An Old Comedy performed in 411 BCE by Aristophanes. By the time this play was performed, Athens had already endured serious defeats in the Peloponnesian War with Sparta and was thus incapable of achieving peace while saving face. Many Athenians had been killed in the Sicilian Expedition of 413 BCE and the morale of the people was quite low. Some of Athens’ strongest allies had turned against her. And, whereas in earlier plays such as The Acharnians and Peace we find Aristophanes arguing for a peaceful resolution with Sparta, when it was still a real possibility, in Lysistrata, he is expressing his yearning for the end of Athenian suffering and for a happy unification of the Greek states. And here the yearning for peace is done through the vehicle of a witty fantasy.
The opening scene takes place in Athens. On one side is the house of Lysistrata, and on the other, the entrance to the Acropolis. Between these two points is the opening of the Cave of Pan. Lysistrata, whose name means “She Who Disbands Armies,” is an Athenian woman, and leader of the Athenian wives. She is walking up and down before her house, irritated that the other women she has invited have not yet arrived as they are so prone to doing everything late. Lysistrata notes that the women of Salamis would be especially interested to hear her speak as the sailors, and by extension their wives, had a comic reputation of sexual appetite.
When Kalonike, another young Athenian wife, arrives, Lysistrata tells her she has asked the women to meet because of an extremely important mater involving the future of Greece. Indeed, as she tells Kalonike, the matter is so delicate and if such great importance, that “Greece’s whole salvation / Depends entirely on the female sex.” Lysistrata expects that the Acharnai women will be especially anxious to see her as it is a city vulnerable to Spartan ravages. Finally, the others begin to arrive. Among them are another Athenian named Myrrhine, who states that she had trouble getting dressed, the athletic-looking Lampito from Sparta, and three other young wives, all of whom are wearing short, revealing dresses.
When all are assembled, Lysistrata informs them that she has summoned this council of females to propose a plan for ending the Peloponnesian War because the war is depriving them of their husbands and their sexual pleasure. The situation, according to Lysistrata, is dire. “Not a glimmer of males—not a single adulterer left!” She tells the other women that they must refuse to make love to their husbands until the men agree to make peace. The women are shocked and upset by this proposal and many object to such a deprivation. Lysistrata accuses them of caring only for their sexual satisfaction.
“The female sex! Sheer lustfulness, that’s us! / No wonder they write such tragedies about us! / Our lives are simply full of sex and intrigue.” However, when Lysistrata finally succeeds in convincing them of how well the plan will work, they give in, encouraging each other to keep resisting. “We’ve got to make them suffer in every way. / They’ll soon give in: no husband can enjoy / A life of constant friction with his wife.” She has arranged for the older women to seize the Acropolis, a citadel located in Athens, while they, the younger ones, make themselves attractive to their husbands. The women take an oath to dress beautifully and entice their husbands with the sole intention of refusing the men until they establish peace. Their agreement is finalized with the women drinking a toast to Divine Persuasion, a deity often cited in erotic contexts and long associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Lampito returns to Sparta to organize the women there, while the others go to join the older women who have seized the Acropolis.
The old-men’s half chorus now appears, struggling to carry logs and a brazier up the hillside with the intention of smoking “these women into submission” and ultimately driving them out of the Acropolis. Shortly thereafter, as the old men are building a fire, a chorus of old women enters carrying pots of water to extinguish the fire and they move at a pace considerably faster than their male counterparts. The two groups insult and threaten each other, and finally the women throw the water at the men, stating that they are exercising their freedom of speech and, by extension, their freedom of action. Then the Commissioner of Public Safety enters with some policemen. He scolds the women, “[f]emales again—spontaneous combustion of lust,” and tries to force his way into the treasury to obtain money to pay rowers he has hired. Suddenly, however, a fully composed Lysistrata comes out and asks him what he wants. “Frankly, you don’t need crowbars nearly so much as brains.” When he orders the policemen to seize her, the women attack him with household items, and they retire in terror, with the Commissioner exclaiming “[g]ross ineptitude. A sorry day for the Force.”
Lysistrata then speaks proudly of the women who are going to save Greece despite the folly of the men. “We’re not slaves; we’re freeborn Women, and when scorned we’re full of fury.” When the Magistrate remarks on the insolence of the women, Lysistrata replies that women have common sense, which men would do well to imitate. Finally, the women throw water at him, and he goes off. The chorus of old men then criticizes women for interfering in matters of state and warfare; asking of Zeus”[h]ow do we deal with this female zoo?” They are answered by the Chorus of Old Women, who speak of all that women have done for Athens, contributing their sons to the state, while the men merely waste its treasures. “Too many times, as we sat in the house, we’d hear that you’d done it again—manhandled another affair of state with your usual staggering incompetence.”
Lysistrata emerges from the Acropolis, disheartened by the frailty of her colleagues. Desiring their husbands, the women are breaking their vows and trying to desert her. They pretend they must attend to their households. One women explains that she must get home because she has “some lovely Milesian wool in the house, and the moths will simply batter it to bits.” And another goes so far as to hide a helmet under her clothes in order to pretend she is about to bear a child, to which Lysistrata responds by saying “[y]ou weren’t pregnant yesterday.” Lysistrata scolds and encourages them, and at last they return to the Acropolis. Seeing Kinesias, the husband of Myrrhine, approaching, Lysistrata orders Myrrhine to flirt with and provoke him and then turn away when he is enflamed with desire.
A delegation from Sparta then enters, hoping to make peace with Athens. They are inflamed with sexual desire and go to great lengths to hide their condition. “Behold our local Sons of the Soil, stretching their garments away from their groins, like wrestlers grappling with their plight. . . . An outbreak of epic proportions.” One of the delegates speaks to Kinesias about their plight and Kinesias summons Lysistrata as the one who can effect peace. Lysistrata appears with her beautiful handmaid, Peace, who brings the Spartans before her mistress. Lysistrata addresses both Spartans and Athenians alike, admonishing them for having caused these dire circumstances. “With such a history of mutual benefits conferred and received, why are you fighting? Stop this wickedness! Come to terms with each other!”
The Choruses of Old Men and Old Women agree to quarrel no more, and together they sing of their hopes for peace. Soon ambassadors from Sparta enter, announcing that they have come to arrange for peace with Athens. Lysistrata comes out of the Acropolis, and the goddess Peace is brought in by the Machine. Lysistrata inveighs against war, pointing out the responsibility of both Athenians and Spartans. She invites the men to enter the Acropolis where they will feast with the women and vow to make peace and then to take their wives home. Soon a Spartan Chorus and an Athenian Chorus enter, dancing to the music of flutes. Lysistrata directs each of the Athenian delegates to “stand by his wife, each wife by her husband. Dance to the gods’ glory, and thank them for a happy ending.” Lysistrata and the women follow, and all sing and dance.