44. The Knights, by Aristophanes (424 BC)

Plot : ‘The Paphlagonian’  (a thinly disguised representation of the prevailing Athenian leader Cleon) has been skimming the best of everything from his master ‘Thepeople’  – get it, “The People” –  (or Demos in Greek) and claiming credit for all manner of things done by others, until faced by a political rival in The Sausage Seller.  They duel verbally to win over The Athenian council and Thepeople.

My copy is the Penguin edition The Birds and other plays, translated by David Barrett and Alan H. Sommerstein (ISBN 9780140449518)

My thoughts:  Largely a one-joke play about two ‘politicians’ trying to out-do each other to prove themselves the biggest liars, cheats and thieves, and therefore ideal candidates to be the “servant of Thepeople”. Although there is the usual ridiculous nature of Aristophanes’ comedies, and a few sparkling quotes, the one-upmanship soon wearied me. The Sausage-Seller’s reveal as a sensible and honourable leader at the end was a pleasant surprise, giving the play a satisfactory ending.

This is probably Aristophanes’ most blatant attack on Cleon, who responded by trying to indict Aristophanes as not being an Athenian citizen (remember Athens had been at war with Sparta for seven years was produced). Two years later, Cleon would be dead, and Aristophanes went on to write less personalised but still topical satires.

Favourite lines/passages:

Thepeople’s other servants (Generals Demosthenes and Nicias) try to persuade the Sausage-Seller that he is the ideal political candidate (page 43)

SAUSAGE-SELLER : But look ‘ere – I don’t think I deserve to be great.

DEMOSTHENES : What’s all this about not deserving to be great? You’ve not got any secret virtues on your conscience, have you? You’re not of good birth, by any chance?

SAUSAGE-SELLER : The worst birth you could think of.

DEMOSTHENES : Thank Heaven! That’s just what’s wanted for a politician.

SAUSAGE-SELLER :  But look ‘ere – I ‘ardly went to school. I got no learning. Why I can only just read an’ write.

DEMOSTHENES : What a shame you can only just. If only you couldn’t at all. Come off it, you don’t think politics is for the educated, do you, or the honest? It’s for illiterate scum like you now!

Also, at the beginning of Act Two, The Sausage-Seller defuses the Council Chamber as The Paphlagonian tries to work them up into a rage, by bursting in and shouting that the price of sardines is the cheapest ever, and the Council members’ eagerly vote to close business and rush down to the Market Place.

SAUSAGE-SELLER : … By nah the Cahncil were all on their feet, shahting ‘Sardines! Sardines!’ an’ ‘e while they was trying to drag ‘im away, ‘e was begging them to stay and listen a moment. ‘Won’t you give audience to the Spartan Ambassador? He is here with peace proposals.’ And with one voice they cried, ‘Wot? Peace nah? They must’ve ‘eard abaht our cheap sardines. Trying to get their ‘ands on ‘em, eh? No peace nah, thank you : let the war go on!”

Diversions/digressions : Thucylides’ History of the Peloponnesian War made a  very good introduction to some of the topical people and events alluded to in this play. At this point, the Athenians had the upper hand, and Spartan envoys were appearing in Athens to try and reclaim the hostages taken at the siege of Sphacteria, where Cleon had showed up with a small force to bolster Demosthenes’ army and take the credit for his ultimate success.

Personal rating : 4. Again not Aristophanes’ best, which is a shame for his later plays really are gems.

Next : Euripides’ Suppliant Women has already been posted so the next new post will be The Clouds, by Aristophanes

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