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The Wasps (Greek: Sphkes) 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 Sparta. 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.[3][4]

he play begins with a strange scenea 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 fatherhe 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 wrongthe father is addicted to the law court: he
is a phileliastes () or a "trialophile." 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
thisBdelycleon. The symptoms of the old man's addiction are described for us and they include
irregular sleep, obsessional thinking, paranoia, poor hygiene and hoarding.[5] 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 guardhis 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 disguised 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 arrivesold 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 deserverevenues from the empire go mostly into the private treasuries
of men like Cleon. These arguments have a paralysing effect 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 hima 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 cheesegrater, 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 trialhe is used to convictionsbut 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 Marathon 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 wineit causes trouble, he saysbut 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 Carcinus.
Note: Some editors (such as Barrett) exchange the second parabasis (lines 126591) with the
song (lines 145073) in which Bdelycleon is commended for filial devotion.
Historical background[edit]
Cleon and the Athenian jury system[edit]
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.[6] Cleon had succeeded Pericles as the dominant speaker in the assembly, and
increasingly he could manipulate the courts for political and personal ends, especially in the
prosecution of public officials for mismanagement of their duties.[7] Jurors had to be citizens over
the age of thirty and a corps of 6000 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.[8] 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 the poet may have
publicly yielded to this pressure for a short time.[9][10] 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[edit]
431: The Peloponnesian War commenced.
426: 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
425: Athens obtained a significant victory against Sparta in the Battle of Sphacteria and Cleon
successfully claimed responsibility for it.
424: Aristophanes won first prize at the Lenaia with The Knights in which he lampooned Cleon
423: Athens and Sparta agreed to a one year truce. Aristophanes' play The Clouds came third
(i.e. last).
422: The Wasps was performed at the Lenaia, winning second place.