Notes on the Wasps of Aristophanes, probably put on in 422 B. C

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Notes on the Wasps of Aristophanes, probably put on in 422 B.C.

In 422 B.C. Aristophanes was a well known comic poet and had won first prize a number of times in the annual poetic contest. In several of the plays he had made savage attacks on Cleonm for example, his Knights . At this point Cleon was at the height of his power as the demagogic leader of the 'popular' party, and there is some indication he was using the courts as a way of attacking opponents. But Cleon and his outrages are not the only object of Aristophanes' attacks in this play. The entire jury system is also a target. In Athens trials usually had 500 or more jurors (called also 'dicasts' or 'Heliasts') who were volunteers drawn at random from a pool of 3000 males over the age of 30 and were paid 3 obols a day, about minimum wage for a day laborer. Jurors received no instruction and there was no 'judge' as such to make sure the law was followed. The magistrate in change simply kept order and kept the proceedings moving. Such juries, while hard to bribe, were also able of acting like mobs, and could be whipped up into making all sorts of wrong decisions by a skillful public speaker. And there was no appeal from the decisions of such juries. There were few rules of evidence, and all sorts of personal attacks, second hand opinion, and other forms of what we would find as very doubtful evidence were admitted in court. These juries had vast power, for often generals, office holders, wealthy private citizens were tried, since it was quite easy to press charges. Even more than Cleon, Aristophanes is attacking the irresponsible use of power by these juries.

Since the rate of jury pay was so low, old people and others who could find no other employment became professional jurors, and thus a large number of court cases to try was in their interest. Note how Philocleon describes how he and his fellows act during a trial; they like the power they have, and how the powerful grovel; worse, note how Philocleon admits that if

.........a father on his death-bed names some husband for his daughter, who is his sole heir; but we care little for his will or for the shell so solemnly placed over the seal; we give the young maiden to him who has best known how to secure our favor. Name me another duty that is so important and so irresponsible .

In other words, the jury is able to ignore the law at will. We should also remember that this play was produced during the Peloponnesian war with Sparta. This was a time of deprivation, and greater than normal poverty. Goverment officals were tempted to get money by convicting some wealthy citizen and take all his property as part of the punishment. Indeed, prosecutors would sometimes tell the jury that, unless the accused was convicted, they would not get their jury pay! Further, since this was wartime, and there were deep political conflicts among the Athenians, rumors of conspiracies abounded, as the play itself hints. Some people made a living by blackmailing the wealthy by saying that, unless they were paid off, they would claim that they had evidence of their traitorous activities. Others people would accept payment to falsely accuse political enemies. All this poverty, suspicion and passion did not help the court process to become more just.

It should not be thought that Aristophanes wants to end the jury system or even has any idea of how its processes could be reformed. Rather Aristophanes focusing on the moral corruption of the people who pay for the jurors and the jurors themselves.

The character of Philocleon is one of the best in Aristophanes comedy. He is a funny, slapstick character who presents a rather full personality, quick-witted, crafty, excessive, selfish, stubborn, lively and full of energy. And yet, we must be surprised at the fact that we like him. He indicates, as I noted above, that he is irresponsible as a juror, and, in describing his earlier caree,r he indicates he was a thief and a coward -- and is proud of it. He treats his daughter as an erotic object. The abuse Philocleon inflicts on strangers toward the end of the play is harsh even by Aristophanic standards. Then why does he appeal to us?

To answer this question, let's consider the origin of the Greek comic theater. These productions began as harvest festivals in honor of the god Dionysos, god not only of wine, but of ecstasy, transformation, altered states of mind. These festivals were times when the hard work of the season was over, when people could relax and, under the sponsorship of the god, let go somewhat of social inhibitions. Theater was part of this, for during a theater performance the actors play out those fears or fantasies that we cannot unleash willingly in real life. Now Greek society was a rather small-scale, in-your-face type of society, where everybody knew about everybody's business. The force of peer pressure was very strong, as was the real irritation at one's fellows, since, due to widespread poverty, there was a sharp competition for resources and resentment at one's competitors and enemies. Thus the personality of Philocleon embodies a side of each of us that wants to shatter the rules, give the finger to the world, enjoy and do what we want to, to tell people what we really think of them, etc, for no better reason than we feel like it. Yet I do not think that we are supposed to think that Philocleon is evil. Rather what Aristophanes is probably saying is that the current political and social situation brings out the worst in people -- sophists tell people that morality is all relative, and demagogic populists allow power without responsibility.

Some critics feel that this play is Aristophanes' answer to the failure of the play he presented the previous year, the Clouds , where he described an old man who sent his son to Socrates' 'Think Shop' to learn how to speak like a sophist and thus use tricky language to win in court cases, so his father can escape prosecution for bad debts. What happens at the end is that the son also learns that respect for one's father is simply a old custom, like all traditional morality, and thus beats his father, who then burns down Socrates' 'Think Shop'. Note that, in the Wasps , we have a young son trying to reform his father. The judges did not like the Clouds , because it appears they did not 'get' what was a comedy about ideas as well as slapstick and politics. In the Wasps Aristophanes appears to be returning to the slapstick and political satire that the audience could 'get'. But not exactly......

The Wasps in many ways follows a typical two- part structure of Old Comedy. In the first part, there is some great problem, and a central character tries to find some solution to it, while in the second the results of that solution are revealed. What is striking in this play is that in the second part the 'solution' seems also another big problem.


The play begins with the slaves Sosias and Xanthias watching over Philocleon, so he will not escape. They discuss their dreams, which clearly have political overtones, as seen in the reference to Cleonymus, who apparently ran away in a number of battles (bottom, page 58 col. 1), and to Xanthias' interpretation of a dream, which suggests that the politicians are despoiling the Athenian people. (bottom 1/3, col. 2, pg. 58). More important is the reference to Alcibiades, the nephew of Pericles who became the leader of the radical party after the death of Cleon. He is the one who brought about the approval of the Sicilian expedition, which, when he deserted to the Spartans, suffered disaster.

Xanthias' address to the audience (col. 1, pg. 59) is very important for the interpretation of the play. Xanthias tells us what the play will be like, but note that he in fact is lying! For example, he says he will not belabor Cleon, but the first half of the play is in fact an attack on him. He says that Euripides' is not attacked, but, as we shall see, he probably is.

As I mentioned above, it appears that the judges and the audience didn't 'get' Aristophanes' last play, the Clouds . Thus here Aristophanes claims to be giving a simpler play; one, as Xanthias says, that "is well with your capacity".

Then Xanthias details Philocleon's ( = "Lover of Cleon) addiction to jury duty, and how they have taken measures so he cannot escape. To explain it a bit more, the Athenians used large juries of 500+ people for most cases. Pericles had first given pay, 2 obols per day, for jury duty, and Cleon had raised it to 3; it was a very meager wage, but vital to the old who could do no other work. Aristophanes was a conservative, and, like modern conservatives, was generally against 'big government' and 'the welfare state', believing that big government (The Athenian empire) and the welfare state (manifested in paid jury duty) was a tool of demagogues and populists to gain power by spending other people's money and interfering with other people's freedoms. The argument here is that Cleon has bought off the elderly jurors who presumably will vote as Cleon wants. But the truth was more complicated. Remember, you cannot take Aristophanes' statements at face value, any more than you can take those of any comic satirist. Philocleon's addiction to jury duty would also be criticized as a tendency to be a 'busybody', always wanting to be involved in messing with other people's affairs.

At this point (col. 1 pg 60 ff) Philocleon comically tries to escape. Note the reference to the myth of Odysseus, as Philocleon first tries to escape by hiding under the belly of a donkey as it is brought out (top, bottom col 2, pg. 60) and then claims to be Noman ( top, col. 1, pg. 61).

Then the Chorus of other old jurors (called dicasts or Heliasts) come in, accompanied by young boys. While it is illogical for old men to have such young children, this situation points out how old and decrepit (and thus vulnerable) these old people are. There is also reference to their poverty as the old man beats the young boy because he has pulled up the lamp wick, which would make the lamp burn more oil (middle, col. 1, pg 62), which they can ill afford. It is later suggested that these jurors (who would have to be about 80) were once Athen's great defenders against Persian aggression at Marathon. The point is that Cleon has debased those who were once the living embodiment of Athenian nobility. The Chorus of old jurors are dressed up as wasps to emphasize their harshness toward their enemies. However, note their loyalty to Cleon, their 'protector". (top, col. 1, pg. 62). They wonder why the normally eager Philocleon is absent. In their conversation with Philocleon, remembering the 'good old days' note what sort of rascal Philocleon was. For example, the leader of the Chorus asks "Do you recall how, when you were with the army at the taking of Naxos, you descended so readily from the top of the wall by means of the spits you had stolen?" (top 1/4, col. 2, pg. 63), and soon afterward Philocleon mentioned that in those days he was "young, clever at thieving."

After a long, slapstick fight between the old Wasps and the forces of Philocleon, note that the Chorus say of Bdelycleon's actions "Why, this is intolerable, 'tis manifest tyranny." (middle col. 2, pg 64) and then later "It is clear to all the poor that tyranny has attacked us sorely" (middle col. 2, pg. 65), and still later BDELYCLEON says


" Everything is now tyranny with us, no matter what is concerned, whether it be large or small. Tyranny! I have not heard the word mentioned once in fifty years, and now it is more common than salt-fish, the word is even current on the market. If you are buying gurnards and don't want anchovies, the huckster next door, who is selling the latter, at once exclaims, "That is a man whose kitchen savors of tyranny!" If you ask for onions to season your fish, the green-stuff woman winks one eye and asks, "Ha, you ask for onions! are you seeking to tyrannize, or do you think that Athens must pay you your seasonings as a tribute?"

As noted above, at this time in Athens there was a great deal of political tension between conservatives and liberals or rather the populist party. Less then a century earlier, in 512 B.C. Athens had kicked out the last of its tyrants, but there was always the fear that some new tyrant would arise (The last tyrant was Hippias, and note how Xanthias claimed that a prostitute accused him of wanting to restore the tyranny of Hippias, middle col. 1, pg. 66). Further, the conservatives (who did stage a short takeover in 411), wanted to reduce number of people who could vote and hold office. Thus one of the most often used terms of attack used by members of the popular party is that somebody wanted to 'tyrannize.' Linked to this was the fact that many of the elite were thought to have pro-Spartan sympathies. Notice how the Chorus accuse Bdelycleon of being a accomplice of Brasidas, the famous Spartan general. (bottom 1/3, col. 2, pg. 65). These aristocrats admired the law and order of Spartan life, as opposed to the chaotic populism of Athens.

On page 66 begins the Agon , that traditional part of a Greek comic play where two sides square off in a comic debate. While this debate has its comic side, it is also about serious issues. Philocleon tries to prove that being a juror is a wonderful thing, Bdelycleon the reverse. As I mentioned above, during his speech Philocleon shows how the jurors enjoy a very great, and rather irresponsible, and even illegal, power. It should be noted that the Athenians were known for being very quick to sue and prosecute. Then Philocleon describes how he is valued at home because he has money, and how he daughter "fishes out my triobolus ( = 3 obol coin) with her tongue" (bottom col. 2, pg 67.). Such a 'French Kiss' was as erotic for the Greeks as it is in our time, and thus there are notes of incest here.

Then Bdelycleon gives his response, which, if you think about it does not make much sense. He calculates the amount of tribute given by the Athenian allies, points out how small a percentage of it are given to the jurors, and asks Philocleon where the rest of the money is going, implying that Cleon and crew are simply taking it for themselves, and that, if they wanted to "you might be rich, both you and all the other..........citizens would be eating nothing but hare, would drink nothing but the purest of milk, and always crowned with garlands, would be enjoying the delights to which the great name of their country and the trophies of Marathon give them the right" (bottom 1/3 col. 1, pg 69.).

Of course, you can see the problem with this argument; Athens is in the middle of a war, and it has to maintain a huge navy, and even without a war there are a lot of necessary government expenses. All the excess money is hardly going into the pockets of Cleon and his men. But remember, this is political satire, not real truth telling.

At this point (pg. 70, col. 1) Philocleon is in agony. He realizes that he has been tricked by Cleon's schemes, but he cannot bring himself to give up jury duty. At this point Bdelycleon offers a solution by allowing his father to act the judge at home. This episode gives us much slapstick comedy as Philocleon sets up the apparatus for a trial. For example, the 'thunder mug' (used to urinate in) is to be used as a water clock, or Clepsydra (bottom 1/3, col. 1, pg. 72). The speeches of the prosecution and defense were timed, and had to be made in a specified time.

But there is a strong dimension of political criticism here. The dog Labes is prosecuted for theft, being prosecuted by another dog from the deme (= district) of Cydathenaion. At the time of this play Cleon (who was from Cydathenaion) had prosecuted a certain Laches for an act of theft while he was holding some military position in Sicily. Note that the leader of the chorus said earlier "But let us hasten, for the case of Laches comes on today, and they all say he has embezzled a pot of money." (top, col. 1, pg. 62). Indeed, as the translator's note suggests, the actors playing the dogs had masks that looked like Laches and Cleon. This whole scene points to the problems of Athenian juries, as I mentioned above. Note how Philocleon has his mind made up even before he judges the case ("He does not stand a chance." bottom 1/3, col. 2, pg 72) and believes out of prejudice what is said against the defendant. The motives of the prosecution are not just, but selfish; note that the prosecuting dog says "Besides, you must punish him, because the same house cannot keep two thieves . Let me not have barked in vain, else I shall never bark again." (top 1/3, col. 2, pg. 73). That is, Cleon is a thief, who resents another's stealing. Cleon had depicted himself as the 'watchdog' of Athens, protecting here against misdeeds by public officals. Of course, since he had so much power, he could use the courts and made up changes to punish any official who opposed him on charges of embezzlement.

Further, the defense speech is a collection of all the typical tricks used by defendants to escape conviction. For example, Bdelycleon mentions all the good services the defendant has done for the state, makes the personal attacks on the prosecutor, and attempts to arouse pity by bringing in defendant's weeping children. There is a sense that the real Laches was a fairly humble soldier, note that Labes likewise 'cannot play the lyre' (top, col. 1, pg. 74), that is, he has not had the full aristocratic education. This will explain why Labes can only bark when he is invited to speak. Athenian law did not allow a defendant to hire a lawyer to deliver his speech; each man had to defend himself, and it appears that Laches, like Thucydides (not the famous author, but another Thucydides) was unused to public speaking and thus able to conduct a good defense of himself. It does not seem, however, that Aristophanes was suggesting that Laches was innocent; rather that his prosecutor was just as guilty, and that the trial was sham justice anyway. However, in this case Philocleon refuses (at least symbolically) to follow the will of Cleon and begins to soften against the defendant. But the habit of condemning is too strong, and his son must trick him into voting acquittal. In Athens jurors voted by dropping pebbles into jars.

This seems to break the spell of the father's old occupation. He does not die, as the oracle had said, and, since so far the son has been correct, Philocleon is open further instruction by the son. Here ends the first part of the play, and before the second part can begin, Aristophanes gives us the parabasis (that is, the part where the comic poet, though the chorus, is able to directly address the people about some issue on his mind (middle, col. 1, pg. 75). In its first half Aristophanes complains about the lack of success of his previous play, the Clouds . He refers to how he had attacked Cleon in earlier plays ("Our poet did not tremble at the sight of this horrible monster, nor did he dream of gaining him over; and again this very day he is fighting for your good.." middle col. 2, pg. 75), and attacked others, which proves that he was a true defender of the people, but the people did not understand, what he was getting at in his new play (... and last year you betrayed him, when he sowed the most novel ideas, which, however, did not strike root, because you did not understand their value).

The second part of the parabasis often consists of the Chorus discussing the roles they are playing. here as wasps/jurors, explaining why they are dressed as wasps. This is because jurors are crowded together like wasps in a wasps' nest, they are quick to anger and hurt those they dislike, and because, like good wasps, they have also fought for they home. There is a good bit of patriotic rah-rah here (top, col. 1, pg. 76) celebrating the great victories of the old men of the previous generation, rather like people now honor the aging veterans of World War II. These veterans are contrasted to the 'drones', that is, the young who have never fought. Like in our day, in Athens there was feeling among the conservatives that all virtue remained with the older generations, and that this new generation was amoral and corrupt, and did not have the patriotic spirit of their fathers, etc. etc. Thus Aristophanes does not paint Philocleon or his fellow jurors as evil -- rather they have been taken advantage of, due to their poverty and their ignorance.

After this speech the son begins to take care of his father, trying to show him how to behave among the elegant set. As I've mentioned, in this play Aristophanes gives us the usual strange problem and its extreme solution, mixed with political satire. In the second half of many of his shorter plays villains are punished, humiliated, etc, and the good guys enjoy a great festival. But the second half of this play is not so positive. The young, idealistic anti-Cleon reformer Bdelycleon has broken his father of the habit of being one of Cleon's obedient jurors. Having done this, he wants to make him a part of a more sophisticated society. But it is clear that Bdelycleon's attempt to change is father for the better is a complete failure -- the former juror is soon to be object of trials and lawsuits. It has been suggested that this play, like Euripides' Orestes , suggests that solutions are hopeless. Philocleon represents Everyman, who cannot be reformed, but rather merely gives up one vice for a worse one. It may also point to reformers overly optimistic view of human nature.

First (col. 2, pg. 76) Bdelycleon gets his father to put on a new fashionable tunic in exchange for his old, tattered cloak, which is symbolic of the old style of life. But, as we shall see, you can change a person's outward appearance, but not the inward. The tunic is a Persian pelisse , made of fine wool. ( Persian garments were considered rather like French fashion might be today). Then Bdelycleon has his father put on good Spartan slippers (bottom, col. 1, pg. 77), to which his father strongly objects. Remember, the Spartans were still at war with the Athenians. The fact that Bdelycleon has his father put on clothes made by former and current enemies does not mean that Bdelycleon is a traitor; rather I suspect it means that the 'smart set' consider themselves 'above' petty local political prejudices. Note that the old man says (middle, col. 2, pg. 77) "Alas! alas! Then I shall have no chilblains (a swelling of the foot caused by cold) in my old age." To some extant Philocleon resembles a stock character of comedy, the old man who takes a perverse delight in suffering or being nasty, like The Miser or The Grouch.

Then ( bottom 1/3, col. 2 pg. 77 ff.) Bdelycleon tries to teach is father how to talk among sophisticated people; It is no good to tell ghost stories or indulge in crude agricultural humor. Rather one must speak knowingly of sports events, or noble deeds. Third, Bdelycleon teaches his father how to properly recline at dinner. Greeks ate lying on their side at dinner parties. At such parties often songs would be sung, like those in honor of Harmodius and Aristogeiton (see bottom 1/4, col. 2. pg. 78). When Philocleon seems to be good a replying to statements at a banquet, his son is ready to send him off to a symposium, or drinking party (mid. col. 1, pg. 79.) Note that Philocleon is worried, saying "By no means, it is too dangerous; for after drinking, one breaks in doors, one comes to blows, one batters everything. Anon, when the wine is slept off, one is forced to pay." Which is exactly what will happen. It seems that here Philocleon is representing the wisdom of old fashioned, conventional behavior, the sort that the sophists and the members of the new, sophisticated society saw as out of date. But, as many pointed out, once you remove such social constraints, most human beings, due to their innate flaws, do not behave better, but worse. Notice how Philocleon interprets Bdelycleon's statement that the 'decent' people can be satisfied with a story; "Faith! it's worth while learning many stories then, if you are thus not punished for the ill you do." (bottom 1/4, col. 1, pg. 79). It appears that Philocleon thinks he had now found out a way to do whatever he wants and get away with it.

After the short Choral Song (which is also a second parabasis, as Aristophanes talks more about his poetic career -- note the references to his problem with Cleon) that also represents the passing of time, Xanthias comes in (middle, col. 2, pg. 79) and reports the Philocleon's outrageous drunken behavior. Sure enough, Philocleon had gotten drunk at the party and began insulting and abusing everybody. Then Philocleon himself comes on-stage, carrying a torch and holding a nude flute girl. Such nearly out of control festivity often happens at the end of a Aristophanic play; likewise we often see various enemies get abused; for example, at the end of the Birds , when a utopia has been set up by the Birds in the sky, various characters who represent aspects of Athenian society that Aristophanes disproves of are rejected from the new city with much abuse. Thus in this ending various people come, complaining of Philocleon's behavior and suffer some abuse. But the problem is that their complaints are just; they do not deserve to suffer what Philocleon has done.

First a GUEST from the party comes in, vowing that he will bring Philocleon to court tomorrow; note how Philocleon, since he has given up jury duty, seems to assume that now he will be able to completely avoid the court. In his speech there is another interesting comic inversion. In other comedies a young man (the normal age to be running away with a flute girl) often protests that his father keeps him on a short lease, and anticipates freedom when the old man is dead; but here it is Philocleon who is acting the part of a young man (top col. 2, pg. 80) "At present I am not my own master; I am very young and am watched very closely. My dear son never lets me out of his sight; he's an unbearable creature, who would quarter a thread and skin a flint; he is afraid I should get lost, for I am his only father."

Bdelycleon comes in and questions his father about the flute girl, and soon after a BAKER'S WIFE., with a witness (Chaerephon). Bdelycleon points out that Philocleon will be sued, and note that Philocleon says, following his son's earlier instructions, that "a little pretty talk and pleasant tales will soon settle the matter and reconcile her with me, " and soon uses a tale to abuse her.

Then an ACCUSER comes in, badly beaten. In some texts a note by classical scribe suggested that this character looks like Euripides, the poet who was often the target of Aristophanes' abuse. Critics generally think this comment is a mistake. Normally when Aristophanes brings Euripides on-stage, he speaks in an intellectual, sophistic manner; not so here. The Accuser goes away when Bdelycleon agrees to pay damages, while Philocleon keeps on with the tales.

The next Choral Ode (top 1/3 col. 2 pg. 82) is the Chorus' ironic congratulation of Bdelycleon for changing his father's formerly harsh life style and taking so good care of him. As I pointed out above, for all Bdelycleon's attempts at the reform of his father, the result has turned out worse than the disease; Philocleon will still be deeply involved in courts -- this time as a defendant, not as a juryman.

As I said above, often Old Comedy ended with an overall revel, a frantic party scene that probably was part of the harvest festival where, for a short period, the harsh restraints of everyday life were relaxed. The old man now comes out dressed as the Cyclops Polyphemus, a character from one of Euripides' satyr plays, The Cyclops , in which the Cyclops tries not to eat, but sexually molest, Odysseus. Philocleon begins a wild dance (again, think of the importance of dancing in festivities). Critics think that here Aristophanes is satirizing in the person of Philocleon the new style of tragic dancing; we should remember that the Chorus of Greek tragedy not only sang, but danced as well. Apparently this new style of dancing was very vigorous and less integrated into the play; rather it was merely an interlude where dancers could show off their stuff and thus it ruined the tragic tone of the play. At the same time, Philocleon claims to be doing the dances of an much earlier tragic poet, Phrynichus (top 1/4, col. 1, pg. 83). Apparently one or more of the sons of Carcinus (whose name sounds like the Greek word for crab) came on at the end and danced with Philocleon; it also seems they didn't do too good of a job; in a later play a character says "If Carcinus asks you to dance with his sons -- don't!". This dancing is sometimes used to explain why this play got only a second place prize.

Thus at the end of the play the old father, who was stern, reserved, determined to do, if rather harshly, his public duty has been transformed into a festive, self-indulgent lawbreaker and party-animal, although we get the impression that this was always a component of his nature. While in other plays Aristophanes is able to imagine the possibility of reform, although through fantastic solutions, here true reform is seen as impossible, due to human nature, which all the energies of high-minded reformers cannot change.

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