VIth Form Intro: Politics as Comedy – Comedy as Politics?

Attic Old Comedy, particularly in the plays of Aristophanes, is an area where there has been much research in recent times. Comedy, as Sommerstein has stated “was probably political from its very beginnings,…it may even have owed its official beginning to political calculation…” (in Camb. Companion to Greek Comedy, 292).

Such a relationship is doubtless true, though the interpretation of the political role in comedy is, without the original context, extremely hard to define – the comedic role in politics, while possible, is even more difficult to contextualise, if indeed possible at all.

The linking of Aristophanes’ comedies and the political is seen, according to the Hellenistic commentator, in the first extant play we have by Aristophanes – The Frogs. For him, and he was in no doubt, the parabasis of Frogs “as a piece of deadly serious and ‘straight’ political rhetoric.” (Cartledge, Aristophanes and His Theatre of the Absurd, BCP, 1995). While this may be an extraordinarily long standing interpretation, de Ste Croix does emphasise a caveat:

[W]e must never consider in isolation a few lines in a comedy or even the speech in which they occur, but look at the play as a whole and indeed the dramatist’s entire output, in so far as it is known to us.

(G. E. M. de Ste Croix, The Origins of the Peloponnesian War, 369)

This is in many ways a statement of the problems facing anyone looking at Aristophanes as a political commentator –  if there be a necessity to examine the complete works of an individual playwright, how can we, by definition, use the works of Aristophanes when we have only eleven extant plays of a known canon of some forty plays? There is, moreover, the unavoidable question which must be faced in every part of History – how far can we get any understanding such as the contemporary watchers of the play would have had:

There is a lively, sometimes acrimonious, debate current about how far modern methods of criticism should be applied to Classical texts created centuries, millennia even, before the theories were a twinkle in a critic’s eye. “ (A.M.Bowie, Aristophanes Myth, Ritual and Comedy, XIII)

The power of the comedic performance is self-evident – we only need to look at the influence that political satire can wield in modern times. The huge (comparatively speaking) audiences that the comedies would have drawn at the festivals such as the Great Dionysia. There were laws of slander in Athens, yet Aristophanes’ attacks on politicians of the time (most particularly the demagogue Kleon) are blistering, so how did he get away with it without being perpetually fighting his corner in the law courts? There was the loophole of parrhēsia (freedom of speech) licensed at the religious festivals – the festivals which, as mentioned, drew the most enormous of audiences of the time. The wonderful concept of political slander as an honouring of Dionysus – oddly, a god who, in his mythology, appears to have absolutely no link to any form of dramatic performance, tragic or comedic, other than in the Athenian festivals. The huge audiences did, however, also mean that there were certain limitations on the parrhēsia – the demos was not exactly happy at being mocked directly (Old Oligarch, 2:18) (though as we shall see later, this did slip by – the character Demos in the Knights) though perfectly content to see the wealthy as individuals being metaphorically ripped to shreds. It is also known that the parrhēsia was suspended on two occasions – 440/39 (at the same time as the Samian Revolt) and 415/4 (again coinciding with the smashing of the Herms and Elusinian Sacrilege). The importance of both the political clout of the comedic writer and the attempts too control the parrhēsia can be seen in the way Dikaiopolis, the protagonist, addresses the audience in parabasis. Twice, he refers to legal action taken against him by Klēon after the previous year’s performance – The Babylonians in 426:

…I suffered at Kleon’s hands, because of last year’s comedy. He dragged me into the Council chamber and began slandering me…” (378-80, Sommerstein)

Later (l. 501-505) he refers to there being no reason to prosecute him this year as the foreigners have not arrived and as such he cannot be denigrating the Athenian polis to an audience which contains non-Athenians. Neither of these digs would make any sense at all were this not on a true incident and had it not been known and general knowledge among those who were watching Akharnians. It does, however make one other major implication – that Aristophanes so openly refers to it and indeed uses it again to mock Klēon implies that the latter’s attempts at suing and impeaching his comedic nemesis were unmitigated failures… While the Boulē had not been convinced by Klēon’s attempts to have Aristophanes impeached, we can make one other definite point from this: the Babylonians had been enough (we do not have the text) to make Klēon take the  play seriously and to be intimidated by it – enough so to attempt to overcome the right to parrhēsia.

The attack in comedy on a personal level was not the only possibility, however – Dover:

In so far as comedy admitted political satire and invective, it could in theory have distributed its fire over three targets: the constitutional structure of the state, the style of politics, and individual political decisions.” (Aristophanic Comedy, 33)

As Dover goes on to point out, there would have been extreme folly in attacking the long standing constitution which had the solid foundations of being not only long established, but also having had citizens fight and die in its defence against the Persians as recent;y as their grandfathers. It was verging on a holy system and to attack it would have been nothing other than sheer stupidity and definite ostracism or a cup of hemlock. He further points out that as the constitution was fully democratic, the only revolution could really come from the Oligarchs and extreme conservatives – not a particularly promising move for a playwright whose success or failure rested on the will of the demos!

The second key factor to keep in mind is the background against which Aristophanes was writing and producing his plays – the Peloponnesian Wars and the way in which Athens governed her Empire. This meant that key figures such as Kleon, Kleophon and even Perikles were fair game when it came to comic plays and the satire. To be one of the kalloi k’agathoi meant, as today, that an individual set himself up as a target for the jokes and attacks on the comedy stage. Dover again:

It seems to be the business of comedy to grumble and slander, and to speak fair of a politician or a general would have been discordant with its function as a means by which the ordinary man asserts himself against his political or military superiors” (ibid, 35)

I shall examine the individual plays in subsequent posts as I get time:


Aristophanes’ Comedies

Bowie, AM Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy CUP, 1993

Cartledge, P Aristophanes and his Theatre of the Absurd BCP, 1995

Dover, KJ Aristophanic Comedy CUP, 1972

Revermann, M Greek Comedy Cambridge, 2014

Sidwell, K Aristophanes the Democrat CUP, 2009


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