Biography of Aristophanes

Aristophanes is considered the most accomplished of the Greek comic poets, and his place in the Western canon is immovable. His surviving eleven plays are mainstays of the stage, scholarly discourse, and literature and theatre courses in colleges and universities.

Aristophanes was born around 450 BC to Phillippus and Zenodora. He was from the deme of Cydathenaeum, born in Attica near Athens. There is very little known about his life; what scholars have gleaned comes from his work and the writing of other poets and philosopher. Plato portrayed him as a raucous man in his Symposium, and he has been celebrated for his keen, biting wit and satire, as well as for his intellectual prowess.

Aristophanes grew up in a time of immense Athenian power, prosperity, and artistic achievement. The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which began in 431 BCE and lasted for about 25 years, profoundly affected him. As Harold Bloom wrote, "the spirit of his work reflects both the former predominance and later reestablishment of Athens. On the one hand, his work is an expression of freedom and exuberance, of democratic and cultural self-confidence...on the other hand, his work also reflects a time in which Athens' self-confidence is being tested and threatened with enormous conflict." He often used actual people and events in his works, and was renowned for his social and political commentary. His work is also highly crass and even obscene in terms of its humor centered on sex and bodily functions.

Many of his plays are examples of Old Comedy, while others near the end of his life are classified as Middle Comedy. His first play (now lost) was The Banqueters, written in 427 BCE. Babylonians, from 426 BCE, caused controversy at the Great Dionysia (an annual festival to honor Dionysus), when the demagogue Cleon criticized Aristophanes for lampooning the city's magistrates before foreigners. Although Athenians enjoyed freedom of speech, Aristophanes was indeed often the target of hostility on behalf of politicians. Never daunted, Aristophanes' two plays, The Acharnians and Knights, satirized the situation with Cleon and resulted in prizes for the poet.

Clouds (423 BCE) and Wasps (422 BCE) showed Aristophanes at the height of his talent, as he brings intellectuals, educators, Socrates, and the Athenian jury system under his microscope. He is justly lauded for Birds (414 BCE), a fantastical utopian play that probes the current state of affairs in Athens. Other plays also dealt with the political situation in Athens; the famed Lysistrata (411 BCE) featured the women of Sparta and Athens using sex to preclude their husbands from participating in the war. Frogs (405 BCE) concerns poetry, along with Aristophanes' belief that the deceased poet Euripides was more talented than anyone living at the time. After several decades of awards and success, Aristophanes was renowned enough to play around with the structures of drama, and was thus celebrated for his improvisations and innovations.

Aristophanes died around 388 BCE. While 11 plays survive, there are about 32 lost to history, and many surviving fragments and citations.

 


Study Guides on Works by Aristophanes

Frogs, orThe Frogs, is one of Aristophanes's greatest comedies and is justly celebrated for its wit and keen commentary on Athenian politics and society. It is the last surviving work of Old Comedy and is thus also notable for its heralding a...