Birds; Lysistrata; Assembly-Women; Wealth

By Stephen Halliwell; Aristophanes | Go to book overview
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INTRODUCTION

Birds, produced for Aristophanes by Kallistratos at the City Dionysia in 414, is by some way the longest surviving Aristophanic comedy. It is conceived and constructed around as extravagant (as well as literal) a flight of fancy as occurs in any of his works. It begins, somewhat à la Samuel Beckett, with a scene of two old, shabby, disenchanted Athenians stumbling around the countryside outside their city, attempting to interpret the directions they are supposedly receiving from a pair of birds; and it ends with one of these same characters celebrating a marriage which marks his displacement of Zeus as the supreme ruler of the universe. In between that bizarre beginning and that cosmically triumphant conclusion, we pass through an increasingly exorbitant adventure which moves from earth to sky, and which sees the creation of a bird-city (the eponymous Cloudcuckooland) whose existence impinges upon—indeed, places a decisive barrier between—the human world below and the Olympian gods above. The shape of the plot thus follows a typical Aristophanic pattern. The first half embraces the achievement of a fantastic piece of comic 'heroism', as Peisetairos employs his creative (and sophistic) imagination to encourage the birds to recover the power which he claims they once held over the world, and persuades them that the way to do so is to build a new city state in the sky. The second half then pursues the consequences of this scheme in a sequence of visits by 'outsiders' (an unusually long sequence, hence Birds' exceptional size), mixing together would-be intruders from earth with divine visitors from Olympos (Iris the spy, Prometheus the defector, and finally the three diplomat-gods of an official embassy).

The simple yet memorably exotic scenario of Birds draws on sources which include the material of dreams, animal fable, and myth. It combines all of these with generic traditions which include the use of animal choruses 1 and the egotism of the comic protagonist. The motifs of flying, bird-like humans, and birds which take on

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1
A bird-chorus had been used as early as Magnes, the leading comic playwright of the 470s-460s: see the allusion at Knights 522. Vase-paintings of dancers in bird costumes also reflect this comic tradition: see e.g. R. Green and E. Handley, Images of the Greek Theatre (London, 1995), pl. 3.

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