A distraught Lysistrata emerges from the Acropolis. In a lofty speech more suitable for a tragedy than a comedy, she reveals that the women are losing their resolve. “We want to get laid,” she says, and indeed the girls are going wild. They’re trying to escape by tunnel and rope. One woman pretends she’s going home to save her wool from the moths, another so that she can “pluck the fibers” of her flax. Another woman stuffs Athena’s sacred helmet in her clothing so that she appears pregnant, the better to sneak off from the Acropolis and rendezvous with her lover. Lysistrata orders them all to get back inside.
In parodying tragic speech here, Aristophanes reminds us that we are watching a fantasy unfold, and not a fatalistic but a hopeful one. This sense is reinforced by the fact that not only the men but also the women become hot and bothered over the course of the play. Sex is a basic human need, but it also has its ridiculous qualities, which Aristophanes exploits for comic effect.
The other women begin to crowd around Lysistrata. Kleonike complains of “those goddamned holy owls” in the Acropolis who hoot all night long. But Lysistrata understands that the women are really bothered by being away from their men. The women nod shamefacedly to acknowledge it. In response, Lysistrata pulls out a scroll on which is written a prophecy: when the swallows leave their accustomed perch, then the great god Zeus will end their suffering, but if the swallows return to their perch prematurely, their flocks will dissolve. Understanding the oracle’s message, the women troop back inside the Acropolis.
To retain the women’s loyalty, Lysistrata must remind them of what they’re fighting for, hence the prophecy she reads. The swallows are the women, their perch is the citadel, and the end of their suffering is a peaceful resolution of the war. The women, at last, value lasting peace more than instant gratification of their desires.
The two Choruses assemble. The Chorus of Old Men sing proudly of a huntsman called Melanion who learned to live without women, “sustained by rabbit meat and hate.” One of them attempts to kiss an old woman nonetheless, but then she threatens him with her fist. He tries to kick her but misses, “exposing an overgrown underbrush.” The Chorus of Old Women then sing about a local grouch named Timon who hated only men and befriended women; he is the women’s “antidote” for Melanion. An old woman, for her part, now tries to kick an old man, but she misses, “brazenly baring the mantrap below.” At least it’s clean and smooth, she says.
The men’s strength of will is at last breaking, as indicated by the male Chorus member’s attempt to kiss the old woman. Just as Melanion and Timon are parallel opposites, throughout the play the actions of the Chorus of Old Men are paralleled by the actions of their female counterparts. This suggests at once the opposition of the men and women in the play, but also their underlying unity. It is a “battle of the sexes,” but also just sex between the sexes.
Lysistrata mounts a platform and scans the horizon. Then she stops suddenly, and orders her women to their battle stations: a man is approaching, and he’s enflamed with love (as we later learn, “in erection and considerable pain”). Myrrhine identifies this man as her husband, Kinesias. Lysistrata reminds Myrrhine that her duty is to sexually excite her husband without breaking the Oath, and Lysistrata herself offers to stay and help “poke up the fire.” All the other women exit, and Myrrhine hides from her husband’s view. Kinesias staggers onstage, followed by a male slave who carries a baby boy.
The entrance of Kinesias initiates the climax of the play—will Myrrhine break the sex strike, or will she persevere in the name of peace? We might find it strange that Lysistrata stays to help Myrrhine—perhaps she is offering moral support, perhaps she wants to be on hand in case Myrrhine’s strength of will breaks, or perhaps she too is reluctantly swayed by desire for a man.
“WHO PENETRATES OUR POSITIONS,” asks Lysistrata. Kinesias identifies himself, and Lysistrata pretends to be overcome. The name “Kinesias,” she says, is famous among the women of Athens, and they even have a nickname for his incomparable member. Kinesias demands to speak to Myrrhine, but Lysistrata asks what she herself would get out of it. “I’ll raise whatever I can,” he says. Goodness, says Lysistrata, that’s really something for his wife to do.
Lysistrata is probably flattering Kinesias to exacerbate his desire here, as once again Aristophanes shows how male aggression and greed is often tied up in sexual insecurity (as when the Commissioner blamed the female overthrow of Athens on cuckolded husbands). Aristophanes continues to enjoy his own bawdy humor in the dialogue.
Lysistrata moves to where Myrrhine is hidden and the two have a conversation in voices designed to be overheard. Myrrhine says that she’s mad about her husband, but that he doesn’t want her love. Kinesias calls her, and she appears at the wall. He begs her to come down, going so far as to take up their baby boy in his arms and fiercely order it to call to its mother. The child cries for his mommy (he hasn’t been washed or fed for a week, so says the father), and Myrrhine pityingly descends at last. Kinesias says he doesn’t think his wife has ever looked so hot.
One motif in the play is that the older men of Athens neglect the young (e.g. by pursuing needless wars of conquest in which they themselves don’t fight). This is aptly signified in Kinesias’ neglect of his son— which is also, of course, exaggerated to enflame Myrrhine’s pity and compassion.
Myrrhine takes her baby in her arms. Kinesias says she ought to be ashamed of herself because the household is falling apart without her. Myrrhine responds that she’ll come home only once the Athenians agree to a truce and stop the war. Desperate, Kinesias asks his wife to lie down with him for a minute. “We’ll talk,” he says. Myrrhine says it would be disgusting to do it in front of the baby, so Kinesias sends the baby home with the slave. He then begins to persuade his wife to break the Oath.
Kinesias’ shaming of his wife is doubly ironic: the household is falling apart because of his neglect at this point, not his wife’s, and his wife was forced to leave the household in the first place because of her husband and his fellows’ incompetence in affairs of state.
Myrrhine seems to acquiesce, but she says she can’t make love on the ground. She goes off to get a cot from the Acropolis. She returns—but, she just remembered, the couple will need a mattress, too. Kinesias says he doesn’t want a mattress, but off his wife goes to get one, giving him the lightest of kisses to tide him over. Myrrhine returns with a mattress, only to play a similar game of prolongation by fetching a pillow, a blanket, and not one but two bottles of perfume.
Myrrhine’s game of prolongation arouses suspense but is also an opportunity for lots of comedy. It also emphasizes how luxuries can separate us from the bare necessities of life. In this sense, the most destructive luxuries in the play are political ambition, greed, and pride—luxuries which Athens cannot afford if they are also to maintain basic human needs (like sex).
Myrrhine then begins to undress, and she asks Kinesias whether he’ll remember to vote for the truce. When he gives a noncommittal response, however, Myrrhine runs off for good. Kinesias mourns her departure in a parody of tragic lamentation. He asks that Zeus reduce the throbbing of his erect member. The Male Koryphaios prays that the god unleash his thunder on Kinesias’ sluttish wife, pick her up in a strong wind, and drop her right onto her husband’s member. Kinesias exits left.
Kinesias is still not prepared to give up war in favor of his basic needs, and this fact signals to Myrrhine that the sex strike must go on. Kinesias’ tragic lamentation points to how self-defeating the men’s actions are, and also plays up how hilariously overwhelming their desire is. The Male Koryphaios is once again the epitome of misogyny and frustrated impotence.