The Wasps  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Wasps (Greek: Template:Polytonic / Sphēkes) is the fourth in chronological order of the eleven surviving plays by Aristophanes, the master of an ancient genre of drama called 'Old Comedy'. It was produced at the Lenaia festival in 422 BC, a time when Athens was enjoying a brief respite from The Peloponnesian War following a one year truce with Sparta. As in his other early plays, Aristophanes pokes satirical fun at the demagogue Cleon but in The Wasps he also ridicules one of the Athenian institutions that provided Cleon with his power-base: the law courts. The play has been thought to exemplify the conventions of Old Comedy better than any other play and it has been considered to be one of the world's greatest comedies.

The Wasps – the plot

The play begins with a strange scene—a large net has been spread over a house, the entry is barricaded and two slaves are sleeping in the street outside. A third man is positioned at the top of an exterior wall with a view into the inner courtyard but he too is asleep. The two slaves wake and we learn from their banter that they are keeping guard over a 'monster'. The man asleep above them is their master and the monster is his father—he has an unusual disease. The two slaves challenge the audience to guess the nature of the disease. Addictions to gambling, drink and good times are suggested but they are all wrong—the father is addicted to the law court: he is a phileliastes (Template:Polytonic) or a "trialophile." We are then told that his name is Philocleon (which suggests that he might be addicted to Cleon) and his son's name is the very opposite of this—Bdelycleon. The symptoms of the old man's addiction are described for us and they include irregular sleep, obsessional thinking, paranoia, poor hygiene and hoarding. We are told that counselling, medical treatment and travel have all failed to solve the problem and now his son has turned the house into a prison to keep the old man away from the law courts. Bdelycleon wakes and he shouts to the two slaves to be on their guard—his father is moving about. He tells them to watch the drains, for the old man can move like a mouse, but Philocleon surprises them all by emerging instead from the chimney disguised as smoke. Bdelycleon is luckily on hand to push him back inside. Other attempts at escape are also barely defeated. The household settles down for some more sleep and then the Chorus arrives—old jurors who move warily (the roads are muddy), they are escorted by boys with lamps (it is still dark). Learning of their old comrade's imprisonment, they leap to his defense and swarm around Bdelycleon and his slaves like wasps. At the end of this fray, Philocleon is still barely in his son's custody and both sides are willing to settle the issue peacefully through debate.

The debate is between the father and the son and it focuses on the advantages that the old man personally derives from voluntary jury service. Philocleon says he enjoys the flattering attentions of rich and powerful men who appeal to him for a favourable verdict, he enjoys the freedom to interpret the law as he pleases since his decisions are not subject to review, and his juror's pay gives him independence and authority within his own household. Bdelycleon responds to these points with the argument that jurors are in fact subject to the demands of petty officials and they get paid less than they deserve—revenues from the empire go mostly into the private treasuries of men like Cleon. These arguments have a paralysing effect on Philocleon. The Chorus is won over. Philocleon however is still not able to give up his old ways just yet so Bdelycleon offers to turn the house into a courtroom and to pay him a juror's fee to judge domestic disputes. Philocleon agrees and a case is soon brought before him—a dispute between the household dogs. One dog (who looks like Cleon) accuses the other dog (who looks like Laches) of stealing a Sicilian cheese and not sharing it. Witnesses for the defense include a bowl, a pestle, a cheese-grater, a brazier and a pot. As these are unable to speak, Bdelycleon says a few words for them on behalf of the accused and then some puppies (the children of the accused) are ushered in to soften the heart of the old juror with their plaintive cries. Philocleon is not softened but his son easily fools him into putting his vote into the urn for acquittal. The old juror is deeply shocked by the outcome of the trial—he is used to convictions—but his son promises him a good time and they exit the stage to prepare for some entertainment.

While the actors are offstage, the Chorus addresses the audience in a conventional parabasis. It praises the author for standing up to monsters like Cleon and it chastises the audience for its failure to appreciate the merits of the author's previous play (The Clouds). It praises the older generation, evokes memories of the victory at Marathon and it bitterly deplores the gobbling up of imperial revenues by unworthy men. Father and son then return to the stage, now arguing with each other over the old man's choice of attire. He is addicted to his old juryman's cloak and his old shoes and he is suspicious of the fancy woollen garment and the fashionable Spartan footwear that Bdelycleon wants him to wear that evening to a sophisticated dinner party. The fancy clothes are forced upon him and then he is instructed in the kind of manners and conversation that the other guests will expect of him. Philocleon declares his reluctance to drink any wine—it causes trouble, he says—but Bdelycleon assures him that sophisticated men of the world can easily talk their way out of trouble and so they depart optimistically for the evening's entertainment. There is then a second parabasis (see Note at end of this section), in which the Chorus touches briefly on a conflict between Cleon and the author, after which a household slave arrives with news for the audience about the old man's appalling behaviour at the dinner party: Philocleon has got himself abusively drunk, he has insulted all his son's fashionable friends and now he is assaulting anyone he meets on the way home. The slave departs as Philocleon arrives, now with aggrieved victims on his heels and a pretty flute girl on his arm. Bdelycleon appears moments later and angrily remonstrates with his father for kidnapping the flute girl from the party. Philocleon pretends that she is in fact a torch. His son isn't fooled and he tries to take the girl back to the party by force but his father knocks him down. Other people with grievances against Philocleon continue to arrive, demanding compensation and threatening legal action. He makes an ironic attempt to talk his way out of trouble like a sophisticated man of the world but it inflames the situation further and finally his alarmed son drags him indoors. The Chorus sings briefly about how difficult it is for men to change their habits and it commends the son for filial devotion, after which the entire cast returns to the stage for some spirited dancing by Philocleon in a contest with the sons of Carcinus.

Note: Some editors (such as Barrett) exchange the second parabasis (lines 1265–91) with the song (lines 1450–73) in which Bdelycleon is commended for filial devotion.

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