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Creator / Aristophanes

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The face behind the play that led to the death of Socrates.

— The familiar chant from The Frogs

Aristophanes was an Athenian comic playwright (5th-4th century BC). His works are often characterized as satire, which is quite remarkable—the Greeks never really went in for satire that much, to the point where they didn't even have a word for it (the genre was considered to be an innovation of the Romans, who were rather fonder of the style).

His notable plays include The Clouds (Νεφέλαι, Nephelai), which famously lampooned Socrates (libeling him, and likely contributing to his sentence of death); The Wasps (Σφῆκες, Sphékes), a satire of contemporary litigious society; The Birds (Ὄρνιθες, Ornithes), which features the original Cloudcuckooland; Lysistrata (Λυσιστράτη, Lysistraté), in which the women of Greece bring about the end of a war by going on a sex strike; and The Frogs (Βάτραχοι, Batrachoi), in which Euripides and Aeschylus contend in the afterlife for the title of Best Tragic Poet. (Many of his plays, in what was then a common convention, were named after the role adopted by the Greek Chorus; Lysistrata, named after the lead character, is the only exception out of those listed here.)

There is also a large number of known plays by Aristophanes that are now lost.

The Frogs was loosely adapted into a musical by Stephen Sondheim et al., with William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw as the contentious dramatists, and a much-expanded role for the frogs.

Trope Namer

Surviving works by Aristophanes with their own trope pages include:

Other surviving works include:

  • The Knights
  • The Wasps
  • Peace
  • Thesmophoriazusae or The Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria
  • Ecclesiazusae or The Assemblywomen
  • Wealth or Ploutos/Plutus

Other works by Aristophanes provide examples of:

  • Anachronism Stew: Some translations update terminology, and most update as many jokes as possible that the shows may remain side-splitters. For example, at one point in The Frogs, we are given an excerpt from Aeschylus' now-lost play Myrmidons, where the word "striking" figures repeatedly. One translation has Dionysus riffing "You struck out." Another has Dionysus complain that all the "striking" has made his groin sore.
  • Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Two of the three extant jabs at the no-talent playwright Morsimus were of this sort:
    • In The Knights, "May Morsimus teach me his choruses" is part of an imprecatory oath taken by the chorus.
    • In The Frogs, after fraud, parent battery, and perjury is listed "cop[ying] out a speech of Morsimus".
  • As You Know: Opening of The Wasps — with a fourth-wall-breaking lamp-shade hanging — apparently this trope got tired early.
  • Affectionate Nickname: Grandpa Aristophanes by younger greek children thanks to a book telling his plays as in fairytales. And in general, the man is quite popular with children as his plays are adapted by pre-schools and middle schools as well.
  • Corrupt Politician: Several of his contemporaries are depicted in this way by Aristophanes. Most notably the populist leader Cleon, whose period in power featured the rise of a new breed of public informants. They were supposed to keep a watchful eye on the city and find out any anti-democratic conspiracies, leading the perpetrators to trial. Aristophanes repeatedly depicts both the informants and their master as corrupt people making absurd accusations against innocent targets. Cleon is also satirized because he was a warmonger.
  • Dirty Coward: Many of Aristophanes' surviving works contain jokes about the supposed cowardice of Cleonymus. He was apparently a politician and military officer who lost his courage at the Battle of Delium (424 BC). He threw his shield away and fled from the battlefield, a dishonorable act which cost him the loss of several citizen rights. Aristophanes continued including jokes ridiculing the "shield-thrower" for at least a decade after the fact.
  • Dirty Old Woman: Several hangs exploit the new laws in The Assemblywomen to force themselves on young men.
  • Gag Penis: Rather memorably, he mocks the practice of having actors parade around in leather phalli during comedic performances in Lysistrata — a few scenes before the fact that every man in Greece has an erection is the core of a joke. We don't know that the cast members were performing in phalli, since the plays don't come with stage directions, but it seems rather likely.
  • Greek Chorus: Necessarily, for an Ancient Greek playwright. Usually they match the title of the play.
  • Naked People Are Funny: Early in the Thesmophoriazuae, dramatists Euripides and Agathon are talking shop, and it is mentioned that to help get into a woman's mind they will sometimes wear women's clothing. Mnesilochus wonders if the principle holds when writing for the chorus in a Satyr Play.
  • Nostalgia Ain't Like It Used to Be: Aristophanes wasn't fond of modernity and clearly thought that Greece used to be a much sweeter place a few decades before his plays. Since most of his works were written during the Peloponnesian War, he wasn't completely wrong.
  • Overly Long Name: An object example: Assemblywomen contains the word 'Lopado­temacho­selacho­galeo­kranio­leipsano­drim­hypo­trimmato­silphio­karabo­melito­katakechy­meno­kichl­epi­kossypho­phatto­perister­alektryon­opte­kephallio­kigklo­peleio­lagoio­siraio­baphe­tragano­pterygon', as the name of a fictional dish. At 183 letters, it currently has the record for longest made-up word used in a work of fiction. While we don't get a recipe for it, the name itself explains what some of the ingredients are, and it apparently is some kind of fricassee containing a bunch of birds and fishes.
  • Swapped Roles: Dionysos and his mortal servant disguise themselves as each other in The Frogs.
  • Take That!:
    • Euripides is one of the most frequent targets, especially in The Frogs, where he is portrayed as good, but inferior to Aeschylus.
    • Socrates is a close second — The Clouds is all about what a sleazy fellow Socrates is, and there are various references to him in other plays, none at all flattering. It's often argued that Aristophanes' daemon-ization of Socrates was one reason the Athenians eventually condemned the philosopher to death. At least one critic holds that the Socrates of The Clouds and the Socrates of Plato are so incompatible that he is using a famous local philosopher to critique the Sophists rather than Socrates in particular, whether he was a Sophist or not. The real Socrates, with whom Aristophanes apparently hangs out and is friends with in many Platonic dialogues, is merely unfortunate collateral damage toward that end.note 
    • Cleon, though an important figure in his own right, is well-known for being a target of Aristophanes' plays. This is partially due to Cleon being Nouveau Riche, coming from a tanner's family. However Cleon was well-known for being very supportive of continuing the war with Sparta, even convincing the Athenians to turn down the possibility of a very beneficial peace, to say nothing of undermining the city's civil rights with secret police and informers. Legend has it that in his first major success, The Knights, he played Cleon himself (who is never directly named, instead he is caled Paphlagon, itself an insult for his talkativeness, but the chorus assures the audience they'll know who it is) on the stage, because he didn't want any other actor to risk their lives being the man under the mask after the play was finished.
  • Toilet Humor: A few examples (but there are many, many more) are the opening of The Peace where two servants are kneading dung cakes for their master's giant dung beetle. And a classic line from The Knights, a play that lampoons politicians: "To steal, perjure yourself and make your arse receptive are three essentials for climbing high."
  • Unreliable Narrator: Aristophanes himself when mentioning contemporary events. Along with the historian Thucydides, the playwright is one of our main sources of information on several key figures of the The Peloponnesian War, but the views of both men were oligarchic. They were, for example, both harsh critics of various policies which placed the Athenian nobility at a disadvantage. These same policies were very popular with the Athenian citizens.
  • War Is Hell: Aristophanes, while a conservative, was not a warmonger, and his plays often had messages against the Pelopponesian War and war in general.