While Athens wages war against enemies offstage, Lysistrata presents warfare onstage, too: the battle of the sexes. In a parody of warfare, the women of Greece besiege their men with abstinence, and they storm the Acropolis and lock it down as if with a chastity belt. They fight not to the death, but to the peace, and they fight not with swords and bows and spears, but with pitchers of water, spindles, lamps, and other domestic tools. When the Chorus of Old Men attempts to retake the Acropolis by means of virile fire, the Chorus of Old Women douses fire with water—a metaphor for subduing warlike rapacity with chastity, anger with clear-headedness. The women, lacking political power, must weaponize their sexuality, and they do so not out of mad political ambition but out of a commonsense desire to restore peace.
Love, at last, necessarily gets the better of war, as is evinced by the comedy’s single most iconic stage image. After the women’s sex strike has gone on for so long, the Greek men, Athenians and Spartans alike, find themselves between a rock and a hard place. They refuse to make peace, but in this they also condemn themselves to waddling around the stage with painful erections, desperately but unsuccessfully attempting to hide them under their cloaks. Men aren’t the only casualties of the battle of the sexes either. The Athenian woman Kleonike, for one, is extremely reluctant to give up sex, even if it means the continuation of the war. “I’m willing to walk through fire barefoot,” she says, “but not to give up SEX—there’s nothing like it!” Another woman stuffs Athena’s sacred helmet in her clothing so that she appears pregnant, the better to sneak away from the Acropolis and rendezvous with her lover.
As such ridiculous stage images and antics suggest, Athenians “invested sex with little transcendental significance,” according to the esteemed Aristophanes scholar and translator Douglass Parker. Nor is the point of Lysistrata that the love of a good woman can save men from themselves, or that free love brings peace into the world. Rather, the play envisions sex as a basic human need, and, when sex is rooted in love and marriage, the gratification of sexual desire is deeply pleasing. Not so with the needless pain and suffering brought on by the Peloponnesian War. This is all to say that Lysistrata is a somewhat hedonistic play: whenever you can, it suggests, fulfill your needs, pursue pleasure in accordance with civic virtue, and avoid pain. When Peace personified makes an appearance toward the play’s resolution, it should come as no surprise at this point that the form she takes, as we learn in a stage direction, is that of “a beautiful girl without a stitch on,” that is, naked. The Greek men ogle Peace and her “purtiest behind,” as one Spartan has it, and their ardor “to plow a few furrows” and “to work a few loads of fertilizer in” quickly burns away all warlike thoughts. The men of Greece seem to have forgotten about pleasure in their greed, ambition, and paranoia—but Lysistrata and the women of Greece remind them that a pleasureless state is not worth living in.
Sexuality and the Battle of the Sexes ThemeTracker
Sexuality and the Battle of the Sexes Quotes in Lysistrata
We can force our husbands to negotiate Peace,
Ladies, by exercising steadfast Self-Control—
By Total Abstinence…
By Total Abstinence…
I’m willing to walk through fire barefoot.
to give up SEX—there’s nothing like it, Lysistrata!
What a catastrophe—
They’ve brought Athene’s statue to heel,
they’ve put the Akropolis under a seal,
they’ve copped the whole damned commonweal…
What is there left for them to steal?
Preserve me, Athene, from gazing on any
maiden or maid auto-da fé’d.
Cover with grace these redeemers of Greece
from battles, insanity, Man’s inhumanity.
Gold-browed goddess, hither to aid us!
Fight as our ally, join in our sally
against pyromaniac slaughter—
Koryphaios of Women:
I’ll crop your lungs and reap your bowels, bite by bite,
and leave no balls on the body for other bitches to
Koryphaios of Men:
Can’t beat Euripides for insight. And I quote:
No creature’s found
so lost to shame as Woman.
Talk about realist playwrights!
I admit to being a woman—
but don’t sell my contribution short on that account.
It’s better than the present panic. And my word is as
good as my bond, because I hold stock in Athens—
stock I paid for in sons.
I’ve lost my grip on the girls—they’re mad for men!
But sly—they slip out in droves.
Melanion is our ideal:
his loathing makes us free.
Our dearest aim is the gemlike flame
of his misogyny.
Your duty is clear.
Pop him on the griddle, twist
the spit, braize him, baste him, stew him in his own
juice, do him to a turn. Sear him with kisses,
coyness, caresses, everything—
but stop where Our Oath
—Life is a husk. She left our home, and happiness
went with her. Now pain is the tenant. Oh, to enter
that wifeless house, to sense that awful emptiness,
to eat that tasteless, joyless food—it makes
it hard, I tell you.
The most unnerving work of nature,
the pride of applied immorality,
is the common female human.
No fire can match, no beast can best her.
thy name—worse luck—is Woman.
I can’t dispute the truth or logic of the pithy old proverb:
Life with women is hell.
Life without women is hell, too.
And so we conclude a truce with you, on the following terms:
in future, a mutual moratorium on mischief in all its forms.
Now, dear, first get those Spartans and bring them to me…
Be a lady, be proper, do just what you’d do at home:
if hands are refused, conduct them by the handle…
And now a hand to the Athenians—it doesn’t matter
where; accept any offer—and bring them over.
Each man stand by his wife, each wife
by her husband. Dance to the gods’ glory, and thank
them for the happy ending. And, from now on, please be
careful. Let’s not make the same mistakes again.