Aristophanes was a leading dramatist of ancient Athens and, owing to the quantity and quality of his works that have been preserved, is customarily recognized as being the leading comic playwright of his society and age. Greek comic drama passed through two main phases, referred to as Old Comedy and New Comedy. The transition between the two stages included Middle Comedy, which is largely conjectural, although the last work of Aristophanes is often ascribed to this stage. Old Comedy featured a chorus, which commented on the action in verse and song, mime and burlesque, as well as a sense of ribaldry, broad political satire, and farce. New Comedy dispensed with the chorus and adopted more of a sense of social realism, although this is still relative. As a representative of the end of one phase, Aristophanes was working in a time of innovation and change, and as might be expected, his works excited both favorable and unfavorable comment.
The entire canon of Aristophanes’ works is not known, but it is believed to have extended to perhaps 40 works, of which 11 have survived in partial or complete forms. His career coincided with the Peloponnesian War, and this formed the backdrop of many of his surviving major works. Aristophanes’ most fantastical play is The Birds, which follows the adventures of a group of birds who become so disaffected by life in their home city that they leave to establish their own, which is called Cloud Cuckoo Land and is suspended between heaven and earth.
The Birds can be read as an attack on the rulers of Athens and the idea that people would be better off elsewhere. Acharnians is an earlier play, which more directly addresses the misery of war. In Frogs the actions of the gods are explicitly brought into the sphere of humanity as Dionysus descends into hell to retrieve a famous tragedian to produce work that could enlighten the lives of the people of Athens, given the currently woeful state of that art in the city.
- Aristophanes: The Complete Plays. Trans. and ed. by Paul Roche. New York: Penguin, 2005;
- Bowie, A. W. Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996;
- Strauss, Leo. Socrates and Aristophanes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.