fall 2009

Schedule and study questions for Greek Comedy:

December 3: Lysistrata

Note: In earlier times Sparta and Athens had been allies: Sparta had helped Athens oust her tyrant Hippias in the late sixth century, and in the early fifth the two had fought together to repel the Persian invasion of Greece. In 411, however, the date of this play, Athens was fighting a major war against most of the important states in mainland Greece, including Sparta and her allies in the Peloponnesus (the southern part of Greece) and in Boeotia (on Athens' northern border). Two years earlier (413) a vast Athenian expeditionary force sent off to conquer Sicily had been crushingly defeated. Despite the defeat Athens maintained her resolve to carry on the war. Lysistrata's name, incidentally, means "she who disbands the army."

a. According to this play, what, if anything, is wrong with war in general? what, if anything, is wrong with this war in particular?

b. In terms of this play, what is Aristophanes' view of women and their proper place in society? How can you tell?

c. What is Lysistrata like? How is she like the other women in the play? How is she different?

d. What is Lysistrata’s/the women's view of the political process in Athens? What is Aristophanes' view?

e. Are the women traitors?

f. In what sense is the Lysistrata escapist literature?

g. In what way(s) is the Lysistrata funny?

h. Beneath the humor does Aristophanes have a serious purpose in this play? If so, what is it?

i. More specifically, does Aristophanes offer in this play an alternative to Athens' current policy? If so, what is it?


December 7: Frogs

Note: The Frogs was performed in early 405, shortly after the deaths of Sophocles and Euripides. In the previous year the Athenians had defeated the Spartans and their allies in the naval battle of Arginousai; it is a sign of how bad things had become that the Athenians freed some of their slaves to row in the fleet in this battle. The play also mentions the oligarchic coup led by Phrynikhos, which briefly replaced the democratic government in 411; the leaders of this coup were deprived of their civil rights in the restored democracy. The play's second chorus is composed of initiates in the cult of Demeter and related gods, who believed in some sort of happy life after death; the cult was quite popular in Athens, and would have been familiar to the audience. Herakles was famous for his gluttonousness as well as his strength. The reading (lines 1-829) ends just before Aeschylus and Euripides appear on stage.

a. How is the Dionysos of the Frogs like the Dionysos of the Bacchae? How is he different?

b. What does it say about the Athenians that the god Dionysos can be portrayed as he is in this play?

c. What are the categories according to which Aeschylus and Euripides are compared in their contest?

d. To judge from your reading of plays of both Aeschylus and Euripides, how accurate is Aristophanes' characterization of them?

e. What does the staging of this contest tell us about the Athenian audience that viewed it?

f. Is this escapist literature? If so, who is escaping from what? How?

g. What is humorous about this play?

h. Is there anything serious underlying the humor? If yes, what is it?

i. In particular, what, if anything, is political about this play?

More generally:

a. How are Athenian tragedy and Old Comedy similar? How are they different?

b. In what sense is it true that tragedy shows human beings as greater than they are in real life, and comedy shows them as something less than they are in real life?

c. Could attending a tragedy make you a better person? If so, how?

d. Would attending a comedy make you a better or a worse person? If so, how?

e. What do you think were the roles of both Athenian tragedy and comedy in civic education?

December 10: Dyscolus

Note: This play was written some hundred years after Aristophanes’ plays.

a. What are Knemon, Sostratos and Gorgias like?

b. Sostratos is in love with Knemon's daughter. Exactly what does this mean?

c. Consider the relations between rich and poor in this play.

d. In what sense is the Dyskolos escapist literature?

e. Assuming that the Lysistrata and Frogs are typical of Old Comedy, and that the Dyskolos is typical of New Comedy, contrast Old and New Comedy. In particular, what does New Comedy have that Old Comedy does not?

course evaluations today