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Aristophanes and the portrayal of women’s sexual desires

June 16, 2013

Within Aristophanes three existing plays about women there are numerous references to them having particularly strong sexual desires. It is possible that Aristophanes was representing the Athenian male belief that these urges made women feeble and unable to resist sexual temptation (Dover 1972:172). On the other hand, Aristophanes may have been playing on such beliefs for comic effect.

Evidence presented by Dover (1972:185) indicates that within our own time there was a commonly held belief that having an adulteress in a fictional work increased the incidence of adultery in real life. It is likely that a similar attitude may have prevailed in antiquity. There are certainly a number of references throughout the work of Aristophanes that indicate this, such as; ‘there isn’t even anyone to have an affair with’ (Aristophanes Lysistrata 107-8), ‘They conceal lovers in the house, as they’ve always done’ (Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae 225-6) and ‘keeping these Molossian dogs to scare off lovers’ (Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae 414). Gardener (1996:147-8) believes that Aristophanes portrayed Athenian men’s fears that they were ‘being cuckolded…without their realizing it’. The references above certainly support such as assertion suggesting that Aristophanes played up to the concerns of, what is widely believed to be (Ehrenberg, 1951:27; MacDowell, 1995:15, Sommerstein, 2009:36), the almost certainly male Athenian audience for comic effect. It is impossible to confirm whether adultery was widespread in Athens without substantial evidence. It is probable that few marriages between a husband and wife would have been for love as the father arranged them and so this may have resulted in suspicions developing (McDowell, 1995:264). Lysias (Against Alcibiades 1.14.28) provides evidence of a case of adultery but there is little evidence of the overall extent. Ehrenberg (1951:195), having reviewed extensively the evidence within this area including factors such as the heavy punishment metered out to an adulterous wife, concludes that Athenian women would not have been particularly more lustful or adulterous than the women of other societies. It cannot be inferred either way whether adultery was prolific or not, it may have been a part of everyday life or a fanciful creation of Aristophanes.

Aristophanes portrayal of womens sexual desire is likely not a true representation but an exaggeration of prevailing Athenian male attitudes; Diadalos (F187 cited in Ehrenberg, 1951:195) as an example of this claims that adultery is as necessary to women as the desert to a meal. Plays were, in all likelihood, presented to an entirely male audience and as such Aristophanes exaggerated commonly held beliefs in the hope of a good reaction from the audience and, in turn, hopefully obtain first prize.

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.

Aristophanes Thesmophoriazusae Translated by D. Barrett in Aristophanes Frogs and Other Plays, London: Penguin Books, 2007.

Lysias Against Alcibiades 1 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%3D14 [Accessed: 16 June 2013].

Secondary Sources

Dover, K.J. Aristophanic Comedy (London: Batsford, 1972)

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

Gardner, J. ‘Aristophanes and Male Anxiety: The Defence of the Oikos’ in McAuslan, I. and Walcot, P. (ed) Women in Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) pp.145 – 157

MacDowell, D. M. Aristophanes and Athens : an introduction to the plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995)

Sommerstein, A.H. Talking About Laughter and Other Studies in Greek Comedy (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2009) [e-book]. Available at http://www.oxfordscholarship.com [Accessed: 16 June 2013]

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