Lysistrata is, in a nutshell, the dirtiest double-entendre you can think of for "nutshell."
We're not being deliberately provocative here… at least no more than Aristophanes was when he wrote this play. Lysistrata is a nonstop smutfest that goes way beyond innuendo. It goes so far beyond innuendo that there are multiple dude characters walking around on stage with what are politely referred to as "Spartan walking sticks." Yup. And those "Spartan walking sticks" are not well hidden.
The comedy Lysistrata was first performed in Athens in 411 BCE, and is still performed today to laughs, tears, and applause. That's a pretty solid track record—though hardly a surprise, given that the play was written by the one and only Aristophanes, when this master of Ancient Greek comedy was at the height of his powers.
In his youth, Aristophanes wrote satirical plays (The Knights, The Clouds) that didn't hesitate to criticize government policies, or prominent government figures. If Aristophanes didn't like you, you'd better grow some thicker skin; nobody was safe from this guy's pen. Then, in middle age he mellowed out a bit and tried his hand at bizarre-o comedy, like his famous The Birds and The Frogs.
In Lysistrata, Aristophanes combines these two styles for the best of both worlds. Lysistrata is both acute political satire—the women of Greece are sick and tired of the ongoing Peloponnesian War—and filthy comedic mayhem—these women are so sick of the Peloponnesian War that they refuse to have sex with their hubbies. "Spartan walking sticks" ensue.
Lysistrata is more than just dirty, dirty hilarious fun. It's also groundbreaking. With Lysistrata, Aristophanes outraged traditional male-dominated Athens: he depicted the salvation of all Greece as lying in the hands of the women. Not only that, but he portrayed a single housewife (Lysistrata herself) as displaying far more intelligence, courage, and passion than the average male politician. As far as modern scholars can tell, this may have been the first time that a female character had ever been the hero of a comedy.
This play is practically bursting at the seams with sexual innuendo… sort of like the characters of the Lysistrata are practically bursting at the seams with sexual desire. This non-stop onslaught of sex jokes and screwball comedy made even the stodgiest pro-War Athenian shed tears of laughter, and we bet you won't be immune to its charms either.
It's okay, be honest. You thought the Ancient Greeks were just a bunch of dull geezers in sandals and bed-sheets who walked around stroking their beards, right?
Well, think again. Lysistrata, a play that has oodles of bonafide Ancient Greek credentials (including geezers with beards wearing tunics, yes) also has something else to recommend it.
That something else is filthiness. This play has more references to sex than anything capital-L Literary we've read before. And Shmooper, we've read a lot. Lolita doesn't come close. Lady Chatterly's Lover is just the tip of the sex iceberg.
Sure, Fifty Shades of Gray might have the edge on Lysistrata, but here's the key difference: you can say "Hey Mom! I just read a Classical Greek play by Aristophenes!" and she'll probably smile and say "Good job, honey."
If we said "Hey Mom! I just read an E.L. James novel!" a very awkward silence would ensue.
Yup. Lysistrata takes the X-rated language cake. There is more innuendo than a bawdy 1970s comedy, and more out-and-out sex talk than the Savage Lovecast. The stage directions call for guys to walk around stage with visible erections, for Pete's sake. Sex positivity? Lysistrata has it in spades.
This play is about the healing power of love. No, seriously: this play floats the premise that the only thing needed to stop freaking war is for women to go on sex-strike. By the time that war is declared over, the entire cast of characters in Lysistrata (men and women) are drunk in love. This play is an Ancient Greek testament to the fact that lust has the power to end evil, violence, and bloodshed. Make love, not war indeed.
So yes, this play should be the magic pill to cure you of your phobia of Ancient Greece. After all, how can you hate a play that is so unabashedly carnal, so positive that sex can cure all ills and all wars, so sure that all humans need is some (okay, a ton of) sweet, sweet lovin'? How can you think a civilization is stuffy after you see a bunch of Ancient Greeks pray to the gods of love and desire, make more penis jokes than you could find at a bachelorette party, and portray both men and women as stupidly (but humanly) sex-crazed?
The answer is: you can't. Ancient Greece, Aristophanes and Lysistrata are too raunchily funny to warrant a response other than "Dang. That is hilariously dirty."
Lysistrata at a Click
This website features the complete text of Aristophanes' play, translated by Jack Lindsay. Have at it.
Illustrated Lysistrata (Yeah, You Read that Right)
This website also features Jack Lindsay's translation of Aristophanes' play—this time with racy illustrations by Norman Lindsay.
This recent Spanish film is an adaptation of a comic book by German cartoonist Ralf König, which was based on Aristophanes' play. The twist? The men of Athens give homosexuality a try, before the women finally give up their strike.
A modern Greek adaptation of the Ancient Greek play.
An English-language adaptation of the play, produced in the USA. Dang. The 1960s were all about sexual freedom.
Handwritten Copy of Aristophanes' Plays (Not by the Man Himself)
This image shows a handwritten copy of two plays by Aristophanes (The Birds and The Clouds). It may have originated in Crete, and dates from the 2nd half of the 15th century AD—so, before us, but long after Aristophanes, too.
Attention Special Collections Nerds: First Printed Edition of Aristophanes
This is the table of contents of the first printed edition of Aristophanes' plays. It was printed in 1498 by the legendary Venetian printer Aldus Minutius.
Women Swear Off Men (it's Sad for Everyone)
This clip, from a production of Aristophanes's play, shows the women of Athens in the middle of taking their no-sex oath.
Aristophanes' Lysistrata in Lake Forest
Video of a student production of Aristophanes' play at Lake Forest College.
Todd Rundgren Does Lysistrata (Not like that)
This song by the American guitarist and producer explores themes from Aristophanes' play.
This clip features audio from Lysistrata: The Nude Goddess, an opera by Italian-American composer Mark Adamo, based on Aristophanes' play.
Comic Chorus Women
This image shows women from the chorus of an Ancient Greek Comedy—maybe Lysistrata?
Ancient Greek Comic Mask
This image shows a kooky mask of the sort once worn by Ancient Greek comedians.