Tuesday, February 9, 2016


The Classical era produced a great number of works which influenced generations of writers, philosophers, politicians, and ordinary citizens. My personal favorite, from the classical era, is Virgil's Aeneid, a tale which inspired countless works of art, from writers shameless ripping off its plot line, to poets comparing the fall of Dixie during the Civil War to Aeneas fleeing a burning Troy. Virgil's epic sets the tone for a great many discussions of Classical works, in no small part because it is considered to have encapsulated the best of them. One of the most profound moments I had reading the poem comes right at the beginning, when Virgil invokes the presence of a muse to help him speak the tale of Aeneas. I had read both of Homer's works, which began much in the same way, and to me this moment marked the creation of a long awaited sequel. It was not simply a a reworking of the themes of Homer, as some critics have suggested, but an ultimate capstone of the genre, as if the best of Classical literature had converged upon a single work to rival all that had come before, and perhaps all that had come since. This became a reading which served as the baseline for nearly all heroic works, and inspiration from Inferno to Hamlet to the modern day. It all begins with a respectful allusion to the past, ushering in perhaps the finest hour for the Western Canon.

With this mindset, understanding Lysistrata as a Classical work proved to be somewhat difficult. Lysistrata as a play, reflects a Classical style which is much less known today. The more comedic of Classical plays are considerably less familiar to most readers in today's society, as it is the tragedies, such as Oedipus or epics such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey which are most often taught and studied by a majority of students and private readers. Tragedies have always been considered the "Higher" plays, in part due to their serious and dramatic nature, though also because, prior to the Renaissance Era, they were generally not written in the vernacular language, for which many attributed a more "venerated" status with the works.
I say this to preface this post with the idea that, prior to my first time reading Lysistrata a year ago, I was not familiar with any of the Greek Comedies. My understanding of the Classical era largely came from Greek and Roman epics, written by Homer and Virgil, respectively. Thus, I was not particularly familiar with Aristophanes' style, or indeed the Greek comedic style in general. I was primarily used to reading an opening line calling upon mythological muses to help the narrator channel the story of legendary heroes, stories of the gods themselves; not a complaint about tardiness. As a result it took some time for me to adjust to the style in context of the time period. When I first began reading, the play sounded much more like a 16th or 17th century creation, rather than a classical piece. I found the conversations developed more like what I would expect from Shakespeare, Marlowe, or Jonson: Down to earth, with just the right level of absurdity.
Thus, the experience may have been colored by a subversion of expectations. The difficulty was not in understanding the play itself, but rather the play in the context of its original existence. Lysistrata ultimately seemed like a play that was written for a certain festival or event, the kind of work that in some ways is ironically more formal than the Epics. The Epics were built off of a basic concept, to which a number of storytellers would add variations and episodes, resulting in a sort of "finished" project we have today. Lysistrata would seem to be meant as more of a formal performance, something for an acting troupe, professional or amateur, would perform, to a, perhaps rough, script. The play is certainly unlike what many tend to expect from the Classical era, an argument echoed by its subject matter.

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