LYSISTRATA: A Breakthrough or a Literary Trope?

Lindsay 1

What happens when a playwright inverts the norms of Ancient Greece? What is the intention behind the inversion? Is he making a statement about society at large or simply offering comic relief? Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is unique in more than one way. Its heroine is bold and outspoken, its female chorus resilient and proud, and its male chorus desperate and weak. Is this what contemporary scholars think of when they conjure up images of antiquity? Or has Aristophanes broken through a barrier of misogynistic sentiment?

When I think of Greece and Rome I think of male dominated societies. In Thucydides’ Histories Pericles offers a funeral oration. The speech consists mostly of praise for the dead’s heroic deeds and commendation for Athens as a model city. A very short excerpt of the oration sums up the Grecian ideal of women: “Great will be your glory in not falling short of your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least talked of among men whether for good or bad” (117). The archetypal woman was seen, but not heard. And what of her “natural character”?

Xenophon seems to think that a female’s natural character has to do with her position in the oikos and that the role of women in the household was ordained by the gods. In his How to Train a Wife, Socrates and Ischomachus have a conversation about how Ischomachus is able to enjoy a leisurely life while his wife attends the estate. He convinces his wife that her place inside the house and his place outside of it work to the advantage of both of them. He leads her to believe that she assumes authority in the one sphere, while he assumes authority in the other. The reality of the situation is that his wife is still accountable to him. His “training” of her is for his benefit, not hers. When he speaks of his wife to Socrates he sounds as if he is referring to cattle: “Since she was already manageable and domesticated enough to participate in a discussion…” (7.11). Really? Ischomachus tries to rationalize his wife’s place in the house by suggesting that, “If anyone does something contrary to the nature the god gave him, it is quite possible that his disorderliness will not escape the notice of the gods and that he will pay the penalty for ignoring his proper work or doing a woman’s work” (7.30). His rational reasoning is thinly guised by his use of misogynistic adjectivals such as the “fearful soul” of a woman versus the “courageous soul” of man. The misogynistic undertones of the text also become clear when Socrates likens Ischomachus’ wife’s intelligence to that of a man; suggesting the inferiority of “female” intelligence. It is also clear from this text and the works of others, such as Hesiod, that producing children was the main reason for marriage because it ensured protection and caregiving to the parents in old age. Ischomachus tells his wife, “If god allows it, children will be born, and then we will consult together how we will best educate them. This will be an advantage that we can share, to obtain the best allies and supporters in our old age” (7.12). The stability of the oikos was essential to Greek life because having a wife to take care of the home enabled the husband to participate in public life: the polis. Men did not trust a wife who was thought to be more loyal to the oikos she grew up in than the strange household she had married into. Until the woman gave birth, a symbol of her being tied to her new oikos, men were liable to assume their wives were participating in thievery and adultery. What is interesting to note about this passage describing the perfect compliant wife is that Ischomachus’ wife Chrysilla seduced and had a son by her son-in-law Callias. Perhaps women in the oikos were not as compliant as men were prone to believe!

Moving onto Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, we must examine the time period it was written in, as it was likely to affect the subject matter. The introduction provides necessary background information: “Lysistrata was produced in 411, twenty years into the peloponnesian War, a Panhellenic struggle pitting Athens and her inland empire against Sparta and her allies” (35). In his early plays Aristophanes championed the wealthy land-owning aristocracy and denounced the popular military leaders. But what is the real message behind Lysistrata? It’s a play about women participating in a conjugal strike in an effort to force their husbands to lay down their arms. Lysistrata’s name even means “Disbander of Armies.” Is the ultimate theme of the play peace?

In Aristophanes’ plays, the main character, whether a hero or heroine, “the goal is likely to be shared by most spectators because the arguments (s)he uses to defend it appeal to their interests to their sense of justice and to their resentment of the powers that be” (38). Did it matter that Lysistrata was a woman? Perhaps the reversal of roles in this play was intentional given the touchy subject matter. This play came out when Greece was still in the throws of war. For Aristophanes to comment on the politics of the time, he had to do so in a safe way. Were women his theatrical scapegoat? Comedy was a form of experimental politics. Audience members would attend comedies to experience a catharsis similar to tragedies. The catharsis allowed them to rid themselves of their resentment and ultimately return to the norm. Does the end of the play not return to the norm with the men back in power and the women in the oikos? Were the women just an effective and perhaps the only available solution? The introduction of Lysistrata sheds light on the use of effective literary tropes: “Insofar as the release was motivated by the acceptable civic ideals (peace and solidarity) and achieved in humorous fantasy (wives determining policy), it was safe and festive” (38). Did Aristophanes create a heroine in order to save face in his appeal for peace? Lysistrata was definitely unique from other comic plays. There were no comic heroines before Lysistrata. The fact that she acts in concert with all women is a further innovation — implementing the play’s running theme of solidarity. But the fact remains that, “the volatile political atmosphere discouraged the usual finger-pointing, and an appeal for solidarity ruled out a hero representing any of the embattled factions” (39). Using women enabled Aristophanes to take a nonpartisan stance while criticizing the current political climate.

While the women of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata do not question their roles in society and, in fact, return to the norm at the plays’s conclusion, the play is unique in that it shows women in a positive light. The reversal of roles extends beyond the strength and independence of the women and the weakness and dependency of the men. The women who hole up in the Acropolis and refuse to let the men in are turning the tables on the men. The men who, in reality, are exclusively allowed in the political sphere of Greece are now shut out from the exclusivity of the women’s “oikos” — the Acropolis. Also, though the women are characteristically portrayed as “sex crazed,” the men of the play are just as obsessed (if not more) with sex as their wives. The old men in the play are “aligned with the vulgar strata of jurymen and popular politicians, both targets of consistent abuse from Aristophanes and other comic poets” (42). Just like the neoterics who came after him, Aristophanes used his writing as a vehicle through which to comment on his disdain for the oligarchy.

What is significant about the individual character Lysistrata? She seems to possess eloquence and intelligence that were unusual for both men and women. Does this place her outside of the gender sphere altogether? The introduction suggests that, “she finds her closest analogue in Athena herself” (43). Is Lysistrata yet another powerful woman whose strength renders her ambiguous? Or is her connection to Athena tied back to the foundation myth of Athens in which Athena challenged Poseidon for the city and won? Most of the mythic references in the play appear to draw attention to the takeover of the city by outsiders (the women) during a time of political unrest, ultimately leading to the reaffirmation of male order. Did we not see this in our exploration of the Amazons as well, who were also depicted in an ambiguous manner — the “other”?

Perhaps Aristophanes is comparing Lysistrata to Lysimache who was the Polias priestess during the time of the play. Lysimache whose name means “Disbander of Battles” acted as the household manager of the Acropolis: the ideal Athenian household. This assimilation between Lysistrata and Lysimache serves to strengthen Lysistrata’s association with Athena. “The apparent comparison of a comic heroine to an actual woman who was prominent and respected in civic-religious life suggest that Aristophanes represents the views not merely of the theatrical construct “women” but of real women” (43). Perhaps Lysistrata was more than a theatrical scapegoat?

Whether a breakthrough or not, it appears that even Lysistrata is aware of the perpetuated myth of female inferiority as evident when she addresses the male chorus: “I am a woman, but still I’ve got a mind: I’m pretty intelligent in my own right, and because I’ve listened many a time to the conversations of my father and older men I’m pretty well educated too” (83).

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2 Responses to LYSISTRATA: A Breakthrough or a Literary Trope?

  1. ryank825 says:

    Dear Olivia,

    Once again you make strong points throughout your post. I really enjoyed the part on what an ideal women is. I feel that one of the female characters that completely turns away from the notion of an ideal woman and wife is Medea. In the “Medea”, the female lead Medea is not quiet or obedient, after Jason betrays her. As a matter of fact Medea argues with both Jason and Creon, both males of high position. This would be seen in the eyes of most Greek men as inappropriate behavior from a woman. The discussion on what a proper woman was in Greek culture will continue, but it is interesting to note a story where the main character, a female, does not follow the model woman of Greece.


  2. mpelter says:

    Dear Olivia,
    I found your blog this week to be very interesting. I too found that Lysistrata was a complex play that was worth delving deeper into. I particularly liked your questions: Did it matter that Lysistrata was a woman? What is Aristophanes’ purpose for the women? For me, it perhaps shows the same ideas that we saw with the vestal Virgins- of the women representing the oikos and the men protecting it. It may seem like the women have power within their own territory, as they are being protected by the men. I do agree with that this is used by Aristophanes to neutrally discuss the political climate around him.
    Another interesting thing that you have described was Lysistrata’s strength that made her paradoxically ambiguous. It was very interesting that at the end of the play, the women reverted back to the old ways, and did not attempt to push for more for themselves. Lysistrata is a very strong female character; why would she allow herself to lose that power to men? Overall, I found your post to be very intriguing


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