By 411 bc the Peloponnesian War against Sparta was – apart from a brief cessation in hostilities after 421 bc – dragging on into its twentieth year. The expedition against Sicily had been a dismal failure, Athens' allies were deserting her, the city was almost bankrupt. Aristophanes now wrote a play with a truly radical solution, as extreme to the male Athenian mind as building an ideal state in the sky (see Birds): let the women take charge. Not only do the Athenian women withhold their sexual favours (which is what is best remembered about the play), but they occupy the Acropolis, taking over the treasury and therefore the economic means to prosecute the war. It is notable that Lysistrata is the only extant play by Aristophanes that bears the name of an individual, and this is the first European comedy with a female lead. Lysistrata has something of the toughness exhibited by the great tragic heroines of Sophocles and Euripides, even if some of the other wives are shown to be weak and shallow. She succeeds where the politicians and generals have failed. She not only brings about a genuine peace, but also paves the way for reconciliation, reminding the Athenians how much common heritage they share with the Spartans. It would have been the equivalent of staging a play in London in the First World War, reminding the English that the hated Kaiser Wilhelm II was the grandson of Queen Victoria. Inevitably, it is the bawdy element of the play which has made it Aristophanes' best known, and it has been adapted again and again to offer a light-hearted appeal for men to abandon their violent conflicts.
Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).
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Aristophanes (c. 448—380 bc) Greek comic dramatist