In What Way Is Lysistrata an Attempt to Laugh at Women?
Without a doubt, Aristophanes deserves being considered as one of the most remarkable comic playwrights in the history of literature. His numerous plays still draw attention of many readers worldwide, which makes their content relevant these days. At this point, it does not come as a surprise that Aristophanes’ works are being reconsidered from various perspectives, among which a feminist one could be mentioned. Specifically, in the context of the feminist criticism, it is widely assumed that the play Lysistrata should be regarded as an attempt to laugh at women. However, to a greater extent this suggestion cannot be viewed as the valid one due to the specificity of Aristophanes’ oeuvre that is exactly aimed at exposing drawbacks of the human character and laughing at them, so it is more than expected that women are laughed at similarly as men are. What is more, Aristophanes manages to praise and celebrate female qualities compared to male ones that cover greed, lust, and proneness to conflict. Nevertheless, it should be still alleged that the playwright pays specific attention to the female side in Lysistrata while creating irony around the following fact: even though women do have a potential to change and improve the actual societal conditions, they still use ‘female’ approaches to perform it.
To begin with, it is important to understand the position of women in Athens in order to trace how Aristophanes addresses the need to reconsider or even condemn it. Apart from entertainment, they were not respected in the predominantly male society. The reason for that is that the female nature was seen as inferior. For example, Aristotle believed women were not just useless, but the very source of evil (O’Pry 8). As the result, they were not allowed to take part in political life. Not only that, men were trying to minimize the contacts with women and reject them in other rights. This led to almost complete exclusion of female citizens from any social life. The only function they were expected and often allowed to do is to bring up children and oversee the household. Owning land, engaging in trade activities, represent herself in court, even getting a divorce was not allowed without an approval from a male member of her family (O’Pry 9). The majority of women had limited access to education, just enough for them to do primitive finances.
Under such circumstances, the character of Lysistrata is introduced in the play to criticize them, and it is problematic to claim that the playwright presents her as an object of laugh. In fact, she emphasizes the dominant perception that women receive not only from the side of males but also themselves. For instance, when she tells her friend Calonice that saving Greece from the war is in hands of women, Calonice ironically replies the following: “In our hands? Then Greece hasn’t much hope!” (Aristophanes 5). The same irony is revealed by the Magistrate, who rejects Lysistrata’s ideas and proposals from the start. After getting acquainted with the them at first, he claims that it is nothing more but “the unbridled licentiousness of the female sex displaying itself” (Aristophanes 52). In such a context, it becomes difficult to recognize that Aristophanes laughs at women; on the contrary, he makes an attempt to criticize the actual conditions of women that Lysistrata fights against.
At the same time, Aristophanes reveals that women’s initial failure to engage into the social and political life of Athens is predisposed by numerous responsibilities they preserve as wives and mothers, which cannot be considered as another reason to laugh at women. In particular, when Lysistrata tries to gather all the women to persuade them in the importance of sabotaging their intimate life with husbands, she faces the fact that the women are overloaded with various tasks. Here, Calonice explains that a regular woman finds it difficult to leave her house: they all will be preoccupied either with pleasing their husbands or “putting the baby to sleep or washing and feeding it” (Aristophanes 3). Although this fact appears to be an obstacle for Lysistrata at first, she then turns it as an advantage for women to enter the political life. When Magistrate ironically asks how women can manage to be in charge of the treasury, Lysistrata replies to him that the women are used to being “in charge of all your housekeeping finances” (Aristophanes 59). At this point, it seems that the playwright laughs at the men’s failure to estimate the wit of women fairly.
Nevertheless, it could be suggested that the women headed by Lysistrata in the play use specifically a female tool to make men constitute peace between Athens and Sparta, namely the sex ban. However, it should be recognized that in the Greek mythology such an approach is not criticized but celebrated. For instance, it is a sex ban from the side of Alcmena that forces Heracles to avenge her brothers (Hall 29). Even though the outcomes differ in two cases, still it becomes evident that Greek males were easily subjected to such a measure. It also becomes possible to find a range of similarities while comparing Lysistrata not only with Alcmena but also with Melanippe the Wise and Hypsipyle (Hall 31). Still, the very execution of the female sex ban could be laughed at eventually while taking a closer look at the interaction between Myrrhine and her husband Cinesias. When he comes home and makes an attempt to engage her in the intercourse with him, Myrrhine addresses the main demand of the female ban from the start: to end the war. However, later one it becomes evident that this woman (possibly, similarly to others in the play) lacks diplomatic abilities to convince her husband. As a result, she has to deceit him while making Cinesias believe that she is to comply with his desire, but she eventually runs away (Aristophanes 119). In this light, it becomes possible to allege that the playwright laughs at the female cowardice to pursue their aim unconditionally; instead of it, they refer to certain tools that are widely considered and even condemned as female ones.
All things considered, it appears to be problematic to state that Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata is an attempt to laugh at women specifically, taking into account the very genre of this literary work. In fact, the author manages to reveal that women can execute much more roles than the Athenian society attributes to them. To a greater extent, the playwright seems to laugh at men and their underestimation of female qualities and methods, Here, it should be also reminded that the sex ban is quite a traditional approach to the persuasion in the context of the Greek mythology, so the introduction of this method in the play cannot be an attempt to laugh at women. Still, Aristophanes scarcely laughs at weakness of the women in the play who execute this ban poorly and nearly fail to resist their husbands, although they reach the initial goal.
Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Translated by Alan H. Sommerstein. Edexcel, 2003
Hall, Edith. The Many Faces of Lysistrata. From Looking at Lysistrata. London, Bristol Classical Press, 2011, pp. 29-37
O’Pry, Kay . “Social and Political Roles of Women in Athens and Sparta.” Saber and Scroll, vol. 1, no. 2, June 2012, pp. 7–14. : http://digitalcommons.apus.edu/saberandscroll/vol1/iss2/3.
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