Study Guide

Lysistrata The Phallus

By Aristophanes

The Phallus

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.