There's no room for darkness in Lysistrata. This is pure, filthy comedy through and through. Even though it deals with weighty subject matter like war, it's only touches upon Real Talk subjects through the lens of a much lighter subject—sex. Lots and lots of sex.
Or rather, lots and lots of talk about sex, since this is about a sex strike, after all. Practically every line in this play contains some sort of sexual double meaning, and there are all kinds of other highjinks as well. These make the play light and fun. The only tears this baby is going to provoke will be from laughter.
Even if you start to wrinkle your brow at the thought of all those brave Greek men dying, an exchange like this will clear the storm clouds away:
Calonice: "Well, what if we did abstain from, uh, what you say, which heaven forbid: would peace be likelier to come on that account?"
Lysistrata: "Absolutely, by the Two Goddesses. If we sat around at home all made up, and walked past them wearing only our diaphanous underwear, with our pubes all plucked in a neat triangle, and our husbands got hard and hankered to ball us, but we didn't go near them and kept away, they'd sue for peace, and pretty quick, you can count on that!"
Lampito: "Like Menelaus! As soon as he peeked at bare Helen's melons, he threw his sword away, I reckon." (146-156)
Even the women in this play are more interested in making bawdy wisecracks than dwelling on the fact that men are dying. And honestly, the men in this play seem to think that dying is a better alternative to never getting laid again. This keeps it nice and light (though not family-friendly).
First of all, Aristophanes' Lysistrata is a drama. We're not talking about drama in the sense that made-for-TV movies on serious topics like WWII or forensic science are dramas—Lysistrata is definitely not going to bum you out. We're talking about drama in the sense of drama class in high school.
That's because Lysistrata is a play. It's meant to be performed—although, given the kind of stuff that happens in Lysistrata, it's unlikely that any principal would allow Lysistrata to be performed in drama class. It's too hilariously dirty for that.
The keyword is hilarious—from the get-go, Lysistrata is a comedy. It features a loopy plot with unlikely events (women going on a sex strike to bring an end to war), lots of humor along the way (in the form of sex-puns, smutty jokes, and very awkward situations), and it all finishes with a happy ending, er, we mean "pleasant conclusion."
The play Lysistrata is named after its main character and hero: Lysistrata. Fairly straightforward stuff, right? Pshaw. Maybe in the real world, but this ain't the real world—this is Lit World, suckers. Nothing here is straightforward.
Lysistrata's name itself means "army-dismisser," and dismissing armies is exactly what she tries (and succeeds!) to do in the play. This double-meaning would not have been lost on the original audience of Aristophanes' comedy. It would be like if Titanic had starred Kate Winslet as a girl named "Poor Little Rich Girl Saved By Love," and Leonardo DiCaprio as a dude named "Working-Class Hero With A Lust For Life," and the movie had been after their characters.
Ancient Greece: long on forging Western civilization, short on subtlety.
The play ends with a crazy drunken party in celebration of the peace treaty that has just been signed between Athens and Sparta. At the party, the former enemies realize that the members of the opposing side really aren't so bad. Keeping things from getting too preachy, the Athenians suggest that, in the future, they should conduct all official diplomatic business while drunk—because it makes everyone get along, and smooths out misunderstandings. Wow. Who knew that the prototype of Drunk History was penned by Aristophanes?
The very final moments show Athenians and Spartans taking turns dancing and singing songs; this creates a spirit of equality and multiculturalism. Aw, shucks. This multicultural flavor gets symbolized again when last word in the play goes to the Spartan Delegate… this would have been interpreted by Athenian audiences as a big ol' olive branch.
These touches let the play end on a light, positive note, and show the humanity of both Athenians and Spartans—a major part of the play's message. You can bet that Aristophanes was hoping that this spirit of festivity and friendship would be infectious—and that his audience members would leave the theater inspired to make a peace treaty with Sparta a reality… after getting shmammered, of course.
Aristophanes' Lysistrata takes place in the Ancient Greek city of Athens. Actually, that's not quite right: for him, it wasn't the ancient Greek city of Athens; he was writing about his contemporary city. That Aristophanes sure had his finger on the pulse, man. He was the John Oliver of his time.
In fact, the play takes place in the same year that it was first performed: 411 BCE. So what was going on in Athens in 411 BCE? By far the most important event of the day was the long war between Athens and Sparta, otherwise known as the Peloponnesian War. The play appeared at a time when the war was going especially badly for Athens, ever since its massive fleet got massacred in Sicily two years earlier. Ouch.
In such a situation, many people would have felt that the war was a complete disaster, and would have been ready to make peace. In Aristophanes' play, no one feels this more strongly than Lysistrata and the other women of Athens, who decide to take action and force their men to stop the war. Unfortunately, Aristophanes' play wasn't enough to inspire the men and women of Athens to take action (in the way described in the play, or otherwise) and the war dragged on.
Still, the play provides an important window into how people were feeling at this moment in history. It also provides a slightly-more-pervy look into the (bedroom?) window of Ancient Athenian sexuality. And—oh yeah—its comedy still holds up. Erection jokes are hilarious forever, it seems.
Alright, so this play takes place in Ancient Greece, which means you may have to learn a little bit of history, and you may not catch all the references to Ancient Greek politics. But, hey, that's what Shmoop is here for.
But you know what references you will catch? All the approximately five bajillion-trillion euphemisms for erections, sex, body parts, and sweaty Kama Sutra positions. This play is filthy. It pretty much proves that sex was as hilarious to the Ancient Greeks as it is today. If raunchy sexcapades can't get you through a work of literature, we don't know what can.
The biggest piece of advice we at Shmoop can offer to make your reading experience a pleasurable one is: find a good translation. We're using the version by Jeffrey Henderson, from the Loeb Classical Library, which has some snicker-out-loud-caliber sexual innuendo—but there are plenty of translations to choose from. In order to find the right one for you, just follow this simple rule: read a few pages. If you're not laughing/blushing/smirking/snorting after three or four lines of dialogue, it's not the translation for you.
Wait—an Ancient Greek drama that's colloquial? Is that even possible? Didn't people back then just walk around muttering "thee" and "thou" (or the Ancient Greek equivalent) into their long fuzzy beards?
Well sure, some of them probably did—and those are exactly the old fogeys whom Aristophanes mocks with his chorus of old men. In fact, the language of Lysistrata is still extremely fresh, lively, and colloquial, even after all these years. Plus, it's really clever—seriously, practically every other word in this play has some kind of smutty joke.
Even the boring old Magistrate can't keep his double-entendres under wraps:
By Poseidon the Salty, it serves us right! When we ourselves abet our wives' misbehavior and teach them profligacy, these are the sort of schemes they bring to flower! Aren't we the ones who go to the shops and say this kind of thing: "Goldsmith, about that choker you made me: my wife was having a ball the other night, and now the prong's slipped out of the hole. Me, I've got to cruise over to Salamis, so if you've got time, by all means visit her in the evening and fit a prong in the hole." Another husband says this to a shoemaker, a teenager sporting no boyish cock: "Shoemaker, about my wife's tootsy: the thong is squeezing her pinky winky, where she's tender. So why don't you drop in on her sometime and loosen it up so there's more play down there?" (403-430)
Yeah, the least colloquial (and most G-rated) phrase in that hunk o' text is "By Poseidon the Salty."
We have to add one word of warning: none of this hilarity will come through if you get the wrong translation. Back in the day some translators tried to do crazy things like translate the whole play into rhyming poetry (didn't work out so well), and they usually tried to clean up all the X-rated lingo. So do yourself a favor: find a translation that's informal and bristling with swear words. Not only will it be more fun to read, but it will be much more accurate to the original as well.
Using "sewing" or "spinning" or "weaving" as a metaphor for "togetherness" has a long and illustrious history. Shucks, even today we talk about "a tightly knit family" or "patching up a relationship" or "a well-woven story." When we want to talk about cohesiveness, we reach for the needle and thread.
The same is totally true when we talk about things falling apart—we talk about sewing/spinning/weaving gone wrong. "Tied up in knots" usually refers to being confused and upset (usually about a romantic problem)… but it's totally also about the rage-inducing phenomenon of having to untangle, for example, yarn. "Falling apart at the seams" is an idiom that refers to absolutely losing it… and it also refers to a worn-out article of clothing in need of repair.
Sewing idioms are as old as sewing itself. Nowadays they might be considered cliché, but back in Ancient Greece they were probably still pretty cutting-edge. And, hey, even if they were cliché, Aristophanes has the playwriting chops to pull them off.
Wait, what exactly does Aristophanes pull off? Oh, just a few extended metaphors that use the domestic arts to talk about—you got it—being so happy together.
Around the middle of the play the Magistrate challenges Lysistrata to explain how she thinks women can solve a complicated global problem like the Peloponnesian War. She replies by saying that it's easy: she and the other women will simply untangle it like a ball of yarn that has gotten knots in it:
Magistrate: "So how will you women be able to put a stop to such a complicated international mess, and sort it all out?"
Lysistrata: "Very easily."
Magistrate: "How? Show me."
Lysistrata: (taking the sewing blanket from the Magistrate and using its contents to illustrate) "It's rather like a ball of yarn when it gets tangled up. We hold it this way, and carefully wind out the strands on our spindles, now this way, now that way. That's how we'll wind up this war, if we're allowed: unsnarling it by sending embassies, now this way, now that way." (565-570)
Then, a little while later Lysistrata goes into a long metaphor comparing the city to a fleece of wool; she explains the complex process that she needs go through of beating the wool (getting the moochers out), carding it (removing the bozos who tend to hog the government positions), and then spinning it and weaving it into a new metaphorical "cloak" of unity:
Imagine the polis as a fleece just shorn. First, put it in a bath and wash out all the sheep dung; spread it on a bed and beat out the riff-raff with a stick, and pluck out the thorns; as for those who clump and knot themselves together to snag government positions, card them out and pluck off their heads. Next, card the wool into a sewing basket of unity and goodwill, mixing in everyone. The resident aliens and any other foreigner who's your friend, and anyone who owes money to the people's treasury, mix them in there too. And oh yes, the cities that are colonies of this land: imagine them as flocks of your fleece, each one lying apart from the others. So take all these flocks and bring them together here, joining them all and making one big bobbin. And from this weave a fine new cloak for the people. (574-586)
Sure, these analogies are a little yawn-inducing to today's audiences. We're just so used to sewing metaphors. But Lysistrata is also doing something super-clever here. She's showing the Magistrate that women have the know-how to fix complex political situations; that a domestic existence gives them the reasoning skills necessary to duke it out in the public sphere.
She's also cutting the Magistrate down a peg. Women's housebound duties were considered uninteresting and totally not manly back in Ancient Greece. By comparing governmental matters to household chores, Lysistrata is saying to the Magistrate: "Hey, this war-ending business is as easy as women's work. So how come you can't end this war, huh? Are you too much of a sissy?"
The phallus is another symbol that's still kicking around today (or, um, not kicking, because that would hurt). The Burj Khalifa. The Shanghai Tower. One World Trade Center. You know: symbols of mankind's strength and prowess, symbolized by erecting something that's very tall, very hard, and very impressive.
These, of course, are phallic symbols in the abstract. Tall buildings, shooting rockets, and heavy artillery are often said to symbolize erect penises. But what happens when—like in Lysistrata—erect penises themselves are symbols?
Lysistrata is completely packed with phalluses. The men in this play just can't seem to stop talking about the painful swelling and aching they have been experiencing ever since the women went on their sex-strike. But why do they really even have to talk about it? After all, the stage directions make clear that the male characters are actually all walking around with giant, visible erections. Sure, the Spartan Herald might make a lame attempt at passing this off as a "Spartan walking stick" (991), but the visible truth is worth a thousand lying words.
These phalluses represent male authority. In Ancient Athens, men connect their power to their masculinity, as the Men's Chorus makes clear when they say that "every man with any balls must stand up to this threat!" (661). This is a slightly more nuanced way of saying "Boys rule and girls drool!"
Lysistrata examines what happens when women turn men's own symbol of power into a weapon against them. The First Athenian Delegate certainly doesn't sound too proud of his manhood, does he, when he complains that, "My cock is bursting out of my skin and killing me!" (1136)?
This play seems to suggest that traditional masculinity in excess—like ongoing wars or ongoing erections—is supremely painful. That's why we need ye olde Yin/Yang balance, according to Aristophanes. We need both the warring impulse and the logic of peace. We need both sexual arousal and the ability to make sexual arousal stop.
Lysistrata does not paint men as the only people feeling the er, pinch, of abject horniness, though. The women are super-frustrated as well. They're just a hair more able to let political goals come ahead of sexual ones.
Cats and dogs. Oil and water. Capulets and Montagues. Some things just do not mix.
In sex comedies like Lysistrata, the two things that don't mix are male and female viewpoints. The women want to give peace a chance and the men want to keep war keeping on. The women want national unity and the men want to keep kicking Sparta/Athens' butt. The men want sex and the women want… well, they want sex too. But just not quite as badly as they want peace.
The epic fire/water battle between the Chorus of Old Men and the Chorus of Old Women symbolizes this battle between the sexes:
Fly, fly, Nicodice,
before Calyce and Critylla go up
in flames, fanned all around
by nasty winds
and old men who mean death!
I've just come from the well with my pitcher;
I hoisted it onto my head, and to aid the women,
my fellow citizens faced with fire,
I am with water! (321-335)
Have you ever heard the expression "to fight fire with fire?" This means to give back exactly what is being dished out: if someone insults you, you insult them back. If someone punches you, you punch back.
Well, the women of Greece are definitely not fighting fire with fire. They're fighting fire with good old H2O. They're combating never-ending war with a peaceful protest. They're fighting men's traditionally "fiery passions" (yup, that's intentional)—fighting and gettin' it on—with women's traditional placid, cooling influence.
Compounding this symbol some super-sexual imagery. Men's sexual frustration is often described as "raging," "hot," "burning," "smoldering," and so on. And sure, women's passions are also referred to in these terms, but the adjective that comes up first and foremost in describing female arousal is—like water—wet.
Narrator? What narrator? Lysistrata is a play and it doesn't have a narrator at all. Instead of hearing what characters do, we actually see them do it.
We don't get a God's-eye view of what the characters are thinking, but we do get a bird's-eye view of everything they're doing and saying. And that, folks, is the definition of Third Person Objective. We see it all: all the meetings, the arguments, and the erections. Once you see Lysistrara from your Third Person Objective seat, you will not be able to unsee Lysistrata.
From the very beginning, a haze of darkness hangs over the play. This darkness is the long war that has been raging on between Athens and Sparta, and that has recently taken a turn for the worse (from Athens's perspective). It is in response to this urgent crisis that Lysistrata organizes the sex-strike. Somebody's got to do something.
As the sex-strike goes on, the Powers That Be do their darndest to oppose it. They don't want to see any change in the existing power structure in Athens, even if it means dragging on the bloody war with Sparta. The Chorus of Old Men try to smoke out the Chorus of Old Women as they hold the Acropolis, and the Magistrate says a bunch of gross, misogynistic stuff. A couple of women try to defect from Lysistrata's army of no-nooky, but Lysistrata catches them. Myrrhine's husband begs Myrrhine for sexytimes.
After Cinesias has been sexually led on by Myrrhine, he meets a Herald from Sparta who is suffering from the same painful, and obvious, state of sexual arousal. The Herald reports that the rest of Sparta is, um, hard up as well.
Cinesias and the Herald decide that there's nothing else to do but make peace. In no time, the Athenians and Spartan delegates have convened and hashed out a peace treaty. The darkness of war has faded—and the men have all realized that they would rather make the beast with two backs than continue the war. Sound decision, dudefolk.
After years of bitter war, Lysistratra calls the women of Greece to a meeting. Their plan: to hit their warrior husbands where it hurts the most. The exposition is twofold: it's both the war (if there weren't a war going on, nothing in the play would really make sense, right?) and the assembly (the sex strike isn't a spontaneous uprising; it's the product of Lysistrata's individual creative mind). This is a well-oiled peaceful protest machine, guys.
But calling a meeting is one thing; getting the women to agree to your decidedly un-sexy plan is another. As it turns out, Lysistrata is successful on both counts. But getting the women to go on a sex-strike and occupy the Acropolis puts them into direct conflict with the wishes of the men of the city. The dudes want to bang, and they also want to battle.
The Chorus of Men makes their position known by bringing fire to smoke the women out of the Acropolis. The Chorus of Women replies by bringing buckets of water, with which they douse the men. Talk about a symbolic cold shower. Icy water aside, this play is definitely heating up.
Like any strike, the sex strike organized by Lysistrata will only succeed if all members participate. United they stand, and divided they fall… into bed with their hubbies. Many of the women up on the Acropolis are desperate to have sex, and several try to run off to enjoy themselves. This definitely makes Lysistrata's job more complicated.
The audience has just seen various women trying to run off to have sex with their husbands. Now, we see one of the women's husbands coming to have sex with her. Not only that, but the husband, Cinesias, is visibly aroused—a sure sign that the women's sex strike is having its desired effect. Clearly, Lysistrata's plan is about to face a decisive test.
Will she or won't she? That's the question the audience is asking itself in this hair-raisingly hilarious scene, when Myrrhine goes off alone with her husband, Cinesias, and makes him think that she will have sex with him. But then, every time when it looks like she's good to go, she pretends to realize that something is missing: a bed, a pillow, a mattress, and so on. Then, just at the moment when the suspense becomes unbearable (for Cinesias, especially), Myrrhine runs off to rejoin the women in the Acropolis. Crisis averted.
Right after Myrrhine finishes taunting Cinesias, a Herald shows up from Sparta in the same state of painful arousal as Cinesias. The two men decide that enough is enough, and prep their respective cities to make a peace treaty. Not long afterwards, the delegates from Sparta and Athens get together onstage. Lysistrata helps them negotiate the peace treaty, with the help the goddess of Reconciliation—a nude girl. This counts as a denouement for two reasons: because peace has returned to the land, and because the Spartans and Athenians will get to relieve their painful lust, by having sex with both Reconciliation and their wives.
To celebrate the new peace treaty, the two former enemies join together in a great celebration. All it takes is a little wine and dancing to put everybody at ease, and they realize they have a lot in common. The play ends with a cross-cultural demonstration of singing and dancing prowess, showing that they can get along and appreciate each other. Then, presumably, they go off to appreciate their naked wives.
Even though this is a play—and plays are supposed to have Acts, right?—all of the action in Lysistrata happens in one big chunk. So these are what we at Shmoop think of as the "Acts" in Aristophanes's dirty, dirty play.
Lysistrata calls the women together and gets them to agree to a sex strike. They don't like the idea, but the band together for the good of the country… ain't no patriotism like celibate patriotism. The women also seize control of the Acropolis and the Treasury, so they can cut off the cash supplies even as they drive their menfolk insane.
The Chorus of Old Men lay siege to the Acropolis, and are opposed by the Chorus of Old Women. The Old Men use fire to smoke out the women… but the Old Women give back as good as they take and use buckets of water.
But there are also internal problems within the sex-strike movement: various women keep trying to run off to have sex with their husbands. They use see-through excuses, like "Oh no! I have to air my woolens out!" and "Um, hey, I know I wasn't pregnant yesterday but now I am—time to deliver my baby!" Also, Myrrhine's husband Cinesias shows up on the Acropolis, desperate to have sex with her.
Myrrhine teases Cinesias like crazy, but doesn't have sex with him. When a Herald shows up from Sparta afflicted by the same painful (and super-obvious) symptoms of arousal, Cinesias realizes that the sex-strike is an international conspiracy. He and the Herald get their respective cities ready to make peace.
Shortly afterward, the Athenian and Spartan delegates convene and hash out a peace treaty with some help from Lysistrata and the goddess of Reconciliation. They all celebrate with a big party… and then presumably go home early to do the nasty.
(The pop culture references in Lysistrata refer to the pop culture of 5th-century BCE Athens.)