This time out, we look at another one of Aristophanes’ plays, The Lysistrata. The play tells the story of how the women of Ancient Greece get fed up with having their husbands away at war all the time, and so decide to go on a sexual strike until the men agree to settle all the conflicts and arrange for peace.
Lysistrata (Talking to an assembly of Greek women from all the states):
We must abstain — each — from the joys of love.
How! What! Why Turn away?
Where are ye going?
She does eventually convince them all to do so, in part because it will keep their men at home, where they are more likely to enjoy the the joys of love.
Here is the oath the women all take:
I will abstain from Love and Love’s delights
And take no please though my lord invites.
And sleep a vestal all alone at nights.
And live a stranger to all nuptial rites.
I will abjure the very name of Love.
So Help me Zeus, and all the Power above.
If I do this, my cup be filled with wine.
But if I fail, a water draught be mine.
The women, even the Spartan women are tired of all the fighting and want to know when it will ever end. The play is filled with plenty of puns and double entendres, which means that translations here are all important to get the real feel for the play. In every translation I have read, Lampito, the Spartan women is always translated with some accent. In the Britannica version for some reason the accent appears to be Scottish, but in versions form the 80s and early 90s, the accent was eastern European. All a matter of perspective, I guess. Still, the play is a good time.
Calonice: Well, but Lysistrata, why have you, dear, convoked us? Is the matter a weighty subject?
Lysistrata: Weighty? Yes.
Calonice: And pregnant?
Lysistrata: Pregnant, by Zeus.
Calonice: Why ever don’t we come, then?
Lysistrata: No, it’s not that: we’d have come fast enough for some such-like nonsense. ‘Tis a scheme I’ve hit on, tossing it over many a sleepless night.
In addition to the jokes and comedy, the play also portrays women in a light that some critics of Great Books and the Western tradition say would be impossible. Women are portrayed as powerful, capable of economic and political leadership, and sexual beings with needs of their own. Their work managing household finances is said to be equivalent to the state and their sexual revolution will “Hellas to save from her grief and perplexity.”
While it may be argued that this could all be part of the comic devices in the play, I think that it is more of a recognition that women have an extremely important role in Ancient Greece in keeping the world running. The fact they can shut down wars through their strike shows that the men can be brought to heel by women if they stand united and firm in their position.
In addition, as modern readers, we can appreciate that sentiment because we have the benefit of over 2,000 years of work towards recognizing both men and women as humans with something valuable to contribute. Granted this is not the same in all places or across all cultures, but I think the Lysistrata shows the beginnings of it in the West in a way that we can all laugh about.
Next Time: Read Faster! Why I Am So Slow, and A Promise to Up Date more Frequently