Of the great comic poet of antiquity, though he has left us a vivid picture of his own personality, of what he loved, and what he despised, we know almost nothing with any certainty. He flourished about half a century after the great epoch of Athenian glory, and has given us immortal sketches of the Republic as it hastened to its speedy decline. Of his own life we know little more than this--
ARISTOPHANES, the son of Philippus, was probably an Athenian, born about 444 B.C. He was a lover of pleasure and of society, and is introduced as one of the brilliant revellers in Plato's Banquet. He won a prize with his first comedy in 427 B.C., soon after the opening of the Peloponnesian war, when he was still a lad under age. He continued to exhibit comedies over a period of 40 years; it is said that he produced 54, of which 11 only survive. He left three sons, all comic poets: and he died about 380 B.C., when Athens had lost all political importance, and all her great men except Plato and his followers.
Aristophanes was the unrivalled master of the Old Comedy, i.e. direct political, personal, and social satire; and in that sphere, he claimed a licence of caricature, buffoonery, and burlesque unequalled in the history of lampoon, ancient or modern. It was a time of intense activity and fierce struggle in the world of ideas as well as of politics. The poet, a passionate believer in the old heroes and the ancient institutions and manners of Athens, attacked in a series of satires the demagogues, the war politicians, the dandies, the quacks, the pettifoggers, the innovators in philosophy, politics, manners, and poetry. He is an intense and unscrupulous partisan, an incorrigible mocker of gods and men, and a bold asserter of the "good cause," and the "old times." He exhibits, with all his party acrimony and his extravagant ribaldry, a sound political sense, a conscientious conservatism, and a courageous love for what is just and true. In the downward race of a fickle democracy, he could be hardly anything but reactionary: and in an age hurrying into the artificial sophistry and the rhetorical trifling which so soon absorbed Athenian intellect, he makes blind onslaughts on social reformers like Socrates, and masters of tenderness like Euripides. Cleon the demagogue, Euripides the sentimentalist, and Socrates the type of the critical sophist, are the constant objects of his ridicule. In all these attacks there is much that is blind, not a little that is unfair. But to an earnest conservative like the poet, Cleon embodied the follies and conceit of democracy; Euripides, the taste for morbid rhetoric in poetry; and Socrates, the Rousseauism of antiquity, which subjected every established belief to a metaphysical criticism.
Democracy, metaphysics, and romanticism are the constant objects of his satire. But Aristophanes seems in his plays to have deliberately constituted himself moral censor of his time: -- at once the Boileau, the Swift, the Dr. Johnson, the Carlyle, in the decline and fall of Athens. In the lost Banquetters, his first play, he pleads for the old and manly education of youth. In the lost Babylonians he attacks the system of appointing offices by lot. Three plays, the Acharnians, the Peace, and the Lysistrata, are devoted to pleading for peace, during the horrors of the Peloponnesian war. In the Knights, he gives us his immortal parody of the demagogic arts of Cleon. As no one dared to represent the powerful orator, Aristophanes smeared his face with wine-lees, and boldly performed the part of Cleon himself. In the Clouds, Socrates is attacked as the archsophist, who corrupts youth by the new-fangled system developed in his Notion-shop. The Wasps is an attack on the partisan corruption of the law-courts. In the Birds, perhaps the best of all Aristophanes' comedies, if not the best of all extant burlesques, where the Birds resolve in council to build a new city in the sky, to be called Cloud-cuckoo-town, the poet was satirizing the extravagant schemes of imperial aggrandisement which led to the ruin of Athens. In the Frogs, he brings Aeschylus and Euripides into rival contest, and covers the latter with his ridicule and scorn. In the Plutus (Wealth), and the Women in Council, he takes up the questions of new social panaceas, the equalization of wealth, and the political equality of women. Never did poet treat satire more seriously and more systematically, as a weapon to combat folly and vice, and to teach justice and moral truth. Aristophanes is not always right; but he always had a moral purpose.
That, as poet and satirist, he showed every quality in perfection, the ancients and the moderns are agreed. His inexhaustible wit, his fantastic imagination, his rollicking humour, his exquisite visions of fairy-land, have never been equalled but by Shakespeare: they two only of poets have raised burlesque into the truly sublime. There are, moreover, in the choruses of these comedies, passages of lyric beauty and power which Pindar might envy; and in mastery of the Attic tongue, Sophocles and Plato alone can vie with Aristophanes. Unfortunately nearly all his plays are polluted with a coarseness and obscene ribaldry which have no parallel in ancient or modern literature. But these crapulous and priapic indecencies of his belong not so much to the man as to the age; and indeed they are part of the ancient rites of the god of revelry, from which comedy sprang. The nakedness and filthiness of these primitive survivals of nature-worship are rather disgusting than immoral. And Aristophanes, at least, converted a display of obsolete ribaldry to a lofty moral and social end.
His comedies combined all that, in modern times, is aimed at by political journalism, pictorial caricatures, poetical satires, comic opera and pantomime. If we take Aristophanes in all his elements, we should have to look for parallels to Swift's pamphlets and Travels of Gulliver, the caricatures of H.B. and Punch, the lyrics of Shelley and Victor Hugo, the fairy world of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Tempest, the invective of Junius, the irony of Courier, the humour of Carlyle; all represented with the musical accompaniment and the scenic resources of a modern theatre. Fortunately some conception of this amazing medley can be gathered from the excellent translations of Hookham Frere, T. Mitchell, and B.B. Rogers. The extinction of political activity and freedom in Athens was fatal to the direct satire of the Old Comedy. It passed by an easy transition into the New Comedy of Manners, of which Menander is the type, and which is the true parent of our modern comedy.
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|This biography is
reprinted from The New Calendar of Great Men. Ed. Frederic
Harrison. London: Macmillan and Co., 1920.