Saturday, April 14, 2012

Lysistrata- Fantasy or Real

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Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a masterful comedy about sex, war and gender. Its main comedic device partly fails in our modern interpretation because of our more balanced views of women in the 1st century. The plot is shown to be fantasy, an absurd idea to the ancient Athenians. This then is the root of its humour. However, a few points in the play relate directly to the original audience’s lifestyle during the Peloponnesian war, and therefore are the plays link with reality, its dramatic landline for the audience.


Lysistrata deals with the sensitive and possibly offensive subject matter by parodying it. Aristophanes dodges the seriousness of war, a subject close to home for all Athenians, by making crude jokes - “There isn’t anyone to have an affair with - not a sausage!” - ll. 10. This shows the fictional element of the play, as in Aristophanes time in Athens, both women and men were known to have numerous adulterous affairs, and if the sex strike were to be successful, then the mistresses and all such people would have to be striking also. This plays on the real life frustrations of the war torn Athenians without bringing to light the darker aspects of war. In some ways, Lysistrata was designed as a form of escapism for the audience, and to poke fun at the very things causing them pain. Aristophanes ignores possible plot problems in order to present the delightfully comic idea of a sex strike. In ‘Aristophanes and Athens’, Douglas McDowell remarks that “the genuine problem of the continuing war is solved by a fantastic scheme which in real life would be impossible.”#


Another way Aristophanes turns grief into laughter is by describing things in terms of the human body. This is a common method in Aristophanic plays, as metaphors or simply to talk around the subject. For example, towards the end of the play, Reconciliation is personified into the form of a beautiful young woman whom the men cannot take their eyes off. The Spartan equivalent of Lysistrata, Lampito, is another example. Special attention is paid to her bodily attributes, which differ greatly from her Athenian counterparts, mostly in reproductive areas - “And such marvellous tits too.” - ll.81. This is a foreshadowing of the main plotline, in which the women, using their only real source of power orchestrate the sexual starvation of the men. This allows the audience to further switch off from the traditionally grim motif of war and enter a fantasy where war is dismissed as being second to sexual satisfaction.


The center of Lysistratas comedy is that it shows women acting bravely, even aggressively, against men who seem resolved on ruining the city. In ancient Greece, women were looked at as property, something beautiful to own, and did not have any redeeming social values. To even consider putting a woman into a position where she was required to think outside her domestic purposes was laughable. Some argue that Aristophanes portrayal of Lysistrata is a somewhat proto-feminist idea. However, this play clearly does not promote women taking political power. The only intended outcome of this situation is humour. Aristophanes relies on his male dominated audience’s predisposed ideas about women, which at the time would have been along the lines of the Homer verse quoted in line 515 of the play - “Go and attend to your work let war be the care of the men folk”. Role reversal is Lysistratas true humour because to imagine a woman in a multifaceted role was insane.


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The view of politics in Lysistrata is somewhat different. In the only really true political scene in the play, a quasi-agon takes place between a magistrate, who represents male authority, and Lysistrata. This scene is unusual in a number of ways the women beat and subdue the men physically in a very masculine manner, and the ensuing debate was regarded to be a strictly male only action. Therefore we see women taking over traditionally masculine roles, another situation that could only be described as fantasy to the original audience.


The proceeding debate is interesting and poses many questions about Aristophanes political stance. Women are not mentioned actually taking into action any of the advice given by Lysistrata. She simply addresses the magistrates as “you”, referring to the male population and goes on to complain about “some major blunder of yours” - ll.500. This gives the impression that Aristophanes is in fact giving serious advice to the city of Athens using Lysistrata as a mouthpiece. He may be making a serious practical proposal of how to clean up Athens political affairs and this is why the ‘fantasy’ of women in positions of political power is omitted. Douglas McDowell writes


“Maybe the weaving metaphor is a serious piece of criticism towards Athenian politicians, more so those who “collaborate to get one another elected to office” “#


But on the other side of the argument is a point, which does indeed fit in with the comic style of the play. Lysistratas weaving metaphor seems to be a good model for the city’s workings, but how seriously can we take this? The advice within the passage is so shrouded in metaphor that it is almost impossible for there to be any serious political advice in it whatsoever. It seems that in saying this speech, Lysistrata believes that the women will finally be seen as capable of managing Athenian finances - again, an absurd idea for the original audience.


However, to truly tap into the audiences minds, Aristophanes needed to include something that they all had in common and were familiar with. This is not only war, and it is not the dangers and horrors of war, but the real life frustrations of the Athenian people. The women in Lysistrata complain that the men are away at war for too long, and that they are being deprived of sex - this scenario is not merely fantasy, but must have been a familiar feeling to most, if not all adult Athenians. This is Lysistratas one main connection with reality besides its central subject of war, and it is in this way that Aristophanes keeps the audience inside the fantasy world of Lysistrata. It is easy to see why early Athenian women would get tired of their men leaving. Most of them were married in their teens and never knew what it was to be on their own. And if the husband was killed in warfare, a widow in ancient Athens had few good prospects.


In conclusion, the plot of Lysistrata demonstrates that the overriding mode of Aristophanic comedy is fantasy. For an audience at war, this play was the ultimate form of escapist entertainment. Albeit in Lysistrata the women are shown as revolutionaries rising up against the men, women in classical Greece were never like that. Aristophanes created the play as a comedy, showing what the world would be like in the times of the Peloponnesian war if women tried to do the impossible.





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