Who is Aristophanes?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Aristophanes was a Greek playwright and philosopher who lived from 450 BCE to around 385 BCE. Little is known about the personal history of this man, although he was obviously highly educated and celebrated in Greek society, but his plays survive as a fascinating record of a turbulent period in Greek history. Many students of Ancient Greece read the plays of Aristophanes to learn more about the ancient tradition of Greek drama and the historical conditions in Athens during the period in which Aristophanes lived.

Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy.
Thalia, the Greek muse of comedy.

What is known about Aristophanes is that he was born into a reasonably wealthy family which could afford to educate him well. He was obviously deeply interested in Greek philosophy and current events, and he was one of an illustrious group of Greek playwrights who offered comedic commentaries on Greek life and society. Evidence also suggests that Aristophanes enjoyed some fame during his lifetime, and that he was probably a celebrated member of Greek society.

The plays of Aristophanes were originally performed in the ancient Greek city of Athens.
The plays of Aristophanes were originally performed in the ancient Greek city of Athens.

It is estimated that Aristophanes wrote around 40 plays during his lifetime, with 11 complete plays surviving to the modern day, including The Frogs, The Birds, The Clouds, Lysistrata, Plutus, The Wasps, and The Knights. Some people call Aristophanes the “Father of Comedy” or the “Prince of Ancient Comedy,” in a reference to the fact that his plays are some of the earliest surviving examples of comedic writing, as the work of the comedians who were his contemporaries did not survive to the present day.

The work of Aristophanes is marked by a very acerbic wit, a keen political eye, and a penchant for farce, satire, and physical pratfalls. The plots of his plays are not necessarily very involved or consistent, but the verse is often extremely clear and quite beautiful, especially in the original Attic Greek. The plays of Aristophanes also feature a great deal of obscenity, and his plays were often edgy and aggressive, pushing people to respond.

Aristophanes used his plays to comment on issues like war, the Greek educational system, and Greek society. One of his most famous plays, Lysistrata, has become well-known as one of the earliest works of anti-war literature, as the play is about Athenian women who deprive their husbands of marital privileges until they agree to stop making war. It was also a remarkable work because it was the first play to feature a female protagonist. The work of Aristophanes continues to be engaging, dynamic, interesting, and revealing today, indicating the power which great literature has to transcend barriers of time, culture, and language.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@FernValley- If you like Greek theatre, Charles Mee is a great modern playwright to get into. He takes ancient Greek and other sources and redoes them, chopping apart dialogue but keeping the original story, and also encouraging every production to add its own found material and other elements. I can't even really explain to give it justice, but the message to me is sort of like you were saying; it can overtly explicit or violent, but when you get past that he has a lot to say about humanity.


@jholcomb- That's true, although that is why I loved the play in college. The class that read it was pretty divided, between people who thought it was over the top and people who found it really funny. I think, though, that once people look past the obviously overt undertones of that play, there is a really important message about war- it's really a depth that I think many comedies these days lack.


Trying to put on Aristophanes' Lysistrata is a sure way to make local headlines! High school drama teachers have gotten themselves in hot water over it. It's not, of course, that the play is in any way explicit, but the subject is just so "adult."

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