The Old Comedy in ancient Greece was born from the Dithyrambs that were performed during the Bacchic festivals, and it was characterized by great freedom of expression. The poets of the Old Comedy took advantage of this ancient privilege of absolute freedom to give rein to their imagination, and the Old Comedy knew no religious or political boundaries, and also indulged to excesses with unbridled joy and most biting satire particularly against politics and politicians.
There were not so much prominent citizens in Greece that had been able to escape the lash of satire, in which the faults of the system were underlined, and it offered solace to many people, excluding, obviously, the politicians who were the privileged subject of parody. Until the democratic political system flourished in Athens, the freedom of the Old Comedy was virtually absolute, as essential feature of political freedom.
Born in Athens around 420 BC, Aristophanes was the most interesting of the comic writers. He composed sixty plays, but there still remain ten-eleven, which are entitled: Pluto, The Clouds, The Knights, The Acharnians, The Wasps, Peace, Birds, Lysistrata and Frogs. These comedies offer us a faithful picture of Athenian manners, and had a political purpose, informing us about the condition of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Aristophanes enjoyed great esteem for having spent his life for patriotic purposes, siding his interests in favor of justice and truth, revealing both Government failures with unusual courage and lashing the vices of the populist demagogues.
The Old Comedy was so closely linked to the democratic freedom of the Athenians, and it declined with the end of democratic government. After the Peloponnesian War, the so-called Thirty Tyrants took over control of Athens, and fearing satirical spirit of the Old Comedy, which attacked everyone without any distinction of social prestige, they banned with a special law that politicians were exposed to ridicule on scenes of Greek Theatre. The Old Comedy was therefore obliged to limit its attacks against politicians, but to talk about the vices and virtues of men in general. This transition was called Middle Comedy, where the satire was surely less harsh , but retained its primitive nature in the Chorus , characterized by great pungency.
As for Aristophanes’ comedies, they were “subordinate to plot and humor”, along with “direct reference to real persons and events.” Besides, “obscenity and invective were parts of humor which had ritualistic origin: they were means of driving away evil.” (1).
One example from The Clouds, a comedy that satirized Socrates and his School:
“ Having in Knights attacked Cleon and public life at Athens, in Clouds our poet assails the corruption of private life. This he attributes to the departure from the old ways. The sophistical teaching and rhetoric he thinks to be the cause of the corruption: hence flowed a refining subtely, contempt of the old faith and gods, a cloudy and unpractical philosophy. The same or nearly the same had probably the gist of his earliest play the Banqueters. And the evil effect of the new education he illustrates in the persons of a father and son who in turn attend the school of Socrates, and learn there all manner of dishonesty, nonsense and quibbling. Socrates he attacks as the leader of the school which so detested.” (2).
In this scene, Strepsiades, a perky old man, worried about the debts of his son Pheidippides, wants to force him to attend the school of those philosophers who teach to make money by all means.
Strepsiades – Well, then, do you sleep; but know, that all these debts will turn on your own head. Alas! I wish the go-between, who persuaded me to marry your mother, had perished by an evil fate: for a most agreeable country life to me-all in a muck, careless of dress, free from care, abounding in bees, and sheep, and grapes. After a while, I, being a countryman, married the grand-daughter of Megacles, the son of Megacles, from the city-proud, luxurious, a second Coesyra. After I married her, I lay with her, smelling of must, figs, plenty of wool; but she, on the contrary, of pomatum, dye, billings, extravagance, gluttony, venery. Certainly, I do not say that she was idle, but she spun away; but I, showing her this coat, as a pretence, would say-my lady, you work too hard.”
About Socrates’ followers:
“Pheidippides- I see them. What then, I pray, is this my father?
Strepsiades – This is the thinking shop of wise souls. Within dwell men, who, speaking of the heavens, endeavour to prove that they are an oven; certainly, they are round us, and we are coals. These teach, if any one may give them money, (that man) reasoning to gain a cause, either right or wrong.
Pheidippides- But who are they?
Strepsiades- I do not know rightly the name: both honourable and good-hunters after wisdom.
Pheidippides- Out upon it! Indeed, they are bad ones; I know them. You speak of those vain boasters, those pale-faced fellows, those shoeless vagrants, of which party are Socrates, the unlucky wight, and Choerephon.
Strepsiades- Hush! Hush! be silent; do not say anything foolish. But if you care anything for your father’s property, become for me one of these, leaving your horsemanship …
“Pheidippides- I cannot obey you. Indeed, I should not dare to look at the knights, being haggard in complexion.
Strepsiades – Then, by Ceres, you do not eat of mine, neither yourself, nor your coach horse, nor your hunter,; but I will drive you out of my house to the crows.
Pheidippides- But my uncle Megacles will not suffer me to be without a home; wherefore I go in, but I do not trouble myself with you.
Strepsiades- But, though thrown, I shall not yet give up; but having prayed to the Gods, I myself, going to this house of thought, will be taught. But how being old, and forgetful, and slow, shall I learn the shavings of their fine sayings? I must go, however. Why do I, considering these things, vex myself, but do not rather knock at the door?”.
How a disciple of Socrates did Strepsiades proud:
Scene II. Socrates’ House. Strepsiades, Disciple of Socrates
Strepsiades (Knocking at the door)- Boy, little boy!
Disciple- Go, and be hung! Who is it who knocks at the door?
Strepsiades- Strepsiades, the son of Pheidon, from Cicynna.
Disciple- Surely, an ignorant fellow, who has so very inconsiderately knocked at the door, and caused a thought, just found out, to miscarry.”
Strepsiades- I am pleased at the eft bespattering Socrates.
Disciple- And again, yesterday, at evening, there was not supper for us.
Strepsiades- Well! What then did he contrive for food?
Disciple- Spreading light ashes on the table, bending a skewer, taking his compasses, he stole away a garment from the Palæstra.
Strepsiades- Why, in sooth, do we wonder at this Thales? Hastening, open, open the school, and show me Socrates, as quickly as possible, for I desire to become a disciple, but open the door.” (3).
While Strepsiades is waiting for the disciple of Socrates to open the door, Aristophanes warns us against cheating.
1) Marie C. Marianetti, The Clouds: An Annotated Translation, Lenham-New York-London, University Press of America, Inc., 1997, p. 2, 4.
2) Aristophanes’ The Clouds, Edited by W.C. Green, M. A., London, Oxford & Cambridge, 1868, p. 6.
3) Aristophanes’ Nefélai (Clouds), A Literal Translation of ‘The Clouds’ by Aristophanes, by Charles P. Gerard, London, G. Biggs, 1842, pp. 5-7-11.