The play opens on a street in Athens, with the Acropolis visible in the background. It is early morning. Lysistrata is alone, pacing in furious impatience, waiting for the women she has summoned to arrive. She complains that they would come right away if it was for a party in honor of the wine god Bacchus or for some debauchery, but today “there’s not one woman here.”
Lysistrata is all about fighting the patriarchy, but it isn’t exactly a proto-feminist text. The play even opens with the female characters (with the exception of Lysistrata herself) all conforming to negative female stereotypes: laziness, flightiness, and lustfulness.
Lysistrata’s neighbor Kleonike enters. “Don’t look so barbarous, baby,” she says. Lysistrata responds that she’s ashamed to be a woman—women can’t even live up to male slanders, she says. Husbands say their wives are sly, deceitful, always plotting, yet here Lysistrata is attempting to devise a “monstrous” plot, and the women, she thinks, are all sleeping at home. Kleonike attempts to soothe Lysistrata by reminding her of how hard women have it—pleasing their husbands, taking care of their babies—but Lysistrata thinks all this is trivial compared to her plot.
Lysistrata’s distinction from the other women in the play is emphasized by her impatience with them here. She is both less domestic (less stereotypically feminine, basically) and more politically active. Kleonike, in contrast, more closely conforms to Athenian gender stereotypes. Here Lysistrata also brings up the idea that her plan is something “monstrous”—a full-scale rebellion against the status quo via unconventional means.
Kleonike asks what Lysistrata’s plot is all about. Lysistrata responds that the hope and salvation of Greece lies with the women. “Now there’s a last resort,” retorts Kleonike. Lysistrata elaborates: it is up to the woman of Greece to decide whether the Greek city-state of Athens pursues peace or annihilation in its war with Sparta (i.e. the Peloponnesian War). Kleonike thinks this sounds fun: annihilation of every last Boiotian, she cries. (The Boiotians were allies of Sparta in the war.) On second thought, she says, peace is best—how else would Athenians get their hands on the delicious eels Boiotia is famous for?
In this opening scene, both Lysistrata and Kleonike make jokes that denigrate their own gender—the women in the play must unite before they can be taken seriously. Kleonike demonstrates a lack of seriousness herself when she flip-flops on the question of war or peace. As the women’s plot unfolds, however, she becomes increasingly dedicated to the latter.
Lysistrata insists that she wants to bring together all the Greek women to form an alliance and save the States of Greece. “Be practical,” Kleonike advises. Women are unwise, she says, and are talented only in glamorously painting their faces and primping. Indeed, she gets so carried away by the very thought of primping that she begins to indulgently list the clothes she loves: “saffron rappers,” “exquisite negligees,” and so on. Lysistrata thinks that such sexy garments, along with rouge and perfume, are precisely the way to salvation for Greece. But where are the other women? Kleonike assures her that authentic Athenians do everything late, and that the delegations of women from out of town are late on account of their long trips.
Kleonike consistently underestimates the power of women, but Lysistrata understands better than she does how powerful the manipulation of basic human needs, like sex, can be. She sees, as Kleonike does not, that even something so superficially trivial as a negligee is really an expression of profound human desire, and that such desire goes even deeper than the greed and paranoia that possess the Athenian men at war. Kleonike’s joke about Athenian lateness is probably a barb about how Athens should have ended the war much earlier.
At last, other women enter from the right and left, even some ragged rural women. Lysistrata’s friend Myrrhine also enters guiltily. Soon after, the brawny Spartan woman Lampito enters, along with a pretty Boiotian girl named Ismenia and a huge, big-butted Corinthian girl. Lysistrata welcomes all, and showers the out-of-towners with compliments. Lampito demonstrates the dance that keeps her so fit, and Kleonike praises the beauty of her bosoms. Lampito says, in her “bumpkin” Spartan dialect, that she feels “like a heifer come fair-time” to be so inspected and praised. Lysistrata and Kleonike go on to inspect the aristocratic Ismenia of Thebes, and the Corinthian girl, who comes from an important family.
The women who answer Lysistrata’s summons are representative of all the women of Greece. They come from diverse backgrounds and from both sides of the Peloponnesian War. The foreigners, like Lampito and the Corinthian girl, conform to Athenian ethnic stereotypes. (Even in a play about making peace with Sparta, Aristophanes can’t help making fun of Spartans.) Aristophanes’ comedy is not malicious however; rather, it emphasizes ethnic or national differences only to show how trivial these are when it comes to solidarity in the name of basic human needs, like peace and love.
The women want to know, at last, why Lysistrata has summoned them. Lysistrata asks if the women would like their men to come home from war—they would. Lysistrata then asks if she’d have their support in a scheme to end the war. The women enthusiastically pledge money and hard work to the cause. Myrrhine says that she’s “ready to split myself right up the middle like a mackerel, and give you half!” Lysistrata then reveals her plot: the women can force their husbands to negotiate peace through “Total Abstinence.” From what? the women ask. They’d be willing to die for peace.
Lysistrata is tactful: she knows that she cannot ask at once for the women to abstain from sex, but instead builds up to it, highlighting the huge potential benefits of effecting an end to the war. This also further adds to the suspense, as Aristophanes holds off on giving up the comic conceit of his play.
To force a peaceful end to the Peloponnesian War, says Lysistrata, the women need only abstain totally—from sex. At once, the women turn away and begin to gloomily walk off, in tears. “On with the War!” cry Kleonike and Myrrhine. They’re willing to walk through fire barefoot, “but not to give up SEX—there nothing like it!” Lysistrata curses her sex, saying that it’s so weak in willpower, and is material only for tragedy. The tragic formula of going to bed with a god and getting rid of the baby sums women up, Lysistrata says disgustedly.
Aristophanes has his women make outrageous pledges to the cause of peace so that the punch line—the women at first refusing to abstain from sex, which seems so much more trivial than dying, anyway—hits all the harder. The fact that the women are so reluctant to abstain from sex also shows just how effective a political tool this basic human desire can be. It’s also worth noting that the frankness about sexuality that lies at the heart of the play’s central conceit gives us more of an idea of Athenian society at the time—sex was out in the open, an important part of life but not anything especially sacred.
Lampito, however, is on Lysistrata’s side, and the other women gradually come around to the idea of a sex strike. They need only present themselves to the men at their most seductive—made-up, dressed in “those filmy tunics that set off everything we have”—and then refuse to sleep with their hot and bothered men. Lysistrata thinks the men will conclude a treaty rather quickly. Kleonike worries that the men will leave the women, or force them to have sex, or beat them. Lysistrata tells her to resist nastily: “A married man wants harmony—cooperation, not rape,” she says. The women are persuaded, and they approve the sex strike.
It is significant that Lampito is Lysistrata’s first supporter, because she is also the only Spartan among the women; by siding with an Athenian, Lampito suggests that the human cost of the war is intolerable on both sides. Kleonike’s very serious concerns here remind us that this play is, first and foremost, a fantasy about peace, not at all a political tract of proposal. To enjoy and be enriched by the play, we must suspend our disbelief about the plausibility of the male reaction to the plot.
Lysistrata proceeds to reveal the second part of her plot: to prevent the Athenian men from continuing the war effort, the Chorus of Old Women will seize the Acropolis, where the war treasury is located, on Lysistrata’s command.
The Acropolis is the seat of political power in the play; whoever controls the Acropolis controls Athenian policy.
The women feel like they can’t possibly lose, and they decide to bind their agreement with the Oath. Instead of swearing on a shield and animal sacrifice, however—deciding this is too warlike—they swear on a huge black cup filled with fragrant wine. The women surround the cup and place their right hand on it, and Lysistrata leads Kleonike through the Oath as a spokesperson for all the women. To uphold the Oath, the women must “withhold all rights of access or entrance” from any man, even while they fire up their husbands’ desire by presenting themselves at their most glamorous and seductive. Led by Lysistrata, the women then take their turns drinking from the cup.
Men of war might swear on the shield, but the women want peace, so the cup of wine is therefore the more suitable symbol for their oath: an image of pleasure, leisure, and peace. The cup of wine here foreshadows the merry, drunken celebration of peace that concludes the play.
Lampito then hears a “ruckus” in the distance—the Chorus of Old Women have taken the Acropolis, citadel of the wise goddess Athena! Lysistrata tells Lampito to return to Sparta to work on bringing about peace on her end. She also demands that the other women in Lampito’s group be left in Athens as hostages. Lampito exits. Lysistrata then orders the women to hurry inside the Acropolis to help the others. Kleonike worries that the men will send reinforcements against them, but Lysistrata is confident that the Gates will hold. The women hurry off, and the door to the Acropolis shuts behind them.
Lysistrata is canny enough to know that peace requires the will of both Athens and Sparta, hence Lampito’s mission. She is also canny enough to keep Ismenia and the Corinthian girl as hostages to ensure that the peace process stays on track. Lysistrata may be something of an idealist in wanting to end the war, but she is also practical and no-nonsense. The Gates of the Acropolis here become an image of the female anatomy—closed off and inaccessible to any male violations.