53. The Birds, by Aristophanes (414 BC)

Plot : Two Athenians, Peisthetaerus and Euelpides, searching for a more ideal place to live, seek out Tereus, formerly an Athenian prince and now transformed into a hoopoe bird. Peisthetaerus convinces the Hoopoe and his feathered associates that birds are really the rightful gods of Earth, and in building a city in the air (Much-Cuckoo) they can bring both the Gods of Olympus and mankind to account by impeding all the prayers and sacrificial smoke from reaching Heaven.

This edition was, as previously, the Penguin version of The Birds and other plays, translated by David Barrett and Alan Sommerstein. Barrett translated this script for The Birds.

My thoughts : Lots of puns and wordplay (judging by the modern English translation) and some of the Chorus songs reminded me a little of vaudevillian jokes – short and snappy snatches of humour. Despite the off-stage building of Much-Cuckoo city of real bricks and mortar suspended in the air, what was missing for me was the same extent of immediate fantastical surrealism and whimsy as in Aristophanes’ masterpieces The Clouds and The Wasps.

And in mentioning the nature of the translation, I must confress to some annoyance when the translator uses modern idioms in the characters’ speeches – “what the dickens are you playing at?” on the very first page doesn’t sound like a true translation of classical Greek to me, and lifts me away from the story – I don’t mind when directors recast Shakespeare plays into more modern settings but please don’t tamper with the words! Likewise I understand classical Greek translations will not always give the modern reader the exact meaning of all the speeches, but a little more sympathy to the original nature would be more respectful – am I being inconsistent here?

I was also uncomfortable with Aristophanes’ tacit approval of pederasty, even with accepting that social mores have changed drastically in many ways in 2000 years.

Favourite lines/passages

I did enjoy the seeming unending parade of Chaucerian officials and profit-seekers who arrived so quickly to take advantage of the new city: the inspector, the lawmaker, the mathematician/surveyor, the poet and even an oracle seller, and Peisthetaerus’ sending them all packing.

And what happened to Euelpides? Sent off by Peisthetaerus to do all the work while he scores Sovereignty (both the bride and the lordship) over all.


I had heard the expression “cloud-cuckoo land” occasionally before, but has assumed it had arisen from some piece of obscure English literature around Shakespeare’s time or earlier. Quite surprised to find it arose with the Greeks.

Personal rating : 5. A little disappointing.

Kimmy’s rating :Kimmy would have been quite excited with all the colour and caw-ing, and as she hates magpies, their absence was also a plus for her. Two paws.

Next : Euripides’ Ion




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