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ARISTOPHANES (c. 448-385 B.C.)

THE literary activity of the famous Greek comedy writer, Aristophanes, covered a period of forty years. During that time the telling satire of his pen was brought to bear alike on prominent men, political trends, and social foibles. Of the forty plays known to be genuine products of his genius eleven remain for posterity. But these easily prove that for wit, rollicking humor, invention, and skill in the use of language Aristophanes has never been surpassed.

Of the poet's life we know very little. Even the place of his birth is in doubt. His family, however, evidently had some wealth for the poet's education was obviously one of the best. In politics he supported the aristocratic peace party with all the force of an impetuous nature.

Classical commentators have divided the work of Aristophanes into three periods. The first period ended about 421 B.C. and included two of his lost plays as well as five of the surviving ones. For some reason Aristophanes' first three plays were brought out under the name of one of his actors. They included the two lost plays, The Banqueters and The Babylonians, and the prize-winning Acharnians. The Knights, which won first prize in 424 B.C., was brought out under the author's own name. It contained a sharp attack on the demagogue, Cleon, and, because no actor was willing to incur the enmity of so powerful a person, Aristophanes had to play the part of Cleon himself.

The Clouds (423 B.C.) contains the famous dialogue scene between the Just and the Unjust argument. The Wasps (422 B.C.) ridiculed the regular courts of justice. The Peace (421 B.C.) was written in the interests of the recently concluded peace between Athens and Sparta.

During the seven years that passed before Aristophanes exhibited another play, a law had been passed to check political satire. In the second group, beginning with The Birds (414 B.C.) he turned to social satire and ridiculed the fondness of the Athenians for litigation. Lysistrata (411 B.C.) represents a woman's efforts to bring about peace, while Thesmophoriazusae of the same year contains an attack on Euripides.

The Frogs, which started the third period in 405 B.C., was devoted to literary and dramatic criticism. Ecclesiazusae (Women in Parliament) was a satire on current communistic ideas. The local character of the plays of the first period had by the third period given way to a cosmopolitanism that marks Aristophanes as the transition-link between what is termed "Old Comedy" and the "Middle" and "New Comedy" of Greece.

This article was originally published in Minute History of the Drama. Alice B. Fort & Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935. p. 20.


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