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Aristophanes | Biography

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When people think of the dramatists of Athens's Golden Age—a period of great political, economic, and cultural power lasting from 480 to 404 BCE—four names come to mind: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. One of these was not like the others; Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides wrote tragedies, but Aristophanes was a comic poet. Despite the towering reputation Aristophanes enjoys in ancient Greek theater, little is known about his life. He was born in Athens around 450 BCE. His first play, The Banqueters, won second place at the famed dramatic festival City Dionysia in 427 BCE—an impressive feat for the work of a novice playwright. He went on to write at least 40 plays, 11 of which survive today. Many incomplete fragments of his other works also survive.

Aristophanes had two sons to whom he passed on the trade of comic stagecraft. He represented his neighborhood in the Athens Council, as was his duty as a male citizen, and he had friends among the intellectual elite. Plato's Symposium recounts a dinner party at which the philosopher Socrates and a very hung-over Aristophanes were both guests. Though the two were apparently friends, Aristophanes satirized Socrates's teachings in his play Clouds, contributing to the philosopher's forced suicide. Aristophanes also satirized some of the ideas in Plato's Republic in his own play The Women's Assembly—ideas he may have heard at another dinner party, since Plato didn't publish the Republic until after Aristophanes died.

Satire was Aristophanes's stock in trade; all 11 of his existing comedies are political satires. He was the most famous practitioner of Old Comedy, the first phase of ancient Greek comedy, which was characterized by satires of contemporary politicians. Modern audiences are sometimes surprised by the energetic attacks on public figures in Aristophanes's plays. However, free speech was protected during Athens's Golden Age—as long as it did not undermine democracy itself. Aristophanes's satire did land him in trouble more than once with the thin-skinned Cleon, who led Athens in the Golden Age's waning days. Twice Cleon prosecuted Aristophanes for slander, but the satirist was never convicted.

Over time Aristophanes overturned many of Old Comedy's conventions. For instance Lysistrata, performed in 411 BCE at the height of the Peloponnesian War, is the first known Old Comedy to feature a female lead. Another of Aristophanes's innovations was to split the chorus, usually representing a unified group of citizens, into two opposing groups representing the old men and old women of Athens. As his career progressed, Aristophanes dispensed with more and more of the traditional structures of Old Comedy, including the prominent role of the chorus; by the time Aristophanes died, around 388 BCE, Old Comedy was effectively finished. Aristophanes's innovations helped pioneer the new forms that arose in its place.

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