Of Aristophanes' 11 plays that are still extant, Lysistrata is perhaps his most famous. Certainly the play's contemporary popularity stems not a little from the fact that it resonates sympathetically with many of the scholarly concerns that have increased in importance since the rise of the feminist and post-feminist critical movements. The basic dramatic action of the play is quite simple. In response to the ongoing Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta, Lysistrata organizes the women of Athens to protest against the war, which continues to kill their husbands and sons. The manner of the protest is interesting, indeed. It is a sort of boycott -- in this case, the women state that they will not engage in any sexual relations with their husbands until the war is brought to a close. The conceit that begins the play and moves its dramatic action forward seems at first absurd. Indeed, its comedic effects are hysterically funny. Aristophanes, however, is able to use this conceit to make several deeper political points. By comparing the war with Sparta to the rising disagreement between Athenian men and women, he suggests that the war is absurd and threatens the domestic unity of the Hellenistic world. Secondly, in using sex as a sort of synecdoche for unity, he suggests that the infighting in the Hellenistic world promotes disharmony and is as negatively destructive to the natural order of things as the cessation of procreation would be.
Before entering into a formal analysis of the structure and symbolic and figurative underpinnings of Aristophanes Lysistrata, it is worthwhile to consider, however briefly, the historical context that serves as the backdrop for Aristophanes comedic action. The historical developments behind Lysistrata are particularly significant, because -- even though the play does strike several universal chords -- it is at its heart a play motivated by political protests. The action of Lysistrata is perhaps absurd and satirical, but that action is nonetheless a commentary on Athenian imperialism and the warfare resulting from aggressive Athenian diplomacy:
Before long, however, Athens was back on her imperial trail, attempting to subdue Sicily, and Sparta again felt compelled to stop her. The Sicilians defeated and destroyed the Athenian expedition; Sparta on the advice of the brilliant former Athenian general Alcibiades, seized and fortified a base in Athenian home territory; and the crisis resulted which forms the background for Lysistrata.
So the backdrop for Lysistrata and the other wives' quest for piece is motivated by the immediate serious Spartan threat that Athens was currently facing. It is interesting to note that Athenian imperialism had resulted in the war being brought to the Athenian home front, because in Lysistrata it is also the literal home front -- basic familial life and the security and normality of occurrences around the hearth -- that has been disrupted by the war. Lysistrata makes the war's effect domestic in two fashions; not only is the war a serious and important domestic security issue because the Spartan's have a stronghold within Athenian territory, but it is a domestic issue because the women of Athens find their domestic lives ravaged by a war that kills their husbands and sons.
Indeed, this issue of domesticity is very much at the heart of the matter of what is at stake in Aristophanes play. The absurd comedy within the play exists in the ability of the women to take their influence outside of the traditional domestic role. Indeed, however, the manner in which the women are able to extend their power beyond their typical domestic sphere almost occurs by an enlargement of what that sphere entails. It is almost as if, by taking over the Acropolis, they have made the entirety of Athens into their household:
The really fantastic idea in Lysistrata thus lies not in its portrayal of the women themselves but in its projection of their characteristic roles outside the domestic sphere... In effect, Lysistrata converts the Acropolis into a household for all citizen women. Its exclusivity turns the tables on the men, who have neglected their wives and excluded them from the process of policy-making. And just as a wife might protect the household money from a spendthrift husband, so Lysistrata bars the Magistrate's access to the state treasuries.
Thus, what is both the main comedic and dramatic engine within Aristophanes Lysistrata is the fashion in which the women parlay their domestic power into one that has an actual effect on governance. The comedy, too, is derived from the idea that members of government are rebuked by the angry wives in much the same manner that they would rebuke their own husbands. Here, Aristophanes is drawing parallels between the similar contracts involved in both governance and marriage.
Aside from being an extension of the domestic sphere, however, the plot of Lysistrata and the other women also involves a comedic and absurd inversion of the power structure. Aside from that inversion, for the Greeks, anyway, it would also represent an inversion of the typical sexual roles, since women were seen as the more sexually voracious of the two genders:
In this connection it is notable that, while Lysistrata's plot effectively represents not only a political revolt but also a blow against the heart of each Athenian husband's power and status as head of his oikos, this latter aspect of the matter is entirely suppressed in the interests of the concentration on the physically sexual consequences of the strike. Lysistrata caricatures both the stereotypical misogyny of men... And the women's supposed lack of self-control in the face of bodily appetites.
Thus, all of Lysistrata is very much an inversion of the natural order of things, which Aristophanes harnesses for comedic effect, but this reversal of the natural order is of significant thematic importance as well, and Aristophanes seems to intend for us to draw certain conclusions about the unnaturalness of the political situation in relation to the plays subversion of the natural order. This theme of the subversion of the natural order of things ties in nicely with the idea of the sex strike in the play and what the further figurative resonance of the cessation of procreation between men and women means on a deeper level.
Part of the issue of the play is to realize that wives' refusal of sex in particular is emblematic of their deeper refusal to execute the requirements of marriage bond and uphold their union according to the particulars of that unique contract. The cessation of sex doesn't just mean that the women are only withholding sex qua sex; they are also withholding the love, unity, and togetherness of family that implicitly corresponds to this most private act of love:
Love, not merely Sex -- a vital distinction. If Lysistrata is not an exaltation of rut, neither is it a nihilistic satire, which undercuts all human progress, all collective action, by cynically opposing it to the basic animality of the individual. Upsetting as it may seem to us, the heirs of a Puritan ethic, Aristophanes hedonism is rarely anarchic.
The point that Douglas Parker makes here, which is most relevant is that, although the play is putatively about sex and this topic does drive much of the humor of the play, sex ultimately serves as symbol for a whole series of other phenomena of the utmost importance in the Greek state and in family life. In using sex, Aristophanes is questioning whether or not the aggressive imperialism of the Athenian government considers holistically the effects that such policies will have on its citizens. Sex, while it is of primary literal importance in the drama of the play, stands for many things above and beyond the simple and physical act of sexual congress between men and women. Aristophanes uses it as a sort of metaphorical lever by which he can indirectly examine several related issues.
It is important to remember that the idea of unity as a whole is extremely important in Aristophanes work. The terrible war occurring was all the more terrible because it was Greeks fighting Greeks; this disunity, this disharmony, this discord between brother nations, was, for Aristophanes, deeply depressing and he saw the only solution being an attempt to unify the two warring Greek states under one national banner:
the play as a whole is sad. Now the poet implies, no rational solution of the political seems possible. His sympathetic understanding of the plight of women, whose lives war leaves sunless and empty, is touching and timeless in its relevance. Talk of state policy in the interests of the sexual theme is quite grave and the political message of the whole is on a high level; what Aristophanes advocates, in effect, is Panhellenic harmony to save Greece from destruction.
Part of the play's message is an attempt to, in some fashion, secure a more stable interaction between the warring states of Greece and bring about a peace throughout the Hellenic city-states. Indeed, much of the…