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The Wasps (Greek: / 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 Spartamarker. 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 ( ). 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 disguized 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 affect 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 Marathonmarker 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 Carcinnus.

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.

Historical background

Cleon and the Athenian jury system: About two years before the performance of The Wasps, Athens had obtained a significant victory against its rival, Sparta, in the Battle of Sphacteria. Rightly or wrongly, most Athenians credited Cleon with this victory and he was then at the height of his power. Constitutionally, supreme power lay with the People as voters in the assembly and as jurors in the courts but they could be manipulated by demagogues skilled in oratory and supported by networks of satellites and informers. Cleon had succeeded Pericles as the dominant speaker in the assembly and increasingly he was able to manipulate the courts for political and personal ends, especially in the prosecution of public officials for mismanagement of their duties. Jurors had to be citizens over the age of thirty and a corps of six thousand was enrolled at the beginning of each year, forming a conspicuous presence about town in their short brown cloaks, with wooden staves in their hands. The work was voluntary but time-consuming and they were paid a small fee - three obols per day at the time of The Wasps. For many jurors, this was their major source of income and it was virtually an old-age pension. There were no judges to provide juries with legal guidance and there was no legal appeal against a jury's verdict. Jurors came under the sway of litigious politicians like Cleon who provided them with cases to try and who were influential in persuading the assembly to keep up their pay. However it is not necessarily true that Cleon was exploiting the system for venal or corrupt reasons, as argued in The Wasps. Aristophanes' plays promote conservative values and they support an honourable peace with Sparta whereas Cleon was a radical democrat and a leader of the pro-war faction. Misunderstandings were inevitable. Cleon had previously attempted to prosecute Aristophanes for slandering the polis with his second play The Babylonians and, though the legal result of these efforts is unknown, they appear to have sharpened the poet's satirical edge, as evidenced later in the unrelenting attack on Cleon in The Knights. The second parabasis in The Wasps implies that Cleon retaliated for his drubbing in The Knights with yet further efforts to intimidate or prosecute Aristophanes and it is possible that the poet publicly yielded to this pressure for a short time. Whatever agreement was reached with Cleon, Aristophanes gleefully reneged on it in The Wasps, presenting Cleon as a treacherous dog manipulating a corrupted legal process for personal gain.

Some events that influenced The Wasps

  • 431 BC: The Peloponnesian War commenced.
  • 426 BC: Aristophanes won first prize at the City Dionysia with his second play, The Babylonians (now lost), and he was subsequently prosecuted by Cleon for being the author of slanders against the polis.
  • 425 BC: Athens obtained a significant victory against Sparta in the Battle of Sphacteria and Cleon successfully claimed responsibility for it.
  • 424 BC: Aristophanes won first prize at the Lenaia with The Knights in which he lampooned Cleon mercilessly.
  • 423 BC: Athens and Sparta agreed to a one year truce. Aristophanes' play The Clouds came third (i.e. last).
  • 422 BC: The Wasps was performed at the Lenaia.


Places and people mentioned in The Wasps

According to a character in Plutarch's Dinner-table Discussion, (written some 500 years after The Wasps was produced), Old Comedy needs commentators to explain its abstruse references in the same way that a banquet needs wine-waiters. Here is the wine list for 'The Wasps' as supplied by modern scholars.
Places
  • Megaramarker: a neighbour and historically a rival to Athens, it is mentioned in line 57 as the reputed origin of comic drama.Poetics by Aristotle, 1448a31; Wikisource section III [65392]
  • Law Courts: Athens had ten law courts in 422BC, of which these three are mentioned here by name - The New Court in line 120, The Court at Lykos in line 389 and The Odeion in line 1109.
  • Asclepieia: Temples dedicated to the god of healing, the one mentioned in line 123 was located near Athens on the island of Aeginamarker.
  • Delphimarker: One of the most sacred sites in Greece, it is said by Philocleon in line 159 to be the source of a fearful prophecy concerning himself.
  • Scione: A city on the promontory of Chalcidicemarker, it revolted from Athenian rule two days after the Athenian truce with Sparta and it was now under siege - the only fighting Athenians were engaged in at this time. Bdelycleon says in line 210 that he would rather serve there than guard his father.
  • Byzantium: Originally captured from Persian forces by the Greeks in 478 BC, and subsequently taken from the control of Pausanias by the Athenians in 476, a garrison had been stationed there ever since its revolt from Athenian rule in 440-439 BC. The Chorus of old jurors mention it in line 236 while reminiscing about their time as soldiers there.
  • Samosmarker: An island that had revolted from Athenian rule in 440 BC, it is mentioned in line 238 in reference to a Samian (possibly a man named Carystion) who had betrayed his own polis out of his reputed love for Athens and who had recently been acquitted of some charge.
  • Thrace: A region that had strategic significance in the Peloponnesian War, the Chorus mentions it in line 288 in relation to the impending trial of one of the 'traitors' there (possibly a reference to Thucydides, who had been prosecuted by Cleon the previous year after the Athenian defeat at Amphipolismarker.
  • Naxos: Subjugated by the Athenians around 470 BC, the Chorus mentions it in line 355 while recalling a soldier's prank perpetrated there by Philocleon.
  • Pontus and Sardinia: Mentioned in line 700 by Bdelycleon as the eastern and western limits of the Athenian empire.
  • Marathonmarker: The site of the celebrated Athenian victory against Persia, it is mentioned in line 711 by Bdelycleon in reference to what is owed to Athenians by other Greeks.
  • Euboiamarker Settled by Athenians through a cleruchy, it was a key source of grain and it is mentioned in line 715 by Bdelycleon as a synonym for vote-buying.
  • Sicily: The island was famous for its cheeses and its mention in line 838 helps to identity the cheese-stealing dog Labes as a comic representation of the Athenian general Laches, who led an Athenian force there in 427 BC.
  • Kudathenaion and Aixone: Respectively the deme of Cylon and the accusing dog (located in Athens) and the deme of Laches and the accused dog (located on the coast about eight miles south of Athens) - both demes are mentioned in line 895.
  • Thymaitadoi: A village near the Piraeusmarker, it was a source of rough cloaks that the unsophisticated Philocleon is unable to distinguish from the expensive cloaks worn in Sardismarker and woven in Ecbatanamarker (common destinations for Athenian diplomats), as stated in lines 1138-43.
  • Parosmarker: An island that Philocleon once visited for two obols a day (i.e. as a rower in the Athenian navy) - which was as close to becoming a diplomat as he ever got ( line 1189).
Poets and other artists
  • Euripides: Frequently a target of Aristophanes' plays, the tragic poet is mentioned in line 61 as the butt of tired, old jokes that are made by other comic poets. There are also mock-heroic references to his plays Bellerophon, Cretan Women and Ino in lines 757, 763, 1414.
  • Ecphantides: A comic poet of a previous generation known for his obscurity, he is referred to in line 151 by his nickname Capnias (Smokey).
  • Phrynichus: A celebrated tragic poet of an earlier generation, he is mentioned favourably several times by Philocleon and the jurors in lines 220, 269, 1490, 1524. The first mention is in a comic, compound word ( ) which includes a reference to a popular song about Sidonmarker written by Phrynichus. The tragic poet is mentioned in three other plays.
  • Pindar: The great lyrical poet of Boeotia is not mentioned here by name but one of his famous verses is absurdly quoted out of context in line 308
  • Philocles: A tragic poet (good enough to win first prize when Sophocles competed with Oedipus Rex), yet satirized by comic poets for a harsh style, he is said in line 462 to have an embittering influence on old men . He is mentioned again in Thesmophoriazusae and The Birds.
  • Aesop: Then as now, a source of instructive fables, he receives four mentions in lines 566, 1259, 1401, 1446 and he is later mentioned in two other plays.
  • Oiagros: A tragic actor, he is said in line 579 to have been acquitted in a trial after reciting verses from a play titled 'Niobe'. 'Niobe' was possibly a play by Sophocles that was performed shortly before Wasps. Alternatively 'Niobe' was a play written by Aeschylus, mentioned again later in The Frogs.
  • Acestor Sacas: A tragic poet of foreign birth and a frequent target of comic poets, he is mentioned in line 1221 as the father of one of Cleon's circle. He is mentioned also in The Birds.
  • Alcaeus: The great lyric poet of Mytilenemarker, he is not mentioned by name but he is the author of some well-known verses that Philocleon adapts to a scolion directed against Cleon in lines 1232-35.
  • Ariphrades: Possibly a comic dramatist and a student of Anaxagoras, he is mocked in this play in line 1280 and in other plays for sexual eccentricities. His musician brother, Arignotus, is mentioned with him but not by name in The Wasps.
  • Sthenelus: A tragic poet, whose verse was later considered by Aristotle to be lucid but undignified,Poetics 1458a18-21 Wikisource section XXII [65393] he is mentioned in line 1313 as the epitome of a man who is lacking something.
  • Lasus: A poet from Hermionemarker who lived in the latter half of the 6th Century, associated with the establishment of dithyrambic contests in Athens and credited with writing the first book on music, he is quoted in line 1410 as the author of a banal statement: "It means little to me".
  • Simonides: The famous lyric poet from Ceosmarker, he is said by Philocles to have been the man to whom the above statement was addressed. He is mentioned in three other plays.
  • Thespis: According to Athenian tradition, he was the first dramatist to write for an actor separate from the Chorus. He is mentioned in line 1479 as typical of Philocleon's old-fashioned tastes.
  • Carcinus: An Athenian general in 431,Thycidides 2.32.2; IG i2 296. 30-40 he was also a dramatist and a dancer. He is mentioned with his sons here in line 1501 and in other plays. His sons (or dancers masquerading as his sons) danced in the exodos in this play in competition with Philocleon. Their performance is mocked by Philocleon and it is even mocked by the Chorus of a later play (Peace lines 781-6). One son, Xenocles, was a tragedian who later defeated Euripides at the City Dionysia in 415 but his abilities as a dramatist are ridiculed by Aristophanes in Thesmophoriazusae and The Frogs.
Athenian politicians and generals
  • Cleon: The populist leader of the pro-war faction in Athens, he is the arch-villain in all of Aristophanes' early plays. We are assured in lines 62-3 that Aristophanes won't make mincemeat of him again but promises mean nothing in a comedy and he receives five more direct mentions in lines 197, 242, 409, 596, 759, 1220, 1224, 1237, 1285 as well as numerous indirect mentions, notably as an untrustworthy dog.
  • Theorus: An associate of Cleon, he is presented in lines 42, 47, 418, 599, 1220, 1236 as an ignoble flatterer. He is a target also in earlier plays.
  • Alcibiades: Later known as a dashing general and a winning aristocrat, he was not yet a major public figure and here he is mentioned in line 44 only for his lisp. He was mentioned earlier in The Acharnians as the son of Cleinias and he is mentioned later in The Frogs.
  • Amynias: A general this year (423/2), he was satirized by comic dramatists as effeminate and pretentious. Here he is mocked for gambling habits, long hair ( ) and his role in a diplomatic mission to Thessaly in lines 74, 466, 1267. He is mentioned also in The Clouds.
  • Nicostratus: Possibly the son of Dieitrephes and a skilful general mentioned by Thucydides, he is said in line 81 to call out from the audience about Philocleon's disease, identifying it as a form of 'hospitality'.
  • Laches: A general who had led a small Athenian force to Sicily in 427 and who had proposed the one year truce in 423, he is mentioned in line 240 and he appears as the good watchdog accused of stealing a Sicilian cheese, suggesting that Cleon was in fact intending to prosecute him for corruption.
  • Thucydides: The political rival of Pericles, he is mentioned in line 947 and earlier in The Acharnians in relation to a trial in which slick lawyers took full advantage of his old age.
  • Hyperbolus: A populist and eventually Cleon's successor, he is named in line 1007 as an example of someone who cynically manipulates juries. He receives numerous mentions in other plays.
  • Theogenes: A prominent politician often satirized by comic poets as a fat, greedy braggart, he is quoted in line 1183 as somebody who abuses dung-collectors . He is also mentioned in later plays.
  • Androcles: Another populist, often satirized in Old Comedy as poor and immoral, he was later influential in exiling Alcibiades. He is mentioned ironically in line 1187 as an example of the kind of man who represents Athens on sacred, diplomatic missions.
  • Antiphon: An orator and later a leader of the oligarchic government in 411 BC, he is named in line 1270, 1301 as a hungry kind of man and as one of the sophisticated dinner guests abused by Philocleon.
  • Phrynichus: A politician and later a leader of the oligarchy of The Four Hundred, he is a central figure at the sophisticated dinner party attended by Antiphon, Theophrastos Lykon, Lysistratus, Bdelycleon, Philocleon et al., as stated in line 1302.
  • Lycon: A little-known politician who later assisted in the prosecution of Socrates and whose wife Rhodia was often a target of comic poets (as for example in Lysistrata), he is named here merely as another dinner guest with Phrynichus.
Athenian personalities
  • Cleonymus: An associate of Cleon and frequently a target in other plays, he is mentioned in lines 19, 592, 822 as the figment of a slave's dream, as a flattering patron of jurors and as the image of the image of the image of the hero Lycus, and each mention is in relation to a notorious incident in which he threw away his shield.
  • Sosias: Unknown otherwise, he is mentioned in line 78 as a well-known tippler. However this could simply be the name of a character in the play accidentally transposed into the dialogue by an ancient scribe).
  • Philoxenus: A notoriously effete catamite, he becomes the source of a misunderstanding in line 84 because his name is a pun for 'hospitable'.
  • Pyrilampes: Plato's stepfather and a prominent personality in Periclean Athens, he is mentioned in line 98 as the father of Demus, a handsome young man whose name appears around Athens in amorous graffiti.
  • Dracontides: He is named in line 157 as somebody awaiting trial and because his name is a pun for 'serpent'. Modern scholars have various theories about his identity and speculation has even been used to date a treaty between Athens and Chalcismarker.
  • Proxenides: Philocleon would rather be Proxenides or smoke or the victim of a thunderbolt than be imprisoned at home any longer, as asserted in line 325. He is mentioned as a braggart in The Birds.
  • Gorgias: The famous teacher of rhetoric, he is named in line 421 as the father or teacher of Phillipus, a recent victim of irate jurors.
  • Aischines: He is mentioned as an associate of Cleon, a synonym for smoke and a braggart in lines 459, 1220, 1242. He is mentioned also in The Birds.
  • Euathlus: An associate of Cleon and a prosecutor of the aged Thucydides (for which he was mentioned in The Acharnians), he is said by Philocleon in line 592 to be a patron of jurors. Other less well-known prosecutors (Smicythion, Teisiades, Chremon ('Needy'), Pheredeipnus ('Waiter') and the son of Chaireas) are named in lines 401, 687.
  • Eucharides: A greengrocer immortalized with a brief mention in line 680.
  • Lysistratus: A high-society man-about-town who participated in the mutilation of the hermai in 415, he is mentioned in lines 787 and 1302 as a practical joker who passes off fish scales as coins and who also happens to be a sophisticated dinner guest. He receives mentions also in other plays.Acharnians 855 [65394]; Knights 1266; Lysistrata 1105 [65395]</]<>ref>
  • Cynna: A prostitute, her flashing eyes are said to be evocative of Cleon in line 1032.
  • Morychus: A notorious gourmand who was possibly also a tragic poet, he is named in lines 506 and 1142 as emblematic of a pampered life and because his soldier's kit resembles a Persian gown. He is mentioned also in two other plays.
  • Cleisthenes: A byword for effeminacy, he is frequently a target for jokes in other plays and appears as a character in Thesmophoriazusae. He is mentioned ironically in line 1187 as another dignitary sent by Athens on a sacred diplomatic mission.
  • Leogoras: The father of the orator Andocides, he was lampooned by comic poets for his wealth and his luxurious lifestyle. He is mentioned in line 1269as someone whose dinners are a benchmark of culinary opulence.
  • Chaerephon: The loyal friend and disciple of Socrates, he appears as the summons witness for a female bread vendor and he is compared in lines 1408-12 to a sallow Ino clinging to the feet of Euripides. He receives mentions also in two other surviving plays.
  • Pittalus: A doctor who is mentioned also in Acharnians, he is recommended by Philocleon in line 1432 to one of the victims of his own drunken outrages.
Religious and historical identities
  • Korybantes: Associated with ecstatic dancing in the worship of the Phrygian goddessCybele, they are referred to in lines 8 and 119 as examples of manic behaviour. They are mentioned also in later plays.
  • Sabazius: Another Phrygian divinity associated with manic behaviour, mentioned here in line 9 and also in later plays.
  • Heracles: A hero in myth, he is a stock joke for gluttony in comedy. He is mentioned in that capacity here in line 60 and he even appears as a gluttonous buffoon in two later plays, The Birds and The Frogs.
  • Odysseus: A hero in myth, he is a proverb for cunning subterfuge, as indicated in lines 181 and 351.
  • Dictynna: Originally a Cretan goddess of hunting, associated with Mount Dicte, she is evoked by Philocleon in line 368 as he chews on a net (dictuon), possibly as a pun though she was in fact identified with Artemis, the goddess of hunting nets.
  • Diopeithes: A religious zealot who once proposed a decree for the impeachment of atheists and astronomers, his name appears in line 380 as an ironic synonym for Zeus. He receives mentions also in two other plays.
  • Lycus: An Athenian hero, possibly the son of Pandion, he is mentioned in lines 389 and 819 because his shrine is adjacent to the court named after him.
  • Cecrops: The mythical first king of Athens, he is invoked by Philocleon in line 438 as his defender against his son's slaves because they are foreigners. He is mentioned also in two other surviving plays.
  • Hippias: A byword in Athens for tyranny, he is mentioned in that capacity here in line 502 and also in other plays.
  • Eurycles: A prophet with abilities as a ventriloquist, he is mentioned in line 1019 as the metaphor of a comic poet whose plays are produced in somebody else's name.
  • Harmodius: A famous tyrannicide, he was a favourite theme for scolia, as here in line 1225. He is named also in three other surviving plays.
  • Admetus: A legendary Thessalian king and the husband of Alcestis, he was the subject of a popular scolion, as in line 1238.
Foreign identities
  • Brasidas: The leading Spartan general of the time, he is mentioned by the Chorus in line 475 as one of Bdelycleon's associates.
  • Ephoudion: an athlete from Arcadia and a victor at the Olympics in 464 BC, he is said to have performed well in a recent contest against a much younger opponent, Ascondas, as mentioned in lines 1191 and 1383.
  • Phaullus: A famous athlete who once commanded the only Italian ship at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, he is said by Philocles in lines 1206-7 to have lost to him in court on a charge of abusive language.
  • Penestes: Thessalian serfs, they are the benchmark of poverty, as indicated in line 1273.


Discussion

As mentioned in the introduction, The Wasps can be considered one of the world's great comedies. Various factors contribute to its appeal, as for example:
  • The central figure, Philocleon, is a 'triumph of characterization';
  • The jurors are the most vividly realized Chorus in Old Comedy;
  • The juror's son is the most lifelike child in Greek drama.
Philocleon is a complex character whose actions have comic significance, psychological significance and allegorical significance. When, for example, he strikes his son for taking the dancing girl away, the violence is comic because it is unexpected of an old man yet it is psychologically appropriate because he is struggling to overcome an addiction and it represents in allegorical form the theme expressed by the Chorus in the parabasis: the old customs are better and more manly than the new fashions. When the play opens, Philocleon is a prisoner of his son and, when the Chorus enters, the old jurors are found to be virtual prisoners of their sons too - they rely on the boys to help them through the dark, muddy streets. The Chorus leader's boy takes full advantage of the situation, threatening to abandon his elderly father if he won't buy him some figs. The debilitating effects of old age and the dehumanizing effects of an addiction (Philocleon is said to resemble a jackdaw, a mouse, a limpet, smoke, a donkey's foal, a cut of meat, Odysseus and Nobody) are somber themes that lift the action beyond the scope of a mere farce.

The Wasps and Old Comedy

The Wasps has been thought to exemplify all the conventions of Old Comedy at their best - structural elements that are common to most of Aristophanes' plays are all found in this play in a complete and readily identifiable form. The table below is based on one scholar's interpretation of the play's structural elements and the poetic meters associated with them.

Dramatic and Metrical Structure

Key: Brackets [ ] enclose metrons comprising long syllables (-), short syllables (.) and long/short syllables (o). The metrical scheme thus depicted is idealized and does not include substitutions such as a tribrach (...) for an iamb (.-).
Elements Lines Metres Summary Comments
prologue 1-229 iambic trimeter dialogue setting the scene conventional opening [o-.-][o-.-][o-.-] line 1
parados 230-47 iambic tetrameter catalectic Chorus enters escorted by boys [o-.-][o-.-][o-.-][o--](trochees are more usual in early plays e.g. Acharnians,Knights,Peace) line 230
248-72 Euripidean 14 syllables/line dialogue between juror and boy a quicker form of iambic rhythm [o-.-][o-.-][-.-.--] line 248
273-89 complex meter Chorus wonders about Philocleon a strophe/antistrophe pair based on ionic metron [..--] but with many variations line 273
290-316 as before but simpler dialogue between juror and boy strophe/antistrophe, ionic [..--] but with fewer variations. line 290
song 317-33 complex solo lament by Philocleon mainly choriamb [-..-] to 323 then anapests [..-], reflecting a change in mood. line 317
symmetrical scene (possibly an agon) 334-64 & 365-402 trochaic and anapestic tetrameter catalectic angry dialogue between actors and chorus each half beginning with trochaic tetrameter [-.-o][-.-o][-.-o][-.-] e.g.334-45 and ending with anapestic tetrameter [..-..-][..-..-][..-..-][..--] e.g. 346-57 but with 1 anapestic pnigos added (358-64) line 334
symmetrical scene 403-460 & 461-525 mainly trochaic tetrameter catalectic denunciations and skirmish trochaic tetrameters [-.-o][-.-o][-.-o][-.-] but with trochaic dimeters or 'runs' added. line 403
agon 526-630 & 631-724 songs and anapestic tetrameter catalectic debate between father and son strophe (526-45) and antistrophe (631-47) with iambic [.-] and choriambic [-..-] metra; spoken sections in anapestic tetrameter ending in anapestic pnigoi (546-630 and 648-724) line 526
song 725-59 anapests, iambs and dochmiacs reflections on debate anapestic lines 725-8, 736-42, 750-9, other lines in iambs and dochmiacs [o--.-] or [o..-.-] line 725
episode 760-862 iambic trimeter setting up a court at home dialogue in iambic trimeter [o-.-][o-.-][o-.-] line 760
song 863-90 mostly anapests prayer consecrating the new court iambic trimeter in 868-9 and 885-6; short strophe (870-4) and antistrophe (887-90) largely in iambs; anapests in 863-7 and 875-84 line 863
episode 891-1008 iambic trimeter the dog's trial dialogue in iambic trimeter [o-.-][o-.-][o-.-] line 890
parabasis 1009-14 mixed kommation anapestic (1009-10), iambic (1011-12) and trochaic (1013-14) - an unusual lead into a parabasis line 1009
1015-59 anapests parabasis proper with pnigos anapestic tetrameter catalectic [..-..-][..-..-][..-..-][..--] ending in anapestic pnigos line 1015
1060-1121 trochees symmetrical scene trochaic strophe (1060-70) and antistrophe (1091-1101); epirrhema (1071-90) and antepirrhema (1102-21) in trochaic tetrameter catalectic [-.-o][-.-o][-.-o][-.-] line 1060
episode 1122-1264 iambic trimeter preparations for dinner party dialogue between actors in iambic trimeter [o-.-][o-.-][o-.-] line 1120
second parabasis 1265-1291 trochaic symmetrical scene trochaic strophe(1265-74) but missing an antistrophe; epirrhema (1275-83) and antepirrhema (1284-91) featuring variation on trochaic tetrameter catalectic [-...][-...][-...][-.-] (paeonic tetrameter) line 1265
episode 1292-1449 mostly iambic trimeter farcical consequences of the dinner party dialogue in iambic trimeter but with trochaic passages (1326-31, 1335-40) spoken by the drunken Philocleon line 1292
song 1450-73 mostly iambs and choriambs Chorus congratulates father and son first half of strophe and antistrophe iambo-choriambic lines [o-.-][-..-] (1450-56, 1462-68), the second half more complex line 1450
exodos 1474-1537 iambic and archilochean Philocleon in dancing mode dialogue in iambic trimeter ending in a dance (1518-37) in archilocheans ([o-..-..-o][-.-.--]) line 1470


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