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Lysistrata Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Aristophanes's Lysistrata. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Aristophanes

We know little of Aristophanes’ biography, and most of what we do know comes from his plays themselves. He was born in Kydathenaion, a deme or subdivision of Classical Athens, some fifty years after the Athenian statesman Cleisthenes (b. 570 BC) implemented sweeping democratic reform in the city-state. His father, a landowning citizen of Athens, was named Philippus. Aristophanes produced his first play, The Banqueters, in 427 BC, and would go on to write some forty plays over the course of his career in comedy, some of which we have in their entirety, many of which we have only in fragments. His plays were staged during Athenian drama competitions like those held during the City Dionysia and Lenaia, where they garnered prizes and fame for their robust, high-spirited poetry and incisive satirical wit. The most famous of Aristophanes’ surviving plays include The Clouds (completed in 417 BC), The Birds (414 BC), Lysistrata (411 BC), and The Frogs (405 BC). Aristophanes’ satire—scathing but born of a deep love for Athens—targets, among other things, warmongering politicians like the demagogue Cleon, who zealously supported the Peloponnesian War effort (see The Knights), intellectual charlatanism, and the blustery pomposity of the tragic spirit. His most famous victim is perhaps the great philosopher Socrates, whom Aristophanes presents in The Clouds as a myopic dope, a mere sophist, and an obnoxious corrupter of Athenian values. Indeed, Socrates’s student Plato would later blame Aristophanes for contributing to Socrates’ trial, conviction, and execution at the hands of the Athenian state in 399 BC. Aristophanes is remembered today as the greatest comic playwright of antiquity, and many readers would argue that he is the greatest comic playwright of all time, surpassing even Shakespeare and Moliere.
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Historical Context of Lysistrata

Aristophanes lived and wrote during a time of grandiose greed and political ambition in Classical Athens, when populism and demagoguery held sway. It was also a time of paranoia both foreign and domestic, violently punctuated by political purges and mass executions. Perhaps the major historical event to transpire in the Greek world during Aristophanes’ lifetime was the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC)—an event that Aristophanes fiercely condemned, along with its architects and supporters, throughout his dramatic career. Athens was waging bloody, costly warfare against the Peloponnesian League led by the Greek city-state of Sparta; and, as part of that conflict, Athens had also recently suffered a fatal disaster during the Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BC), a failed military intervention in which some two hundred ships and five thousand Athenian soldiers were destroyed in one fell swoop. Aristophanes reserved his most brutal satire for the demagogue he held most accountable for the mess, the Athenian general Cleon, whom he condemned as a rabid warmonger. Athens went on to surrender to Sparta in 404 BC, and their political supremacy in Greece was forever broken.

Other Books Related to Lysistrata

Aristophanes was the high prince of the Greek Old Comedy, a genre distinctive for its scathing political and cultural satire as well as for its exuberant sexual and scatological obscenity. In contrast to the Greek tragedians like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—all of whom were alive when he was—Aristophanes generally treats not mythical but topical subjects in his plays, and his plots are not grimly tight but rather explosively carnival-like, stuffed with high fantasy and wit. The more modern inheritors of the Old Comedy include Rabelais in his Gargantua and Pantagruel (published between c. 1532 and 1564), Cervantes in his Don Quixote (published between 1605 and 1615), and Jonathan Swift in his Tale of a Tub (published in 1704) and Gulliver’s Travels (first published in 1726). It should be noted, however, that Lysistrata represents, in part, Aristophanes’ turn away from some of the conventions of Old Comedy. For example, instead of having one Chorus as was traditional, the play has a Chorus divided into two quarrelling factions: old men versus old women. This, of course, is in keeping with the play’s dramatic scenario.
Key Facts about Lysistrata
  • Full Title: Lysistrata
  • When Written: Circa 411 BC
  • Where Written: Athens, Greece
  • When Published: Lysistrata was first performed in 411 BC, probably during the Lenaia, an annual Athenian festival and drama competition.
  • Literary Period: Classical
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Setting: Classical Athens
  • Climax: Lysistrata’s sex strike against the Peloponnesian War threatens to unravel when the Greek women become increasingly desirous for sex
  • Antagonist: The Athenian men’s political corruption, greed, and ambition; the Peloponnesian War

Extra Credit for Lysistrata

A New Leaf. Lysistrata is uncharacteristic of Aristophanes’ work, which tends to be more outrageously overflowing. Douglass Parker explains: “The play’s technical excellences are unquestionable: tight formal unity, economy of movement, realism in characterizations, range of feeling. They are also rather un-Aristophanic excellences, and the specialist who prefers earlier, comparatively messy pieces may perhaps be forgiven.”

Adaptations and Realizations. Many stage and film directors have adapted Lysistrata, most recently Spike Lee, whose film Chi-Raq (2015) transposes Aristophanes’ plot to inner-city Chicago. Instead of a sex strike against Greek-on-Greek warfare, Lee presents a sex-strike against gang-on-gang gun violence; and instead of Greek verse, his characters speak in the rhymes and cadences of rap music. But the plot of Lysistrata has also leapt off the stage and screen and into the real world. For example, in 2002, the Liberian Mass Action for Peace organized a sex strike in Liberia that ultimately contributed to the peaceful resolution of the Second Liberian Civil War.