Lysistrata and Old Comedy

Lysistrata belongs to the middle period of Aristophanes' career when he was beginning to diverge significantly from the conventions of Old Comedy. Such variations from convention include:

  • The divided Chorus: The Chorus begins this play being divided (Old Men versus Old Women), and its unification later exemplifies the major theme of the play: reconciliation. There is nothing quite like this use of a Chorus in the other plays. A doubling of the role of the Chorus occurs in two other middle-period plays, The Frogs and Thesmophoriazusae, but in each of those plays the two Choruses appear consecutively and not simultaneously. The nearest equivalent to Lysistrata's divided Chorus is found in the earliest of the surviving plays, The Acharnians, where the Chorus very briefly divides into factions for and against the protagonist.[56]
  • Parabasis: The parabasis is an important, conventional element in Old Comedy. There is no parabasis proper in Lysistrata. Most plays have a second parabasis near the end and there is something like a parabasis in that position in this play but it only comprises two songs (strophe and antistrophe) and these are separated by an episodic scene of dialogue.[57] In these two songs, the now united Chorus declares that it is not prepared to speak ill of anyone on this occasion because the current situation (ta parakeímena) is already bad enough—topical reference to the catastrophic end to the Sicilian Expedition. In keeping however with the victim-centered approach of Old Comedy, the Chorus then teases the entire audience with false generosity, offering gifts that are not in its power to give.
  • Agon: The Roman orator Quintilian considered Old Comedy a good genre for study by students of rhetoric[58] and the plays of Aristophanes in fact contain formal disputes or agons that are constructed for rhetorical effect. Lysistrata's debate with the proboulos (magistrate) is an unusual agon[59] in that one character (Lysistrata) does almost all the talking while the antagonist (the magistrate) merely asks questions or expresses indignation. The informality of the agon draws attention to the absurdity of a classical woman engaging in public debate.[60] Like most agons, however, it is structured symmetrically in two sections, each half comprising long verses of anapests that are introduced by a choral song and that end in a pnigos. In the first half of the agon, Lysistrata quotes from Homer's Iliad ("war will be men's business"), then quotes 'the man in the street' ("Isn't there a man in the country?"—"No, by God, there isn't!") and finally arrives at the only logical conclusion to these premises: "War will be women's business!" The logic of this conclusion is supported rhythmically by the pnigos, during which Lysistrata and her friends dress the magistrate like a woman, with a veil and a basket of wool, reinforcing her argument and lending it ironic point—if the men are women, obviously the war can only be women's business. During the pnigos of the second section, the magistrate is dressed like a corpse, highlighting the argument that war is a living death for women. The agon in Lysistrata is thus a fine example of rhetoric even though it is unusually one-sided.

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