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Lysistrata | Discussion Questions 21 - 30

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How does verbal humor contribute to the comic impact of Lysistrata?

Lysistrata abounds with verbal humor, including many double entendres. For example Calonice makes this innuendo in the Prologos: "I know those women—they were up early/on their boats riding the mizzen mast." Much of the verbal humor is based on male stereotypes about females; the preceding example relies on the stereotype that Greek women were mad for sex. A good deal of the verbal humor—the exchanges between the choruses, in particular—is also particular to ancient Greek culture. Many allusions that would have tickled the funny bones of Aristophanes's contemporaries might mystify modern audiences. But the pure wit from Lysistrata's tongue is as funny today as it was thousands of years ago. Her best and most cutting humor revolves around people's weakness for sex. For example in Episode 3, when it's time for the ambassadors to negotiate peace, she says, "That task should not be difficult, unless/they're so aroused they screw each other. I'll quickly notice that." Lysistrata's understatement reveals her wry humor and makes the audience laugh with her.

How does physical humor contribute to the comic impact of Lysistrata?

Part of the fun of Old Comedy lies in the performance. Lysistrata contains a lot of slapstick humor; one obvious example is the Parados, where the Chorus of Old Women douse the Chorus of Old Men with water. Episode 2's scene between Myrrhine and Cinesias, in which the teasing wife leads on the desperate husband, can be milked for laughs from start to finish, whether or not Cinesias is wearing the traditional costume: a huge, erect phallus. In fact any scene in which a reversal occurs—and the play is full of them—can be played for laughs. For example imagine the scene in the Prologos in which Lysistrata, after getting all the women to agree they want their husbands home, tells them how they'll do it: by giving up sex. Horrors! The actors can have a field day acting out the ensuing protest. In spite of the challenges inherent in an ancient text, physical performance can help modern audiences see the humor in Lysistrata.

What is the significance of madness in Aristophanes's Lysistrata?

Throughout Lysistrata characters refer to the madness or insanity of the polis. Aristophanes suggests that wars happen because of madness in the population. The madness is embodied in the Chorus of Old Men, people from the lower classes who are easily whipped into frenzy. In the Parados the Chorus of Old Women fear the men's rage over the occupation of the Acropolis. Praying to Athena to protect Lysistrata and her comrades, the old women say, "witness how/they rescue cities, all of Greece,/from war and this insanity." Although the old men seem to be retired soldiers, the battles they brag about occurred before their lifetime. Their bloodlust seems to come from a false nostalgia for past glory that they have heard about but haven't experienced—a nostalgia fomented by the city's politicians. This madness leads to bizarre and antisocial behavior, such as trying to burn the temple of Athena and stripping naked in front of the most sacred site in the city.

In Lysistrata why does Lysistrata blame war on money?

Lysistrata tells the Magistrate money is the cause of war and "the rest of the corruption." She suggests that demagogues in the Probouloi—the wartime council of elder statesmen who have temporarily taken control of the government—stir up the passions of the polis for financial gain. Many elites such as Aristophanes questioned the selfless intentions of the Probouloi. One of their ambassadors, Peisander, was linked to efforts to permanently replace Athens's democracy with an oligarchy—rule by powerful individuals. "Peisander and our leading politicians need a chance to steal," Lysistrata says, so they start "stirring up disturbances." Demagogues have always used civil unrest as a pretext to gain control of society and its resources and profit through their own business dealings and bribes—in short, through corruption. Lysistrata understands the direct line from corruption to madness to war. "How'll you convince the Athenian mob?/They're mad for war," Lampito asks in the Prologos. Lysistrata's response is to seize the treasury herself—cutting off the money will starve the politicians of the reward for "stirring up disturbances." It will effectively silence the demagogues.

In what ways is Lysistrata's message relevant or not relevant today?

Lysistrata is relevant to everyone who feels their views are not represented by the powers that be. Behind the sex strike and the seizure of the treasury is one overall demand: that the men who orchestrate a society's march to war listen to the voices of those most affected by that war. That's why in 2003, in the run-up to the Iraq War, peace activists mounted the Lysistrata Project. The project's goal was twofold: to stop the war and to make ordinary citizens' voices matter. Of course, the project failed in its first goal, but the fact that the project staged 1,000 readings in 59 countries and reached 200,000 audience members suggests there is still an audience for Aristophanes's message.

How does Lysistrata reflect Greek comedy's roots in komos, the ancient revels that temporarily overturned the usual order things?

A komos was a band of disguised performers who entertained rural audiences during festivals. Their rowdy, carnivalesque performances suspended normal rules of behavior. This inversion of the social order allowed common folk to vent their frustrations about the oppression and hypocrises of the ruling class. Like the komos, Lysistrata entertains by temporarily inverting the social order—the play's entire plot depends on this inversion. The text is also full of verbal irony and images of inversion. The oracle, a supposedly divine message that Lysistrata shares with the unruly women in Episode 1, invokes just such an image. If the women will stick to the strike, according to the oracle, "Zeus will say/'What once was underneath on top I'll lay.'" The oracle is a double entendre about women being on top, both during sex and in society in general. Lysistrata uses the oracle to tell the women how to keep the upper hand, at least temporarily. The komos also helped people envision a world in which everyone would live in peace and harmony, if only everyone (including husbands and rulers) lived according to society's values—precisely the vision of society expressed in Lysistrata.

How does Myrrhine challenge stereotypes about women in Lysistrata?

One stereotype about women—as common today as in ancient Greece—is that they are deceitful. "Men say we're devious characters," Lysistrata complains in the Prologos. "Because by god we are!" Calonice answers. According to the stereotype, women only submit to sex to get something they want. At first blush Lysistrata's plot seems to confirm the stereotype: Lysistrata and her comrades swear off sex until men submit to their demands. In Episode 2 Myrrhine acts out the stereotype explicitly, working Cinesias into a frenzied state of arousal before instructing him to vote for peace. "I'm planning to," says the desperate husband. Aristophanes challenges the stereotype of female deviousness by demonstrating women are more complicated than that. In context Myrrhine's actions are understandable. Women are fed up with war. They have no political power; they can't even speak out in public (even in the play, male actors play female roles). They have one dramatic card to play—the basic human drive for love and sex—and they play it well. That women's voiceless position in society occasionally drives them to trickery and deceit is understandable; that men paint such trickery as universally ill-willed is indefensible.

How does Aristophanes characterize the Magistrate in Lysistrata?

The Magistrate is the most vilified character in the play, and he appears to deserve it. He behaves like a rude, entitled, violent bully. He spouts off anecdotes that question the honor of Athenian wives; he calls Lysistrata stupid, tells her to shut up, and threatens her with violence; and he aims to pry open the gates of the Acropolis with a crowbar, an image of violation that none of younger men in the play dare suggest, no matter how "horny" they are. While the Chorus of Old Men also act like bullies, they are far too ridiculous to be truly threatening, and they eventually succumb to the loving gestures of the Chorus of Old Women in Stasimon 2. The Magistrate, Aristophanes suggests, doesn't deserve such gestures. Aristophanes's audience would recognize the Magistrate as a member of the Probouloi—a wartime council of elder statesmen that temporarily suspended the state's normal democratic operations. Aristophanes's unflattering portrait of the Probouloi suggests these figures were unpopular with most Athenians.

How does greed motivate the Chorus of Old Men and the Magistrate to behave as they do in Lysistrata?

Aristophanes suggests that the Chorus of Old Men behave as they do out of a proprietary feeling toward the Acropolis, and particularly the treasury it contains. To get by, we learn in the Parados, the old men rely on the money the state pays them to serve on juries. The Leader of the Men's Chorus complains that Lysistrata and her comrades are keeping him from "the funds I need to live my way." "What's this, you utter scoundrels?" says the Leader of the Women's Chorus mockingly. She has no sympathy, saying, "No decent, God-fearing citizens would act like this." The old women find these men useless and allergic to real work. The Magistrate also seems to be motivated by greed. In the play's Agon he comes to the Acropolis to get money, and he tells Lysistrata, "We need cash to carry on the war." Lysistrata suspects that the Magistrate's eagerness to get his hands on the treasury stems from his own profiteering, and is determined to keep the money out of the his hands.

How do the Chorus of Old Men and the Magistrate reveal their misogyny in Lysistrata?

Although greed for the money inside the treasury is what brings the old men and the Magistrate to the Acropolis initially, the raw hostility they direct toward the women inside can only be attributed to pure misogyny. In the Parados, the Chorus of Old Men threaten to burn the women alive—taking the Acropolis, the temple of Athena, down with them. In the Agon, the Magistrate doesn't try to mask his misogyny—an unreasoning and hypocritical vilification of women. For example, after delivering a scorching indictment of women, full of obscene innuendo, he castigates an old woman in the chorus for having "a dirty mouth." Greed is what brings the Chorus of Old Men and the Magistrate to the Acropolis, but misogyny is what makes their attacks so vicious.

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