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Aristophanes

Updated on November 1, 2009

Aristophanes was a Greek dramatist. Born in Athens, Greece, about 450 B.C. He died about 385 B.C.

Aristophanes was the first comic playwright to combine thoughtful social criticism with light entertainment. His plays drew laughter from his audience even though he dealt with such serious themes as war, dictators, educational methods, and literature. Humorous plots, witty dialogue, and a graceful literary style made Aristophanes the most popular playwright of his day. He is the only ancient Greek writer of Old Comedy, the earliest form of Greek comedy, whose plays have survived to modern times. His works are especially important for the information they provide about Athenian society during the period of its greatest artistic achievement.

By setting his comedies in a fantasy world, Aristophanes was able to comment on contemporary events without spoiling the humorous effect of his play or antagonizing the audience. In many of his plays the main character undertakes an absurd project, and the plot traces his success or failure.

Of Aristophanes' surviving plays, Lysistrata, first performed in 411 B.C., remains the most popular with modern audiences. It is a robust comedy in which the women of Athens unite to force their husbands to end a war. The Clouds is a sharp attack on Greek education, particularly on the methods attributed to Socrates. The Birds is about two Athenians who build an ideal city in the sky, only to see it develop the problems of their native Athens. In The Frogs, Aristophanes compares the playwrights Aeschylus and Euripides, and the play is regarded as a brilliant work of literary criticism.

The Athenians respected Aristophanes as a sincere patriot and conscientious critic. Toward the end of his life they awarded him the traditional crown of olive leaves for service to the city.

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