It's 411BCE and Athens is locked in the grip of a terrible war with Sparta. Although the war has been going on for years, things have recently taken a bad turn for Athens: they suffered a serious defeat in Sicily just two years before.
Peace is starting to look real good.
That, at least, is the opinion of Lysistrata, a middle-class housewife from Athens. The play begins on the day of a meeting organized by Lysistrata. In attendance at the meeting are women from Athens and other cities, including Sparta. At the meeting, Lysistrata announces her plan: the women should all refuse to have sex with their husbands until their husbands end the war. To make sure the sex-strike is effective, they will doll themselves up with makeup and put on their skimpiest clothes, to drive their husbands wild with desire.
Lysistrata also explains that she's sent a contingent of women to occupy the Acropolis (the government center) of Athens. Once they've seized control of the treasury, the women will be able to cut off the money supply for the war. After some debate, the women swear an oath that they will follow Lysistrata's plan. Lysistrata and the Athenian women go to join the other women on the Acropolis. The foreign women go back to their home cities.
The Chorus of Men shows up; basically this is a bunch of old Athenian geezers. They have come with fire to smoke the women out of the Acropolis. In no time, however, the Chorus of Women shows up carrying buckets of water. After the Women's Leader drenches the Men's Leader, the city's Magistrate shows up to investigate. Lysistrata comes out of the Acropolis and explains what she's doing. After a testy exchange, the humiliated Magistrate runs off to complain to the other magistrates.
Lysistrata and the women go back into the Acropolis, leaving the Men's Chorus and Women's Chorus to annoy and insult each other through song and dance. Then Lysistrata reemerges from the Acropolis to complain that the women are all trying to run off and have sex with their husbands; we see her catch three women in the act. Goodness! We're clutching our pearls over here.
After another bout of conflict between the Men's Chorus and the Women's Chorus, the women see a man approaching the Acropolis, visibly aroused. It's Cinesias, the husband of Myrrhine, one of the women on the sex-strike. After some coaxing, Myrrhine agrees to go down and see her husband.
Cinesias complains that the house is a wreck and he doesn't know how to take care of the baby (which he is carrying). But what Cinesias really wants is sex. Myrrhine pretends to give in, and Cinesias sends the baby home. But every time it looks like they are about to have sex, Myrrhine pretends that something is missing: a bed, a mattress, a pillow, some perfume. At the very last minute, she runs back into the Acropolis, leaving Cinesias bewildered, and still painfully aroused.
Cinesias and the Men's Chorus swap horror stories about their sexual frustration. Then, a Herald shows up from Sparta. He, too, is sporting a visible erection. Realizing that the women's sex-strike is an international conspiracy, Cinesias sends the Herald back to Sparta with a message of peace. Cinesias runs off to bear the same message to the Athenian officials. Hearing this, the Women's Leader makes friends with the Men's Leader, and the two Choruses merge into one.
The Spartan and Athenian Delegates show up. Lysistrata arrives to help broker the peace, and calls on a friend for help: the goddess of Reconciliation, who takes the form of a naked girl. Lysistrata lectures the two sides on the foolishness of warring against each other; they agree with her—mainly because they both lust after Reconciliation.
Eventually, a deal is reached, and the two sides go off to have a party. The play ends with demonstrations of dancing from both sides, in a gesture of unity, trust, and friendship.
- The play starts on a quiet, residential street in ancient Athens. A woman steps onto the stage: it's Lysistrata.
- Lysistrata is frustrated that the streets are deserted. We don't yet know why this makes her angry, but Lysistrata is not having this deserted-street thing.
- Just then, out comes another woman: Lysistrata's neighbor, Calonice.
- Lysistrata explains that she's mad because she called all the women of the city to a meeting—but nobody's showed up yet. Ahh, so that's why she's peeved.
- Calonice tells Lysistrata to calm down: the women will be there as soon as they can. Then she asks Lysistrata what the meeting's all about, anyway.
- Instead of giving a direct answer, Lysistrata tells her that the meeting is extremely important: the fate of Greece hangs in the balance and it's up to the women to make sure things turn out okay.
- Calonice doesn't believe it. She thinks women are more interested in dainty clothes than power.
- But Lysistrata tells her otherwise: not only can women wield power, but dainty clothes will be the key to it. Using makeup and see-through underwear, they can see to it that their men stop the relentless war that is tearing apart Greece.
- We'll get to how dainty clothes can stop war in a sec. First, there's a more basic question: what war is Lysistrata talking about? So glad you asked. That's because it's time for us to take a break from this summary to bring you one of Shmoop's patented Historical Content Lessons. Ahem. We're putting on our tweed and bowler hats (that's what historians wear, right?) in order to tell you this:
- The war Lysistrata is talking about is the Peloponnesian War—actually a series of conflicts that took place between Athens and its allies, and Sparta and its allies. It is called the Peloponnesian War after the Peloponnesus, the region of Greece where Sparta and most of its allies were located. Geography FTW.
- By the time Aristophanes's play was performed in 411BCE, Athens and Sparta had already been fighting each other, on and off, for about 20 years. The conflict started in 431BCE— remember that dates go backwards before the year 0.
- Not only that but, two years earlier, Athens had suffered a major military defeat, when its vast military expedition against Spartan allies in Sicily was completely destroyed. Bummer.
- So there are tons of reasons for the women of Athens to decide that enough was enough, and try to bring an end to the destructive war. Twenty years is way too long.
- And that brings us to the end of our Historical Context Lesson. Now: back to the play.
- Calonice thinks this sounds like a great idea. She predicts that the women will be there soon enough.
- Then, right on cue, some groups of women begin showing up. One of the women, named Myrrhine, apologizes for being late, then asks what's going on. Lysistrata tells her to wait until the women from Boeotia and the Peloponnese show up.
- Just then, some of those women show up: Lampito, from Sparta (the capital of the Peloponnese, and Athens's main enemy); Ismenia, from Thebes (a city in Boeotia allied with Sparta); and another woman from Corinth (a city between Athens and the Peloponnese, allied with Sparta).
- Lysistrata and Calonice are impressed by Lampito's muscular physique. Myrrhine thinks Ismenia, from Thebes, is a very elegant lady. And Calonice thinks the woman from Corinth is built like Jessica Rabbit.
- These women, even though they're enemies, are being super nice to each other, and super body-positive.
- Once the women are all assembled, Lysistrata launches into her speech. She starts by asking the women if they miss their husbands while they're off at war. All the women say they do. Then Lysistrata asks them if they want to end the war. They all say they do.
- Then Lysistrata gets to the point. She says that, if the women want to bring an end to the war, they will all have to give up sex. This time around, the reaction is negative: the women think Lysistrata has gone too far, and they start walking away.
- But, just then, Lysistrata gets Lampito, the Spartan woman, to agree to her plan. Once they see that Lampito is up for it, the other women stick around. Calonice asks Lysistrata how giving up sex is supposed to end the war.
- The way Lysistrata explains it, it's basically like going on strike: the women will refuse to have sex with their husbands until their husbands bring the war to an end. In the meantime, the women will walk around the house in their most scanty, alluring lingerie, to drive the men wild with desire.
- Wow. And we thought Ancient Greece sounded kinda stuffy.
- Now Calonice says she's willing to try it, too. But then Lampito has an objection: she's happy to try out the same strategy on the men of Sparta, but it still won't bring peace so long as Athens has its vast stockpiles of money to spend on war.
- Lysistrata, however, tells her not to worry: that very day, a commando squad of old women has headed up to the Acropolis (the fortified government center of Athens, on top of a steep hill), and is going to seize the treasury by force. That way, they can prevent the men of the city from squandering the money on war.
- Dang, ladies.
- Lampito is cool with that. Hearing this, Lysistrata suggests that they all swear a formal oath.
- Just then, in comes a Scythian slave-girl, carrying a shield. It turns out that Lysistrata wants the women to formalize the oath by making a sacrifice over the shield. But Calonice is against this idea—she thinks that, if they're trying to bring about peace, the shield can only bring bad luck.
- Eventually, Lysistrata suggests that they should just crack open a big bottle of wine and celebrate things that way. This suggestion is a winner, and Lysistrata sends off the slave girl to bring back a big jug. The slave girl does just that.
- Before letting the good times flow, Lysistrata leads all the women in solemnly swearing that they (a) won't let their menfolk have any sex, (b) will wear only their sexiest clothing, (c) will use passive resistance if their husbands try to take them by force—no fancy sexual positions allowed.
- After the women drink the toast, they hear other women shouting, offstage. Lysistrata explains that it's the older women, who are storming the treasury on the Acropolis.
- Lysistrata and the women exit the stage; they are headed to the Acropolis.
- Now, the Men's Chorus comes out on stage. This is basically a ramshackle bunch of old geezers. But these geezers are also armed and dangerous: they're carrying firewood, an unlit torch, and a bucket full of smoldering coals.
- The old men start singing, dancing (probably not very well), and complaining. They are complaining about two main things: (1) being old, and (2) the fact that women have taken over the Acropolis. They also express nostalgic feelings about being warriors, back in the day.
- As the Men's Chorus continues singing, it becomes clear that they are bringing the firewood to smoke the women out of their position on the Acropolis.
- When they come to the gate of the Acropolis, they set down the firewood in the bucket of coals, to get it lit.
- At this point, the Chorus of Women runs out of the Acropolis, carrying pitchers of water.
- In no time, the Women's Leader gets into a heated argument with the Men's Leader. Finally, she decides enough is enough, and douses her male counterpart with water.
- Just then, in comes the local Magistrate (chief of police), along with two slaves carrying crowbars, as well as four policemen. (These policemen are also slaves, from Scythia.)
- The Magistrate delivers a sexist speech, saying that women are always to blame for stirring up trouble.
- But then, when the Men's Leader complains about getting doused with water, the Magistrate tells him it's men's own fault for encouraging women to misbehave—by making it all too easy for them to be sexually unfaithful. We're not entirely sure what cheating has to do with this fire/water fight either.
- Then the Magistrate instructs the Scythian policemen to go pry off the gates to the Acropolis with crowbars.
- Before the policemen can do their dirty work, however, Lysistrata comes out of the gates of her own accord.
- The Magistrate orders the policemen to seize Lysistrata, but she stands her ground. A battle of words ensues, as one, two, three old women step forward to Lysistrata's defense.
- Now the Magistrate has had enough: he orders all four policemen to march forward and seize the women. But the women call up the reserves—a whole army of old women who plough their way onto the stage and beat the living daylights out of the four Scythian policemen. Get it, grandmas!
- The policemen run away; the army of old women marches back into the Acropolis. Lysistrata remains onstage, still facing down the Magistrate.
- Now, the Men's Leader complains once again to the Magistrate about how the women have just doused him and the other members of the Men's Chorus with water. The Women's Leader speaks up, saying that he deserved it.
- The Men's Leader commands the Magistrate to interrogate the women about why they are occupying the Acropolis. The Magistrate does so.
- Lysistrata proudly replies that the women have occupied it so that they can control the treasury—and prevent the city funds from being wasted on war. Lysistrata says that the war is only being fought for money anyway.
- When the Magistrate asks Lysistrata how she thinks she, a woman, can manage the city's funds, she points out that women manage household finaces.
- The Magistrate can't muster much of a comeback to that. After a testy exchange between himself and Lysistrata, he demands to know why the women have suddenly become interested in political affairs of war and peace.
- Lysistrata clears her throat, and begins explaining—in a parody of the Trojan warrior Hector's speech to his wife Andromache from Book VI of Homer's Iliad. Yeah, Aristophanes was pretty much the ancient Weird Al.
- Lysistrata explains that, for a long time, women have listened in silence as their men explained to them how business went in the democratic assembly. Even though the women thought the men were making stupid decisions, they only asked polite questions—and got told to shut up, all the same.
- Later on, as it became clearer and clearer that the men's stupidity was having a negative effect on the city, the women began criticizing their husbands. This time, their husbands threatened them with physical violence to make them be quiet.
- Finally, though, when the horrible human costs of the war became all too clear, when people could he heard in the streets complaining about how all the men of the land had been killed in war, the women decided to take matters into their own hands.
- This, explains Lysistrata, is why the women have taken control: to get the men's act together for them.
- Hearing this, the Magistrate says that he would rather die than take orders from a woman—especially a woman wearing a veil.
- So what does Lysistrata do? She takes off her own veil and puts it on the Magistrate. Then an old woman steps forward and gives the Magistrate her sewing basket. Lysistrata tells him to get sewing: women are in charge of war now.
- Then the Women's Chorus does a little dancing and chanting, celebrating the determination that they're showing. They are guardedly confident that they will be able to pull off their scheme.
- Hearing this, the Magistrate asks them what exactly they're planning.
- Lysistrata explains that the most basic thing they want is to stop people from walking around the city with all their weaponry on—because it's crazy. Then she explains the women's main goal: to put an end to the war between Athens and Sparta.
- The Magistrate doesn't believe the women will be able to do it.
- But then Lysistrata makes a long speech comparing the city to a ball of yarn: just as women wash and beat wool to clean it, then card all the wool into a big basket, then spin it into yarn and weave a robe out of it, in the same way, they should get rid of all the corruption in the city, unify everyone with friendship, and bring peace.
- The Magistrate thinks this is a bunch of hooey. He makes fun of the women for trying to run the show when (according to him) they don't bear any of the burdens of war.
- This remark provokes an angry reaction from Lysistrata. She points out that women bear plenty of burdens: they give birth to sons and send them off to war, they sleep alone because their husbands are off fighting, and many of them grow old without being able to get a husband.
- The Magistrate tries to convince them that old men have a hard time too—but the women don't listen to him. Instead, they treat him as if he were a dead body that they were dressing up for its funeral. (In Ancient Greece, preparing bodies for burial was a woman's job.)
- Covered in ribbons and wreaths, the Magistrate runs away to complain to the other magistrates.
- The Men's Chorus seriously does not like what they just saw happen. They think that the women's behavior must be part of a Spartan plot to take over Athens and replace its democracy with a tyranny.
- The Men's Leader echoes the feelings of the Men's Chorus; he marches up to the Women's Leader and prepares to do battle with her.
- But the Women's Leader promises to give back exactly as good as she gets. The Women's Chorus shows its support by chanting about how its members are all prominent women of Athens, who are entitled to give the city advice on such an important matter.
- The Women's Leader rounds off this chant by saying that the old farts of the Men's Chorus are a useless burden on the community.
- The Men's Chorus doesn't like this at all. They take off their jackets and prepare to do battle. But then the women of the Women's Chorus take off their jackets and prepare to do battle as well.
- Just when things are about to get ugly, Lysistrata shows up; she has just come back from the Acropolis. The Men's Leader says, "Hey! Lysistrata! What's up?"
- Lysistrata is troubled. She has a big problem. She sums up the problem as follows: "Sex: the women can't go without it." It turns out that all of the women are trying to weasel out on the plan—because they want to sneak off and have sex.
- Just then, a woman runs by. She claims that she has to go home and spread out some wool, before the moths get it. Lysistrata tells her she isn't "spreading" anything. Badoom-ching.
- Then another woman runs by. She claims that she has to go home and shuck some flax. Lysistrata tells her she isn't "shucking" anything. Double badoom-ching.
- Then another woman runs by. She claims that she has to go give birth. When Lysistrata points out that she wasn't pregnant the day before, the woman is unfazed. But Lysistrata quickly gets to the bottom of the matter: instead of a baby bump, the woman has hidden the sacred helmet from the statue of Athena under her clothing.
- After hearing some more complaining along these lines from yet another woman, Lysistrata decides that enough is enough. She pulls out a scroll of paper and reads an oracle.
- The oracle boils down to this: if the women hold their own and don't give up their strike, they will always get to be on top (yes, you got that). If their strike falls apart, though, the whole world will view them as a bunch of sex-mad hussies.
- In response, the Men's Chorus sings a song about how the only sensible thing for a man to do is hate women. Shortly afterwards, the Women's Chorus follows this up with a song about how the only sensible thing is to hate men.
- Some more threats and insults get traded back and forth—but then Lysistrata interrupts them. Looking down from the walls of the Acropolis, she sees someone coming towards them: a man… and he's visibly aroused.
- Suddenly, Myrrhine recognizes him: it's her husband, Cinesias! And he's carrying their baby.
- Lysistrata tells Myrrhine to seduce him, make him totally turned on—but then not have sex with him. She sends all the other women away. This leaves Lysistrata, Myrrhine, and Cinesias onstage.
- From where he's standing, Cinesias can't see Myrrhine. He asks Lysistrata where he can find her. Lysistrata holds out until Cinesias tosses her a wallet full of coins. Then she leaves the ramparts and gets Myrrhine. Myrrhine takes Lysistrata's place on the ramparts.
- Cinesias sees her, and begs her to come down, but Myrrhine refuses. She says that Cinesias doesn't really want her. Cinesias protests that he does want her—and the baby does too. The baby then cries out, in Ancient Greek, "mammia, mammia, mammia!" (Too cute, really.)
- Eventually, Myrrhine gives in—to the baby, that is—and says she's coming down.
- As soon as she arrives at the base of the ramparts, Myrrhine runs up to her baby and kisses it. She tells it she feels bad for it—because it has such a bad father.
- In response, Cinesias starts complaining about how the house has gotten all dilapidated in Myrrhine's absence. He can't understand why his wife is hanging out with all these other women. He essentially calls them a bunch of crazy broads.
- Myrrhine explains that she won't come home and have sex with Cinesias until the men stop the war against Sparta.
- Cinesias tells her he'll think about it, but would she please just lie down with him for a little bit right now? When Myrrhine points out that their baby is still there, Cinesias sends it home with Manes, their slave.
- Once the baby's gone, Cinesias suggests to Myrrhine that it's time for them to get their groove on. Myrrhine points out that they don't have anywhere to do it. After some back and forth, Myrrhine agrees to do it where they are—but only if she can go get a bed.
- In no time, Myrrhine has come back with a bed. She starts getting undressed. But then she realizes she's forgot something: they don't have a mattress!
- Cinesias doesn't think they need a mattress, but Myrrhine insists. And so she runs off. When she comes back, Cinesias is ready to get busy. But Myrrhine realizes that they don't have a pillow. And so, she's gone again.
- This pattern continues for the next little while, as Myrrhine realizes that she's forgotten one thing after another, and goes to fetch them. Cinesias, of course, doesn't think that any of these things are too important—and is getting increasingly aroused and frustrated.
- Finally, at the very last minute, when it looks like Myrrhine is finally going to get it on with Cinesias, she makes him swear once more to make peace—and then runs back into the Acropolis.
- Now, Cinesias and the Men's Chorus complain about how sexually frustrated they are.
- Just then, a Herald shows up from Sparta. Even though he denies it at first, eventually Cinesias makes the Herald admit that he is sporting a massive erection.
- The Herald explains that all the men of Sparta are in the same state—and so are their allies. The trouble all got stirred up by Lampito, he says, who organized the women in a sex strike.
- Cinesias now realizes that all the women of the world are taking part in one big conspiracy. Figuring that the only solution now is to make peace, he sends the Herald back to Sparta to fetch delegates. Cinesias says that, in the meantime, he'll get the Athenians ready to receive them. He leaves the stage.
- Once those guys have left, the Women's Leader tries to make friends with the Men's Leader. She helps him put his shirt back on, and helps remove a gnat from his eye. Then she kisses him, even though he protests.
- After this, the Men's Chorus and Women's Chorus join together into a single Chorus. Together, they sing a short song about how they are happy now, and how they want to be friends with everyone—only they don't really want to have to share all their stuff.
- Just then, who should show up but… the delegates from Sparta. What's more, they're all sporting massive boners. They say that they can't stand it anymore: they're ready for peace.
- Next, the Athenians show up. They, too, are sporting seriously swollen members.
- Once the Athenians learn that the Spartans are there to negotiate a peace treaty, they suggest bringing Lysistrata along to help smooth out the deal. The Spartans are cool with that.
- At that very moment, Lysistrata walks onstage. The Chorus leader pleads with her to use all of her considerable skill to make the Athenians and the Spartans make peace.
- Lysistrata says that that's exactly what she has in mind. Then she summons someone else onstage to help her—but it's isn't just anybody: it's a goddess, the spirit of Reconciliation. What's more, Reconciliation is a naked girl!
- Lysistrata instructs Reconciliation to stand between the Athenians and the Spartans, holding one member of each delegation by the hand—or by whatever else she can grab (seriously).
- Once Reconciliation is in place, Lysistrata launches into her speech. She points out how the Athenians and Spartans get along at the Olympics and have been allies in the past—so why do they have to war against each other now? Don't they have barbarians to fight?
- Lysistrata goes on to point out how the Athenians have helped the Spartans out of some tight scrapes in the past, and vice versa. How can they be so ungrateful to each other?
- Throughout Lysistrata's speech, the Athenians and Spartans keep agreeing with her—though their attention is mainly focused on the naked figure of Reconciliation, who is driving them wild with desire.
- Finally, the Athenians and Spartans get down to business. They decide to divide up the territory that is disputed between them. Or rather, they each lay claim to the most attractive body parts of Reconciliation, and these body parts symbolize the various territories that they lay claim to.
- Eventually, the Athenians and the Spartans decide to have sex with Reconciliation simultaneously—but from opposite sides. In keeping with their national stereotype, the Spartans lay claim to Reconciliation's backside.
- We are not making this up, guys. Aristophanes was a dirty old man.
- Once the ceremony is over—and the Spartans and Athenians have promised to get their allies in on the deal—Lysistrata says that the sex strike is over: the men can reclaim their wives.
- Then, Lysistrata, Reconciliation, and the delegates leave the stage. Some slaves sit down outside the gates of the Acropolis; a doorkeeper keeps them company.
- Now the Chorus sings another song with the same message as their last one: they want to share everything with everybody… except not really.
- Just then, the Athenian delegates burst onto the scene and knock over the slaves who were leaning on the door. They chase the slaves away. The Athenian delegates then talk about how they just had a great party with the Spartans—and how they should always get drunk with each other while conducting important business.
- Then, for no apparent reason, the slaves come back, and the Athenians chase them away again.
- Now the Spartan delegates emerge from the Acropolis. The leader of the Spartans is carrying bagpipes.
- With the encouragement of the first Athenian delegate, the Spartan begins dancing and singing a song about the great military exploits of Sparta from days gone by.
- Then the First Athenian Delegate tells the men of Athens and Sparta to reclaim their wives. Then he sings a song of prayer for the occasion.
- Next it's the Spartan's turn again. He sings a song in praise of Sparta, but ends with a call for everyone to sing a hymn to Athena—a nice tip of the hat to his hosts' patron goddess.