Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy, Palazzo Nuovo

Aristophanes: Comedy, Blasphemy, and Upheaval

Instructors: Bruce KingLaura Slatkin
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

If the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are paragons of Greek tragedy, the comic plays of Aristophanes exemplify the art of deformation, slander, obscenity, blasphemy, and upheaval. In Aristophanes, every aspect of social life is taken up, turned on its head, and made absurd. Unlike the heroes of classical tragedy, Aristophanes’ characters refuse to submit to the gods, to morality, or to the unchanging order of nature. Rather, universal anarchy prevails: humans talk to clouds or to frogs; they might become birds or wasps—or gods. Cultural order is rendered fluid, all hierarchies are overturned, and the sublime becomes ridiculous–-and vice versa. Irreverent, acidic, and confrontational, Aristophanes’s plays continue to serve as source material for artists seeking to critique the pious and the powerful, from Steven Sondheim’s “free adaptation” of The Frogs to Spike Lee’s anti-imperial Chi-raq. But, how can we understand comic art in contrast to, and in complement with, tragedy? How, for Aristophanes, was comedy a vehicle for exploring the tensions and crises of Athenian society and politics: the possibilities and failures of free speech; the limits of democratic inclusion; and the rift between Athenian democratic practice and imperial rule abroad? What forms of renewal and revolution might the anti-structural energies of comedy make possible?

In this course, we will read the major plays of Aristophanes, contextualizing them within the fraught history of democratic Athens and seeking to understand the form and the potentiality of comic art as compared to tragedy and philosophy. We’ll begin with Lysistrata, his great work of gender-reversal, sexual politics, and agitation for peace, before turning to the Birds, in which the playwright takes up questions of democracy and utopia. We will set Aristophanes’ comedies in dialogue with two of his principal competitors—philosophy and tragedy. We’ll compare the communisms of his Assemblywomen with Plato’s Republic, book five, and read his satire of Socrates in the Clouds against Socrates’ defense of his life in Plato’s Apology. Finally, we’ll read the debates on tragedy in Frogs alongside relevant passages from the tragedies of Aeschylus and Euripides. Throughout, we will ask: What does comedy do? Can it offer the possibility of a cultural critique as potent as tragedy or philosophy?

Course Schedule

Wednesday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
November 16 — December 14, 2022
4 sessions over 5 weeks
Class will not meet Wednesday, November 23rd.


Registration Open

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