An Introduction to the Joke of Lysistrata

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Cover of "Lysistrata (Signet Classics)"
Cover of Lysistrata (Signet Classics)

Lysistrata by Aristophanes is a particularly difficult play to analyse from a modern perspective, especially since our views and understandings are far from those of the target audience of the play.  This makes it very difficult to assess just what was the main joke of the play.  One could argue that the main joke is based around the women taking over the public affairs, but one could equally argue that the main joke is based on the sex strike among other themes.  This paper will explore to an extent whether the women taking over public affairs was the main joke and what social attitudes can be discerned form the humour in the play, focusing on the attitudes towards women despite many other attitudes discernible throughout the play which will not be explored here due to the huge extent to which these topics can be explored.

The sex strike could indeed be seen as the main joke as it appears to be at the centre of the play.  As Halliwell puts it ‘sex and war are the comic heart of the play.’[1] No one can get by without sex.  At the start of the play it is the women who are in anguish and ‘sex mad’, but towards the end of the play the focus changes tact and it is the men who are in anguish.  But would this work as the focus of the whole play?  How could it have worked unless there was some real contention between husbands and wives in this period, which we just don’t know of?  Sommerstein asserts that this was most likely not the mindset of Aristophanes’ essentially male audience…for one thing, the plot requires us to assume that consensual marital sex was the only kind of sex available to an Athenian male; well-known alternatives are simply ignored.[2]  Ultimately the concept brings around more questions than answers.  Is the comic tension simply who is going to crack first in a situation which is a fantasy?

The concept of women taking over public affairs is also questionable as the main joke of the play.  Hulton argues that the women’s occupation of the acropolis is indeed the central theme to the play[3], but when one looks at the play as a whole one can’t help but notice that this theme often takes a considerable backseat, especially in the second half.  Parker assesses that this theme works in connection with the sex theme in order to represent love in its civic manifestation, the bond between husband and wife identified with the city itself.[4]  The treatment of these ‘twin themes’ though appears to leave us with nothing more than an alluring fantasy.[5]

This concept does have a comic tone which is significant in the play.  For instance the comic reversal of the ways of the οικος favourably compared to those of the πολις with the old women defeating the old men of the chorus, Lysistrata’s attendants beating the Scythian archers and when the magistrate is symbolically turned into a woman.[6]  It is also fair to note that the women in the play do represent οικος and πολις for as Lysistrata points out, why can’t they look after the finances of the πολις? After all they look after the οικος finances.  It is even said that there is a need for women to save or rescue the whole of Greece from war as the men have created such chaos, an idea which in the mind of the male audience of the period would have surely been preposterous, and even more comic as the women are actually able to take over.[7]  This concept though almost becomes forgotten in parts of the play as it is overshadowed which suggests that though it was an important concept it may not have been created in order to be the main joke of Lysistrata.

The attitudes that emerge in Lysistrata are a mixture of social reality and comic stereotyping.[8]  There are a number of attitudes which are portrayed in the play, for instance the idea that Athens was a society in which the unmarried woman had no role or place.  The institution of marriage appears to be the foundation of society in Lysistrata, which is very different from in Aristophanes’ other plays such as the promiscuous sexuality of the Acharnians.[9]  The humour of the play particularly highlights the woman’s prominent role in marriage as well as in burial and lament.  For instance the chorus of the old women ‘bury’ the magistrate,[10] and pour a ‘nuptial bath’ on the old men ‘to make them grow.’[11]

Also in relation to the social attitudes towards women the humour of the play discerns comic stereotypes of Athenian wives, for instance, as secret, heavy drinkers.  The play discerns attitudes towards two groups of women; the first group of young sexually active women is portrayed in a rather negative manner appearing foolish and easily manipulated by their bodily desires, particularly their lust for sex and wine.[12]  The second group of older women past their prime are portrayed in a more positive manner: they pray to the gods, perform services in the cults of the πολις and are introduced to the stage while performing a classic type of portrayed female work (carrying water from a fountain).[13]  The attitudes towards different groups of women are seen throughout both parts of the play.

Social attitudes concerning a woman’s place and duties are also discerned throughout the play. For instance Kalonike comments when Lysistratas is exasperated over the women’s failure to appear that the domestic duties make it hard for women to leave the house.  This among many other passages discerns the norms of respectability in relation to women and is seen as the general social attitude towards the place of women.[14] Their place was in the home, not to be seen or heard.[15] Foley argues though that Lysistrata dissipates the standard comic and tragic expectations of behaviour of women.[16]  Still, as Faraone points out there is a repeated association with both day-to-day household economy and with important civic rituals and cults which women were expected to participate in.[17]

 Bibliography

Aristophanes, Lysistrata (Penguin trans.), pp.177-235

Dillon, M., The Lysistrata as a Post-Deceleian Peace Play, in Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol.117 (1987), pp.97-104

Faraone, C.A., Salvation and Female Heroics in the Parodos of Aristophane’s Lysistrata, in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 117 (1997), pp.38-59

Fletcher, J., Women and Oaths in Euripides, in Theatre Journal, Vol.55, No.1 Ancient Theatre (2003), pp.29-44

Foley, H.P., The “Female Intruder” Reconsidered: Women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae, in Classical Philology, Vol.77, No.1 (1982), pp.1-21

Halliwell, S., Aristophanes – Birds, Lysistrata, Assembly women, Wealth (Oxford, 1997), pp.79-89

Hulton, A.O., The Women on the Acropolis: A Note on the Structure of the ‘Lysistrata’, in Greece and Rome, Second Series, Vol.19, No.1 (1972), pp.32-36

Parker, D., Lattimore, R., and Arrowsmith, W., Four Plays by Aristophanes (Middlesex, 1964), pp.342-344

Sommerstein, A.H., Penguin Classics: Aristophanes – Lysistrata and Other Plays (London, 2002), pp.134-137


[1] Halliwell, S., Aristophanes – Birds, Lysistrata, Assemby-women, Wealth (Oxford, 1997), p.79

[2] Sommerstein, A.H., Penguin Classics: Aristophanes – Lysistrata and Other Plays (London, 2002), p.136

[3] Hulton, A.O., The Women on the Acropolis: A Note on the Structure of the ‘Lysistrata’, in Greece and Rome, Second Series, Vol.19, No.1 (1972), p.32

[4] Parker, D., Lattimore, R., and Arrowsmith, W., Four Plays by Aristophanes (Middlesex, 1964), p.343

[5] Halliwell, op.cit., p.83

[6] Dillon, M., The Lysistrata as a Post-Deceleian Peace Play, in Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol.117 (1987), p.101

[7] Halliwell, op.cit., p.87

[8] Ibid., p.85

[9] Dillon, op.cit., p.103

[10] Aristophanes, Lysistrata (Penguin trans.), 599-607

[11] Ibid., 378-84

[12] Faraone, C.A., Salvation and Female Heroics in the Parodos of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 117 (1997), p.39

[13] Faraone, op.cit., p.39 – this task is seen in numerous echoes in popular myths and rituals concerned with salvation.

[14] Halliwell, op.cit., p.85

[15] Aristophanes, op.cit.,  – Lysistrata comments that in the last war ‘we were too modest to object to anything you men did – and in any case you wouldn’t let us say a word.  But don’t think we approved!…and then when you came home we’d be burning inside but we’d have to put on a smile and ask what it was you’d decided to inscribe on the pillar underneath the Peace Treaty – and what did my husband always say? – ‘shut up and mind your own business!’ And I did.’ – p.201

[16] Foley, H.P., The “Female Intruder” Reconsidered: Women in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae, in Classical Philology, Vol.77, No.1 (1982), p.10

[17] Faraone, op.cit., p.39

2 thoughts on “An Introduction to the Joke of Lysistrata

    margaretjeanlangstaff said:
    October 25, 2013 at 7:01 am

    Congrats on taking on Aristophanes today. His work certainly must be taken in context (which bears little resemblance to ours–21st century and so on), but I must say, he still makes me smile and sometimes laugh. Yet I was primed by excellent professors and great critical works; those that aren’t will miss everything that’s there worth noting😦

    GraecoMuse said:
    October 25, 2013 at 7:11 am

    Thanks🙂 I was bored with PhDing for the day. I love Lysistrata, very funny, much to appreciate.

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