.
.
Lysistrata
By Aristophanes (450-388 BC)
A Study Guide
cummings@cummingsstudyguides.net
Cummings Guides Home
.
Plot Summary
Setting
Characters
Type of Work
What Was "Old Comedy"?
Structure of Old Comedy
Purpose of the Play
Themes
Climax
Universality
Use of Stichomythia
Study Questions
Essay Topics
Biography of Aristophanes
Complete Free Text
Works of Aristophanes
.
Plot Summary
By Michael J. Cummings...© 2004
.
.......It is 411 BC, the twentieth year of the Peloponnesian War between the rival Greek city states of Athens and Sparta. Weary of the conflict, an Athens housewife, Lysistrata, invites women from the warring regions to assemble at the Acropolis in Athens for an urgent meeting. However, at the designated time for the meeting, only Lysistrata appears. Disappointed, she thinks that if the women she summoned had been invited to a drinking party or a festival honoring the goddess of love, Aphrodite, they would be attending in great numbers. However, she is heartened when her neighbor Cleonice arrives and tells Lysistrata that the rest of the women will come, eventually, after waking up their households, getting breakfasts, washing or nursing children, and so on.
.......When Cleonice asks the purpose of the meeting, Lysistrata tells her it is of utmost importance. In fact, it will mean the salvation of Greece. Incredulous, Cleonice replies that women are but delicate things–scented, slippered creatures in see-through gowns meant to keep house and please their husbands. But Lysistrata tells her that womanly daintiness is the very thing that will bring about salvation.
.......Soon, others arrive–from Acharnae, Anagyra, Sparta (known as Lacedaemon), and other locales–making excuses for their lateness. Myrrhine, for example, says her arrival was delayed because she had to hunt for her corset in the darkness. Lampito, a rosy-cheeked Spartan yokel who shows up with friends from Boeotia and Corinth, inquires about the reason for the meeting. Lysistrata replies with a question: Are the women in the doldrums because their husbands are away at war? They all affirm that they are and that the days and weeks of separation have grown into months.
.......Cleonice says her husband has been away five months in Thrace, and Myrrhine reports that her husband has been absent seven months since leaving for Pylos. Lampito says her husband does visit occasionally but returns to war just as quickly as he came. Lysistrata then reveals her plan: The women shall refuse all marital relations until Sparta and Athens make peace. The women balk at first, refusing to participate.
.......“I would walk through fire–do anything else,” Cleonice says. “But to give up the delights of the marriage bed is too much to ask.”
.......However, after Lysistrata makes a further appeal, Lampito accedes to her wishes, noting that Menelaus readily threw down his sword when he first beheld the beautiful Helen (later known as Helen of Troy after she went off with Trojan prince, Paris, an incident which sparked the Trojan War). 
.......“What if they try to take us by force?” Cleonice asks.
.......“Then hold fast to the door post,” Lysistrata replies.
.......Eventually, all the women agree to take part in Lysistrata’s scheme. As part of the plan, elderly women lock themselves in the Temple of Athena, inside the Parthenon on the summit of the Acropolis, where the men keep their coffers of treasure used to make war. The rest of the women swear an oath, over a bowl of wine from which they drink, to abide by the plan at all costs. They then bolt themselves inside the Acropolis buildings.
.......After hearing of the women’s seizure of the sacred citadel, a group of old men carry logs up to the Acropolis, throw them down, and set fire to them as part of a strategy to smoke and burn the women out. But no sooner do they light the fire than the women arrive with pots of water, dowse the flames, and drench the old men.
.......When a magistrate arrives, the old men complain that the women not only put out the fire but also soaked them through and through, making it appear as if they urinated on themselves. The magistrate and his Scythian guards bring in crowbars to open the doors, but Lysistrata willingly comes out to confront them. When the magistrate orders her hands tied, Lysistrata boldly threatens the guard charged with the task. He is so intimidated that he defecates. When the magistrate summons a second officer to tie her, Cleonice threatens to trample him, and he too is terror-struck and defecates. Two other officers are called and they too defecate in fear. As other officers come to the fore, all the women gang up on them and beat them. After an exchange of harsh words with the magistrate, the women throw water on him.
.......The women scold the old men, saying housewives prepare sacrifices for the gods, pay taxes, and have babies but that the old men contribute nothing to the welfare of the state. The two groups are ready to come to blows when Lysistrata reports that many of the other women, yearning for the touch of a man, are deserting.  One sneaks out of a gate, another lowers herself on a rope, and a third is in the act of escaping on the back of a bird when Lysistrata stops her. Others are attempting to escape even as Lysistrata speaks. However, Lysistrata persuades all of the women to remain after reporting a prophecy predicting all will end well if the women hold fast to their plan.
.......Shortly thereafter, Myrrhine’s husband, Cinesias, comes looking for her, saying his passion for her must be gratified. But Myrrhine refuses him. Only one thing, she says, will make her yield to him: the end of the war. However, after Cinesias pleads with her, even pledging to back an end to war, she agrees to submit to him in a nearby cave. But, she says, the floor of a cave is no fit bed, so she fetches a cot. When she returns with it, Cinesias is ready for her, but she says the cot must have a mattress and she goes out to find one. Next, it’s a pillow that she needs. After that, perfume. By this time, Cinesias is ready to tear his hair out.
.......A herald then arrives from Sparta on a mission of peace, saying the men there are at their wit’s end and ready to make a peace. Moments later, other envoys arrive from Sparta and call for an immediate convocation.
.......When Lysistrata emerges from an Acropolis building, the old men greet her as a daring heroine and urge her to act immediately to effect a treaty. The goddess of peace appears, deus ex machina; her beautiful body makes the men yearn for peace and the pleasures of marriage. Lysistrata launches into a reproachful speech. She tells the warriors on both sides that they occupy the same land and worship the same gods, yet they kill one another indiscriminately and lay waste one another’s cities–even as barbarians from other lands threaten Greece. At times, they have fought on one another’s sides.
.......The men see the wisdom of her words–and comment on the beauty of her body.  Peace is made, and the men and women celebrate together.
Characters
.
Lysistrata (acceptable pronunciatons: [1] liss uh STRAH tuh), [2] lih SIS truh tuh,  [3] ly SIS truh tuh)Athenian housewife who organizes a strike in which Greek women refuse to have sexual relations with their husbands. Her name, loosely translated, means disarmer of warriors, deliverer from war, advocate of peace, and peacemaker.
Cleonice Lysistrata's friend and the first woman to arrive for the meeting at which Lysistrata announces the strike. 
Other Supporters of Lysistrata
.......Myrrhine
.......Lampito
.......Ismenia
.......Stratyllis
Magistrate Official who attempts to break up the strike.
Scythian Guards Officers who carry out the Magistrate's orders.
Cinesias Husband of Myrrhine.
Child of Cinesias
Chorus of Old Men 
Chorus of Women
Goddess of Peace She appears near the end of the play, when the men and women agree to a settlemen.
Herald, Envoys, Citizens

Setting

The action takes place in Athens, Greece, during the twentieth year of the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta. All of the scenes take place on the Acropolis–a citadel and shrine on a craggy, limestone hill 500 feet above sea level–accessible through a marble gateway (the Propylaea) at the western end of a stone wall. The centerpiece of the Acropolis was the Parthenon, a magnificent Doric temple (constructed between 447 and 438 B.C.) housing a gigantic ivory-and-gold statue of the goddess Athena, to whom the Acropolis was dedicated. Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war and the patron deity of Athens, was honored in the temple as Athena Parthenos (Athena the Virgin)–hence, the name Parthenon for the building that housed her statue. The Parthenon also contained the treasury of the Delian League, an alliance of Greek city states. Other religious shrines also graced the hilltop. The characters in the play come from various locales in Greece, a country in southeastern Europe consisting of a mainland in the north and a peninsula, the Peloponnesus, in the south. Following is a glossary place names mentioned in Lysistrata:

Athens: Greece ancient city-state in mainland Greece
Acharnae (or Acharnes): suburb of Athens
Peloponnesus (or Peloponesos, Pelopónnisos Peloponnese, Argos): Peninsula making up southern Greece. 
Sparta (or Lacedaemon): the capital of the Laconia region of southern Greece.
Pylos: city in southwestern Greece on the Peloponnesus
Boeotia: region northwest of Athens.
Thebes: city in Boeotia.
Corinth: city in northeastern Peloponnesus:
Anagyra: town on the island of Cyprus
Thrace: region in northeastern Greece and now part of Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey
.

Type of Play

Lysistrata is a stage play classified as old comedy. Aristophanes completed it in 411 B.C., during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. Two years before, Athens suffered a demoralizing defeat in Sicily.

What Was Old Comedy?

In Greece of the Fifth Century, B.C., old comedy was a genre of comedy that displayed great imagination and used cutthroat satire and caricature to ridicule public figures, politics, ideas, trends, and institutions. Not infrequently, the dialogue and the action sequences rely on vulgarity to get laughs. For example, in Lysistrata, guards defecate in fear of angry women. A herald unable to contain his libido is accused of hiding a lance under his cloak. The following exchange between two enemies, a woman and an old man, demonstrates the coarseness of the humor in the play:

    WOMAN.......Suppose I let fly a good kick at you?
    OLD MAN......I should see your thing then.
    WOMAN.......You would see that, for all my age, it is very well plucked.
In the Fourth Century, old comedy was succeeded by a lighter, less caustic form of comedy that centered on fictional characters drawn from everyday life rather than on public figures, politics, and so on. This genre was appropriately labeled new comedy

Structure of Old Comedy

Old comedy usually contained the following structural elements in a typical play: 

    Prologos: Prologue that begins the play with dialogue indicating the focus or theme of the play.
    Parodos (pronunciation: PAIR uh doss): (1) Song sung by the chorus when it enters; (2) the moment when the chorus enters. 
    Episode(s): scene in which the dialogue involves one or two characters and the chorus.
    Agon (pronunciation: AG ohn): a debate between characters. 
    Parabasis (puh RAB uh sis): an ode in which the chorus addresses the audience to express opinions of the author, including his views on politics, social trends, and other topics. 
    Stasimon(s) (pronunciation: STASS uh monz): Scenes in which the chorus sings a song, uninterrupted by dialogue. Usually, other characters are not present.
    Exodos (EX uh doss): Exit scene; final part of the play. In the exodos in The Clouds, Strepsiades burns down the thinking shop. 
Purpose of the Play

When Aristophanes staged Lysistrata, he wanted to make people laugh. And he has been succeeding in that goal for more than 2,400 years, for the play is a masterly comedy that appeals to people of every time and place. He also wanted to deliver a message to theater audiences of fifth-century Athens: that the war between Athens and Sparta was an exercise in stupidity--a senseless waste of people and resources.

.


.
Themes

(1) The world is a better place when men spend more time loving their wives than their weapons of war. (2) The war between Athens and Sparta is a senseless waste of lives, money, and energy. (3) War not only divides nations; it also divides families. (4) Although men hold all the power in Greek society, they lack the wisdom, common sense and peaceful nature of Greek women. (5) The weak can be strong when their cause is just. (6) In unity, there is strength.

Climax

The climax occurs when the men sue for peace, the goddess of peace appears, and Lysistrata makes a speech.

Universality

Although Aristophanes focuses his plays on specific people, ideas, and events of his time and place, his themes appeal to audiences of every age and ever country. In other words, the plays have universal appeal. For example, in 2003, as part of a worldwide protest against the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq, sixty countries staged more than a thousand performances of Lysistrata to point up the folly of war. Another play of Aristophanes, The Clouds, remains popular today because it exposes public figures who rely on specious reasoning to promote their agendas and gain followers. 

Stichomythia 

Stichomythia (stik uh MITH e uh) consists of brief, alternating lines of dialogue spoken in rapid-fire succession. It occurs frequently in Greek drama, especially when characters are arguing or expressing strong emotions. Following is an example of stichomythia in Lysistrata. The leader of the men's chorus and the leader of the women's chorus are threatening each other.

LEADER OF CHORUS OF OLD MEN
    Silence! or my stick will cut short your days.
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF WOMEN
    Now, just you dare to touch Stratyllis with the tip of your
finger!
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF OLD MEN
    And if I batter you to pieces with my fists, what will you do?
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF WOMEN
    I will tear out your lungs and entrails with my teeth.
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF OLD MEN
    Oh! what a clever poet is Euripides! how well he says that woman
is the most shameless of animals.
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF WOMEN
    Let's pick up our water-jars again, Rhodippe.
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF OLD MEN
    You damned women, what do you mean to do here with your water?
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF WOMEN
    And you, old death-in-life, with your fire? Is it to cremate
yourself?
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF OLD MEN
    I am going to build you a pyre to roast your female friends upon.
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF WOMEN
    And I,-I am going to put out your fire.
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF OLD MEN
    You put out my fire-you?
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF WOMEN
    Yes, you shall soon see.
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF OLD MEN
    I don't know what prevents me from roasting you with this torch.
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF WOMEN
    I am getting you a bath ready to clean off the filth.
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF OLD MEN
    A bath for me, you dirty slut?
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF WOMEN
    Yes, indeed, a nuptial bath-tee heel
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF OLD MEN  (turning to his followers)
    Do you hear that? What insolence!
  LEADER OF CHORUS OF WOMEN
    I am a free woman, I tell you.


.

.

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  • What were the causes of the Peloponnesian War?
  • Many Greek plays–including Lysistrata, Antigone, and Medea–focus on women. What was the role of women in Greek society at the time Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata? Could they vote? Could they hold jobs? Could they act on a public stage? Were they likely to conduct a protest, as in Lysistrata, to present their views?
  • In Lysistrata, Aristophanes was calling attention to the folly of a war between Athens and Sparta in the Fifth Century, B.C. Does the message of the play apply to wars of later centuries, including the 21st? Does it also apply to bellicose relationships in everyday living? What would be the position of Aristophanes on the U.S. Civil War, World War II, and the second Iraq War?
  • Aristophanes was the master of old comedy (see Type of Work, above), a popular genre in the Fifth Century, B.C. Old comedy was succeeded in the Fourth Century, B.C., by a gentler type of comedy called new comedy. Its master was Menander. Write an essay that compares and contrasts old comedy and new comedy.