Aristophanes and the Greek Theatre [English]  

Final Paper

From: Kim Miede
Date: 12/9/01
Time: 11:47:26 PM

Aristophanes and the Greek Theatre

As the sun rises over the ancient city of Athens, three actors keep to themselves in the shadows of the theatre of Dionysus reciting their lines for the upcoming competition. Waking up before dawn, the actors were awakened by their slaves, washed, and fed a quick breakfast before they would have to run down to the theatre to greet the men of the chorus and prepare for the day’s performance. This is the case on the days of the festival of the City Dionysia. The Greek god, Dionysus, was the god of wine, new life, and illusion. He ruled the world of passion and horror, not reason. It is said that he was also the god of fertility. The Greeks believed that without Dionysus the world would die and he occupied a special place in the heart of all Greeks. (Ross 5). For this reason, the Greeks chose to worship Dionysus with one of the most popular religious festivals around, The City Dionysia. A major part of this festival is the drama competition because the plays were preformed especially for Dionysus. Even the theatre in Athens is attached to the temple of Dionysus, where his statue stands.

Greek drama has been in existence for over 2,500 years now. It is uncertain as to where Greek drama actually began. Some scholars believe that it grew out of special ceremonies that worshipped the god Dionysus where groups of men sang and danced together. It has also been speculated that the “actors” of the early Greek drama made up the words and movements as they went along. This song and dance was originally called a dithyramb (Casson 7). Eventually, the dithyrambs became more organized. Those men taking part in each dithyramb were arranged as a chorus of fifty men and the words and movements were written down and learned by heart. The men in the early dithyrambs were performers and did not try to pretend to be something they weren’t (actors). However, in the 7th century BC, the dithyramb began to be used to tell stories. Writers of the dithyrambs were very familiar with the works of Homer, one of the greatest poets of the early Greek world. The writers liked the way he “compared the weakness of men with the power of the gods” (Ross 12) and found his language to be beautiful. When these stories were performed on stage, chanting and singing added to the mood of the story and was seen as a way of praising the god Dionysus. Eventually, the dithyrambs were written so one person would speak separately from the rest of the chorus. Greek tradition says that the first poet to actually speak separately from the chorus was Thespis and he became known as the first actor.

This tradition of the dithyrambs being performed by one actor and a large chorus eventually gave way to the norm of three actors and a chorus. The chorus’ role started to die out and with the appearance of actors the chorus remained half in the action and half out of it. In the ancient Greek drama that is commonly referred to, the chorus talks to the actors as if they are a part of the play, but also comments on the story as part of the audience (Ross 14). The standard for each play was that there were three main actors who were always men. Between them all of the main speaking roles were shared. The main “star” of the play was given the title of protagonist and the two below him was called deuteragonist and the tritagonist. In the very early Greek theatre, the poet was the protagonist, wrote and directed the play and looked after the chorus until chorus trainers were required. The actors were required to be able to sing, chant, learn their lines, be quick-witted, fit and they had to have a wonderful voice for this is the way that atmosphere was set during plays of ancient Greek. Performing in an open-air theatre, the three Greek actors would provide entertainment for sometimes 17,000 spectators at the largest of theatres.

Most of the knowledge about ancient Greek drama comes from the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes, which were all written between the time period of 484 BC and 385 BC. They wrote thousands of plays during their lifetime, however only forty-five complete works have survived. It is still unknown how so many pieces of work were lost over the years. These four playwrights helped three different types of plays emerge from the early dithyrambs. They are tragedies, satyr plays, and comedies. The first type of plays that emerged was the tragedy, which was what the later dithyrambs and the early plays were classified under. Tragoidia, meaning goat song, is what the word tragedy was derived from. This word might have come from the custom of sacrificing a goat to Dionysus at the annual City Dionysia or because the goat was given as a prize for the best drama (Dover 52). Over time it came to be known as a serious and often sad play. Another type of play that emerged was satyr plays. These were dramas about legendary creatures, otherwise known as satyrs (half human, half goat creatures), who were considered the animal followers of Dionysus. Satyr plays became a major part of the City Dionysia in 501 BC. The last type of plays that emerged in ancient Greece was the comedy. Comedies were connected, along with tragedies, to the worship of Dionysus. To start out with, volunteer actors performed these types of plays. However, in the 6th century BC, comedies started to follow the example of early dramas and were performed in one place year after year. They did not become a formal part of the City Dionysus until 486 BC. The differences that existed between tragedies and comedies are in their acting and costuming. Different skills are needed for each type of play. Also, in comedies, the actors would wear padded clothing to make their bodies look ridiculously large. However, the comedies weren’t all about jokes and witty comments. They usually had serious messages to convey to the Athenians about people, society, and Athens as a whole.

The time period of the ancient Greek comedic playwrights was considered the period of Old Comedy. Old comedy was the phase of comic theatre where chorus, mime, and burlesque was a major part of the plays. Plays in this period were full of strong fantasy, uninhibited humor, outrageous satire, and unmarked freedom of political criticism. Essentially this period was given life due to the community life of Athens (Hamilton 91). Not only were they the performers and supporters of the plays written during this time, but they were also the main targets of some bitter satire. All of their cherished institutions, such as the family, the government, and even the gods, were ridiculed and the Athenian citizens’ cowardice, indecency, and hypocritical acts were exposed. However, this period eventually gave way to a short-lived Middle Comedy. However, before the end of the 4th century BC, the milder and more realistic social satire of the New Comedy overran this (Romilly 85).

One of the most remarkable comic dramatists of ancient Greece that changed the nature of ancient Greece was Aristophanes. In total, he wrote forty plays, however, only eleven of them remain completely intact to this day. This number of plays from this time period is perhaps the greatest quantity of plays of any playwright of ancient Greece to survive (“Aristophanes”). Most of his plays occupied the Old Comedy period; however, the last one might have been the start of the Middle Comedy period. Little is known about the life of ancient Greece’s greatest comedy playwright. What is known of his life is all derived directly from his plays. Aristophanes was born an Athenian citizen belonging to the clan (deme) named Pandionis in 450 BC to Philippus. However, his actual birthplace is unknown. Little is known about his life between his birth and when he wrote his first play. His dramatist career officially began in 427 BC with the play, The Banqueters. This is a satire on the education and moral theories of his contemporaries’. A majority of Aristophanes’ work concerns the social, literary, and philosophical life of Athens and the themes that provoked the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC). This war was a conflict between the imperialistic Athenians and the conservative Spartans and was a long running issue in Athenian politics. A lot of Aristophanes’ plays concerned his opposition to the pugnacious statesmen who were in control of the government of Athens during his lifetime. The satirical targets of Aristophanes were Athenian society, the Athenian philosophies and literature, and the aggressive foreign policy of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Aristophanes’ plays treated gods, Athenian politicians, and ordinary people with the same lack of respect and they are all equal in his eyes.

Eleven works remain in complete entirety and one remains in only fragments. In 426 BC, Aristophanes wrote Babylonians, which was produced at the festival of the Great Dionysus. However, this comedy exists today only in fragments. The delegates of the city-states, which were potential “allies” of Athens, attended the City Dionysia where this play was first performed. This comedy attacks Cleon, the demagogue of power in Athens at Aristophanes time, and “showed the “allies” as the slaves of the Athenian Demos (a personification of the Athenian citizen electorate)” (“The Classical”). Due to this attack, Cleon impeached Aristophanes, however, it is thought that he was let off lightly. The earliest of the eleven plays to remain intact is Acharnians, which was written in 425 BC. It is a blatant attack on the folly of war. Dicaeopolis, the main character, is tired of the Peloponnesian War and secures a private treaty with the Spartans for himself and takes advantage of this by trading with the allies of the Spartans. The Athenian commander Lamachus tries to stop him, but by the end of the play he stays back, wounded and dejected, while Dicaeopolis enjoys a peaceful life (Higginbotham 224). For each successive year after this, Aristophanes produced a play. Some of the other works he has written is Knights, Clouds, Wasps, Peace, Birds, Lysistrata, Women at the Thesmophoria, Frogs, Women at the Ecclesia, and Wealth. Shortly after the production of Wealth in 388 BC, he died leaving two plays (which are now lost), Aiolosikon and Kokolos, for his son to stage in 387 BC.

Ancient Greek drama has influenced modern theatre in different ways. The continued performance of Greek plays has been staged in open-air theatres in the original Greek language using ancient Greek production methods. Most of these were in Greece themselves and much of ancient Greek drama has been performed all over Europe and North America. Even more of the ancient Greek plays have been performed in translations all over the world on both stage and in film. Especially in the last ten years, the popularity of Greek works has increased (Ross 45). Also, many playwrights have been influenced from the stories of the Greek plays and have retold them in modern times. In regards to the production of modern drama, the re-discovery of ancient Greek drama has shown actors and directors new ways of handling plays. This ancient form of drama reminds the drama world today that huge casts and extravagant and complicated sets and props aren’t always necessary. The design used in these times has ultimately influenced the influential minds of modern drama and the sets of some of today’s most famous plays. Ultimately, the characters and ideas presented during these ancient times in their various plays have become so popular and universal that they have become a part of modern culture. For example, Sigmund Freud, a notable psychologist, used the play Oedipus the King to develop the expression Oedipus Complex, which is when the sons expressed a jealousy towards their fathers because of the love for their mothers (Ross 45).

It’s not easy to say why the ancient Greeks and Aristophanes’ plays appeal to audiences 2,500 years after they were written. For example, 17th century Frenchman Jean Racine based his play Les Plaideurs on Aristophanes’ Wasps (Levi 269). Many scholars today have recognized Aristophanes’ works and realize that his messages that applied to his time period can actually be used to teach us in today’s century. People today, as well as Athenians of the past, take pride in their democracy and the position that the United States has of world leadership. America has founded their society on the principles of individualism and equality, much like the Athenians have (Spatz 148). Aristophanes’ fantasy of the common hero, one who triumphs by his own wit, is much like the American’s concept of the self-made man. This wish fulfillment that he offered his people of his time also offers Americans the same. America has come to accept that the country’s problems cannot all be solved in the complex society that they inhabit. However, Aristophanes’ works allow Americans to get lost in the fantasy of the possibility of overnight success to world peace be possible. This ability of Aristophanes’ works to not only survive the physical aging process of time, but also allow people to relate to his writings and messages 2,500 years later is a prime example of literature that changed the world and as long as the words remain intact, will continue to change the ideas of writers, politicians, and ordinary citizens for times to come.


“Aristophanes.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. 1995.

Casson, Lionel. Masters of Ancient Comedy. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1960.

“The Classical Greek Dramatists: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes.” Encyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed. 1995.

Dover, K.J. Ancient Greek Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Hamilton, Edith. The Greek Way. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1930.

Higginbotham, John. Greek & Latin Literature: A Comparative Study. London: Methuen & CO LTD, 1969.

Levi, Peter. A History of Greek Literature. England: Viking, 1985.

McLeish, Kenneth. Aristophanes: Clouds, Women in Power, Knights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Romilly, Jacqueline de. A Short History of Greek Literature. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Ross, Stewart. Ancient Greece: Greek Theatre. Chicago: Wayland Publishers Ltd, 1996.

Spatz, Lois. Aristophanes. Kansas City: Twayne Publishers, 1978.

Last changed: December 09, 2001