Mass versus Elite and the Comic Heroism of Peisetairos
Peisetairos, the hero of Birds, in some important respects differs typologically from Aristophanes' other five hero(in)es. 1 This essay assesses these differences and their possible significance for the interpretation of the play as a whole. In studying how the comic hero is institutionally and socially determined I respond to the utopian analyses in the first section--especially those of Romer and Hubbard--while placing emphasis on a new feature of the genre, namely how comedy exploits fissures in the social fabric to generate its meaning.
Evaluation of Peisetairos' heroism is complicated by the play's remote setting far from Athens and far from anywhere, and by its hero's detachment from topical concerns. Every play of Aristophanes subordinates topical reality to comic fantasy to some extent, so that any interpretation of its satirical thrust involves determining the extent of that subordination, mainly by applying external controls. The interpretation of Birds has been unusually difficult because of the unusual autonomy of its fantasy. 2 Unlike the other extant plays, Birds contains no debate on any current question of public interest; recommends no reform of current political habits; and advocates no particular policy decisions. The poet forgoes his customary appearance in the parabatic anapaests, and the hero takes great pains to make his bird polis as distant and as distinct from Athens or any other actual polis as can be. Its name will not be Sparta but the fantastic Nephelokokkugia (814-20); its citadel god will not be Athena but a fighting cock (826-36); its prayers will not include the Khians