WASPS, which was produced by Aristophanes
the year after the performance of The
Clouds, may be taken as in some sort a companion picture
to that piece. Here the satire is directed against the passion
of the Athenians for the excitement of the law-courts, as in
the former its object was the new philosophy. And as the younger
generation--the modern school of thought--were there the subjects
of the caricature, so here the older citizens, who took their
seats in court as jurymen day by day, to the neglect of their
private affairs and the encouragement of a litigious disposition,
appear in their turn in the mirror which the satirist holds up.
There are only two characters of any importance
in the action--Philocleon ('friend of Cleon') and his son Bdelycleon
('enemy of Cleon'). The plot is soon told. Philocleon is a bigoted
devotee of the malady of litigiousness so typical of his countrymen
and an enthusiastic attendant at the Courts in his capacity of
'dicast' of juryman. Bdelycleon endeavours to persuade his father
by every means in his power to change this unsatisfactory manner
of life for something nobler and more profitable; but all in
vain. As a last resource he keeps his father a prisoner indoors,
so that he cannot attend the tribunals.
The old man tries to escape, and these
attempts are conceived in the wildest vein of extravaganza. He
endeavours to get out by the chimney, pretending he is "only
the smoke"; and all hands rush to clap a cover on the chimney-top,
and a big stone on that. He slips through a hole in the tiles,
and sits on the roof, pretending to be "only a sparrow";
and they have to set a net to catch him. Then the Chorus of Wasps,
representing Philocleon's fellow-'dicasts,' appear on the scene
to rescue him. A battle royal takes place on the stage; the Wasps,
with their formidable stings, trying to storm the house, while
the son and his retainers defend their position with desperate
courage. Finally the assailants are repulsed, and father and
son agree upon a compromise. Bdelycleon promises, on condition
that his father give up attending the public trials, to set up
a mock tribunal for him in his own house.
Presently the theft of a Sicilian cheese
by the house-dog Labes gives the old fellow an opportunity of
exercising his judicial functions. Labes is duly arraigned and
witnesses examined. But alas! Philocleon inadvertently casts
his vote for the defendant's acquittal, the first time in his
life "such a thing has ever occurred," and the old
man nearly dies of vexation.
At this point follows the 'Parabasis,'
or Author's personal address to the audience, after which the
concluding portion of the play has little connection with the
main theme. This is a fault, according to modern ideas, common
to many of these Comedies, but it is especially marked in this
particular instance. The final part might almost be a separate
play, under the title of 'The dicast turned gentleman,' and relates
various ridiculous mistakes and laughable blunders committed
by Philocleon, who, having given up his attendance on the law-courts,
has set up for playing a part in polite society.
The drama, as was very often the case,
takes its title from the
Chorus--a band of old men dressed up as wasps, whose acrimonious,
stinging, exasperated temper is meant to typify the character
fostered among Athenian citizens by excessive addiction to forensic
Racine, in the only
comedy he attempted, 'Les Plaideurs,' borrows the incident of
the mock trial of the house-dog, amplifying and adding further
This article is reprinted
from Aristophanes: The Eleven Comedies. Trans. Anonymous.
London: The Athenian Society, 1922.