Society - History
By: - at May 18, 2013

Aristophanes and Classical Greek Comedy

classic greek motifPerformers in classical Greek comedies, had to be skilled, both orally and physically. The structure of the theaters caused some members of the audience to have an obscured view of the performance. Consequently, performers had to employ vocal techniques to convey their mood or emotions and they often over-emphasized actions in order to allow all responders to be able to appreciate the spectacle and humor. Actors utilized many dramatic techniques such as tone, accent, impersonation, body language and slapstick in order to denote the playwrights ideas, maintain the focus of the audience and create humor.

Layout of the theater
The architecture and seating structure of a classical Grecian theater shaped the way in which the actors performed, requiring more vocal and physical skills. Ancient Greek theaters were large, alfresco structures and were comprised of three main parts. At the core of the theater was the orchestra, a large annular area of approximately 150 meters in diameter and the “dancing place” of the chorus. The orchestra was employed as a focal point of theater as a considerable amount of action occurred there in addition to the religious rites and choral performances that were conducted in the area.

The individuals in the chorus had to utilize over-expressive motions and speak or chant loudly to be heard over the musical accompaniment. Behind the orchestra circle was the skene. A covered structure deployed by actors to store costumes and to function as an additional performance area as the entertainers could appear on the roof of the skene or be wheeled through the stage doors on an ekkyklema. The audience were seated in the theatron on tiered benches, arranged in a semi-circle around the orchestra and often constructed into the side of a hill. The archetypal theater building was extremely large and able to seat between 12, 000 and 15, 000 viewers. Due to the structure of the theatron, the performers would have appeared minuscule to the responders and those at the back of the theater would not have been able to discern what the actors were doing. Therefore, performers were required to exaggerate their movements whilst wearing extremely outrageous costumes in order for the entire audience to perceive the emotions and comedic elements that they were trying to portray. Despite the obstruction to the responders view of the play, the acoustics within the theater were extremely well developed and the whisper of an actor could be distinguished from even the furthest seats.

Cast of Aristophanes and Menander
Cast of Aristophanes and Menander
By shakko via Wikimedia Commons

Thus, the structure of classical theaters had a significant impact on the way that an Aristophanic comedy was performed and demanded various skills from the performers in order to better communicate the message and humor.

Skilled actors
Aristophane PlayVerbal skills were essential in the plays of Aristophanes to convey significant messages and issues as well as comedy to the responders. Performers used verbal skill to portray emotion, create humour and maintain the attention of the viewers. The actors manipulated the tone of their voice in order to denote their sentiments towards a particular issue, their mental and emotional state and as well as their actions. “[In mock adoration]: O mighty hero Lamachus! What crests, what cohorts!” (l.575-576. The Acharnians. Aristophanes.) A performer in the role of Dikaiopolis would have employed tone in order to convey his contempt for Lamachus. His obviously false admiration is an archetypal illustration of the effect of humor and wit within the play that conveys his disdain for the war and those that support it. In addition, actors utilized accents to delineate their heritage or nationality and to impersonate unpopular individuals, especially those of a political nature. “Ar, boi Heracles, this shoulder o’ moine be sore.” (l.860-861. Peace. Aristophanes) The Theban who comes to trade with Dikaiopolis would be recognized as a non-Athenian by his manner, costume, mask and accent. Therefore, actors had to be adept at performing with various accents in order to realistically portray the area of origin of a certain individual. Further, the chorus had to perform long sections of rhythmic chanting and singing. These sections of Aristophanes’ plays epitomized his comedic prowess and allowed the audience an additional chance to experience spectacle and humor. Consequently, the chorus had to be relatively adept at singing and maintaining a rhythmic pace whilst chanting. Therefore, a great amount of vocal skill was crucial in the plays of Aristophanes.

Gestures and physical movement were compulsory elements of Aristophanic theater. The performers in the comedies were expected to dramatize each action so that all viewers could discern their actions and appreciate the humor. Impersonation was a significant element in the Aristophanes’ plays as the actors attempted to convey the flaws of disliked political leaders and famous individuals in a humorous manner. “[Enter, as fast as they can (which is not all that fast), the chorus of Acharnians, very old and very ferocious men.] Leader: Chase him, chase him everybody, for the traitor must be found.” Here, the chorus, which consisted of young to middle aged men, were required to impersonate a group of elderly men. This demanded a significant amount of skill as they had to portray a rabble of angry and aged Acharnian men, chasing after Amphitheus. They would have worn masks and costumes to depict their age but the appropriate movements were essential in the scene to allow the entirety of the audience to know who they were and their age as well as to add a comedic element. Body language was also extremely important in this form of theatre. “Though [coming close to [Lamachus]; in a seductive voice] if you are so strong, why don’t you give me a bit of a thrill.” The sexual insinuations created by Dikaiopolis’ tone of voice, combined with his gestures, add to the comedy of the situation and his antipathy to Lamachus. All responders would have been able to appreciate both the vocal and physical skills espoused by the actors and would be able to comprehend the intended innuendo. Thus, both physical and verbal skills were essential in performances Aristophanic plays.

depiction of greek life

Due to the innate complexity and brilliance of the comedy in the plays of classical Greece, actors were required to have a great ability to employ both oral and gestural factors in their performances. They had to utilize vocal skills in order to convey humor within their impersonations, chanting, wit and other comedic elements. In addition, performers used various physical skills to better parody unpopular contemporary figures and exaggerate movement so that all viewers could comprehend the humor and messages within the play.

Aristophanes and Athens
Aristophanes’ comedies, although often exaggerated to create humor, are extremely successful in helping people learn about life in ancient Athens. He satirizes and parodies politicians and other important figures and therefore gives the reader an understanding of ancient Athenian politics and society. Although Aristophanic comedies are an excellent source of information about his contemporary society and the views of a number of citizens, the information must be selected carefully and not everything should be taken literally in order to ensure that the reader absorbs the correct information from the text. Comedies tend to be over-exaggerated in order to heighten humor and thus information must be considered carefully before being taken as fact. Further, it is necessary for the reader to have some previous knowledge about ancient Athenian customs, politics and society in order to fully comprehend all of the jokes and gain further insight into these areas.

Bazaar of Ancient Athens
Bazaar of Ancient Athens

Aristophanes reveals facts about the politicians and demagogues of ancient Athens through his parodying and mocking of them throughout his comedies. Aristophanes particularly focuses on the demagogue, Cleon, who was a strategist during the Peloponnesian war. The comic poet generally chose to present him in a negative light, as a war-mongerer, a notion which is often complemented by Thucydides’ recounts and reconstructions of his speeches and actions. The Knights is an Aristophanic comedy almost entirely devoted to satirizing Cleon’s personality and deeds and conveys, through humor, the poet’s view of the demagogue and the view of a number of Athenian citizens. This can be revealed as the view of a number of citizens as the audience would have had to enjoyed the mocking of Cleon for it to win first prize in the Lenaea in 424 BCE. Aristophanes mocks Cleon’s humble background as a tanner throughout the play, making continuous jokes at his expense. The numerous references to “hide”, “stitching” and “leather-purses” fully exploit the demagogue’s origins and give readers insight into the value that was placed on socio-economic status in ancient Athenian society. Further, his loud and obnoxious nature is highlighted throughout the play. He is called “a robber and a shrieker, with a voice like an overloaded sewer” as well as a “villainous swine”. He is revealed to be a proud person and persuasive yet dishonest speaker who would use any means to obtain his objective. He is denoted to attempt to achieve each of his goals by flattering Thepeople (Demos) with gifts and lies, just as he tries to deceive the people of Athens. He is almost always portrayed in a negative way by Aristophanes who, it can be assumed, represented the people’s opinions through his plays. Further, Cleonymous notoriety as a glutton and a coward in battle can be seen via Aristophanes’ excellent presentation and sat of his weakness. Cleonymous dropped his shield in battle in 424 BCE, leaving the men around him unprotected and thus, vulnerable to attack by the enemy. His innate fear and weakness in the midst of fighting is mocked in Peace as he is called a “castaway” by Trygaeus to comically reveal that he cast away his shield. Subsequent to this he became renowned as a coward as well as for his gluttonous nature, two facts which are continuously exploited as a source of humor in Aristophanes’ plays. Similarly, Lamachus is ridiculed in both Peace and Acharnians as a pompous and overbearing. Therefore, the plays of Aristophanes are useful to the readers in gaining information about politicians in ancient Athens.

Academy of Athens
Academy of Athens
By A. Savin via Wikimedia Commons

Aristophanes often parodies his fellow poets, allowing readers of his comedies to further comprehend information about the arts in ancient Athenian society. In the majority of his plays, Aristophanes parodies the renowned tragedian, Euripides in order to heighten the humor in his comedies. In The Acharnians, Euripides is mocked for his continuous use of injured or crippled men as heroes in his plays. He is portrayed as a weak individual who is perhaps crippled himself and has to be wheeled out by his servant onto the ekkyklema. Aristophanes ridicules Euripides through the character of Dikaiopolis who notes that he has “renounced the use of [his] legs” and wears “tragic rags”. He exclaims that it is “no wonder [he] create[s] beggars” as the heroes of his tragedies. Further, Euripides’ famous play, Bellerophon is satirized in Peace as Trygaeus attempts to ride to Olympus, not on a winged horse, but on a dung beetle. The dung beetle is compared to the horse that Bellerophon attempted to ride to Olympus in a famous Greek myth, as a servant describes Trygaeus’ treatment of it. “He rubbed the creature down like a thoroughbred colt and he said to it, ‘Well, my little Pegasus, my noble winged steed, soon you’ll be flying up to to Zeus with me on your back.’” Numerous times throughout most of Aristophanes’ plays, characters quote and parody Euripidean tragedies, making them comic and ridiculing the poet. In contrast, in Peace, lines from Homer’s Illiad are quoted and adapted, yet Aristophanes does not mock it but shows a form of reverence for the skill of the ancient epic poet. These adaptations and parodies lead readers to understand which dramas and works of literature would have been prominent during this period of time thus allowing modern individuals further insight into ancient Athenian education, culture and society.

Thalia, Muse of Comedy, Holding a Comic Mask
Thalia, Muse of Comedy, Holding a Comic Mask

Aristophanes’ parodies and adaptation of works of literature and his ridiculing of famous political figures gives readers insight about life in ancient Athens. Readers can infer from his comic criticisms of demagogues such as Cleon, the flaws of politicians and the general public’s view of these individuals.

Comic Protagonists
It is important, in any play, to have an excellent protagonist. Aristophanes was particularly skilled at creating characters that created rapport with the audience, whilst subtly changing the responders perception of politics, war and society. For example, the protagonists of The Acharnians and The Knights, both extremely witty, opinionated individuals and Aristophanes employs persuasive language to characterize both individuals and convey his political views to the audience.

comic protagonists

Language and other methods of persuasion utilized by Dikaiopolis and the Sausage-Seller reveal their intelligence and wily as well as their dexterity as orators. The Sausage-Seller uses gifts to procure the loyalty of Thepeople (demos) and surpass his rival, the Paphlagonion (a thinly disguised satirical depiction of Cleon), as Thepeople’s favourite. His continual proclamation that “[the Paphlagonion] never gave ‘im one...but now I ‘ave come, and I nah give [Thepeople] this [tunic]” (p69) espouses his Machiavellian methods of obtaining power. Similarly, Dikaiopolis uses costumes and a witty comparison between war and peace to persuade the Acharnians. He dress[es] up to look really wretched and downtrodden” in order to extract pity from the Acharnians and convince them. Both characters are extremely manipulative and excel at using the desires and mistakes of individuals to their advantage as well as exploiting human nature. Aristophanes uses Dikaiopolis to promote the end of the war and to espouse the positive attributes of peace whilst he employs the Sausage-Seller reveal his hatred for Cleon. He rebukes him for prolonging the war and for seducing the people by his oleaginous and flattery. Thus, the intelligence, manipulative power and persuasiveness of Dikaiopolis and the Sausage-Seller as well as their utilization by Aristophanes as a means of expressing his views provide parallels between both comic characters. The character of the Sausage-Seller is appealing due to his wittiness, comedic elements and affiliation with the responders. The clever wordplay utilized by Agoracritus (the Sausage Seller) in the play reveal his inherent intelligence, despite his low birth. In addition, his continual comments concerning the Paphlagonion, and thus, Cleon, reveal a more comedic, perspicacious and quick-witted character than that of Dikaiopolis. The Paphlagonion’s complaint that the Sausage-Seller had “stolen [his] hare” was refuted by Agoracritus’ challenge about “oo stole the credit for Pylos” (Cleon took the credit for the Athenian victory at Pylos). Further, due to his low birth and basal qualities, he creates rapport with a wide selection of the audience. Every individual can relate to his lust for power and to his low-brow humor and self-centeredness. These are merely two examples of the many intriguing and amusing characters that Aristophanes created as protagonists for his comedies.

Comic Antagonists
Aristophanes uses the antagonists in his plays to not only provide an obstacle to their goals, but to also heighten the play’s humor. In Peace, for example, Hermes contributes to the comedic elements of the play and serves an important role as an obstacle to Trygaeus’ goal. He also supplies information about the location of “Peace” (who is personified as a woman) throughout the play. He tells Trygaeus where her cave is and tells them about the consequences of retrieving her.

comic antagonists

Further, he takes on the role of an informer to Zeus and, in this passage, begins to call out to him, “O Zeus, wielder of the thunderbolt --”. However, he is stopped by Trygaeus who begs him to keep his silence “for the meat’s sake”, thus appealing to Hermes’ conventionally gluttonous nature and creating an element of comedy. Throughout the play, Aristophanes employs Hermes to portray some moral concepts to the Athenian audience. Hermes, the only god to remain on Olympus after it was abandoned by the other gods, is perhaps utilized by Aristophanes to denote his own notions that Athens has been reduced to a state of corruption. Aristophanes’ aversion to war can be linked to the idea that the god of deceit and thievery has allied with War to rule Greece and to add to the violence that was per-existent within each city state. Hermes states that the gods were “fed up” with the Greeks and abandoned Olympus “so they couldn’t either see [them] fighting each other or hear [them] praying to them”. The cause of a prominent moment of conflict, Hermes also reveals the corrupt nature of Greek society and helps reinforce the need for peace.

An Aristophanic antagonist provides an excellent source of comedy throughout the play as they use elements of bathos to create humor in their comments. In addition, they should continue to contribute to the success of the scenes in which they appear in by providing a major challenge for the protagonist to overcome.



Aristophanes’ utilization of tragedy and tragic playwrights is important to the comic effect of his plays. Despite the fact that it is not essential for him to include parodies and jokes about tragic poets in order for the responders to appreciate the humor, Aristophanes intertwines, within his plays, jests and comic imitations of tragedians. This increases the brilliance and comical aspects of his works and created rapport with his contemporary audience.

Aristophanes’ utilization of humorous parodies of tragedies and tragic playwrights add to the effect of the comedic elements within The Acharnians. In the brief announcement given by the Third Messenger in lines 1174 to 1190, he utilities tones intended to satirize that of tragedy. The humor it lends in creating an intense, dramatic mood as well as exaggeratedly mocking Lamachus’ valiance and misfortune makes it necessary to be included. The messenger’s comic dramatization of Lamachus as he retells how “he dislocated his ankle, broke his head upon a stone, and wakened up the Gorgon on his shield, and dropped the bastard-plume from off his helm upon the rocks, which seeing, he lamented...then to his feet he rose and stayed his fleeing troops, and then pursued the fleeing raiders with his trusty spear” adds additional humor to the situation. (l.1179-1189) Further, the over-exaggerated and tragic tones employed by the messenger provide more of a contrast between the entrances of Lamachus and Dikaiopolis. Lamachus arrives after this melodramatic, lugubrious monologue, battle weary and wounded whilst Dikaiopolis enters drunk with a courtesan on each arm. These juxtaposing entrances portray to the responders Aristophanes’ desire to end the war in favor of a peaceful state.

Role of the Chorus
The entry of the chorus in classical Greek comedy was a sudden introduction of movement and spectacle, intended to captivate the audience. The chorus almost moved as a single unit, every movement choreographed so that the patterns and swirling motions of their dances would be visible even in the highest rows of seats in the theater.

Theatrical Masks of Tragedy (left) and Comedy
Theatrical Masks of Tragedy (left) and Comedy

The chorus would be dressed in special, bright costumes perhaps with large props to make the spectacle even more eye catching. It was not there to merely dance, however, but also to comment upon and play a large part in the action in the scene. The name of Aristophanes’ plays are most often derived from the chorus (such as The Wasps or The Knights), denoting their importance in the overall production. Choral odes are often in juxtaposition with the dialogue of the play’s protagonists, adding another element of humor and entertainment. Further, Aristophanes (and other classical comic poets) used the chorus and its leader to denote his message throughout the play. The poet’s political views and advice is usually conveyed in the play’s parabasis (a monologue of sorts, usually delivered by the leader of the chorus), whilst the comic poet’s mocking of his competitors and public individuals is scattered throughout the play. The chorus can also introduce additional humor through their witty and often rude songs and dances, as well as their costumes.





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