Lysistrata and the Role of the Woman in Classical and Modern Society

Lysistrata, the comedy by Aristophanes, was written to be performed in the 5th century BCE and is still one of the most significant resources we have regarding the roles and actions of women in Classical Greece. Since premiering, it has spawned many modern versions and portrayals, and is often quite well-recognized due to its controversial and hilarious content regarding sexuality and its power over the citizens of Greece during the Peloponnesian War. Because it combines both farce with truthfulness regarding the context of the work during the Classical period, Lysistrata is a valuable resource when it comes to understanding how women and their sexuality functioned in society, as well as how these functions developed throughout history. With this, the goal of this research is to examine Aristophanes’ play itself, analyze the role of women in the work, and observe how this role carries out into modern adaptations of the work.

To begin, it is important to analyze the primary sources that were used in researching Lysistrata and its history. As modern classicists, we are aware that primary sources from Classical Greece are few and far to come by in their original format – many have elements that may have been lost in translation, and some sources may have been left behind entirely. With this, the only primary source that was available in researching Lysistrata was, of course, Aristophanes’ work itself. However, the original version of the comedy was written in Ancient Greek, and thus the primary source used is one of the numerous translated editions that exist, featuring commentary and other textual notes, by Jack Johnson[1]. Having said this, I recognized during my research that there is a definite possibility that certain elements within Aristophanes’ original work may have been lost when the play was translated to English, and thus there may be elements of his original intention that are lost to us.

History of the Work

When studying an ancient text, context is of primary concern. As a citizen, Aristophanes was known to be a rare participant in politics – but he was unafraid to express his opinions in his writing, often using political themes in his works.[2] He was vocal in his texts about his criticism of the Peloponnesian War, which was ongoing at the time Lysistrata was written and thus a major influence.[3] He was also thought to have been quite conservative, and many Athenians of the period shared this nature; they valued morals, ethics and tradition, as did Aristophanes[4]. Most of his works were recognized for their combination of brashness and simplicity – though he was thought to value conservative principles, he also was unafraid to push the limits of what was commonly seen on the stage.

Synopsis & Themes

To give a brief overview of Lysistrata and its major themes, the play begins as our protagonist, Lysistrata, rallies all the women of both Athens and Sparta. She brings the women together in order to present her master plan to restore peace between the states and end the Peloponnesian War. This plan was to persuade the women of Greece to withhold sex from their husbands as a way to speed up the finish of the war and allow the men to return home. To make things even more difficult for their husbands, Lysistrata elaborates that the women should wear their “shining Amorgos silk” with their “Venus-plats plucked trim and neat[5]” – her idea is to wear their most beautiful clothes and groom themselves in order to drive them mad with sexual desire, with the goal of forcing them to end the war quickly. Though a bit of persuasion is required, eventually Lysistrata convinces the women to follow along with her plan and refrain from any sexual contact with their husbands, which proves more difficult than expected, for both the men and the women!

Context in Classical Greece

At the time of its creation, usually dated as 411 BCE[6], Aristophanes’ work was the first Ancient Greek play to have a woman as its titular character – or, even to have a woman at the forefront of its plot. This was a new notion in itself – though some of Homer’s works, including The Odyssey and The Iliad both contain female characters that are considered to be at the forefront, neither Penelope nor Andromache are responsible for moving action forward in the works. With this, we must take into consideration the context of the play and how it may have been received by audiences during the time that it was written. Having a female figure advancing a plot and not simply acting to the service of a man was a wonder for the time period, let alone acting as one of the first works to begin discussing the concept of female sexuality, and would have been a shocking and ground-breaking view of women for Classical audiences.

In Classical Greece, women lived entirely different lives than men. They primarily worked in domestic settings; they were often in charge of activities such as weaving and sewing, as well as preparing and processing products that their husbands brought home. Women were almost always regarded as caretaker figures – they were generally expected to take care of children, as well as slaves (if they had any, depending on their economic status.) Occasionally women worked outside of the home, but these roles as wet nurses, grocers, etc. were usually looked upon as exceptions for aristocratic or middle class women, since they were not necessarily the norm and could even be frowned upon. Women were also seen playing a role in religion, both publicly and privately spending time devoting themselves to other women – an example could be priestesses devoting themselves to goddesses.[7] Saying all of this, women in the classical period were not particularly independent – they almost always required a kyrios, or male guardian, in order to perform any transactions, business or otherwise, which differs from the autonomy in decision-making presented by the women in Lysistrata.

Female sexuality was generally viewed in a negative light. Though women had jobs both domestically and outside of the home, their primary purpose in Classical Greece was to produce children; any concept of wives having sexual thoughts or desires was thought to be seemingly nonexistent. Sexual behaviour of women was under the control of the laws of Solon,[8] which were a series of laws regarding women’s “sexual duties.” One significant law was wives having to have sex with their husbands at least three times a month for reproductive purposes. He also was thought to have instituted public brothels for men to attend, as a way to “release their frustration” if their wife could not serve them[9]. The female voice was rarely heard in this respect, and thus Lysistrata was most definitely a contextual change; having a text where women freely discuss (and even express desire for) sex would have been enormously shocking for the period. Since this bold expression by females was unheard of, it was almost satirical for Classical audiences to watch, and thus was part of the appeal for audiences to watch.

How does Aristophanes challenge women’s gender roles?

In Lysistrata, Aristophanes challenges the concept of Classical female sexuality by introducing a protagonist who takes the idea of sex as something that both parties desire, not simply as a means of reproduction and pleasure for the male. Lysistrata uses sex as a weapon against the men. Her plan is completely radical and it takes time to sway the other women into accepting it. Once they are on board, Lysistrata becomes a type of ringleader, referred to by scholars as a “symposiarch”[10], and completely turns the idea of a male leader on its head. In Classical Greece, men often attended symposiums, hence the term “symposiarch” is quite fitting if we regard Lysistrata’s bold and outspoken nature as a change in gender roles from male to female.

The other wives and mothers often use their roles as matriarchal figures to draw attention to the fact that their husbands or sons are at risk in the war, and thus they want it to end quickly. However, their roles throughout the play are not particularly substantial in comparison to Lysistrata and her ground-breaking idea. Some other minor characters include a Spartan woman named Lampio, who is on board with the sex-strike plan at the very beginning, and her agreement with Lysistrata fuels the success of their plan and thus makes her pivotal in the movement. The other wives who voice their opinions on the strike at the start are Myrrhine and Calpione, two women who immediately refuse to give up the “darling joy” of sex[11]. In one article, their characters are described as representing a satirized, lewd version of the Athenian woman, who are simply disgusted by Lysistrata’s ideas of abstaining from sex, and cannot bear to give it up.[12]  Overall, the central action is fueled by Lysistrata.

Is it feminist?

The idea of feminism is an important one to examine within the context of Lysistrata and the roles that women play within the work. Because of her progressive idea of a sex strike, it is not hard to see why Lysistrata could be regarded as an example of a “feminist movement,” though created in an age where feminism had not begun to exist. However, some classicists are polarized toward this and regard Lysistrata as an anti-feminist work, since it often uses its crude humour to make fun of the women and their desperation to have the men home. It is simply hard to say what Aristophanes had originally intended in creating a play such as Lysistrata, but the idea of a sex strike held by women would have been revolutionary enough to be defined as “feminist” by modern standards, one definition being “organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.”[13]  However, the fact that it was meant to be satirical during the Classical period takes away from any feminist standpoint it may have now. We also know that originally performed, the female roles would have been performed by men, and this entirely changes the way we perceive women’s roles in the work. For example, if Lysistrata is supposed to be a serious figure whose plan, though brash, is brilliant and heroic, the delivery of a man planning a female sex strike could appear quite comedic to ancient audiences – which were also likely composed of only men.[14]

Lysistrata and the Modern Woman

With this, the idea of feminism and women’s roles within Lysistrata has proved significant through history. No matter if the work is coined “feminist” or not, the play maintains a great influence on modern theatrical and musical productions, as well as simply in society. Connections to Lysistrata are found not only in opera or musical theatre, but in women’s movements and peace protests across the world, proving its lasting impact on not only Western culture, but modern culture throughout the globe.

One example of a modern connection to Lysistrata that is particularly relevant was the link between the play and a documentary film, Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Summarized by Andrea Hilkovitz, the documentary focused in on the Liberian civil war, and the women’s endeavours towards the peaceful ending of it.[15] She draws a number of comparisons to the documentary and the play – Lysistrata, and in the documentary, a woman named Leymah Gboyee, act as strong female leaders, strategic in their planning. Both pieces involve a sex strike, and the documentary focuses on the pains that the women take to carry this out. “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” is, of course, a drama piece, differing from Lysistrata as a comedy. Its goal is to put women at the forefront of the war situation, since as Gboyee pointed out, “women are always in the background” of news reports and stories covering the action, and thus the documentary portrays “an army of women in white standing up when no one else would.”[16] This of course, sounds familiar to Lysistrata and her army of women, making a bold move to reach peace. A link to the documentary’s trailer is here, highlighting the efforts of the women in Liberia.

Another take on Lysistrata that emphasizes its influence on modern society was a movement called the “Lysistrata Project.[17]” The original idea of the project was created by an actress from New York named Kathryn Blume. Her goal had been to organize a reading of the play, with all the earnings going towards humanitarian efforts. An article published in 2003 discusses a number of professors in Texas who followed in Ms. Blume’s footsteps; they were so inspired by the success of the Lysistrata Project and the message of Aristophanes’ work that they decided to create their own movement! Three consecutive readings of Lysistrata were put on, at the universities of Weber and Utah, as a type of peace project. One of the directors, Linda Brown, stated that with regard to political issues that were happening around her at the time, she “didn’t feel like [she] had a voice” and that the play was “a catalyst for those people who needed to speak out and let their ideas be known.”[18] She also discussed the impact of the play on her as a mother, and how it spoke to her regarding the idea of her son going off to war – the power of Lysistrata having a voice in the men’s situation was quite poignant for her, and she wished that same voice for herself and other mothers. Though not directly linked to women’s issues, the idea of women working together, taking control and making peaceful change in Lysistrata allowed this woman and many others to feel more empowered and vocal about their rights, proving the long lasting influence of Aristophanes’ work in modern society.

In conclusion…

Overall, Lysistrata is a wonderful example of an ancient Greek work with timeless themes of women’s rights, unity, and the impact of war on society. It meshes together crude, shocking comedic value with some moments of touching and tragic, and this balance is perfectly molded thanks to Aristophanes. It does a brilliant job in expressing female characters as real women with thoughts and desires that seem quite foreign when we consider women’s rights in Classical Greece at the time of composition. Though these concepts of female liberty may not have begun women’s movements back in the 5th century BCE, they certainly have had a lasting impact on modern society, and thus the play has been revived numerous times, in many different facets, all coming back to the strong central themes. Lysistrata has given many women throughout history feelings of purpose or power, and its influence can only grow from here as women’s rights continue to be a pressing issue in our modern world.

Footnotes

[1] Aristophanes. “Lysistrata,” ed. Jack Johnson. Perseus Library. Accessed on October 2nd, 2018 from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text.jsp?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0242

[2] Donald L. Wasson. “Lysistrata.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2018. Accessed on October 8th, 2018 from https://www.ancient.eu/Lysistrata/

[3] Wasson. “Lysistrata.”

[4] Wasson. “Lysistrata.”

[5] Aristoph, Lys. 130-174.

[6] Wasson. “Lysistrata.”

[7] Matthew Dillon. Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion. (London: Routledge), 2001. Accessed on October 2nd, 2018 from https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781134365098.

[8] Sarah Pomeroy. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), 2011, p.86.

[9] John David Lewis. Solon of Athens and the Ethics of Good BusinessJournal of Business Ethics, 2009, p.124. Accessed on November 9, 2018 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40295043.

[10] Sarah Culpepper Stroup. Designing Women: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and the “Hetairization” of the Greek Wife. (Arethusa: Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004, p. 47.

[11] Aristoph, Lys. 130-137.

[12] John Vaio. “The Manipulation of Theme and Action in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 1973, p. 370.

[13] Merriam-Webster. “Feminism.” Merriam-Webster.com, 2018. Accessed on October 10th, 2018 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism

[14] Nigel Wilson. “Two Observations on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 1982, pp.157-158. Accessed on October 11th, 2018 from http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.mta.ca/docview/1301503343?accountid=12599.

[15] Andrea Hilkovitz. “Beyond Sex Strikes: Women’s Movements, Peace Building, and Negotiation in Lysistrata and Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict, 2014, pp. 124-134. Accessed on October 14th, 2018 from http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.mta.ca/docview/1664945284?accountid=12599.

[16] Hilkovitz, “Beyond Sex Strikes: Women’s Movements, Peace Building, and Negotiation in Lysistra and Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”

[17] Celia R. Baker, “Ancient Play with a Modern Point.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 2003. Accessed on October 14th, 2018 from http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.mta.ca/docview/281221195?accountid=12599.

[18] Baker, “Ancient Play with a Modern Point.”

Bibliography

Aristophanes. “Lysistrata,” ed. Jack Johnson. Perseus Library. Accessed on October 2nd, 2018 from http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text.jsp?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0242

Baker, Celia R. “Ancient Play with a Modern Point.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 2003. Accessed on October 14th, 2018 from http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.mta.ca/docview/281221195?accountid=12599.

Dillon, Matthew. Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion. (London: Routledge), 2001. Accessed on October 2nd, 2018 from https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781134365098.

Hilkovitz, Andrea. “Beyond Sex Strikes: Women’s Movements, Peace Building, and Negotiation in Lysistrata and Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” Journal for the Study of Peace and Conflict, 2014, pp. 124-134. Accessed on October 14th, 2018 from http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.mta.ca/docview/1664945284?accountid=12599.

Lewis, John David. “Solon of Athens and the Ethics of Good Business.” Journal of Business Ethics, 2009, 89, no. 1, pp.123-38. Accessed on November 9th, 2018 from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40295043.

Merriam-Webster. “Feminism.” Merriam-Webster.com, 2018. Accessed on October 10th, 2018 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/feminism

Pomeroy, Sarah. Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity. (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group), 2011, p.86.

Stroup, Sarah Culpepper. “Designing Women: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and the “Hetairization” of the Greek Wife.” (Arethusa: Johns Hopkins University Press), 37, no. 1, 2004, pp. 37-73.

Wasson, Donald L. “Lysistrata.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, 2018. Accessed on October 8th, 2018 from https://www.ancient.eu/Lysistrata/

Wilson, Nigel. “Two Observations on Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, 1982, 23, no. 2, pp.157-158. Accessed on October 11th, 2018 from http://search.proquest.com.libproxy.mta.ca/docview/1301503343?accountid=12599.


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