Women and Men in Lysistrata and the Role of Sex and Reason
Aristophanes Lysistrata is an excellent example of satirical drama in a relatively fantastical comedy. He proceeds to show the absurdity of the Peloponnesian War by staging a battle of the sexes in front of the Acropolis, worshipping place of Athena. Tied into all of this is the role of sex and reason and is evident in the development of some characters and the lack of development in others. Although the play is centered on Lysistrata, the story is truly propelled by the ideas of sex and reason.
The dialogue of Lysistrata is filled with double meaning, and most every character takes the sexual meaning. During the oath, the flash of wine symbolizes the male sex organ, and the black bowl the female genitalia. Dionysus, as god of both fertility and wine, functions here in both aspects. The action of pouring wine into the bowl signifies the ejaculation of sperm into the womb and contrasts with the sterility of the oath. Their oath promises them to not enjoy intercourse. The burning torches brought by the mens chorus are an ironic symbol of the passions raging in men’s loins. Their attempt to batter through the gate is nothing else than a sexual penetration, and foreshadows the attempts of Cinesias later in the play.
Within Lysistrata, the pouring of water on the men to douse their sexual urges parallels the dampening of their husbands’ passions to which the women have sworn. The Magistrate’s allusions refer to the lustful invitations to adultery, which men offer. Amongst all this passion is Lysistrata, and in response to the Magistrates call for a crow-bar (another phallic symbol), she states, “We dont need crowbars here. / What we need is good common-sense” (546-47). Here, Lysistrata is the voice of reason. She is able to ignore the obvious desire of the men and her women and maintain a levelheaded outlook on the situation.
Later in the play, Lysistrata comes out of the Acropolis with a gloomy face. She is downhearted; all the women want to go sleep with men, and are deserting. They are all thinking of excuses to go home. One woman comes out, for she wants to go home to protect her best wool from moths. All she wants to do is lay it out on the bed. Another woman wants to go home to strip her flax. A third wants to go out to find a midwife, even though she was not pregnant the day before. Lysistrata sees this woman and feels her belly, finding that she has stuffed the helmet from the statue of Athena in her gown. She sees through all their lies and makes them return to the Acropolis. The helmet of Athena is the helmet of Wisdom and Reason, symbolizing how the women, with the exception of Lysistrata, are also losing their reason and giving in to their passions.
Still later, the Chorus of Men and the Chorus of Women begin to argue, threatening to hit and kick one another. When one of the men goes to kick, a woman remarks that he’s got a “leg with bushy hair” (1062). When one of the women goes to kick a man, he remarks that he sees something. The woman replies, “Whateer you see, you cannot say / That Im not neatly trimmed today” (1087-88). The tension amongst the united Greek women indicates that no one can do without sex.
Spartan Ambassadors come into a later scene, in as hard a state as the Herald. The Leader of Chorus remarks “Youre in a pretty high- / strung condition, and it seems to be getting / worse” (1422-24). They want peace, no matter which way it is spelled. Lysistrata comes out of the Acropolis. She reproaches them because all Greeks have common customs and a common religion, yet they fight against one another. Ideally, she is expressing how they have all lost their reason. She also reminds them of the way they have helped one another out of trouble in the past. Reconciliation, a completely and beautifully nude statue, is present at the discussion and distracts both sides. They finally exchange their oaths and pledges and depart.
The Chorus of Women invite everyone to enter and choose what they will in the end. “There is naught within so well secured / You cannot break the seal / And bear it off; just help yourselves” (1570-72). Aristophanes is constantly developing the theme towards its climax. With a presentation of the nude and beautiful Peace, the men find it impossible to continue the war. The Chorus of Women indicates their willingness to let the men have intercourse, after the treaty is made effective.
In the end, a Athenian arrives and chases the Chorus off so that the Spartan envoys can leave the banquet. An Athenian leaves the banquet and indicates how pleasant the Spartans are, thus prompting the First Athenian to observe, “Naturally: for when were sober / were never at our best” (1602-03). A Chorus of Spartans and one of Athenians come out, followed by Lysistrata and the women. They dance and invoke the gods in honor of their peace treaty.
In typical fashion, the Comedy ends in a feast in which male and female are united. The Dionysiac ritual element is again presented in its role of human sexuality and fertility. The concepts of sexuality and reason, both departed at times by both men and women in Lysistrata, are eventually returned to their normal position in the human nature. Without the sexual content and the absence of reason in men and women, the play would fall solely on the historical context of the war and would never have become the most successful comic drama written by Aristophanes.