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Aristophanes portrayal of the everyday responsibilities of women

June 8, 2013

Within Aristophanes’ plays the everyday responsibilities of women can be easily identified as they form the basis of many jokes. The responsibilities can be broken down into the key tasks of managing the household and employment.

Aristophanes references that the household was the primary responsibility of an Athenian woman in Lysistrata (17-8) and Ecclesiazusae (210-1). This responsibility is used by Aristophanes as evidence for Lysistrata’s argument that women should run the state, ‘we’ve always been in charge of all your housekeeping finance’ (Aristophanes Lysistrata 495-6). Lysias  provides further evidence of female management of the home in On the Murder of Eratosthenes (1.6) where a husband states that he ‘placed all [his] affairs in her hands.’ The domestic responsibility is reinforced in Apollodorus’ argument against Neaera where an Athenian male attitude to women is recounted, ‘courtesans for our pleasure, concubines for taking care of our bodies…and wives for having legitimate children and to…guard our household property’ (Demosthenes Apollodorus Against Neaera 59.122 cited in Pelling, 2000:189). Pelling (2000:189) comments that such a statement taken out of context presents a negative portrayal of women’s lives; particularly as Apollodorus was stating a case against a fellow Athenian trying to get citizen rights for his potentially illegitimate children. However I believe that this indicates that the comments in Lysistrata in respect of housekeeping, to a certain extent, maybe an accurate representation.

The activities of women are more often than not represented as a joke, ‘Take this basket – And not one word more; hitch your robe up, chew beans, and card all day’ (Aristophanes Lysistrata 535-8).  However, Aristophanes also used them as metaphors to explain a concept; Lysistrata compares untangling of wool to sorting out affairs of state (Aristophanes Lysistrata 566-71). There are also specific references to women undertaking activities such as sewing (Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae 29), wool combing (Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae 88-9) and clothes making (Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae 92). Aristophanes plays, as Pelling (2000:130) observes, can be used ‘to illuminate recurrent features of everyday life’. It is also vital, though, to do ‘what we can to combine comic indications with evidence from other sources’ (Pelling, 2000:130). There is little room for doubt that these were activities women took part in. However the plays of Aristophanes must be cross referenced with other sources such as Thucydides The Peloponnesian War. Thucydides, for example, provides evidence where it is implied that women were responsible for kitchen duties (The Peloponnesian War 2.78.3). The use of supporting evidence is particularly important with Aristophanes’ references to women working. Lysistrata calls for ‘innkeepers, bakers and garlic vendors’ (Aristophanes Lysistrata 457) but the work of women cannot be generalised, as women of the higher classes are likely not to have had employment. It is noteworthy that Aristophanes would not have referred to women workers had there not been any; as Ehrenberg (1951:205) suggests there were women who had some form of employment but these were likely foreigners or the very poor.

There is a clear indication that within Aristophanes work there is information pertaining to the daily experiences of women. Though, as I have previously noted in other posts, Aristophanes exaggerated situations to enhance the comic effect of a scene.

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Aristophanes Lysistrata Translated by A. Sommerstein in Aristophanes Lysistrata and Other Plays, London: Penguin Books, 2002.

Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae Translated by D. Barrett in Aristophanes, London: Penguin Books, 1978.

Lysias On the Murder of Eratosthenes Translated by W. Lamb in Lysias, London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1930. Perseus Digital Library http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0154%3Aspeech%3D1 [Accessed: 4 June 2013].

Thucydides The Peloponnesian War Translated by Crawley, R. London: Dent, 1910. Perseus Digital Library http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0200 [Accessed: 4 June 2013]

Secondary Sources

Ehrenberg, V. The People of Aristophanes, a Sociology of Old Attic Comedy (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1951)

Pelling, C.B.R Literary Texts and the Greek Historian (London: Routledge, 2000)

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