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The Symbolism of Real-life Events in Aristophane's Lysistrata

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Written in 411 BCE, two years after the disastrous Athenian defeat in her Expedition to Sicily, the events of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata take place during a similar conflict-ridden setting of the Peloponnesian War between the dominant powers of Athens and Sparta. This is important to highlight due to the content of the passage (Aristophanes, 576-86) being analysed. It is whereby the Magistrate has journeyed to the Acropolis to obtain money for the Athenian fleet. He is soon left alone with titular character Lysistrata and they argue over the best way to ‘save’ Greece from war. An extended metaphor is a dominating characteristic in this passage being used by Lysistrata to describe Greece’s current condition “like a ball of yarn when it gets tangled up.” (567). Its theme of wool-making and sewing inserts the female characters into the political narrative in addition to making clear a need for political change.

The comic play in its entirety was an unusual genre of its time – having women portrayed in such dominant roles, as well as the boisterous way they were characterised. Such a feature, for the all-male audience of the time, “allowed a voyeuristic glimpse into a feminine world normally off-limits” The semantics of wool-making incorporates the feminine world into the world of men. The introduction of sewing into the dialogue here and comparing it to politics and war is met with confusion by the male magistrate: “You really think your way with wool and yarn balls and spindles can stop a terrible crisis?” (571). Here the Magistrate is, arguably, reflecting what the male audience would have been thinking about this comparison: that Lysistrata has no understanding of how war works, due to her feminine mindset – the masculine world being brutal and chaotic and the feminine world being its stable counterpart. However, her following exchange (577-586) of what she intends to do to end the war foregrounds an integration of the domestic sphere and the public sphere. She aims to treat the issues of war, caused by men, with the same careful attention that women must dedicate to the fragility of wool-making and sewing– envisioning the public world “as an enlarged domestic sphere into which the men have inappropriately admitted war. ” So rather than use the finances in the Acropolis to fund the Athenian fleet to continue the war – as was the aim of the Magistrate entering the Acropolis originally– she would use it to improve the city and solve the war “by sending embassies, now this way, now that way” (573-574); diplomatically.

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Another notable feature of this section of the play is that of the symbolism in lines 577-586 in which Lysistrata describes the process by which a “fleece just shorn” becomes a “fine new cloak”. It is an analogy for how the political system of Athens would be changed if Lysistrata had her way. The “fleece just shorn” represents the conflict-ridden Athens in which the play takes place – the fresh fleece having imperfections; ragged edges, stained by filth and requiring improvements. “The thorns as for those who clump and snap themselves together to snag government positions” likely refer to the ambitious, self-serving politicians who ruin the quality of the system or ‘wool’. She condemns their existence, even explicitly suggests to “pluck off their heads” (this being literal or metaphorical is not known) and instead stresses a “sewing basket of unity and goodwill” (580). Here, it is a display of how the “Home and city emerge… as household tasks become the recipe for civic reform.. ”

In particular, the symbolism in referring to the Athenian colonies as sheep belonging to the same flock and threading their wool together to create the result of a “fine new fleece” contributes to the overarching theme of a ‘better Greece’ in which is made by all for all. Here, it is likely that Aristophanes refers to the events of the Sicilian Expedition – its failure aggravating the Athenian population to be “angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition” (Thuc. 8.1. 1), Aristophanes appears to be included in this demographic. A common characteristic of his works to critique select individuals, Lysistrata is Aristophanes’ microcosm by which he criticises these orators who endorsed the Expedition and the corrupt politicians (for example, Alcibiades – who was famous for switching sides from Athens to Sparta to Persia) who issued the order to head to Italy to obtain the ‘supposed’ wealth there; motivated by greed and self-gain.

This overlapping of the two spheres and the focus on the importance of change to both of these realms show that, as argued by Blundell, “Aristophanes, for one, seems to have been conscious of the fact that the overlap between private and public concerns meant that women, by drawing on their domestic skills, might be capable of making an intellectual as well as physical contribution to the well-being of the state. ” However optimistic this view may be – that Aristophanes, portraying women in dominant protagonist roles could be considered as a ‘proto-feminist’ – it is more likely not the case. The comedic genre subtracts this hopeful element as Aristophanes uses the ‘unrealistic’ situation of women collectively emerging from their homes and holding a nationwide sex-strike to demand change to further ridicule high profile figures and the on-going war, as if to say ‘look, even the women have had to get involved’.

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