A Spartan herald enters right, holding his cloak in an attempt to conceal his erection. He has news concerning a truce. The Commissioner enters from the left. He suspects the Spartan is packing a concealed weapon beneath his cloak, but throws it open only to expose the poor, wildly embarrassed man’s phallus. The Spartan herald, however, says that his penis is not really a penis at all, but rather a Spartan epistle in code. The Commissioner then throws open his cloak to expose his own erection: it is they key, he jokes, by which the code can be cracked.
Myrrhine’s putting-off of Kinesias represents the breaking of the men’s will and the victory of the women. The Commissioner’s suspicion of the Spartan herald is unfounded, obviously—Aristophanes is suggesting that, rather than be suspicious of their neighbors, the Athenians should commiserate with them (particularly when it comes to basic aspects of humanity, like sexuality).
The Spartan herald and the Commissioner get down to business. The herald informs the Commissioner that Lampito has sown disorder in the Peloponnesian League, driving the men mad with painful lust. The Commissioner orders the herald to have a Commission sent to Athens empowered to conclude a truce. Both men exit hurriedly.
The women’s sex strike has touched all of Greece, and the men at last recognize that basic human needs override all else. Just as personal lust has brought about political change within the play, so the play itself seeks to bring about such change through its comedy and satire.
The Male Koryphaios curses Woman as “the pride of applied immorality.” His female counterpart attempts to befriend him, but he proclaims his credo to be “Misogyny Forever!” Nonetheless, the Female Koryphaios puts his clothes back on him out of pity. This sincere gesture softens the heart of the old man, who expresses his embarrassment.
Just as Athens and Sparta are being reconciled, so too are the men and women of the Chorus. Shallow ideologies, like the “battle of the sexes,” cannot survive when in conflict with basic human needs. Even the unlikeable Male Koryphaios is finally made into a more sympathetic character.
The Female Koryphaios then offers to extract the beast, the bug in the old man’s eye, that’s been supposedly causing all of his problems. The Male Koryphaios plays along and lets the old woman remove an imaginary insect from his eye. He is “cured” and weeps. The old woman wipes away his tears and kisses him. The two Choruses agree that there shall be no more mischief between them, and then they address the audience in song. The Chorus of Old Men wish the Athenians wealth, and the Chorus of Old Women wish them good eating.
The Female Koryphaios very charitably gives her male counterpart an excuse for his bad behavior, so that he does not have to bear the full burden of responsibility. This is a fiction that both the man and woman accept to strengthen their relationship, just as Lysistrata is a fiction for the Greeks to accept in order to achieve peace.
A delegation of Spartans enters from the right, all of them attempting to cloak their erections, followed soon after by an Athenian delegation, in as big a pickle as the Spartans. The men all open their cloaks and commiserate. Kinesias, one of the delegates, wants to get hold of Lysistrata; only peace can cure the malady of the Greek men. The Male Koryphaios, for his part, advises that the Spartans cover their erections, lest the women knock them off as they’ve been doing to statues. All the men follow his advice.
This is one of the most famous comic images of the play, and with it Aristophanes also profoundly humanizes the Greek men. They are naked, needy animals more than they are glorious conquerors—bound by a common humanity more than they are divided by nationality. This image of leveling thus ultimately gestures toward the absurdity of fighting with one another.
Kinesias finally notices the Spartans. “Why are you here?” he asks. The Spartans say that they’re ambassadors who’ve come to talk about Peace. Perfect! But only Lysistrata can truly make Peace. Sure enough, she emerges at once from the Acropolis, to much praise from the Male Koryphaios. Lysistrata is also accompanied by Peace herself, who is personified as a beautiful naked girl. Peace remains out of sight till Lysistrata summons her—but when she emerges, the Greek men ogle her and follow her to a position near Lysistrata.
The Male Koryphaios, who began the play by denigrating women in the vilest terms, at last recognizes Lysistrata’s excellence and the excellence of peace. Although Peace is personified as a sexually desirable girl, the play is not interested so much in lust here as it is in the civilizing, uniting power of erotic love.
Lysistrata pontificates about the brotherhood of the Greeks, and about how they share a common enemy whom they’re benefitting by fighting one another: the Persians. She’s interrupted by Kinesias, who is impatient with a lust for Peace, but she serenely ignores him. Lysistrata reminds the Spartans how Athens recently provided them with military assistance, and she reminds the Athenians how Sparta liberated them from tyranny. A Spartan praises Lysistrata, and Kinesias praises Peace as the most desirable woman he’s ever seen. Lysistrata, oblivious to all this, asks the Greeks to stop their wicked fighting and to make peace.
Lysistrata’s comment about the Persians makes sense only if we remember that the Greco-Persian Wars took place only some twenty years before the Peloponnesian War began. In that earlier conflict, the Athenians and Spartans fought together against the Persians. Lysistrata is attempting to reunite the Greeks by demonizing a common enemy. Here it’s made clear that Lysistrata is not a universally pacifist (or feminist) play. Aristophanes doesn’t condemn war or patriarchal society in themselves—only war when it’s irrational, and only men when they’re acting foolish.
A Spartan and Kinesias begin to draw up terms—pointing to the naked Peace as they do so. The Spartans want the “butte,” while Kinesias claims the “Easy Mountain” and “the Maniac Gulf,” among other things. An argument flares, but Lysistrata quells it at once to smiles of agreement. The men’s ardor “to plow a few furrows” in Peace and “to work a few loads of fertilizer in” quickly burns away all warlike thoughts. Peace is made.
The bawdy image of Peace as territory to be negotiated over cleverly (if sexistly) joins together the ideas of sexual excitement, friendly rivalry, common goals, and new creation (see the bawdy agricultural metaphors). Quarrels do not need to be eliminated, only amicably resolved.
Lysistrata promises the Greek men a feast, and with that she and Peace enter the Acropolis. The delegations exit at a run. The Chorus of Old Women sing about jewelry on offer—the joke is they don’t really have anything to sell. The Chorus of Old Men, meanwhile, offer free wheat to the audience—the joke being that they own a tremendous unleashed dog that will bite you like hell if you try to claim some.
It is appropriate that a play all about frustrated appetite should end with a feast. The Chorus’s jokes here remind us that we’re watching a fantasy of plenty, and that if we really want jewels and wheat, so to speak, we have to enact political reform in the real world.
The Choruses flock together, unified at last, to the door of the Acropolis. The Commissioner, wearing a wreath, carrying a torch, and slightly drunk, emerges from therein. He brandishes his torch to disperse loiterers and restore order, then gives this up as being beneath his dignity (and also in response to imagined protests from the audience), and allows the newly unified Chorus to celebrate.
The unification of the Chorus resolves the play’s subplot about the fighting old men and women. The Commissioner only plays at enforcing regulations here, because he recognizes that the raucous celebration is in the spirit of Athenian law, if not in its letter.
Kinesias also emerges from the Acropolis, wreathed and drunk. Speaking in the Spartan dialect, he praises the feast as “splendiferous.” Wine smoothed things over between the Greek men very effectively. The Commissioner thinks about instituting a new rule: every ambassador should be a bit drunk when doing his duties. Cold-water diplomacy just leads to suspicion and paranoia.
Kinesias speaks in the Spartan dialect (which Aristophanes still gently mocks) because he has rediscovered his brotherhood with those fellow Greeks. As the women drank wine when taking their oath to fight for peace, so is wine here imagined to promote sociability and unity.
Everyone now emerges from the Acropolis, including the Spartan and Athenian delegations, a flutist, and Lysistrata and her women. The flutist plays and the Spartans slowly dance, singing in honor of their patron hunting goddess, Artemis, and of past Spartan heroes like Leonidas, who was famous for his role in the Battle of Thermopylae waged against the Persians.
Although Aristophanes’ comedy was performed for the Athenians, he gives the Spartans pride of place and patriotic songs to sing. He was trying to cultivate among the Athenians fellow feeling with the Spartans; notice that he again brings up the Persians as a common enemy of the Greeks.
When the Spartans end their song, Lysistrata returns the Peloponnesian women held hostage in Athens back to the Spartans. She also releases the Athenian wives back to their husbands. “Let’s not make the same mistakes again,” she cautions. The delegations obey her orders and together they sing an ode to Bacchus, god of wine, to Zeus and Hera, the highest of heavenly couples, and finally to Aphrodite, goddess of Love.
Peace and trust are fully restored only when the Peloponnesian women are restored to the Spartans. The ode to the god of wine celebrates the comic spirit and the ideals of sociability and pleasure, while the ode to Zeus and Hera celebrates the ideal of marriage (although Zeus and Hera’s marriage was far from ideal, but that’s another story).
Lysistrata, in closing, invites the Spartans to sing a final song. The Spartans invoke the “Spartan muse” and sing a lively ode to dancing, beautiful girls, Spartan rivers, and Athena. Everyone then exits, dancing and singing.
Aristophanes honors the Spartans by giving them the last word of his comedy. This is something of a peace offering, even if it’s made with some gentle mockery and comic outlandishness. The ode’s theme is the satisfaction of basic human needs—what all reasonable and just states and policies are supposed to uphold. Though the play ends with peace and happiness, it’s also important to remember that Aristophanes’ political comedy wasn’t heeded by the higher-ups in the Greek government—the Peloponnesian War continued for several years after Lysistrata’s debut, and Athens eventually surrendered to its enemies amidst desperate circumstances. Yet despite the fact that Lysistrata may not have effected immediate political change in the way Aristophanes intended, his play endures as a brilliant, comic appeal to the basic needs and pleasures of humanity in the face of political pride, intrigue, and stubbornness.