48. The Wasps by Aristophanes (422 BC)


Old Philocleon (‘lover of Cleon’) is addicted to serving on the jury at the courts and the power it gives him over people, to such an extent that his son Bdelycleon (‘hater of Cleon’) has to lock him up in their house with barricaded doors and windows, rags blocking the drains, and netting over the whole house to stop him running off to sit in judgment on all and sundry.  His jurymen cronies, the Wasps, come to free him, and after a bit of argy-bargy, agree to a debate between father and son with the jurymen as audience and judges.Bdelycleon convinces them all that they are paid a mere pittance of the city’s income from the other cities under Athens’ thumb, with the rest of the spoils going to Cleon and his kind, and wins the argument. Then Bdelycleon sets up a courtroom outside their own house to save Philocleon the trouble and inconveniences of attending the real thing.The first case is between two household dogs, one accusing the other over eating an entire cheese without sharing. Philocleon (who never shows mercy on defendants) is tricked by Bdelycleon into acquitting the guilty dog.

The second act sees Philocleon gradually seduced into drinking and partying until he is so drunk that he absconds with a young female fluteplayer, and causes mayhem and assaults on his drunken stagger home with her, no doubt to be facing charges in court himself before long. The plays ends with him performing a wild dance alongside giant crabs (yes, you’ve read that right)

My copy is the Penguin Black classic edition, Frogs and other plays, translated by David Barrett, and revised by Shomit Dutta (ISBN 9780140449693), which I bought alongside the second Penguin copy of Aristophanes’ works, The Birds and other plays. Both volumes will stay on my bookshelves for some years to come.

My thoughts

I’ve spent a lot longer describing the story than usual, but then this is one of the great comedies I have read, and certainly the most bizarre. While there is the usual social commentary and attacks on Cleon surrounded by crudity, bawdiness and many surreal moments, as in earlier plays, it really is the sheer silliness of much of the play, which like The Clouds and The Knights that I enjoyed here.

Favourite lines/passages

The image of old Philocleon poking his head out of the chimney (like a puff of smoke as eh says himself) at the beginning of the play is marvellous, and the appearance of his old crony jurymen decked out as wasps complete with stings, and the resulting tussles and fights as they try to free him from his son would be a treat seen on stage.And the crabs … don’t forget the crabs!


As usual, Aristophanes provides his own digression between Acts One and Two, as the Chorus Leader laments the playwright’s disappointing third place with his play The Clouds last year. He also compares the author as Heracles in battle with the greatest monster in the land (Cleon), who he describes as

“Jag-toothed it was, and from its staring eyes shot rays more terrible than those of Cynna

And in a grisly circle round its head flickered the tongues of servile flatterers

Condemned to groan; its voice was like the roar of mighty floods descending from the hills

Bearing destruction; heinous was the stench that issued from the Beast as it slid forth

With camel’s arse and stinking unwashed balls”

Personal rating : 9. An excellent comedy.

Kimmy’s rating : Particularly fond of the dogs’ trial and the puppies pleading with old Philocleon, and would have raised more than one bark for the dancing crabs.

Also in the year 422 BC : Cleon of Athens, warmongering general and politician, and  Aristophanes’ chief nemesis, is killed at the battle of Amphipolis later this year.

Next : Another Aristophanean comedy, Peace.

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