Friday, May 20, 2022

The Knights by Aristophanes - Here, put on this wreath and pour a libation to Stupidity

The Knights
(424 BCE), the second surviving Aristophanes play.  The target is the demagogue, a familiar figure today, and thank goodness because otherwise much of The Knights, without scholarly help, and sometimes with, is cryptic.  But anyone will understand this method of succeeding in democratic politics:

CHORUS: We’ve found a villain even deeper,

A crook, a wheedler and a creeper,

Full of every crafty wile,

A man of truly perfect guile!  (62)

The villain, Aristophanes’s arch-enemy Cleon, is defeated by means of creating an even worse demagogue (that's him above, the sausage-seller).  One cheer for democracy.

When the play was first performed Cleon was, apparently, sitting in the front row.  In the original Greek, there is a comment that the Cleon character’s mask should not be too recognizable, to avoid a slander suit.  As Alan H. Sommerstein (Penguin edition) adapts the bit:

Oh, and by the way, you needn’t be afraid to look at his face.  It won’t look like the real one.  You see, our sponsor was a bit worried in case you-know-who might – you-know-what.  Ah, but he’ll be recognised all right; as I say, we’ve a brainy audience!  (44)

It is clear enough that the translation of Aristophanes requires more adaptation than the tragedies.  Too many puns, parodic quotes from Euripides, local references, and comic songs.  Sommerstein identifies appropriate Gilbert and Sullivan tunes for his songs.  I can imagine Tom Stoppard or Richard Bean salvaging The Knights, which in Sommerstein’s more compromising version – this idea more for performance, that annotation more for students – is sometimes rough going.

Not that there are not some classic gags in Sommerstein:

DEMOSTHENES: You don’t even believe in the gods.

NICIAS: I didn’t use to, but I do now.


NICIAS: Because if there weren’t any gods, I wouldn’t be so bloody god-forsaken.  (37)

Then there is the nose-blowing gag, a precursor of gross-out comedy, which begins:

PAPHLAGONIAN: Blow your nose, Thepeople [Demos], and use my head to wipe your hands! [He kneels in from of THEPEOPLE, who begins to blow his nose.]  (70)

And the joke keeps going, acted out in disgusting detail in front of the citizens of Athens, who were likely howling.

Another line I liked, a motto for Aristophelian comedy:

Here, put on this wreath and pour a libation to Stupidity.  (44)

I remind myself that we have here a five-year run of Aristophanes plays; I find The Knights  more interesting as a chapter in that run than on its own.

If you were at the International Festival of Ancient Greek Drama in Cyprus last summer you could have seen a performance of The Knights.  I have borrowed a photo of their sausage-seller.

Next week is the last of our informal Euripides trilogy of grief and suffering, The Suppliants (c. 423).  The story should look familiar.  After that, also from 423, is an Aristophanes masterpiece, The Clouds.


  1. My understanding is that "The Knights" was not performed at the main Dionysian festival, but at a lesser festival in the winter, all a result of a lawsuit Creon brought against Aristophanes regarding an earlier play. Creon liked to sue his enemies, but that was apparently a popular sport in Athens anyway.

    "The Knights" has funny moments but it, like "The Acharnians," seems like a real mess, a play that doesn't know where it's going. My first encounter with Aristophanes was "Lysistrata," which I remember as being tightly constructed and focused, showing a much higher level of craft. I'm surprised at how sloppy these earlier plays are. A lot of the longest stretches of jokes just look like padding for length. Maybe if I got all the references, they'd have me rolling on the floor. Maybe not.

  2. The edition I read (University of VA Press) says that Aristophanes himself played Creon at the first performance. That must've been fun for him.

  3. Yes, the later plays are much tighter. I remember the next one, The Clouds, just a year later, as much tighter, although there are still lots of note-bearing references.

    I had not read that Aristophanes played Cleon. Outstanding.

  4. Cleon, yes, not Creon. I've read "The Clouds," and I remember it being pretty well done. It's my wife's favorite Aristophanes, so I may be prejudiced. We'll see, next week.

  5. Creon will be in next week's Euripides play!

    The Clouds is great. William Arrowsmith's version is great, at least.

  6. Good call on highlighting “pour a libation to Stupidity.” Through this & The Archanians I see that Aristophanes likes having fun at the expense of the off-base language that circulates around politics & war. Take the most vulgar, half-baked, self-important, barely-reasoned talk out there & fit a group of characters to it. Better yet, don’t even give the characters any interiority or thoughtfulness; just let them sound as ridiculous as they sound to any neutral observer not climbing the scales of influence. Don’t let anything like a plot twist determine the shape of the play. Just present it all as talk. Not even rhetorical talk. Just talk. The sausage-seller & Paphlagonian trying to out “oh yeah! Well what about you…!” while full of potty mouth sure sounds a lot like democracy in action today, too.

  7. Satire, from the very beginning, is about language, hypocritical, false, manipulated language. It is extraordinary. But also, as you note, relevant, even true.