Lysistrata Summary

Aristophanes

Lysistrata

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Lysistrata Summary

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Prologue Summary

The play opens with Lysistrata standing at the Propylaea, which is the gateway to the Acropolis. It is to be understood that she is expecting to see someone. She laments that if it were a feast or celebration she was throwing, there would be women everywhere. But now there are none.  Her friend Calonice arrives, the only woman to show up on time. Lysistrata complains about women’s irresponsibility when confronted with a serious task, which Calonice refutes with the excuse of long hours spend on domestic duties. Lysistrata tells her that within the Acropolis waits a much lengthier and weightier object, sparking the first of many phallic jokes in the play. At this point in the plot, she confides in Calonice that she intends for women to save Greece itself through their own feminine adornments and wiles, but she does not go into the full detail of her plan quite yet.  Lysistrata remains coy about what exactly she intends to do for the time being, as she wants to reveal her plan before all the Greek women.

At this point in the plot of Lysistrata, Myrrhine, a Anagyrian woman, and then Lampito, a Spartan, enter. Lysistrata and Lampito flirt briefly as more and more women from around Greece file in. Lysistrata begins her speech to the women by addressing the problem of all their husbands being gone at war for extend periods of time. Several of the women give brief personal accounts of where their husbands have gone, and how long ago. Lysistrata announces that she has a plan to end this war that has consumed much of Greece, to which the women respond enthusiastically with assurances that they are willing to do anything she could possibly conceive in order to bring the war to an end.

Lysistrata finally reveals her plan to end the war- all the women will refuse to have sex with their husbands until the war is over. The women are absolutely mortified at the prospect, saying that they were expecting a much easier proposition, like being made to walk across fire. They decide that they would rather see the war continue. The exception is Lampito, the Spartan woman. She is the first to step up and agree to the plan, and remains steadfast in her commitment. Lysistrata praises her as her only true comrade amongst cowards. She explains that with enough primping, the women can drive the men to seek peace by any means necessary if they all ignore their husbands’ demands for sex.

In her view, if their husbands call their bluff and leave, they will get it nowhere else because they will soon find that all the women in Greece are doing the same thing. If the men try to force themselves upon the women, the women are to resist. If they fail in their resistance, they are to lie joylessly still, so as not to give the men any enjoyment. At this point, part B of the plan is revealed- as the young women speak, the older women are in the process of taking over the Acropolis and barricading the entrance, so the men cannot enter. The women proceed to make their vow of celibacy, and Lysistrata first suggests swearing upon a shield, as was Aeschylus’ style. But the other women see using a tool of war as inappropriate.

They finally agree to swear by drinking a communal bowl of wine. While they all hold the bowl, Lysistrata recites the vow not to have sex until the war is over, with Calonice repeating each line back. Finally, the old women have secured the Acropolis, and Lysistrata sends Lampito back to Sparta to get all the Spartan women in on their plan. This is an important turning point in this plot summary of Lysistrata.

 

Parodos – Choral Episode Summary

A chorus of old men march up to the Propylaea to try and recapture it. They are disheveled and motley, barely able to make it up to the gate with their wood they intend to use to burn the women alive. They grab a few women standing guard outside the gate and set them on the woodpiles. The smoke from their torches makes the other men cough and sputter as they make their way up, and they barely make it before the flames die out completely. The women in the acropolis go into a small panic when they see the fires, scrambling to find what water they have brought with them. The women set about trying to protect the captured guards, and send a small party down to confront the old men. The women taunt the men and the men in turn threaten to beat the women with their kindling. The men and women exchange heated threats back and forth, and the threats escalate to death and disembowelment on both sides. Ultimately, the women douse the old men with water, which alone is enough to subdue them. The old men back down, no more fire to threaten with, complaining about being cold and wet.

 

Scene 1 Summary

The Magistrate enters with a small group of soldiers. At this point in the plot of Lysistrata, he knows something is up, involving women in the Acropolis, but is not yet aware of the gravity of the situation. He is going there with the intent of withdrawing funds for military business, and retrieving naval weapons for an upcoming battle. He encounters the chorus of men, who complain to him about the women insulting them and dousing them in water. The Magistrate exclaims that the men deserved it- their society had spoiled the women, with the men going out of their way to look after the women’s comfort, so it had to be expected that the women would behave so.

He produces a crowbar and orders his men to open the gate. Lysistrata appears and chastises them for trying to force their way in without talking. But immediately, the magistrate shows he has no interest in talking. He insults Lysistrata and orders for her arrest. Lysistrata resists and threatens the magistrate, which escalates the situation. They exchange more and more insults and threats, and finally the women descend on the magistrate and his men, and subdue them. Lysistrata gloats that he thought he would have an easy fight, that the women would be as submissive in the fight as they were accustomed to being at home.

Finally, the magistrate and his men ask Lysistrata what this is all about. Lysistrata tells half the truth- she says that they intend to seize control of Athens’ treasury in order to end the war. She explains that women are naturally gifted treasurers and accountants since they manage the budget in the home, and since war has been abolished, the management of the city’s money will be much more like a domestic budget. The magistrate begins to get agitated again, and Lysistrata tries to silence him. She tells him that all their lives, women are roughly and condescendingly forced out of matters of war and public policy. Sometimes they are even threatened with violence for prying into such matters.

The magistrate simply acknowledges this as the way things are supposed to be. The men turned down countless opportunities to learn from the women’s good advice, and so now the men would have no say. The women would be in charge and the men had to listen to them, and not talk back. The magistrate says he will absolutely not follow orders from someone who wears veils, so Lysistrata removes her veil and places it on him. A few other women set about humiliating him by bringing other typically feminine adornments for the magistrate. The women begin to celebrate at this first victory in their scheme, and claim that under their control, a new era of peace will reign.

The magistrate asks how they expect to accomplish this, and at this point in this plot summary of Lysistrata, she gives him a list of grievances, all having to do with violence and weapons in peaceful public settings. Lysistrata wants all of these practices abolished. She says that like a tangled loom, the women will bring order back to all of Greece when the men from all the warring cities come to the Acropolis to hear her. She spins an image of a great tapestry, with nothing out of place and all its parts getting along. The magistrate remains incredulous, fearing that with their lack of experience in public matters, the women will only make things worse. Lysistrata insists that things can only get better. As they are now, the women are constantly being widowed and losing their opportunities for marriage when the young men are gone for years at a time. The women are particularly affected by this because they only have a narrow window in which to marry before they are considered too old. Finally, the magistrate leaves to go and get the authorities from the other Greek city-states.

 

Choral Episode Summary

The chorus of men make yet another attempt to overpower the women and retake the Acropolis, but to no avail. In the midst of the scuffle, the women say that their words should not be discarded simply because of their sex when they have sound advice to give. They also go down their list of contributions that women make to their communities and demand that since they contribute, they should have a say in public affairs. The men strip naked for battle, and the women do likewise in turn. Again, the women threaten to use deadly force (which they have not yet) if the men make another assault on the gates.

 

Scene II Summary

Just then, Lysistrata enters, visibly upset. The women ask her what is going on, and she tells them that she has been in the acropolis trying to prevent some of the women from escaping to go have sex with their husbands. While speaking, Lysistrata catches another woman trying to escape. This one claims that she has moths at home eating through her wool. Another woman says that she has flax at home that needs flayed. A third has hidden the helmet from Athena’s statue under her clothes and is feigning labor. A fourth one simply says she can’t sleep in the Acropolis because it gives her the willies. Lysistrata scolds them, and tells them that without a doubt their husbands are in the same boat, and will succumb to peace any time now.

 

Choral Episode Summary

The old men tell a story about a young man who was so afraid to consummate his marriage that he fled into the wilderness. They say that at this point, they are as disgusted with women as he was. The women counter with a tale about a man who was by far the most antisocial person who ever lived, but he still had a weakness for women.

 

Scene III Summary

Lysistrata spies a man approaching the gates. It is Cinesias, husband of Myrrhine. He is visibly aroused and uncomfortable with his predicament. He asks Lysistrata to call for Myrrhine. Lysistrata tells Cinesias that she has done nothing but sing his praises while she has been holed up in the Acropolis. But Myrrhine will not go down to meet him. Myrrhine refuses to go down and meet Cinesias, and teases him, saying he won’t want her. Exasperated, he points her attention to his erection, which he says he has had for a week now. Still, she will not come down. Cinesias holds up their child, saying he has not been fed or washed in six days, which Myrrhine says is his own fault, not hers. But she does come down, and he tries to convince her to come home.

She tells him that she is bound to the Acropolis until a peace treaty is agreed upon, and Cinesias promises it will be so. But in the meantime, he wants to take her into Pan’s Cave nearby so they can do something about his week-old erection. Myrrhine puts on a spectacular act of appearing like she is going to succumb, but at the same time makes too elaborate a ceremony out of the whole thing. She runs around gathering cushions, blankets, perfumes, and other items. Each time she gets something, Cinesias thinks he is finally going to be satisfied, but she thinks of something else that they need. Each time, she gets closer to looking like she’s finally given in, until at last she tells him to remember to vote for a peace treaty and runs back into the Acropolis, leaving him suffering. The men and women argue about whether what Myrrhine did was right or wrong, and Cinesias leaves, dejected.

 

Scene IV Summary

The Magistrate and the Spartan Herald meet onstage. The Magistrate is puzzled about why the Herald walks funny and holds his cloak out in front of his body. As it turns out, the Herald is suffering from the same affliction as Cinesias. All the men in Sparta have been in such a state since Lampito led all the Spartan women in their revolt. None of the men can walk or ride correctly, and they are desperate. The Magistrate tells the Herald to send for ambassadors, who will deliberate the peace talks.

 

Choral Episode Summary

The chorus of men denounce the women as cold and ruthless, and the women retort by saying if that be the case, the men are fools to try and fight with them when they could be allies. The men are at first, still enraged. But as the women begin to tease the men, their will finally begins to crack. The men and women join in song, singing to celebrate the end of the wars, between the Greek cities and between the men and women.

 

Scene V Summary

The Spartans enter, again flying their manly colors at full mast. Both the Athenians and Spartans dress and prepare to write up a peace treaty, complaining about their lack of relief. Lysistrata enters, prepared to broker the truce. She brings out her handmaid, naked, and names her Reconciliation. She warns both sides that while she is a woman, she is well-schooled in politics despite all the men denying her the right to discuss it publicly all these years. She then likens both the Athenians and Spartans to barbarians for killing one another- that is, Greeks killing Greeks. She admonishes the Spartans for warring with the Athenians when Athens had saved Sparta when they were at war in Messenia.

She also points out to the Athenians that Sparta had freed them once when they had been a captive city. The Spartans and Athenians start discussing how they will split up the territories in question, using Reconciliation’s body as a map to point out their interests. Finally, an accord is agreed upon. Lysistrata instructs all the men to wash before entering the Acropolis, where the women have prepared a great feast. So long as the men swear to behave peacefully from now on, the women will return home with their husbands. The men scurry off to finalize the treaty and gather provisions for the feast.

 

Exodos Summary

At this point in the plot of Lysistrata, the feast begins, a couple of market-loungers, who had no part in the war or the peace, try to enter the feast. A porter blocks them and threatens them if they don’t leave. Just then, the Athenian and Spartan men exit, singing praises for the feast. They realize that when sober, they are so jittery that they misinterpret what the other side says. But when drunk, the ambassadors are always able to leave negotiations on pleasant terms. Music starts, and the Spartans and Athenians begin to sing. The Athenians sing a song in praise of Sparta, and the Spartans one in praise of Athens.

 

Lysistrata Literary Analysis

Lysistrata was written in 411 BC, during a time when for the past 30 years the peninsula had been consumed by war. Some estimates that a third of a generation of young men was killed in war. This lends at least a small amount of credit to the charges that Lysistrata made about the women losing men to war. In fact, the very same year the play was published, there was a failed coup against the Athenian government, led by a group of 400 men who wanted to cease hostilities with Sparta. Obviously, this was attempted by men rather than women, and it didn’t work, but an interesting parallel nonetheless. Tyranny is often mentioned throughout the play, an accusation cast towards both sides.

The women in Lysistrata make the case that they live under tyranny when they are forced to go without their husbands for extended periods of time and are not given any say in the matter, or even allowed to hear the proceedings surrounding the wars that rob them of their loved ones. The men, meanwhile, accuse the women of tyranny simply for occupying the same decision-making position that is normally reserved for the men, without taking any more power than the men previously had. It is generally viewed nowadays that since the men were accusing the women of tyranny for simply doing what the men had been doing, had the play been written nowadays it would be viewed as a negative critique of a male-dominated society.

All of this does raise a very important question about possible themes in Lysistrata: what did Aristophanes want to communicate about his society in this play? One must consider that as a professional and competitive comedy writer, he must have been thinking just as much, if not more, about pleasing his audience as he was about changing the world around him. His audience was entirely male, as was his cast. The vast majority was Greek, and while there were poorer citizens (but no non-citizens) in the audience, it was the more wealthy and powerful ones that mattered when it came to his plays’ receptions. It would be somewhat unusual even nowadays for a male playwright to write a play for an all-male cast and all-male audience that seriously addresses the problems that male decision making creates for society and suggests that things would be better with women in charge.

As for 2300 years before the rise of what is considered modern feminism, the play would have been regarded as insulting at best and dangerous at worst, but the fact remains that the play was successful back then, which implies that in at least some aspects, the social commentary must have been tongue-in-cheek. Part of the satire stems from the idea of a cautionary tale. Women in ancient Athenian culture were forbidden to drink alcohol. This was part of a much greater system of rules set in place to keep women under control- in this case to curb extramarital affairs. The invasion of the Acropolis and unruly behavior could be viewed by the audience as a consequence of drinking alcohol. This offense would have been twofold, because in addition to breaking their ban on alcohol, they were using it as a substitute for an animal sacrifice in their oath ritual. Women played great parts in Athenian religious ceremonies, so this could have been seen as a warning to what happens not only when women drink, but when they are allowed to deviate in their duties as religious performers.

Another part of the cautionary satire aspect of Lysistrata is the concept of Oikos versus Polis. Thirty years before Lysistrata, another play that addresses similar conflicts was produced, known as Antigone. Antigone dealt with a woman going against the wishes of the state, and also dealt with the conflict of oikos (household) and polis (public). These two domains were kept separate in ancient Greek culture and a violation of the separation of the two worlds was considered an affront to the gods. The oikos was considered the woman’s domain. While technically, men ruled there as well, the majority of the management of the household, including finances and slave labor, fell upon the woman’s authority. But women were not to be involved in the polis at all- it was entirely the men’s domain.

To offer a comparison between Lysistrata and Antigone for instance, it should be noted that in Antigone, it was the polis that intruded upon the oikos, in the form of Antigone being forbidden to bury her brother. Creon is punished for violating the separation of oikos and polis. As for Antigone being a woman, in this case it is a woman who is standing up to enforce the status quo of Greek society- the dead must be buried, as commanded by the gods. It was the government who was violating that sanctity. But in Lysistrata, war is considered a natural part of Greek life. The status quo, if you will. And any page out of Greek mythology will tell you that war was far from forbidden or looked down upon in the rest of their culture outside of this play. In this case, it is the oikos that is invading the polis. So in Lysistrata there are two transgressions against the Greek way of life- the disarmament of soldiers, and the infringement upon the polis by the oikos.

Modern productions of Lysistata, however, tend to present a very different concept. Many of them operate with a suspension of disbelief in regards to the author’s intent. They strip away one layer of satire and perform the plays as honest, straightforward feminist/anti-war plays. There are some sound arguments for this being a logical way to approach the play in modern productions. Since ancient Greek tragedies have been translated and performed in the modern world, there has been constant debate between literal translation and adaptation. A translated work is often performed in as close to the original form as can be managed- sometimes including ancient style masks and dancing gestures.

Adaptations are productions that change the style of the play, sometimes the text itself, to be more accessible to its intended audience. While there are sound arguments for both sides and productions done both ways for most ancient Greek plays, Lysistrata is performed much more often in adapted form than translated. The adaptation is not one of vernacular, costumes, or time setting, but one of thematic intent. This style is generally accepted as appropriate, since performing it as if to say “look how silly and absurd things would be if women got a hold of public life!” would be considered rather outdated and even offensive in modern cultures. In March 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, a major global revival of readings of the play, called The Lysistrata Project, took place to raise awareness for the anti-war effort.

While most scholars have rejected the idea that Lysistrata was originally written with feminist intent, there are some decent arguments out there that it may have had some genuine anti-war sentiments thrown in. There is a strong departure from the pattern of females desecrating Greek religion and males defending it when Lysistrata makes her argument against Greeks killing their own people. This is a argument would have been viewed as much more acceptable and less absurd to Aristophanes’ audience than the other arguments, if only because the City Dionysia included non-Athenian Greeks who were there for a peaceful religious festival.

It is also worth mentioning in this analysis of Lysistrata that there is no return to the status quo for the anti-war argument. The women taking control of the Acropolis was a temporary crisis due to the war. But at the play’s happy ending, all the women go back to serve in their traditional roles as wives. But there is no return to the status quo of frequent warfare. But the ending is still considered a happy one for all involved. So one could argue that this ban on violence was not considered by Aristophanes to be a crisis, and that he actually did believe in Lysistrata’s message of peace.