Study Guide

Lysistrata Themes

  • Women and Femininity

    Lysistrata gives us a front-row seat to the lives of women in Ancient Greece. Okay, maybe ladies didn't habitually go around hiding helmets under their tunics in order to fake pregnancy… but we still get our learning on.

    Many scholars think that this was the first Ancient Greek comedy to feature a woman—the (tee hee) titular Lysistrata—as a main character. Because of this, we get peeks into women's daily lives: they managed household finances (whoa, pretty interesting) and spent a whole lot of time spinning and weaving (less interesting, TBH).

    Also, Aristophanes portrays women as every bit as sex-crazed as men. They love to get in on, but they're willing to keep it in their pants, er, togas, long enough to put an end to a seemingly endless war.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What are the main stereotypes about women shown in the play?
    2. Does the play portray any of the stereotypes about women as being untrue? If so, which ones?
    3. In line 145, Lysistrata praises Lampito (who has just said she will join the sex-strike) by calling her "the only real woman here." Is Lysistrata just being polite, or is there a real message here for the play's audience? If there's a real message, what else goes into making someone a "real woman," according to this play?
    4. Based on the other characters in the play, would you say that Lysistrata is a typical woman, or is she unusual?

    Chew on This

    The play portrays the stereotype that women are irrational as completely false.

    The character of Lysistrata is an exception to the rule: this play suggests that women don't achieve rational thought and wisdom until they pass menopause.

  • Sex

    In terms of sheer word count, Lysistrata must have more references to sex than any other Ancient Greek play… though some of Aristophanes' other comedies definitely come close. This play is exploding (yup, pun intended) with jokes and slapstick humor revolving around sex. The male characters even walk around with visible erections—do not, we repeat do not, go to a production of Lysistrata with your grandma.

    But just because the sex angle gets played up for comic effect doesn't mean that the play's treatment of sex lacks a useful side. Not only does it give us lots of insight into the sexual practices of the Ancient Greeks (including a certain sexual position known as the "lioness on the cheesegrater"—what? what does that even mean?), it also highlights the link between sex and politics way before "the personal (was) political." 

    Questions About Sex

    1. Why do you think Aristophanes chose to present his criticism of the Peloponnesian War in the form of a sex comedy?
    2. Whom does the play portray as more lustful: men or women?
    3. Why do the women of the play choose to achieve power through sexuality?
    4. What makes the women's sex-strike successful?

    Chew on This

    The play portrays men and women as equally lustful.

    The play portrays women as better than men at controlling their sexual desires.

  • Men and Masculinity

    One of the most striking features about Lysistrata is the fact that the male characters are—almost without exception—portrayed as bumbling, incompetent fools, in contrast to the play's powerful women.

    The sex-strike has the effect of turning man's most prized possession, the symbol of his, er, manhood, into a weapon against him. When all of Greece is walking around with painful erections without any hope of relief, you can bet that it isn't a source of pride. In this way, the women knock the men down a few pegs, and clear some space for their own voices to be heard.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Why are the men in the play so afraid of taking advice from women?
    2. What are the main stereotypes about men shown in the play?
    3. Does the play portray any of the stereotypes about men as being untrue? If so, which ones?
    4. If you were a male member of Aristophanes' audience in 411 BCE, would you feel that his play had represented you fairly?

    Chew on This

    The play portrays the stereotype that men are more intelligent than women as untrue.

    The men in the play are afraid of taking advice from women because it would show that they aren't actually superior.

  • Warfare

    The basic message of Lysistrata is that war is bad. Fair enough. But it goes into a bit more detail than that. One of the most important points the play makes is that women suffer in war just as much as men. The play also gets up on its soapbox and claims that war is unnecessary: proved by the fact that the men of both sides somehow find a way to resolve the seemingly irresolvable conflict just as soon as they realize they won't be getting any sex.

    Even taking all these points into consideration, though, it's important to note that the play isn't so much anti-war as it is anti-war-between-Greeks. Toward the end of the play, Lysistrata makes the point that it would be much better if the Spartans and Athenians could team up against their common enemy: the Barbarians.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Does the play argue that war is always bad, or can it sometimes be justified?
    2. Does the play portray men and women as suffering equally in war, or does one suffer more than the other?
    3. According to the play, what are the main reasons that make people fight wars?
    4. What is stopping the Athenians and the Spartans from making peace with each other?

    Chew on This

    Lysistrata hints that war is especially bad when it is between cities that could otherwise get along, but she seems to think that war against Barbarians is a-okay.

    The play portrays the main causes of war as greed and pride, especially the greed and pride of powerful citizens.

  • The Home

    Reading Lysistrata is kind of like peering in the windows of a middle-class Athenian home… except not creepy. We get all sorts of interesting tidbits from this play about home-life in Ancient Greece: the lady of the household played the role of manager, overseeing the domestic servants and slaves. She also typically also managed the household finances and performed chores themselves, such as spinning and weaving.

    Lysistrata thinks that this power in the home should lead to power out in the boy's club of politics. She argues that they give women the qualifications to manage the affairs of the city. She even compares cleaning up the corruption in the city to cleaning a new fleece of wool. And she stages the ultimate domestic/political protest: no nooky 'til war is over.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Based on the play's depiction of political life and home life, which group of Athenians would you say works harder: men or women?
    2. How are women's experiences in the home related to the skills they need to put on their strike?
    3. In the world of the play, is the average marriage happy, unhappy, or a mixture of the two?
    4. While Lysistrata and her crew are holed up on the Acropolis, do you think the average female sex-striker is (a) worried about how things are going at home, or (b) glad to have a vacation from worrying about how things are going at home?

    Chew on This

    Lysistrata portrays home-life as often full of love between husband and wife, but frustration over the unequal distribution of household duties.

    In the home, women play a powerful role as overseers of the domestic slaves and servants, and managers of the household finances. This role gives them organizational skills and confidence that help them during their strike.

  • Politics

    The Athens of Lysistrata was one of the most progressive cities of its time. As a democracy, it left political decision-making and government management up to the people… but the definition of "the people" was a bit limited. Women were not included as people. Boo. Hiss.

    And that's exactly what Lysistrata and her fellow women are trying to change. Lysistrata is saying that the men who make the decisions are working from a perspective that's too limited, because they refuse to listen to their wives' sensible advice. She also argues that Athenian politics has simply gotten too corrupt, and is in need of a serious cleanup.

    Questions About Politics

    1. What does Lysistrata portray as the main problems threatening Athenian democracy?
    2. Why do the men of the city think women shouldn't be allowed to participate in politics?
    3. Why do Lysistrata and the other women think they should be allowed to participate in politics?
    4. Does Lysistrata have any lessons that are relevant to the world of politics today?

    Chew on This

    Aristophanes' play portrays corruption and excessive male dominance as the main problems threatening Athenian democracy.

    Lysistrata and her fellow women think they have a right to participate in politics because they are competent, they make a contribution to the city (by giving birth to warriors), and because they suffer when the city suffers.

  • Power

    On a basic level, Lysistrata is about a struggle for power. The men of the city want to hang on to the power they've got, and the women of the city (led by Lysistrata) want to increase their own power. But what's most interesting is the different kinds of power that the men and women wield. For the men, power is all about political authority and decision-making; it also seems to be an end in itself. For the women, however, power is not an end in itself. Sure, the women are trying to have a voice in political decision-making, but that's because they want to bring about a specific change: an end to the Peloponnesian War… even more than they want to get laid.

    Questions About Power

    1. What are the main sources of women's power in the play?
    2. What are the main sources of men's power in the play?
    3. What does the play portray as the relationship between human and divine power?
    4. Why do the male characters in the play react so strongly against the women's attempts to gain power?

    Chew on This

    The male characters react strongly against the women acquiring power because they see it as a limit on their own power, and they aren't used to having their own power limited.

    The women see part of their power as coming from the gods, whom they call upon to make them as sexually attractive as possible.

  • Perseverance

    The no-nooky strike organized by Lysistrata is all about perseverance: not doin' it isn't easy, after all. The women's success is largely due to the perseverance of Lysistrata herself, who steadfastly encourages the young wives to stay away from their husbands, and relentless opposes the Magistrate and other men who try to quash their efforts. This woman has a willpower of steel.

    But the play shows the negative side of perseverance as well. When perseverance goes bad, it usually turns into either apathy (lazily enduring problems without changing them) and stubbornness (steadfastly clinging to a bad course of action). Lysistrata freely admits that she and the other women of the city used to fall into the apathetic form of bad perseverance, when they sat twiddling their thumbs while their husbands screwed up the city. The male characters in the play typically fall into stubbornness, as they try to defend their own power at all costs, without worrying about the effects it has.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Which does Lysistrata portray as more important: perseverance by individuals or perseverance through teamwork?
    2. Perseverance can have a bad side: it can decay into either apathy or stubbornness. Which characters in Lysistrata tend to fall into the bad form of perseverance?
    3. Why is the theme of perseverance so important in Lysistrata?
    4. Does the play portray perseverance as good in and of itself, or is it only good when used as a tool to achieve some goal?

    Chew on This

    The male characters in the play show the wrong kind of perseverance: they are apathetic and stubborn in sticking to wrong-headed policies

    The theme of perseverance is important in Lysistrata because the sex-strike basically involves a conflict of endurance between the men and the women of the city: who will crack first?