Wednesday, June 22, 2011

“You can only enjoy Aristophanes’ Wasps if you have a goodunderstanding of the Athenian legal system.”How far do you agree with this statement?

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Aristophanes is a comedy writer, whose surviving plays are dated from


45-88 BCE. The Wasps is his 4th surviving play, which is a satirical


comedy, attacking the Athenian jury system and law courts.


As a playwright at this time Aristophanes would have been a Greek


Order Custom “You can only enjoy Aristophanes’ Wasps if you have a goodunderstanding of the Athenian legal system.”How far do you agree with this statement? paper


citizen with high status and good education, but with a lot of money to be


able to stage these plays. Aristophanes would have been writing, aiming


specifically at his audience. Although anyone in Athens could come to see


the plays they would all know about the law system, and the contemporary


issues and events.


However, many people today watch, and read, Aristophanes’ plays,


including The Wasps and still enjoy them. These people realise it was


written for a different culture of people, yet they still understand and enjoy


he plays, and find humour in them.


Aristophanes is a satirical writer. The Encarta World Dictionary


defines this as “the use of wit, especially irony, sarcasm, and ridicule, to


attack the vices and follies of humankind.” In the Wasps Aristophanes is


attacking the jury system of Athens, but he also includes jokes directed at


contemporary figures and events. These jokes would have no meaning to


anyone unfamiliar with the time the play was written. An example of this is


in Xanthias’ dream, he sees an eagle turn into Cleonymus and drop a


snake which turned into a shield. This is a reference to the rumours about


Cleonymus, and the fact that he dropped his shield in battle, to run away in


cowardice. Anyone who didn’t know this story wouldn’t know why Sosias


broke into his tale saying,


“Don’t tell me - the snake turned into a shield and he dropped it!”


Yet, once again, modern audiences can guess that this is a reference


to Cleonymus being a known coward. Although the jokes would not have


the instant affect they would on the first audience, modern people would


understand the jokes.


The Wasps is a political satire, attacking the legal system of Athens.


The audience at the time would have known what happens at court, and


what the law system was. They would, therefore, know what objects are


present at the courts and so, Aristophanes would never explain any terms,


or the uses of objects. This does mean modern audiences would not


understand certain parts of the play, without some knowledge of law at


this time. The best example of this is at the mock trial scene. At the start of


this scene Anticleon had convinced Procleon to give up jury duty.


Anticleon was worried he would miss jury duty too much, and be tempted


to restart duty, even though he knows he shouldn’t. And so, Anticleon


decides to put on a mock trial in their own home, using household objects


and people to include all the elements. This was Procleon’s “Jury duty


patch.” During the trial various household objects become legal objects.


For example a jerry becomes the “waterclock.” Anyone who has no


knowledge of the law courts won’t understand this reference, and so won’t


follow the plot of the story well at this point. Those who do have


knowledge of this culture will realise the waterclock is a system of timing,


using water running between bowls.


Much of the humour in The Wasps is very visual. For this sort of


slapstick humour, no knowledge of the Athenian legal system is needed to


enjoy the play. An example of this is when Anticleon is trying to teach


Procleon how to act in a fashionable way. He tries to teach Procleon to


walk with confidence in his new clothes. The audience would see Procleon


walking awkwardly at first but eventually, see him strut and show off. By


the end he would be “mincing” in a very extravagant way, which would be


very funny to all audiences, and this type of humour is often used today.


To answer this question, we must decide what a “good”


understanding of the Athenian legal system is. At the time of Aristophanes,


anyone who knew the bare essentials would be considered to have a very


poor knowledge of the legal system. The new democracy may have been


well grounded in Athens by the time Aristophanes is writing, but it is fresh


enough that the people see it as very important. Democracy had become so


important it was a great insult to say someone was undemocratic.


When Xanthias was having sex with prostitute, when referring to a


certain sexual position where they would play “King of the castle” the


woman retorted, “Cut out that king stuff. We’re democrats here.”


Therefore it was a distressing thing to be an Athenian with any less


than a great amount of political knowledge.


However, today the modern legal system is something few people


feel strongly about, and almost no-one would know about the ancient


Athenian legal system. In these circumstances a small amount of


knowledge would be considered good.


To conclude, although I do feel people would benefit in their


watching of the play by having some knowledge of the Athenian legal


system, it is not required, and even to understand everything only a basic


knowledge would be required. Much of the book uses humour which is


timeless, such as slapstick and obvious humour, and so no knowledge of


anything at this time would be required.





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