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Laughter as/at the Rhetoric of Democracy
Unformatted Document Text:  13 III. Aristophanic Laughter It is within this general framework of Athenian democracy, and the role of the theater within such a democracy, that we can begin to understand the social and political force behind Aristophanic laughter. In writing and producing comedies for public consumption at the dramatic festivals, Aristophanes was not only engaged in the activity of literary production, but in a competition with other comic playwrights, tragic playwrights, as well as political orators. In staking out a claim for the political seriousness of comedy, Aristophanes sought to demonstrate that the comic poet, in addition to the tragic poet and the political orator, could also provide the city of Athens with helpful advice and criticism. In the words of Dikaiopolis, the comic protagonist of Aristophanes’ Acharnians, “Do not be aggrieved with me, gentleman spectators, if, though a beggar, I am ready to address the Athenians about the city while making a comedy. For even comedy knows about what’s right, and what I will say will be shocking, but right.” 63 While, we might add, Aristophanes might also say much that was silly, ludicrous, and even downright fantastical, he nevertheless argues for the place of comic poetry in the education of the democratic city. While Aristophanes acknowledges his competition with rival comic poets 64 , it is perhaps his rivalry with tragedy that most clearly indicates his attempt to transform the genre of comedy into a serious contender in the sphere of civic education. A closer look at the above quote from the Acharnians, as well as the context from which it is taken, can provide us with some insight into the complex relationship between Aristophanic comedy and Greeek tragedy. First, rather than using the more common Greek word for comedy – kômôidia – Dikaiopolis uses the word trugôidia, a synonym for kômôidia, but at the same time, one that denotes a certain comic mocking of tragic style. Indeed, the larger scene from which this quote is taken is just such an example of tragic parody. Having negotiated a private peace treaty with the city of Sparta, Dikaipolis is confronted by a group of virulently patriotic citizens from the deme Acharnae who violently attack him for his purported betrayal of the city. In order to hold the Acharnians at bay, Dikaipolis holds a basket of coal hostage at knifepoint, parodying a scene from Euripides’ lost tragedy the Telephus where Telephus held the baby Orestes hostage. The Acharnians, fearing for the fate of their precious charcoal (making charcoal was one of the chief economic industries of the deme Acharnae), they agree to refrain from violence until Dikaipolis is at least given the opportunity to speak. Having freed himself from immediate danger, Dikiaopolis nonetheless worries that he will be unable to convince the Acharnians that he has acted justly. In particular, he fears that his defense of the Spartans will provoke the ire of the patriotic Acharnians, men who are “deeply delighted when some fraudulent personage eulogizes them and the city, whether truly or falsely” (371-373). He remarks, moreover, that it is precisely this weakness for flattering praise that Athens’ politicians have exploited in order to fuel the push for war among its citizens. Finally, he notes, in taking on the persona of the comic poet, how the politician Cleon abused him for his critique of Athens in the Babylonians, produced in the previous year. While the Babylonians exists today only in fragmentary form, the extant fragments seem to reveal that the chorus of the play was composed of slaves, representing Athens allied 63 Acharnians, 497-501. All translations from the Acharnians are taken from the Loeb edition of Jeffrey Henderson. 64 See Luppe (2000), for a useful attempt to reconstruct the rivalry between Aristophanes and Kratinos, a comic poet from the generation preceding Aristophanes. The parabasis of Knights (507-550) also provides a good example of the types of attacks comic poets would make against their rivals.

Authors: Lombardini, John.
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background image
13
III.
Aristophanic Laughter

It is within this general framework of Athenian democracy, and the role of the theater within such a
democracy, that we can begin to understand the social and political force behind Aristophanic laughter. In writing
and producing comedies for public consumption at the dramatic festivals, Aristophanes was not only engaged in the
activity of literary production, but in a competition with other comic playwrights, tragic playwrights, as well as
political orators. In staking out a claim for the political seriousness of comedy, Aristophanes sought to demonstrate
that the comic poet, in addition to the tragic poet and the political orator, could also provide the city of Athens with
helpful advice and criticism. In the words of Dikaiopolis, the comic protagonist of Aristophanes’ Acharnians, “Do
not be aggrieved with me, gentleman spectators, if, though a beggar, I am ready to address the Athenians about the
city while making a comedy. For even comedy knows about what’s right, and what I will say will be shocking, but
right.”
63
While, we might add, Aristophanes might also say much that was silly, ludicrous, and even downright
fantastical, he nevertheless argues for the place of comic poetry in the education of the democratic city.
While Aristophanes acknowledges his competition with rival comic poets
64
, it is perhaps his rivalry with
tragedy that most clearly indicates his attempt to transform the genre of comedy into a serious contender in the
sphere of civic education. A closer look at the above quote from the Acharnians, as well as the context from which
it is taken, can provide us with some insight into the complex relationship between Aristophanic comedy and Greeek
tragedy. First, rather than using the more common Greek word for comedy – kômôidia – Dikaiopolis uses the word
trugôidia, a synonym for kômôidia, but at the same time, one that denotes a certain comic mocking of tragic style.
Indeed, the larger scene from which this quote is taken is just such an example of tragic parody. Having negotiated
a private peace treaty with the city of Sparta, Dikaipolis is confronted by a group of virulently patriotic citizens from
the deme Acharnae who violently attack him for his purported betrayal of the city. In order to hold the Acharnians
at bay, Dikaipolis holds a basket of coal hostage at knifepoint, parodying a scene from Euripides’ lost tragedy the
Telephus where Telephus held the baby Orestes hostage. The Acharnians, fearing for the fate of their precious
charcoal (making charcoal was one of the chief economic industries of the deme Acharnae), they agree to refrain
from violence until Dikaipolis is at least given the opportunity to speak.
Having freed himself from immediate danger, Dikiaopolis nonetheless worries that he will be unable to
convince the Acharnians that he has acted justly. In particular, he fears that his defense of the Spartans will provoke
the ire of the patriotic Acharnians, men who are “deeply delighted when some fraudulent personage eulogizes them
and the city, whether truly or falsely” (371-373). He remarks, moreover, that it is precisely this weakness for
flattering praise that Athens’ politicians have exploited in order to fuel the push for war among its citizens. Finally,
he notes, in taking on the persona of the comic poet, how the politician Cleon abused him for his critique of Athens
in the Babylonians, produced in the previous year. While the Babylonians exists today only in fragmentary form,
the extant fragments seem to reveal that the chorus of the play was composed of slaves, representing Athens allied
63
Acharnians, 497-501. All translations from the Acharnians are taken from the Loeb edition of Jeffrey Henderson.
64
See Luppe (2000), for a useful attempt to reconstruct the rivalry between Aristophanes and Kratinos, a comic poet
from the generation preceding Aristophanes. The parabasis of Knights (507-550) also provides a good example of
the types of attacks comic poets would make against their rivals.


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