The masterpieces of comedy produced by Aristophanes, the sharp and lewd wit of fifth-century Athens, may forever play supporting roles to their tragic counterparts. However, Lysistrata, a fantasy in which Greek women stage a sit-in/sex strike to end the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, maintains a special place in dramatic and literary history. Featuring a title character whose name loosely translates as “she who disbands armies,” its current popular recognition can be mostly credited to perennial productions that use its theme of “love not war” (or more precisely “no love until no war”) to stage public challenges to military conflict. The most significant recent example was the Lysistrata Project, which presented thousands of readings of the play as an action against the pending U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. While Lysistrata is not specifically an antiwar play (Lysistrata is no pacifist, as she cheers efforts to destroy the Hellenes, depicted in the play as barbarians), it is a play that depicts the possibility of peace, forged unexpectedly by the power of women’s chastity. Lysistrata is essentially an act of hope driven by a fundamental gender power reversal, which is fueled by the often underestimated forces of sex and sexuality, sensuality, and eroticism. It is for this reason that many audiences, critics, and scholars have reflected, to paraphrase, that it is a play that will be pertinent as long as men and women make love and as long as human beings try to kill one another, and thus, sex and war remain fundamental to human existence.
Ben Fisler Gender in Lysistrata If sex is the fuel Lysistrata and her confederates use to transform the world, gender is the world that they set ablaze, by turning the Athenian status quo on its head. Aristophanes sets the scene by referencing Athenian gender standards, combining the Greek perception that women are driven by their appetites, particularly sexual desire, with the ancient reality of extreme patriarchy. In the text, Athenian women have no virtually no political power, and they acknowledge that; Athenian men perceive women as being controlled by their passions, and the women recognize that. Thus, the play creates a fantasy where women have the support of both Aphrodite (to drive the men into a sexual frenzy first) and Athena (the virgin goddess who contains the women’s needs as they stage their sex strike/sit-in at her sacred Acropolis). Within what the primarily male Greek audience would have seen as a fantasy, women achieve considerable power and restraint, allowing them to act with surprising agency. Calonice both bespeaks and personifies the idea that women are driven by their sexuality, when Lysistrata begins to suggest the plan. First, she doubts that women can help the war effort, given their inability to do anything “but sit at home looking pretty, wearing saffron gowns” (l. 47). Then, she becomes entirely distracted by her own fantasies of saffron gowns and slippers (ll. 51–53). Later, the entire gathering of women hears Lysistrata’s plan and proceeds to exit the stage. Myrrhine proclaims that she would be cut in half or “walk through fire, or anything else but renounce sex, never” (ll. 133–135). It takes much convincing for the women to accept the strategy, given that “there’s nothing like [sex]” (l. 136). It is the shield oath that gives women the power to renounce their passions, drawing on the power of the virgin goddess, Athena, to control their normally uncontrollable sex drives. Lysistrata has a direct confrontation with the representative of Athenian law, the Magistrate, in which she recognizes the status quo. Lysistrata: Always till now we have uncomplainingly endured whatever you men did. And what did [our husbands] always say? “Shut up and mind your own business!” And I did. Magistrate: You’d have been for it if you hadn’t. Lysistrata: Exactly—so I kept quiet. (ll. 508–518) In the same argument, however, Lysistrata justifies the women’s power to affect the present revolt. Magistrate: You in charge of state money? Lysistrata: We’ve always been in charge of all your household finances. (ll. 494–496) Thus, even as Aristophanes allows his characters to articulate the imbalance between male and female power in Athens, he identifies the possibility that women might be trained to affect action. Though they are the most obvious examples, it is not the sex strike nor the occupation of the Acropolis that constitute the most aggressive reversal of patriarchy in Lysistrata. The conflict between the old women and old men of Athens, which occurs between lines 254 and 463, is a far more direct disruption of the status quo. The men approach with torches to burn out the feud and are met by women who use water to quench their flames. This incident is enhanced by references to the soaking as a “wedding bath” and to the discomforts of age: “[O]ur clothes are wringing wet as if we were incontinent” (ll. 403–404). These comments affirm the metaphor of the conflict; the sexual center of womanhood (characterized by liquidity) defeating the sexual center of manhood (characterized by a phallic-shaped flame). The metaphorical defeat gives way to an even more direct reversal of the power structure, as the women achieve victory in an unrestrained brawl. While the entire play is an example of the world turned upside down, this centerpiece scene crosses into the realm of civil unrest. The play reverses the ancient status quo to such an extent that it is often interpreted as protofeminist. There is no question that Aristophanes was progressive in his views of women, at least in so far as a fifth-century Athenian male citizen could have been.
It is probable that some of his literary and public attacks on Euripides stemmed from the tragedian’s popularly observed misogyny. However, the play is a comic fantasy, one that ends with a return to the status quo that the strike temporarily turns on its head. Lysistrata herself gives her comrades in arms back to their husbands. Clearly, Aristophanes is far less interested in female empowerment for women’s sake than for the political goal of bringing the long war to an end. This is his hope. Ben Fisler Hope in Lysistrata In sum, the play is an act of hope. Aristophanes suggests a peaceful solution to the Athenian/Spartan conflict in which Greek citizens choose love over war, and he proposes that women might be the source of this transformative power. He also suggests that all Greek nations share a certain basic humanity, even as he exploits national differences (actually presented as stereotypes) for comedic effect. The textual mix of Greek religious and historical references and the march of diverse regional types compel the spectators to remember that “we are all Greeks” within the context of comedy. Lysistrata proclaims the possibility that women might be the last best hope for peace during her debate with the Magistrate. Many a time we’d hear at home about some major political blunder of yours . [Do you think] we should not be allowed to make the least little suggestion to you, no matter how you mismanage your affairs? But now every time two men meet in the street, what do they say? Isn’t there a man in the country? And the answer comes, “Not one.” That’s why we women got together and decided to unite and save Greece .You listen to us—and it’ll be good advice we give—listen to us and keep quiet, like you made us do, and we’ll set you to rights. (ll. 511–528, original emphasis) This speech does not suggest that patriarchy will be demolished in favor of a government of women, nor one of gender equality. It suggests that out of desperation for some wisdom and responsibility, any alternative to the madness of the current state of affairs is worth trying. To both sweeten the appeal of peace and maintain humor, Aristophanes uses references to regional differences among the Greeks. The Spartans speak with a rustic dialect, suggesting their roughneck contrast with Athenian sophistication, and Lampito herself salivates over the prospect of heavy drinking as they prepare wine for the oath (l. 197). The Athenian women comment on the odor of the citizens of Anagyrus and the body weight of Corinthian noblewomen. This provides humorous recognition of perceived cultural difference but reaffirms the variety of Greek peoples, in opposition to far more greatly feared Persians or hated barbarians. The subtle reminder of pan-Greek civilization provides a foundation for its shared history, affirmed during the official reconciliation at the finale. In a Spartan’s song and dance celebrating the peace, Aristophanes simultaneously recognizes pan- Greek history and maintains an ironic tone appropriate to comedy. The Spartan praises Athenian sea victories and the military prowess of Sparta, then references both the sacrifices of Leonidas and the Spartan force at Thermopylae and the sea battle at Artemisium. He sings of the bravery and resolve of both nations against the Persian threat, reminding the audience of the days of Greek unity. Ironically, Thermopylae ended with every Spartan soldier dead, and Artemisium failed to halt the Persian war machine. A tragic poet might have chosen more decisive victories, but Aristophanes maintains the satirical techniques of comedy, even as he celebrates a victory won by the hand of female soldiers wielding the powerful scepter of sex. Ben Fisler Sex and Sexuality in Lysistrata Lysistrata is a play about sex that, when translated honestly, is transparently pornographic. Efforts by post-1960s translators, such as Jeffrey Henderson and Alan H. Sommerstein, have embraced the blatant vulgarity and bawdiness central to the play specifically and, in many ways, to Greek comedy in general. However, references to male and female genitalia, the mechanics of sexual activity, and the lusty desires of men and women, both young and old, should not be taken as low-brow humor incorporated for mere shock value. The play’s bold sexual references give it much of its power. Sexuality is the source of much humor, but it is also the primary mechanism for hope. Lysistrata proposes that the lust for copulation is the only human desire that outmatches the lust for blood, and that sexual gratification withheld can transform the world. The play explores in depth the exploitative power sex holds over our species. Central to the women’s oath is a manipulation strategy; Lysistrata orders the women not merely to withhold sex but to simultaneously encourage the desire for it. “I will live at home in unsullied chastity wearing my saffron gown and my sexiest make-up to inflame my husband’s ardour but I will never willingly yield myself to him” (ll. 217–24). Aristophanes foreshadows a world in which women will not ignore the men but deliberately use their charms to arouse them (audiences are made to assume that this will primarily be women like those of Sparta who have not barricaded themselves in the Acropolis, which is the second prong of the peace strategy).
The playwright asks the spectator to imagine all Greek male citizens reduced to drooling, frustrated beasts as the Greek women tease them mercilessly but refuse to “put out.” This image of men reduced to docile sheep by unrequited sexual desire is solidified in the play’s final moments, when the military will of all Greece has been broken by the strike. A Spartan delegate, who has been reluctant to agree to the reconciliation (probably a reference to historical Spartan militancy) gives in when its representative proves to be a beautiful naked woman named Reconciliation. Given Sparta’s extreme warrior culture, the exhibition of one of their men tamed by being sex-starved implies that the rest of the Greek world has degraded perhaps to the level of zombie slaves, owing to their unsatisfied needs. While most of the play’s sexual content centers on humorous references and the global effects of chastity, one particularly famous scene provides a spectacle of sensuality that never fails to delight. Myrrhinne’s husband, Cinesias, comes looking for her, and what follows is a microcosm of the larger conflict between the sexes, a struggle between lust and politics, with Cinesias using all the components of home and marriage against Myrrhine’s negotiation and resolve. Cinesias enters with the energy of a satyr (the half goat/half human attendants of Dionysus), made all the bolder by his enormous, fully erect phallus (a comic spin on the costume standard of Greek comedy, the usually flaccid phallus). He begs an audience with Myrrhine, using their infant son as bait: “Surely you can’t harden your heart against your baby! It’s five days now since he had a bath or a suck” (l. 880). He then reminds her that siding with the women is leaving their home unattended, but that more significantly, it leaves them both with “pain” resulting from secret rites of Aphrodite unperformed (l. 893). Cinesias makes a show of capitulating to the women’s demands. Though she will not agree to come home until the peace agreement is fulfilled, Myrrhine does agree to “lie down” with him in Pan’s Grotto. The repeatedly averted sex act that plays out in lines 915–957 would have similarly impacted audiences in Athens of the year 411 as it does today, continual building anticipation of a spectacle that is consistently aborted. Public sex was illegal at Athenian sanctuaries, as it is in most public places in the present day. Thus, for them to perform it in front of 14,000 spectators would have stretched the comic energy to the point of near scandal. Audiences are drawn into Cinesias’s frustration as Myrrhine first excuses herself to retrieve a bed and then, in sequence, a mattress, a pillow, a blanket, and two different bottles of perfume. When he accidentally reveals that he does not intend to push for peace as he promised, Myrrhine abandons her frustrated husband. The averted lovemaking stages Lysistrata’s challenge to the war and affirms the impact a sex strike would have on the men of Greece.
The mastery of Aristophanes’ text is not that it is rife with dirty jokes, though it is, nor that some of those jokes are outright shocking, though he is a skilled author of bawdy lines and images. Rather, it is that those moments of lewdness amount to a hopeful suggestion that war might not be the true constant in human civilization. Sex might be even more essential to our needs, though we may only realize that when sex is taken away. By weaving bawdy references throughout the text, Aristophanes mandates sex as a more ubiquitous force than violence. Sexuality becomes the power that fuels the efforts of Greek women to forge a peace. Exploring themes of gender and hope more deeply, one finds that in Aristophanes’s fantasy world, sexuality gives women the ability to transform a reality in which they would otherwise have no influence on global affairs. Ben Fisler