The decrepit Chorus of Old Men, led by their especially decrepit Male Koryphaios (leader of the chorus), enters shakily and slowly in two groups. They carry vinewood torches and pots containing fire, which is always in danger of going out. They’re intent on seizing back the Acropolis. As they shuffle on, they gripe about their wives (“she’s a National Disaster,” one named Swifty moans) and about the catastrophes brought on by matriarchy. The Koryphaios urges the wretchedly slow old men onward. They’ll try and burn the women who organized the rebellion, he proclaims. The men also recall how, some one hundred years ago, they ousted the Spartan Kleomenes, a historical figure who occupied the Acropolis in 508 BC.
The men represented in the play are mostly old, because the young Athenian men are off fighting in the war. The torches, fire, and smoke are images of the male anatomy and of waning virility. One of Aristophanes’ persistent ironies is that, while the men moan about their wives being “National Disasters,” the men themselves have brought disaster to Athens through their political corruption and reckless ambition. The women, far from being like Kleomenes, are the true Athenian patriots.
As the Chorus of Old Men nears the Acropolis, the old men increasingly struggle to carry their torches and firepots uphill. To prevent the fire from going out, moreover, they blow into their pots, only to send forth clouds of smoke. The men cough and choke, and smoke gnaws their eyeballs. Nonetheless, they reach the Acropolis gate. Their first plan is to crash it down, and if that fails, they’ll ask to be admitted politely. Their last resort is to “burn the damned door down.” The men get into a horrible, confused tangle as they deposit their logs, but somehow manage. The Male Koryphaios then offers a prayer to Athena: “Grant us victory, male supremacy.”
Just as the men’s political policies have backfired on Athens, so too do the Chorus’s pots of fire. Characteristic of the men’s incompetence and arrogance is their natural decision to first resort to violence against the women, and then to try diplomacy only after that. The men are also self-destructive in their pride: they’d rather burn their own citadel down than listen to the call of conscience and reason. It’s also ironic that the men pray to Athena—a female goddess of wisdom—for the victory of their cause (which is essentially masculinity and foolishness).
While the Chorus of Old Men prepares the torches, the Chorus of Old Women, led by their Female Koryphaios, suddenly enters, wearing long cloaks and bearing pitchers of water filled earlier at the fountains in town. The women are old, but younger than the men, and they are quite spry. Noticing the smoke, the women dash over to put out the fire before its too late, praying as they do so for Athena’s protection from “Man’s inhumanity.”
The women’s pitchers of water represent sexual abstinence; the women plan on putting out the fire of war by not putting out, as it were. The women’s relative spryness suggests an ethical health lacking in their male counterparts. The women, like the men, pray to Athena, and the goddess seems to favor their cause. This brings up the broader point that the women aren’t really “rebelling” at all—they’re the ones being true to the spirit of Athens, not the men.
The two Choruses at last come face to face with one another. The Chorus of Old Men is surprised by the “flood of reserves” the Chorus of Old Women has managed to muster. The Male Koryphaios asks for volunteers to pulverize the women—“just a few jabs” to silence the women’s backtalk—but no one comes forward. The Female Koryphaios then advances and offers her male counterpart a “free shot.” The two exchange threats, but after the female Koryphaios threatens to “leave no balls on the body for other bitches to gnaw,” the male Koryphaios hurriedly retreats.
Aristophanes’ text is loaded with plays on words and puns like “flood of reserves.” The subplot of the male Koryphaios and his female counterpart mirrors the main plot of the play. The obscenity of the dialogue here is characteristic of Old Comedy; its purpose is to surprise us into new ways of thinking about the world, to liberate us from sterile stereotypes and business as usual.
The Chorus of Old Men and the Chorus of Old Women fire more threats and insults back and forth. The men threaten to barbecue the women; the women threaten to douse the men’s fire and to give them a bath. When the men at last ready their torches, the women empty their pitchers over them, soaking them. The women call it “gardening.” “Perhaps you’ll bloom,” the Female Koryphaios tells the men. The men, for their part, are “withered, frozen, shaking.” Shivering, the Chorus of Men retreat, utterly defeated.
The irrational, disturbing violence of the men’s threats is appropriately tempered by the more charmingly domestic threats of the women. Water is not an element of destruction here, but of wakefulness, cleansing, and rebirth. The women don’t want to destroy their men; they want to cultivate them in accordance with the Athenian values they’ve forgotten.
A Commissioner of Public Safety enters from the left, reluctantly followed by a squad of police made up of four Scythian archers. He surveys the situation with disapproval. The Commissioner makes a speech claiming that overly emotional women were in large part responsible for creating an atmosphere in which demagogues could support a military expedition to Sicily. He then concludes that the “Gift of Woman” is nothing but “MORAL CHAOS!”
The Commissioner is more reasonable and curious as to the women’s motives than the old men of the Chorus; he is a representative of Athenian values, law, and order at home. That being said, he does not recognize that it is the warmongering men who have plunged Athens into moral chaos, not the women.
The Male Koryphaios urges the Commissioner to bring charges against the Chorus of Old Women, but the Commissioner says that the women are, counter-intuitively, in the right. Why? Because men taught women how to be lustful and rebellious. We shouldn’t have left our wives alone with goldsmiths and cobblers, the Commissioner argues, because the ensuing “hanky-panky [is what] what we have to thank for today’s / Utter Anarchy.” The Commissioner concludes that he needs to access the war treasury in the Acropolis, and orders his squad of police to pry the gate open with a crowbar.
The Commissioner rightly protects the women, but for the wrong reasons. They are not being lustful and rebellious, as he claims; they are abstaining from sex out of patriotism. His reasoning is actually quite ridiculous, and characteristic of the blinding pride Aristophanes is calling out in his play—a refusal to see that this “Anarchy” is the result of male pride, not female infidelity. The Commissioner’s claim also brings up ideas of male insecurity, playing up the idea of the “cuckold” for comic effect.
Just then, the gate to the Acropolis bursts open, revealing Lysistrata. She is perfectly composed and is holding a large spindle, an instrument used to spin thread. She tells the Commissioner that he doesn’t need crowbars so much as brains. Outraged, the Commissioner sends a policeman to arrest Lysistrata, but she repels him with a vicious jab of her spindle. The Commissioner orders a second policeman to do the same, but Kleonike forces him to retreat by threatening to “stomp the shit right out of [him]” with a chamber pot. Myrrhine repels a third policeman by brandishing a blazing lamp, and Ismenia repels the fourth by brandishing “a huge pair of pincers.”
The women are not trying to usurp political power in Athens; they are merely trying to motivate healthy political dialogue and change. This is why Lysistrata emerges from the Acropolis of her own free will to speak with the Commissioner. Significantly, the women fight not with weapons but with domestic goods, which is a metaphor for how they are leveraging basic human needs to effect political change. Such needs will always be more powerful than mere force.
The Commissioner orders the policeman to regroup and charge as a unit, but a horde of women brandishing household goods pours from the Acropolis. Lysistrata urges these “ladies of hell” onward, these bargain hunters and “grocery grenadiers.” The policemen are swiftly routed. The dazed Commissioner mutters about his men’s incompetence, while Lysistrata celebrates the freedom and power of women. The Male Koryphaios suggests in turn that women aren’t capable of rational discourse. Dodging a blow from him, the Female Koryphaios points out that striking at one’s neighbor “is scarcely civilized” either, and she swings at him with a pitcher. He’s forced to hurriedly back away. The Chorus of Old Men goes into a worried dance.
Unified in their desire for peace, the women are stronger than any “police” could be. The Commissioner’s men are not so much incompetent as overwhelmed by a superior ethical force. It is ironic that the Male Koryphaios accuses the women of being incapable of rational discourse, when he himself resorts to irrational diatribes and violence in expressing his point of view. Aristophanes comically plays up the males’ defeat in the “battle of the sexes,” but he does so without any real criticism of the status quo of male supremacy—he’s only criticizing men acting irrationally, not the Athenian patriarchy itself.
The Commissioner asks Lysistrata why the women are blockading the Treasury. Lysistrata responds that money is the cause of the war and all internal disorder in Athens. She proposes that women budget the city’s money, just as they do already in their own households. The War Effort will wither, but “who needs the War Effort?” as Lysistrata says. She promises to save the men from themselves out of friendship, to which the Commissioner responds: “I DO NOT WANT TO BE SAVED, DAMMIT!”
Money has created both greed and the means of doing harm in Athens, hence Lysistrata’s condemnation of it. The management of a state should be more like the management of a household, she thinks, and therefore women are ideal for the work. The Commissioner’s refusal to be saved speaks to the political stagnation and neurosis of Athens at large.
Why do the women even care about War and Peace? asks the Commissioner. Lysistrata responds that the women have tolerated for long enough their husbands’ mismanagement of affairs of state and their “staggering incompetence,” and that they were told to shut up by their husbands for even referencing Peace. That is, until the men went too far and “fumbled the City away in the Senate.” The women knew then that Athens didn’t need a Man, but “Peace in Greece” itself, which only they could bring about. “We’ll straighten you and set you right,” promises Lysistrata.
Even though the Commissioner says that he does not want to be saved, he at least has the openness of mind to inquire into the women’s motives. Lysistrata is quick to point out that it was the extremity of political mismanagement in Athens that brought about such an extreme reaction from the women; the women, in other words, are not challenging the status quo lightly.
The Commissioner is outraged by Lysistrata’s presumptuousness, but she shuts him up, winding her veil around his head. Kleonike and Myrrhine join in with comb and wool-basket as well, and soon enough the Commissioner is transformed into a woman. He should stay at home for a change, Lysistrata says, while the women end the war.
The Commissioner’s transformation into a woman is a complicated gesture. In becoming female he is silenced, as the Athenian women have been historically, but he is also being invited to see things through a woman’s (potentially more reasonable) eyes. On yet another level, Aristophanes is here playing with the dramatic convention itself (as Shakespeare would later do) for some lowbrow comic effect. The actors would have all been men, half of them dressed and acting as women, so the Commissioner’s onstage transformation would have seemed especially funny to the (potentially all-male) audience.
While the Commissioner struggles to remove his new outfit, Lysistrata tells the Chorus of Old Women to dance and sing. They celebrate their willpower and the excellence of women, from Beauty to Common Sense. The Female Koryphaios has words of encouragement for all, and Lysistrata anticipates that soon the men will crack under the pressure of Love, and Peace will be restored.
The Commissioner asks how the women intend to achieve their goal. Lysistrata responds that the women first intend to withdraw the Army of Occupation from downtown Athens. Kleonike adds that she saw a cavalry captain buy soup on horseback there and carry it in his helmet, and that another soldier was menacing a saleslady and stealing her figs. Lysistrata explains that Greece is “rather like yarn”—snarled yarn, to be exact, and she plans on smoothing it out by sending out “Special Commissions…to ravel these tense international kinks.” “Typically wooly female logic,” the Commissioner says dismissively.
Characteristically, the women want to remove the military from the domestic sphere altogether. The funny yet troubling stories about soldiers in the market exemplify why. Instead of having affairs of state bleed into domestic life, Lysistrata would treat affairs of state like the domestic craft of working with wool. This is one of the most famous metaphors in the play—it joins together in one image politics and basic human needs (which the men have sundered and lost sight of), along with the “female” domestic sphere (and some puns).
Lysistrata retorts that if the Commissioner were logical at all, he’d adopt her plan. She extends her wool metaphor: as fleece needs to be scrubbed, beaten to rid it of vermin, combed of its lumps and knots and snarls, and expertly woven, so too does Athens need to be cleansed of filth, rid of incompetent parasites, and politically reunified if it is to properly fit the Athenian spirit.
The Commissioner dismisses Lysistrata’s plan out of hand, not so much because it is an irrational plan, but out of sexist reflex.
All this, the Commissioner complains, coming from women who had nothing to do with the war! It’s Lysistrata’s turn to be outraged: the women gave up their sons to the war effort in Sicily, and they lived the best years of their lives sleeping alone. Many virgins grew out of their prime, she mourns, without the chance to marry. The men who come back old from war can marry “the veriest nymphet,” she goes on, but a woman who slips from her prime will have no husband.
The Commissioner wrongly assumes that war is men’s business only, but Lysistrata reminds him that affairs of state are everyone’s business. The women’s quality of life falls in times of war, just as the men’s does. To make it worse, there is an outrageously sexist double standard in Athens concerning marriageability and age. (The “nymphet” of the translation is also an allusion, whether intentional or not, to Nabokov’s Lolita.)
The Commissioner seems genuinely persuaded by the women’s plight—but then only calls upon the Athenian men to fight all the more vigorously. Lysistrata bangs the Commissioner on the head with her spindle and winds him in thread; Kleonike empties her chamber pot over him; Myrrhine breaks her lamp on his head. To choose war, the women suggest, is to choose death. The Commissioner staggers off, and the women re-enter the Acropolis.
The Commissioner feels the power of Lysistrata’s arguments, but he is so set in his bad ways that he is moved by them only to support the war effort all the more zealously. In choosing war, the Athenians might as well destroy themselves and their homes.
The Male Koryphaios rouses the men. They strip down to their short tunics and advance toward the audience: they smell radical disorder in the air, “an absolutist plot.” They think the Spartans must be masterminding the women’s rebellion “to commandeer the City’s cash.” The Male Koryphaios denounces tyranny, bashes the Female Koryphaios “in the jaw,” and runs cackling back to the Chorus of Old Men.
As the battle of the sexes intensifies, the Choruses strip off more and more clothing. This reflects the intensification of their passion, and also their return to the bare necessities of life, which politics has obscured. The men’s paranoia is most punctuated here, and shows to what extent they are disconnected from reality.
The members of the Chorus of Old Women then strip down to their short tunics, and they sing of their high pedigree as participants in Athenian religious life. The Female Koryphaios reminds the audience, “I hold stock in Athens—stock I paid for in sons.” The men, she says, are merely doddering bankrupts. She then runs over and hits the Male Koryphaios in the jaw with her slipper.
The members of the Chorus of Old Men have had it: they remove their tunics. The Male Koryphaios reasons that the men can’t attack the women on horseback, because “a woman is an easy rider with a natural seat,” and instead he attempts to snare his female counterpart around the neck to stick her in the stocks. The Female Koryphaios works herself loose, however, and chases him away. The women now remove their tunics, angry at the birdbrained men. The Female Koryphaios isn’t afraid: she’s got friends from Sparta and Thebes, like Lampito and Ismenia. The worst the men can do, she mocks, is pass some absurd law. She grabs her male counterpart by the ankle and throws him off balance. The Chorus of Old Men retires in confusion.
The conflict between the men and women reaches its highest pitch here. The Female Koryphaios’ barb about men passing an absurd law is part of Aristophanes’ career-long satire of Athenian litigiousness (that is, he thinks that Athens both passes too many laws and hosts too many lawsuits). From this point on, the members of the Chorus are naked, which is part of the play’s outrageous bawdy comedy, and also a sign that Athens is returning to the bare necessities of human life.