not to be relied upon... Don't they think we are
such clever villains?" The women don't like the fact that
the only power women have had over men from the dawn of
time (and until the end of time) is to withhold sex. By
some accounts, women seemed little more than walking sperm
receptacles. That is their one-dimensional world, to please
men, no more or less.
Again this is illustrated at the start of Act Two.
Holding-out started to become a serious internal conflict.
The women started to mutiny. They started making up all
sorts of reasons and excuses to leave the Acropolis. All
through the play there is a heavy sexual connotation, but
here the excuses are as phony as any pick up line in any
modern singles social scene.
Woman #1: "I must go home and spread my fleece out
onto the bed!"
Woman #2: "I need to go home, I forgot to strip (my
bark from the flax!)
Modern Frat-Boy #1: "If I told you that you have a
GREAT body, would you
hold it against
Modern Frat-Boy #2: "Your hair would look so
good...on my pillow".
The underlining notion of returning home is also not
specifically because of their "sex-starvation," but from
the burden of guilt for being away from their family, their
chores and their domestic responsibilities. They are after
all not just defying their husbands but ultimately the
whole Greek culture of the times in which they lived. They
had a place, and status-quo demanded they assume it.
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