Aristophanes’ Lysistrata belongs to the class of Old Comedies in Greek theater, and as such relies on many of the common conventions of comedic storytelling of that. A fair number of Old Comedies relied on fairy-tale-esque transformations of the expected and brought upon comedic reversals of roles or the “clash of opposites” for comedic impact. Traditional roles are reversed, customs and institutions stood on their heads. The thematic union of opposites stands today as well-constructed and articulate enough to impact as social commentary the continuing sociological rifts in modern society.
In Lysistrata, the clash of opposites is endemic in the play’s central theme of war and peace as well as in the most obvious transposition of traditional political power, from the hands of soldiers and generals to the hands of women. Comedic convention in the age of Aristophanes welcomed such obvious role-reversals and tension between opposites; the pattern of these devices as recurrent throughout the full canon of Aristophanes’ plays reveals that he partook of more than a simply conventional viewpoint toward these standard themes. The radical nature of his conclusions still permeates throughout human culture where contemporary schisms between religions, genders, sexual identities, and social classes continues to profoundly impact the every day life of individuals and threatens many societies central functions.
Other conventions of the theater, such as the chorus, are enlisted to serve Aristophanes’ theme of opposites: the chorus in Lysistrata is divided into two “semi-choruses:” one comprised of old men; one made up of old women and these semi-choruses engage in ribald “combat” until they are at last reconciled in a single singing and dancing unit by the play’s end. Examination of the Chorus scenes illustrates the basic plan of opposites as employed by Aristophanes and also indicates the belief system of his audience which, long acquainted with the notion of the reconciliation of opposites by way of classical philosophy, alchemy, and poetry, expected such a reconciliation, thus enabling them to laugh without restraint at the comedic “world turned upside down.”
Playing opposites against one another enabled Aristophanes to address otherwise maudlin or sociologically volatile themes, particularly: age and sex without provoking his audience to anger and thus, ostracization of his somewhat radical ideas. In one scene when the chorus of old men begin to angrily take of their clothes, their demonstration in mirrored by the chorus of old women and this posturing evolves to ritualized combat with several kicks and punches being mimed and then…unexpectedly, the old women begin to dress the men with great care.
In keeping withe the theme of war and peace, Aristophanes pits a pro-war party of threadbare old men against an anti-war party of gumptious old women. Conventional Athenians would have undoubtedly admired certain misogynistic lines from the chorus of old men “women…an obvious nuisance” (266-7) and their egocentric visions “my Acropolis”, as well as their patriotic (anti-Spartan) sentiments.
Aristophanes furthers the alchemical and symbolic clash of opposites 9with promise of reconciling the seemingly irreconcilable) by his use of fire and water as natural opposites in the imagery of the play. For the Athenians, fire represented many aspects in its symbolism, among them: “the old men’s angry, war-like spirit”, war, and sexual power. Water indicated among other tings: purification, cleansing, life (“I’m watering you, so you’ll bloom” 387). Aristophanes genius for creating “real” metaphors, for symbolizing ideological conflicts into physical conflicts, produces a brilliant dramatic narrative beneath the surface of the conventional comedy; thus, one of the deeper unions of opposites in the play is between comedy and tragedy themselves.
A fine example of this union of opposites in comedy and tragedy is shown by the
“ great erect phalluses worn onstage make their bearers perfectly ridiculous. In the plot, of
course, these great erections demonstrate that the women’s sex strike has made its effects felt. Like a contagious disease, these effects spread to include all the men of Greece impartially, soldiers and officials, Athenians and Spartans; so they are brought to the negotiating table by a common and pressing need—led, as Lysistrata says, if not by the hand, then by the handle.” (Reckford 56).
It is thematically right that the men, “who have ignored and violated the ordinary concerns of domestic life, should be brought to their knees (so to speak) by such very ordinary accoutrements of domestic life as diaphanous slips and nightgowns. Beyond that, the phalluses point to a basic, overwhelming, and universal need in the public as well as the pubic realm” (reckford 57).
Behind the comedy, the theme of war lingers; “the defeat of the Sicilian expedition, the loss of so many soldiers and ships, the scarcity of funds, the defection of subject allies, the overall weariness and demoralization of Athens and of the rest of the Greek world.” If reconciliation of war and peace, sex and politic, love and hate, Spartan and Athenian, old and young, will happen, it will happen due to the recognition of a common need or needs: “pretenses of personal or national dignity can only impede such realization. The great phalluses, more than anything else, indicate that common need and near-helplessness, but they are also a sign of vigor and energy, insisting on a solution that can and must be found” (Reckford 59).
The thematic dynamics of Lysistrata are sophisticated and profound, all the while cloaked beneath a veneer of traditionalism and comedic convention. However, this analytical basis of symbolism, theme, and technique enabled Aristophanes to craft a play of deep social commentary which is both comedy and tragedy, and still relevant to the conflict of opposites in any given society or nation today.
Reckford, K. J. (1987). Aristophanes’ Old-And-New Comedy. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.