By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Lysistrata is the first female lead in a Western comedy, and this alone arguably makes Aristophanes’ play worthy of study and analysis. Lysistrata is the only one of Aristophanes’ plays to be named after one of its characters. First performed in 411 BC, the play is set during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, a war that had been raging for two decades by this point.
The strategy which Lysistrata – whose name literally means ‘disbander of armies’ – devises to end the war is intended as a comic jumping-off point; but the play also raises important questions concerning war, power, politics, and gender.
It’s well-known that Lysistrata persuades her fellow female Athenians to withhold sexual privileges from their husbands and lovers. But this isn’t all she does, even if it is the one thing everyone knows about the play. Arguably more important, Lysistrata and the women seize control of the Acropolis, and the treasury – controlling the funding for the war against Sparta – giving them real economic and political power.
The plot of Lysistrata is reasonably easy to summarise. Lysisitrata persuades the women of Athens to withdraw all sexual favours from the men until the men agree to end to war with Sparta. Along with a chorus of women who have already seized the Acropolis, Lysistrata and her band of female revolutionaries defend themselves against a chorus of old men who try to smoke them out of the Acropolis.
The women’s plan works, and a Spartan herald turns up to declare that a similar plot hatched by the women of Sparta has had the same effect on the Spartan men, and the war between the two city states comes to an end.
Because the Peloponnesian War is so remote from us, it’s easy to overlook the extent to which Aristophanes was being artistically bold in suggesting this. The very idea of staging a play that reminded the Athenians of the common culture and heritage they shared with their enemies seems daring.
As Michael Patterson puts it in The Oxford Guide to Plays (Oxford Quick Reference), it’s comparable to staging a play in London during the First World War that reminded the audience that the Kaiser was the grandson of Queen Victoria.
What’s also noteworthy about Lysistrata is that the women’s withholding of conjugal rights from their husbands is a trial for them, too: the women of the play are women who obviously enjoy sex, and their sacrifice is a self-sacrifice, too, which many of them find it difficult to keep up (as it were).
Another point to ponder when analysing and discussing Lysistrata is how feminist, by our own modern standards, Aristophanes’ play really is. True, the Athenian women manage to wrest power from the menfolk and end the war, but they do so by using their bodies, and sex, as a weapon – at least, first and foremost it is their withdrawal of sexual privileges which tips the balance of power in their favour.
But then by the standards of the time, when sex was one of the few cards women could play in such a political game, Lysistrata’s defiance of expectation and social mores must have seemed audacious.
But then we should also bear in mind that Lysistrata is a comedy, and whilst comedies often contain serious ideas, there is often a carnivalesque sense of the overturning of the usual roles and conventions. As with another of Aristophanes’ plays about women gaining political power, Assemblywomen, it’s questionable how seriously theatregoers would have taken the idea of women gaining the upper hand.
Lysistrata is an unusual Greek comedy because it has not one chorus, but two – one comprising men and the other comprising women (though of course, both choruses would have been played by men in the original Greek theatre). This suggests that Aristophanes seeks to play out the ‘battle of the sexes’ and to present the two genders side by side in debate, not that he is offering a ‘feminist’ play avant la lettre.
Nevertheless, it is clever how Aristophanes, through Lysistrata, reveals the extent to which women are undervalued for their contributions to Athenian society. When an indignant magistrate asks Lysistrata what she can possibly know of war, and why she is so concerned with it, she responds that it is the women of the city who bear the sons who go off to fight (and, in many cases, don’t come back alive).
She points out that women already know how to manage an economy – that of the running of the household (something even acknowledged in the etymology of the word ‘economy’, which comes from the Greek for ‘house management’). At another point, Lysistrata likens the city of Athens to a clump of wool, drawing on a domestic chore she knows well to make a point about how a good city functions.
Lysistrata is a play that has endured for over 2,000 years, and will doubtless continue to be popular, because of the way it cleverly presents and analyses the differences between the two genders – differences which have endured as long as the play has.
But it also highlights that men and women are in it together: the political establishment may still largely be dominated by men, but it is women who bear, and rear, the sons who grow up to be politicians and soldiers and statesmen. Somewhere between interpreting the play as a big joke and analysing it as a serious argument for a shift in gender power relations, we find the true meaning of Lysistrata.
The best English translation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is, in our opinion, the one included in Birds and Other Plays (Oxford World’s Classics).