Satire defined is “A composition in verse or prose holding up a vice or folly to ridicule or lampooning individuals… The use of ridicule, irony, sarcasm, etc, in speech or writing for the ostensible purpose of exposing and discourage vice or folly” (Johnston, 5). In other words, satire is the use of humor to expose moral behavior of man. In the Aristophanes’ play The Birds, satire is used to mock the common Greek’s dream of ruling the gods that they worship. It mocks the power that they seek to become the supreme ruler of the world. To understand Aristophanes use of satire, one must first understand the role satire plays in sending out its message.
At the basis of satire is a sense of moral outrage. This outrage is wrong and needs to be exposed. The goal of a satire is to correct this misconduct of man in a humorous way that makes the audience relate to the problem and try to correct it. Satire “seeks to use laughter, not just to remind us of our common often ridiculous humanity, but rather to expose those moral excesses, those correctable sorts of behavior which transgress what the writer sees as the limits of acceptable moral behavior” (Johnston, 5). In exposing these foibles, one could discover not to behave in such a manner by realizing his or her mistakes.
When setting up a satire, one must do so in a few steps. The first step is setting up a target which will symbolize the conduct that the satirist wishes to attack. In The Birds, the target is the average Athenian citizen, seeking power Pisthetaerus or in Greek translation, “companion persuader” (Luce, 300). Pisthetaerus is upset with his current living conditions and sets out to seek a new place, far better than his existing residence.
Adding exaggeration and distortion to the target, the satirist then emphasizes the characteristic he wishes to attack. “The target must be close enough to the real thing for us to recognize what is going on, but sufficiently distorted to be funny, an exaggeration, often a grotesque departure from normality” (Johnston, 17). After deciding to create a city strategically located between heaven and earth, so the birds can rule god and man, Pisthetaerus eats a magical root that has the powers to give birth to wings. Although it is evident that humans growing wings is not imaginably possible, the birth of wings does give birth to the power that Pisthetaerus craves more of. This power he craves helps him achieve more of his goal to escape his current conditions to one that submits to no higher deity.
When the target is distorted in an appropriate way, “the satire proceeds by an unrelenting attack. Here the satirist has a variety of weapons, ranging from rude direct insults and a lot of robust physical humor (pratfalls, misunderstandings, mock fights) to more complex assaults parodying various forms of language and belief” (Johnston, 8). When Pisthetaerus “offers himself as the leader who can restore the avine power and prestige that men have usurped” (Luce, 300) and the chorus of birds accept. “Stand forth. Instruct us what to do. We are ready for action, believe it ! We must have our kingship. Death be our choice unless we can somehow retrieve it” (Hadas, 249) He obtains not only the birds consent to take over the birds, but also the rule of man and the gods. This newly acquired power is later spread onto the birds. “When word comes that the great wall of Cloud-Cuckooland is built, no one wonders at the speed. Instead, the birds have boast that they have raised it all by themselves, without human aid: and in preposterous details of the construction… the absurdity of the whole is at once heightened and slipped beyond the barriers of incredulity” (Shipley, 39). When the birds marvel at their masterpiece, they get a sense of power that makes the feel superior to man and god.
When Cloud-Cuckooland is finally setup, the birds along with their leader Pisthetaerus achieves a final feeling of power when Zeus sends a chorus of gods to negotiate with the birds. Because Cloud-Cuckooland is located in-between earth and heaven, the birds have the power to attack man from above and have been intercepting the smoke of human sacrifices, food to god. All seems to be going well to Pisthetaerus after Zeus submits, only to find out that he has discovered a land that he had sought to escape, one free of legal, economic, and political troubles in Athens. The final blow to Pisthetaerus occurs during his celebration of the acquisition of the submission of Zeus, the marriage to the goddess Basilea, the personification of Zeus’s sovereignty. During this celebration, a popular dish includes roasted fowl, which now makes Pisthetaerus’s quest for the perfect utopia meaningless, since he does not understand the source of his power. It seems that all is well in the end for Pisthetaerus, except he has not recognized his folly of the whole point of creating Cloud-Cuckooland. The lesson here is that “Man should begin to build a simpler kingdom” (Magill, 46). This is where the satire ends and reminds the audience of the mistake of achieving too much power.
After reading The Birds, one would realize the humor that exists in it and what the purpose of it is. It points out the waste of energy Pisthetaerus puts into his utopia to end up where he started. By realizing this mistake he has made, Aristophanes would achieve his goal that he set forth by using satire. By setting up Pisthetaerus looking glamorous then having him serve birds at the feast shows how ridiculous his efforts are in achieving total power over all. “The fact that this ‘celebration’ is going to involve a feast on dead birds among divine guests who are a travesty of divine majesty and power is a reminder of something important lost” (Johnston, 12).
April 4, 1998
Aristophanes. “The Birds.” The Complete Plays of Aristophanes. Trans. Moses Hadas. New York: Bantam, 1988. 229-386.
Bonnard, Andre. Greek Civilization. New York: Macmillan, 1959. 188-199.
Johnston, Ian. “Lecture on Satire and Aristophanes.” Malispina University-College. Internet. America Online 1996. 1-7.
Luce, James T, ed. Ancient Writers: Greece and Rome. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1982. 291-312.
Magill, Frank, ed. Cyclopedia of World Authors. Evanston, Harper and Row, 1958. 45-47.
Shipley, Joseph T. The Crown Guide to the World’s Great Plays. New York: Crown, 1984. 38-39.
I. Introduction- Introduce Satire
II. Goal of Satire
III. Target of Satire- Pisthetaerus
IV. Attack on Target to Distort- Pisthetaerus grows wings
V. Unrelenting attack on Target- Power keeps on coming to Pisthetaerus’ and birds’s ways
VI. Final blow to Target to expose moral behavior needed to be corrected- Birds served at feast when it looks like Pisthetaerus achieves total power.
VII. Conclusion- Don’t think power is achieved even when it is.