of Aristophanes

The most remarkable of Aristophanes' comedies are those in which the main characters, the heros of the story as it were, are women, who use their wits and their solidarity with one another to compel the men of Athens to overthrow basic policies of the city-state. Most famous of Aristophanes' comedies depicting powerfully effectual women is the Lysistrata 1 of 411 B.C., named after the female lead character of the play. It portrays the women of Athens as teaming up with the women of Sparta to force their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War. To make the men agree to a peace treaty, the women first seize the Acropolis, where Athens' financial reserves are kept, and prevent the men from squandering them further on the war. They then beat back an attack on their position by the old men who have remained in Athens while the younger men are out on campaign. When their husbands return from battle, the women refuse to have sex with them. This sex strike, which is portrayed in a series of risqué episodes, finally coerces the men of Athens and Sparta to agree to a peace treaty.

The Lysistrata presents women acting bravely and aggressively against men who seem bent both on destroying their family life by staying away from home for long stretches while on military campaign and on ruining the city-state by prolonging a pointless war. In other words, the play's powerful women take on masculine roles to preserve the traditional way of life of the community. Lysistrata herself emphasizes this point in the very speech in which she insists that women have the intelligence and judgment to make political decisions. She came by her knowledge, she says, in the traditional way: “I am a woman, and, yes, I have brains. And I'm not badly off for judgment. Nor has my education been bad, coming as it has from my listening often to the conversations of my father and the elders among the men.”2 Lysistrata was schooled in the traditional fashion, by learning from older men. Her old-fashioned training and good sense allowed her to see what needed to be done to protect the community. Like the heroines of tragedy, Lysistrata is literally a reactionary; she wants to put things back the way they were. To do that, however, she has to act like a revolutionary. Ending the war would be so easy that women could do it, Aristophanes is telling Athenian men, and Athenians should concern themselves with preserving the old ways, lest they be lost.

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