ARISTOPHANES, (c.445-c.385 B.C.). The only writer of the old Greek comedy of whose plays any survives entire. He was the son of one Philippus and was born possibly in the deme of Cydathene. Tradition says he also had property in the island of Ægina, and was therefore sometimes called an Æginetan. That his education was of the best is shown by his intimate knowledge of Æschylus, Stesichorus, and Pindar. His genius was of the highest order, so that be maintained himself for over a generation as more than peer among the brilliant writers of comedy of his day. In polities he favored, with all the force of his impetuous nature, the aristocratic peace party; and in his hands, comedy, which had been given a political turn by his older contemporary, Cratinus, became in the first period of the Peloponnesian War a most effective weapon against the demagogues and their faction. In all his plays Aristophanes is a conservative, opposing all things that are new. His sharp wit and biting humor on at least two occasions stirred Cleon to bring suits against him.
Aristophanes' literary activity covered 40 years (427-388 B.C.), and his plays mirror the political and the social changes of the state. We can distinguish three periods: the first ends with 421, the second with 405, and the third with 388. In all we have 44 titles of plays ascribed to Aristophanes, of which four are considered spurious; from the 40 genuine plays 11 are preserved of which five belong to the first period. Aristophanes' earliest play was The Banqueters, produced in 427, a. satire on the new-fangled teachings of the Sophists as compared with the simple education of the fathers.
The Babylonians (426) contained a sharp attack on the demagogue Cleon. Both these plays are lost. The Acharnians (425) won the first prize. It is a satire on the headstrong jingoes at Athens who are typified in the play by Lamachus, an Athenian general, one of the war party. The blessings of peace are exhibited by the good fortune of an old countryman Dicæopolis, Righteous City' or `Honest Policy,' who makes a private treaty with the Lacedæmonians for 30 years and thereby enjoys all blessings in contrast with Lamachus who comes to grief with his campaigning. The Knights (424) also won the first prize. This is the first play which Aristophanes brought out in his own name; of the three previous plays, The Babylonians and The Acharnians were produced under the name of Callistratus, The Banqueters under that of an actor Philonides. In The Knights Aristophanes fulfills the promise which he made, in The Archarnians the year before, to cut Cleon into pieces. The demagogue is here represented as a vulgar, insolent charlatan; the people are represented in the person of a credulous and fickle old Demos, and the poet is thus able to show the weaknesses of the credulous and fickle mob that governed Athens. At the end Cleon is discomfited and old Demos has his youth renewed so that he clearly sees how he has been tricked. It is said that Aristophanes himself was obliged to take the part of Cleon as no actor was willing to incur the enmity of the influential demagogue. The Clouds (423) was not so successful as the two previous plays. Its present form is a revision of the original. This comedy is a satire on the pretensions of the new Sophistical school and an attempt to point out its dangerous tendencies. Hence in this play Aristophanes returned to the theme he had handled in his first play, The Banqaeters. Socrates is taken as the representative of the Sophistical school whether because Aristophanes did not understand his teachings, or because he was a convenient butt, is uncertain. It represents a young Athenian, Phidippides, who is ruining his father by his spendthrift habits. So the old man sends him to the "thinking-shop" of Socrates, where he can learn to make the worse appear the better cause and so save his father by enabling him to escape the payment of his debts. The son, after some hesitation, reluctantly enters the school and learns his lesson all too well. A famous scene of The Clouds represents a dialogue between the Just and the Unjust Argument, in which the latter wins and obtains the mastery over the pupil. The youth returns to his home thoroughly trained in the new sophistic and, at a festival made by his father for his return, sings an immoral passage from Euripides, thrashes his father, and then justifies what he has done by the art he has just learned. His old father's eyes are now opened, and he takes vengeance on Socrates by setting his "thinkingshop" on fire. It is said that the reckless young Phidippides was intended to represent Alcibiades. The Wasps (q.v.) (422) is a ridicule of the regular courts of justice. The Peace (421) is a play in the interests of the truce between the Athenians and the Spartans consummated in this year. Peace is brought down from heaven and restored to earth. This play renews the discussion begun in The Archarnians.
Seven years passed before Aristophanes produced another play. In the meantime public measures had been taken to check political satire, and The Birds (414) ridicules the Athenians' fondness for litigation and their flighty character. Two old men leave Athens in disgust and with the aid of the birds establish the city Cloud-cuckoo-town, in mid-air, shut off the gods from enjoying sacrifice, and win back the sceptre from Zeus. The whole play is very brilliant and clever; it contains some exceptionally beautiful lyrical passages. Some have wished to see in it a caricature of the Athenians' hopes of founding a great western empire in Sicily, and a satire on Alcibiades, an ardent imperialist. The Lysistrata (411) represents a woman's conspiracy to bring about peace; the play thus belongs with The Acharnians and The Peace. War between Athens and Sparta had been renewed three years after the Peace of Nicias. Lysistrata, `Disbander of Armies,' persuades the matrons of Athens to desert their husbands, and to refuse to return home till peace is again established. The Thesmophoriazus, produced three months after the preceding comedy, contains an attack on Euripides, whom the women, who are celebrating the Thesmophoria (see GREEK FESTIVALS), propose to punish for his hatred of them. The Frogs (405) is devoted to literary criticism. In the opening scenes Dionysus is on his way to Hades in search of a good poet, for Sophocles and Euripides have just died. The remainder of the play is given to the adventures of Dionysus in Hades, and the contest between Æschylus and Euripides for the seat of honor there which Æschylus wins. The real subject is the decay of tragic art, for which Euripides is blamed. The Ecclesiazusæ (392 or 389 B.C.), or The Women in Parliament, is a satire on communistic ideas current at this time. The women disguised as men occupy the Pnyx (see ATHENS), and adopt a new thoroughgoing communistic constitution, in which the government of Athens is handed over to the women. In the Plutus (which failed in 408, but was revived in 388) the god of wealth has his sight restored to him, and thereafter confers his blessings only on the deserving. The play "is an allegory, a picture of society turned upside down by the redistribution of wealth."
It will be seen that in the extant plays there is a gradual change from political and personal satire to caricature of social conditions; furthermore, the local character of the earlier plays gives way in the later to a certain cosmopolitanism. These, therefore, form the transition to the middle and new comedy. Aristophanes, in the opinion of the ancients, held a middle place between his older contemporaries, Cratinus and Eupolis, combining the severe character of the one with the grace of the other. In wit, rollicking humor, invention, skill in the use of language and rhythm, he has never been surpassed. The text is best edited by Meineke (Leipzig, 1860), Blaydes (Halle, 1886) , and Hall and Geldart (Oxford). The Scholia were published by G. Dindorf (Oxford, 1835), and by Dübner (Paris, 1842); those from the Ravenna MS. were edited by Rutherford (London, 1896). There are numerous commentated editions of single plays; J. Van Leeuwen has published an annotated edition of all the plays (Leyden, 1893-1905). English translations have been made by Mitchell, Frere, Rowers, Kennedy, Tyrrell, Murray, and Starkie. Consult J. Van Leeuwen, Prolegomena ad Aristophanem (Leyden, 1908), for a discussion of the life and writings of Aristophanes; M. Croiset, Aristophanes and the Political Parties at Athens, trans. by James Loeb (London, 1909); W. Süss, Aristophanes und die Nachwelt (Leipzig, 1911).
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. II (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 108-109.