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The humor and plots of Athenian comedy

The immediate purpose of a comic playwright naturally was to create beautiful poetry and raise laughs at the same time in the hope of winning the award for the festival's best comedy. Much of the humor of Athenian comedy had to do with sex and bodily functions, and much of its ribaldry was delivered in a stream of imaginative profanity. The plots of fifth-century Athenian comedies primarily dealt with current issues and personalities. Insulting attacks on prominent men such as Pericles1 or Cleon, the victor of Pylos,2 were a staple. Pericles apparently instituted a ban on such attacks in response to fierce treatment in comedies after the revolt of Samos in 441-439 B.C.3, but the measure was soon rescinded. Cleon was so outraged by the way he was portrayed on the comic stage by Aristophanes4, (c. 455-385 B.C.), the only comic playwright of the fifth century from whose works entire plays have survived, that he sued the playwright5. When Cleon lost the case, Aristophanes responded by pitilessly parodying him in The Knights 6 of 424 B.C. as a reprobate foreign slave. Other well-known men who were not portrayed as characters could come in for insults as sexually effeminate and cowards. On the other hand, women characters who are made figures of fun and ridicule in comedy seem to have been fictional.

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