Here at Balladeer’s Blog I’ve been reviewing ancient Greek comedies for years and a fair amount of people have recently asked me why I didn’t take the traditional view of Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds. That traditional view claims that The Birds was written at least partially as a commentary on the failed military expedition to Sicily.
FOR MY EXAMINATION OF THE BIRDS CLICK HERE
ANSWER: I omitted any reference to the Sicilian Expedition from my blog post on The Birds for a variety of reasons. For starters, it’s been covered to death by others who INSIST that that is the main subject of the comedy, so there’s no lack of alternate sources who cover that particular angle.
Next, I disagree with the notion that The Birds had much – if anything – to do with the disasters suffered by the Athenian forces in Sicily. It all comes back to my overall view that too many people force interpretations into Aristophanes’ comedies just because he’s the only ancient Greek comedian whose plays have survived in something resembling complete form.
Let’s revisit my usual spiel about the way most study of Aristophanes’ comedies takes place in a virtual vacuum of “All Aristophanes and nothing BUT Aristophanes.” Much of that is understandable since the other comedians’ works came down to us only in fragmentary form.
As I’ve made clear in my examinations of comedies by Eupolis, Cratinus and others it really opens your mind about the entirety of Attic Old Comedy to read the many, many academic works analyzing the fragments of the other comedians’ works. Too few people do this, I guess because most people aren’t as boring as I am.
Not all of the Attic Old Comedies dealt with specific political incidents and politicians. Some of them were just light-hearted fantasies, ESPECIALLY the Utopian Comedies, a subgenre generally associated with The Birds. Remember the whimsical Automatist Utopia Comedies I reviewed? If Aristophanes had written many of the surviving examples of those I’m sure we’d be inundated with analyses that force political meanings into the narratives.
Regular readers of Balladeer’s Blog may remember that I frequently apply this line of thought to other Aristophanic Comedies, too, not just The Birds. Especially when it comes to the way many scholars insist on an “ironic” interpretation of Eccesiazusae (The Assemblywomen), or Plutus (Wealth). Why? Why an “ironic” interpretation of just those two comedies? Why not an ironic interpretation of The Acharnians?
(I’m not advocating for an ironic interpretation of The Acharnians, I’m just furthering my argument that scholars long ago decided Aristophanes was being ironic with those other two comedies just because the scholars seem uncomfortable with some of the concepts put forth in The Assemblywomen and Wealth.)
I genuinely feel that it is stretching to see political references to the Athenian public’s reaction to the Sicilian debacle in The Birds. My own view, for new readers, was that Aristophanes was – in keeping with the generally more abstract and fanciful approach of the Utopian Comedies – simply reflecting on the same ugly aspects of human nature that Orwell would later explore in Animal Farm.
I certainly don’t deny the overt and very specific political references in Aristophanic works like The Knights, The Babylonians and many others. I cover those in depth in my other blog posts. But, taking the themes of Utopian Comedies as a subgenre, I think Aristophanes was adjusting his usually more topical approach and universalizing it for The Birds in order to abide by the different set of aesthetic expectations for such a comedy.
Remember Aristophanes’ dabbling in Parathespian Comedy with Women Erecting Tents and (possibly) The Rehearsal (called The Preview by our British cousins.)? If we had enough fragments of those two comedies to form a viewpoint on them I’m betting too many people would force political meanings into THOSE as well.
But once again, my view is that Aristophanes being such a masterful artist he would have abided by the different aesthetic expectations for Parathespian Comedies and would have laid off the hardcore topical politics in those comedies just like I believe he did in The Birds.
We even have evidence from the time period of Attic Old Comedy itself that the possibility of over-analyzing the comedies was dealt with in a joking manner. In Aristophanes’ Peace there’s the memorable “meta” bit where critics force political meaning on the absurd, gigantic dung beetle.
The speculation expressed is that Aristophanes might be “using the dung beetle as a metaphor for Cleon (a politician often targeted by Aristophanes).” The joke is that that is NOT the case and the critics are reaching. As we might say today “Sometimes a dung beetle is just a dung beetle.” +++
For more ancient Greek comedies click here: https://glitternight.com/ancient-greek-comedies/
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