Aristophanes’ Nature of Humor in Theatrical Comedy Lysistrata

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As a form of language which is succinct and easily conveyed, comedy is a fundamental manner of expression, whether through words or through action. Lysistrata, a theatrical comedy by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, provides a starting place from which to investigate the nature of humor. When applied to the broad context of rhetoric, humor possesses a transcendent power over other rhetorical forms by virtue of its heightened ability to actively influence the way in which an audience perceives people and ideas. Humor presents itself as both fulfilling and manipulative and is an indispensable tool of discourse that can serve the interests of all people.

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Humor, as it exists in Lysistrata and from a modern perspective, can be defined as a visual or verbal expression that is designed with the intent of inciting laughter. Whether it is channeled through a single orator or through many as in a theatrical comedy, humor operates on its audience in an insistent manner—we have little control over the initial reaction to something we find very funny. The presence of laughter among an audience, however, cannot speak to the presence of humor; a joke or action may make us laugh, but nothing directly compels us to find it humorous or not. Aside from it being an indication of amusement, laughter may be a reaction to an entirely different influence, such as the desire for social acceptance or to ease personal tension or embarrassment. While laughter is largely an instantaneous and unconscious reaction to how humor is constructed and presented, assessing whether something is humorous or not is an action that is definitively more conscious. Unlike laughter, there is nothing reactionary that can confine one’s determination of whether something is humorous.

Although humor appeals more to the provocation of laughter, humor operates on both a direct responsive level as well as a reflective mental level, which indicates that there is a depth to using humor that is not readily perceived by those who are exposed it. Additionally, this distinction implies that this inner determination of whether something is humorous is indicative of a deeper consideration. If, for example, we attend the performance of a stand-up comedian, it is understood that the comedian is attempting to entertain; their primary aim is not to change the audience’s perspective on the issues that are presented. Humor goes beyond entertainment, however. It subconsciously compels us to question the content of what is addressed through mediums such as comedy. Although the comedian may only want to make his or her audience laugh, what is introduced in their routine may make us question why certain topics are humorous to a certain audience and how the choice to tell a particular kind of joke is reflective of the views of an audience. To provide an example, humor relating to a certain race of people over another during a routine may incite such debate. Due to this stimulation of thought that humor entails, comedy presents great implications for those who would like to change the opinion of their audience. For a politician, humor may be implemented with the intent of changing the political perspective of others in favor of his own. This also has great application for theatrical productions that border on the absurd or ridiculous, such as Lysistrata, by demonstrating that humor has a much more inherent value than it initially presents itself to possess. There is some degree of idealism, however, in attempting to use humor for the purpose of persuading others. Even with an approach to humor that is carefully constructed to uproot the views of an audience on a certain matter, the speaker may only succeed in conveying that it was intended to amuse.

By constructing a role-reversed society where women acquire complete political authority in his play, Lysistrata, Aristophanes leverages comedy as a means of addressing the error of Athenian aggression through the swift and almost effortless action of women by withholding sex from their husbands in order to bring war to an end. Reversing the roles of men and women in Lysistrata was a particularly comedic choice in Aristophanes’ time because women were viewed as having no ability to take on the multitude of roles that men unquestionably occupied in Athenian society. As the Magistrate says in reference to the takeover of the women: “How terrible is it to stand here and watch them carding and winding at will with our fate, witless in war as they are.” The fact that men played the parts of the women characters in Lysistrata as it was performed in Ancient Greece serves to further reinforce this view. Although the frivolity and the excessive sex drive of the women (save Lysistrata) do not render them as the superior beings within this story, they are ultimately triumphant when pitted against men from the Assembly and the Athenian military, as embodied by the physical and verbal embarrassment that they impose on the Magistrate and his guards. Only by transgressing the lines of gender, physical strength, as well as political and financial influence are women able to enact reform, and in so doing, Aristophanes acknowledges the limits which society imposes on Athenian women. In reality, Athenian women would have had no influence to spur widespread change in any capacity and the ability for them to successfully manipulate the actions and desires of men in Lysistrata helps to reinforce this norm.

Aristophanes plays off of the diminished position of Athenian women by introducing humor that is reflective of the subservient manner that men perceived them. The role of the married woman in Athens was to simply remain at home, weave and card clothes for the family, take care of the children, and maintain the household while their husband was gone. The actions that the women perform all point to a vast knowledge that far exceeds the expectations of men. The act of seizing the Acropolis and freezing the funds required for war points to their cognizance of money in enabling a war to be fought. From an ethical standpoint, the ability for them to effectively unite supports an understanding of the common good; something of which men, too immersed in fighting wars, have no notion. The epitome of the woman’s unappreciated role emerges in Lysistrata’s metaphor of removing the tangles within wool. Aristophanes utilizes the carding of wool, an act reserved to women, to speak about war and foreign affairs. While this would have had great comedic effect during its heyday as the intertwining of two gendered, and therefore opposed, actions, it serves to illuminate a very important political matter: As Calonice explains, “It's hard for women, you know, to get away. There's so much to do; husbands to be patted and put in good tempers: servants to be poked out: children washed or soothed with lullays or fed with mouthfuls of pap.” Unlike war that can simply be stopped, a woman’s work is never finished.

Through the humor of utilizing women to end war in such a swift manner, Aristophanes attempts to show the flaw in aggression among men and the choice to engage in war. From this perspective, the Peloponnesian war is represented as a frivolous war; one that was characterized more by the aggressive tendency of men, rather than a desire to fight for peace. It is the women, commonly perceived as being the weaker of the two genders, as the group that is successful because of their lean towards peace as opposed to conflict. Lysistrata demonstrates that the preservation of peace is most valuable and it can be achieved so easily that even Athenian women can do it. From a modern standpoint, Aristophanes’ play has the same noble message. While the Athenian stereotype of women is typically dismissed as an antiquated view, when applied to the context of current conflict, Lysistrata still speaks to a political slant that exists, especially within the United States, to react to foreign nations with militant mobilization. In spite of all the aggression, whether foreign or on the home front, that may stand in the way, Lysistrata serves as a reminder for how peace should be the end towards which all political action should strive.

What Aristophanes likely intended as a farcical comedy through the use of sexually charged Athenians and giant phalluses, functions today as a piece of social realism. This play, which was written immediately after the Peloponnesian War in which thousands of Athenian soldiers had fought to the death against Sparta, was a particularly sensitive time to release a production that served as an indictment of war. For all its inappropriateness, this play was tolerated by the Athenian public and has survived to be modernized in the present day because it was of a comedic format. Aristophanes deliberately pushed certain concepts beyond the bounds of what was credible at the time and the clearly conveyed absurdity of the play was essential to its positive reception.

Considering that comedy can be very polarized in its approach as compared to traditional written and spoken discourse, it may appear that humor cannot appropriately handle complex concerns. By virtue of the pleasure involved in watching a theatrical comedy, an audience more easily contemplates topics that may typically be difficult to navigate. The power of drawing the attention of a crowd through comedy also provides a powerful argument for the use of humor in the act of teaching others. People can certainly digest a serious lecture, but heavy thought alone can be very mentally taxing for an audience. If a lecture can be massaged with comedy, then the viewers may think they are just being entertained, while in fact, a valuable lesson can potentially be conveyed.

The value that comedy possesses in departing so far from conventional rhetoric is revealed through its ability to reshape the personal views of the audience. Comedy can make more extreme claims because it has greater value in what further thought it stimulates, rather than what is concrete about the play. The disruptive ideas that comedy can present move the audience to question their current outlook on the topic at hand. In the Boston College interpretation of Lysistrata, the manner in which the old women effortlessly defeated the Athenian guards was entirely unexpected to the audience and was met with great laughter within the theater. Although this interaction may have only registered with some viewers in terms of amusement, it is representative of how the effectiveness of comedy exists in the accessibility of its humor. This paradigm shift in which women have greater strength than men illuminates how comedy can topple mental barriers that we possess in regard to certain issues in order to bring important considerations into focus. In this situation, one might ask: For as easily as these guards were defeated, what makes men more worthy than women in having this role of authority?

As applied to the practice of rhetoric in general, comedy is a form that possesses a distinct role by providing a variation of speech and content that traditional discourse cannot. This is particularly useful within a political context, where a change in presentation can give politicians a competitive edge. The focus of the vast majority of political discourse involves the concern of policy, where candidates stand on important public issues such as the economy, governance, and reform. The interjection of humor serves to fragment the tedium of traditional political discourse. Using humor is very impactful in such a setting because it is so perceptible; a sudden breach of seriousness in political rhetoric stands in stark contrast with the upstanding and proper tone of political discourse. The entertaining quality of humor can draw the audience towards not only the discussion at hand, but also that orator's opinion. Humor reveals a spontaneous and quick-witted characteristic about the speaker that gives them a more personal quality in the midst of the oversaturated political topics being addressed. In a system that allows for the presence of scripted and therefore premeditated speech, a person who uses humor in their rhetoric may strike the viewer as more organic and genuine. Humor validates the speaker in a personal sense by revealing a prowess in their ability to speak and their underlying intelligence in constructing humorous remarks. While humor has little to do with the politician’s personal views and may not authorize their perspective on certain issues, it allows for the dissemination of their political ideas on a larger scale because of the increased appeal of listening to them and is ultimately a positive effect.

Additionally, when it is used as a rhetorical strategy, comedy can function as an attractive force that can garner greater support from an audience. People prefer to see rather than to be told by others that someone is an individual of good character and comedy is a way that an individual can attempt to reveal a possession of character. When used by a political candidate, who may be perceived to have high social standing, humor has great value in its ability to express honesty. The use of honest or self-deprecating humor is appealing because it indicates that the speaker is both realistic and has an awareness and acceptance of oneself. For one to place themselves as the butt of a joke shows that a person knows their individual bounds, which helps to degrade the notion that there exist negative personality traits, such as arrogance, within their character. Especially in contentious contexts such as an election, it serves as a nice change of pace to see an individual poke fun at him or herself. From the perspective of the speaker, poking fun at oneself poses the risk of lowering one’s authoritative position. This honesty or truthfulness that their humor presents, however, functions to exalt one’s view of them because of their realistic take on themselves. While their message may serve as a reminder that the political candidate is not divine, it can improve our opinion of that person as an individual with whom we stand on equal ground. From this perspective, it is in the interest of the orator to use comedy because it incites the goodwill of others by exposing a grounded and lighthearted nature that cannot be revealed through traditional political discourse.

Humor can equally serve as a repulsive force against the words or the character of others. Just as the quality of one's character can be bolstered by humor, the utility of humor is grounded in its positive nature. When properly crafted, one can shift the tone of conversation from negative, accusatory rhetoric to a more positive exchange. When considered in this manner, humor is often used to pivot from an uncomfortable comment to a point of superiority. Instead of returning slander with slander, humor diverts the power of an affront from a competing politician by not taking the comment seriously while entertaining the audience in the process. Conversely, because it is cloaked in laughter and amusement, humor can place an individual in a better position to criticize an opponent or another individual. By capitalizing on the universal appeal of what is amusing, humor can be implemented in an antagonistic way by helping to illuminate the shortcomings of others. The attractiveness of humor can frame an attack in a very memorable manner that serves to reinforce these deficiencies that certain candidates may possess or may be perceived to possess. Additionally, humor can allow us to exceed the normal use of rhetoric, as seen in Lysistrata, by providing us with the means of making more inflammatory remarks or political attacks against our enemies that normal discourse would permit. When introduced into political discourse for practical reasons, humor can be used as a tool to either unite or to divide people.

The presence of humor is necessary in the realm of communication because it articulates the person in a way that straight speech cannot. For all of its vulgar humor and sexual innuendo, Lysistrata communicates to its audience, whether past or present, in a very striking way. While the form of tragedy has been posited as the interaction between the human form and the divine, theatrical comedy brings human beings down to their most base level. Comedy forces people to think in a less idealized manner. In traditional discourse, we are often free to express things in the way that is most pleasing to us. The shortcoming of traditional discourse is that thinking in terms of what is ideal is not always in our best interest as people. When politicians present their approach to governance, for example, they tend to prescribe what they think is the best approach, rather than being realistic about their limits and, consequently, the reform that they are able to create. While it is not clear whether comedy presents a more or less accurate depiction of the world, it forces us to think more critically about the nature of things. There is nothing wrong with lofty thinking—it gives us a better idea of what we, as human beings, are capable. Alternatively, comedy functions as the logical lower bound of our thinking, one that makes us aware of both the good and the bad of human nature.

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