Friday, February 4, 2011

Lysistrata by Aristophanes: A Classics Circuit Review.

I consider myself a huge fan of the Ancient Greeks and their writing. If you don't believe me, look at the name of my blog! When I found out that the Classics Circuit was going to be focusing on these old works, I knew that I had to participate.

Deciding what to read was the hardest part. I find that Ancient Greek literature is diverse and wonderful, so I had a hard time narrowing it down. Originally I was going to read Antigone, but I went with Lysistrata by Aristophanes, since it is one of the few small Greek works on my own project list that I am unfamiliar with.

Assuming that you are also unfamiliar with it, the first thing to know about this piece is that it is a play. It was probably first performed around 400 B.C. So yes, it is a rather old piece of literature, but very, very racy.

The basic premise of the play is that a certain woman, Lysistrata, comes up with a plan to put an end to the Peloponessian War that is currently being fought by the men-folk. After rounding up the women, she encourages them to withhold sex until the men agree to stop fighting.

What ensues is a battle of the sexes. The men, without their women or sexual favors, begin to storm the acropolis where the women are holed up. They are frustrated and angry that their women are not at home waiting for them. It is a very funny, and racy kind of play.

I have found in my reading of Ancient Greece that they were far more comfortable with the profane than we are today. It is not unusual for there to be dirty jokes and references to nudity. This is obviously a prime example of the familiarity and acceptance of sex as an everyday act. You'll find the same is true as you move forward into Shakespeare's time!

My favorite scene is when a man, Cinesias, arrives to get his wife for some "favors." Lysistrata convinces the woman, Myrrhine, to tease the poor man, by at first refusing, then agreeing. She then has to leave multiple times for things necessary for their act. She brings back a cot, a pillow, a blanket, etc. Each time she leaves he waits, frustrated and angry. It is comical and puts poor Cinesias in a horrible and compromising position. All he wants is his wife!

I don't really want to get in a whole debate on whether using sex is a good idea for revenge or ending wars (although, that WOULD be an interesting argument, don't you think?). That would be opening up a whole big can of worms I don't want to get in to.

But I do want to mention the translation I had. My edition is a Signet Classic and it was translated by a Douglass Parker. Seeing as this is the only translation of the play I have read, I don't know what liberties Parker took with it, but I found the language to be FAR too modern for the period the piece was intended for. I found it distracting and annoying that he modernized the play as much as he did. If it hadn't been for the fact that I wanted to know what happened, I probably would have the book down and gone to get another translation. I understand than when translating, sometimes there are words that don't translate exactly, but I love when translators stay as true to the original as possible. And I don't think that happened in this case. I am curious to read another translation in the future to compare.

In all, this was a great example of Greek writing and the issues that plagued the era. In Ancient times, it was far more common to be in a constant state of war than what we would hope for, so perhaps this kind of solution was a desperate last act. In any case, I am glad to have known that even then, people cracked some dirty jokes for amusement, and captured a piece of history in the process.

If you are interested in participating in a future Classics Circuit Tour, visit the designated blog to look for future sign-ups!


  1. Wow, the summary of this book makes our writings today sound prudish. I've always been intimidated by Greek literature but I just might give Lysistrata a try one of these days. Great post!

  2. I really enjoyed reading the Lysistrata in college. It's brutally honest about the way women can use their sexuality against men. Plus it's just really funny.

    I'm a new reader of your blog and I love what you're doing with the classics.

    I blog at and I review some classics too.

    Have a good weekend!

  3. Wow, yeah. Even I had to read this- I forget for what- and I remember how it surprised me, so I'm with you Shannon, in that it's really sort of funny for an old Greek classic.
    I'm a new follower here, Allie, and I love the theme of your blog. Nearly 75 books Go girl!
    I blog about my own books plus reviews...please drop by soon (lol...I'm not advertising :) )

  4. This sounds like so much fun! I love ancient literature too, but this is one I haven't read.

  5. The Greeks were really bold when it came to sexuality, and it is interesting that only the women were written about because male/male relationships were encouraged then - paederasty was a way of life then (this is alluded to in Death in Venice). I like that the Greeks were liberal like that and not only in their literature, you should follow this link to see a psykter that is one of the more reserved pieces of Greek art.

    If you are looking for a great Greek read go for Daphnis and Chloe by Longus - the earliest example of a Greek novel. Really great story and well translated by Christopher Gill.

  6. That's one I'd not heard of before your post. I can certainly understand why we didn't read it in high school! It sounds like it would be an entertaining play, though so I might have to pick it up sometime.

  7. I'm actually planning to read this soon because I have The Uncoupling which is an upcoming novel inspired by Lysistrata to read in March, so it was interesting to read this review! Hopefully I can find a better translation, I hate it when authors do that. I would rather take my time reading something a little more difficult than have the whole thing completely modernized.

  8. We "performed" these two pieces in my high school classroom. It was interesting. But, I have to admit, I hate the greeks. This era of literature does not interest me in the least.

  9. I am looking forward to reading this so much. I've known the basic story for quite some time (since a bunch of my friends make jokes about it every time they disagree with their partners about political issues)--but I've never read it. Thanks for the post!

  10. I read Lysistrata in a college class, and I remember a girl called it "smut". She said she wasn't the kind of girl to use the word smut but she couldn't think of anything else to call it. It is really filthy, what with the guys with the giant erections and everything...Aristophanes was such a crazy guy.

  11. I love this idea. I wish I would have known about the site and all sooner - I would have loved to post on something. Maybe The Satyricon, as I didn't see that listed in the tour. Ah, well, there's always next time!

  12. Different translations can make a huge difference in a work. For my Classics Circuit post, I also read Lysistrata, but I read an older translation from Project Gutenberg. In it, the translator chose to have the Spartan characters speak in a
    Scotch dialect. I understood the explanation for the choice, but I thought the use of the Scottish dialect distracted me from the action and words of the play.

  13. did this one win awards? I am so unfamiliar with Aristophanes, but it certainly sounds different from those by Sophocles and Euripides that were winning awards...maybe this was the low brow play of the age?

    thanks for participating in the tour!

  14. It is amazing that a man in those times had the vision to recognize the limited powers that are given to women in a patriarchal setup, but the best part is that he could foresee that, if required, women could use those limited powers in unimaginable ways and still succeed in bringing about a change.
    Everything that I can say about the universality of the theme of Lysistrata has been said, or more appropriately, done by three women: The Nobel Prize winners for peace 2011- check it out, its a request.