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The Thematic Relevance of Aristophanes' Parabases

In both The Wasps and The Birds of Aristophanes, the choruses are eponymous: the characters appear in the form of the title animals. This is not true, of course, of all Aristophanic comedies, but it necessitates consideration as to the purpose of the choruses in these two plays. Above all, the importance of the composition of the chorus surfaces in the parabasis, toward the middle of each play, when the figures step out of the action and address the audience. This address is delivered in the degrading and abusive manner typical of Old Comedy, but it also serves to elaborate the position of the chorus on events occurring within the dramatic sequence.

In The Birds, the true significance of the chorus of birds is far more plot-dependent than it is in The Wasps. Peisthetaerus arrives in Birdland with his companions: who else should be there to receive him but a gathering of birds? There are, however, several other reasons for the choice of birds as choral figures. As the chorus points out in the parabasis, as they provide the exhaustive description of the antiquity and majesty of their race, the birds seem to lead a comfortable and desirable lifestyle. Indeed, they even invite human beings to come and join their society:

 Leader: How would you like to come and live with the birds? Do come and join us, we can promise you a very happy life. You know, lots of things that are looked down on where you come from, or even forbidden by your laws, are regarded by us as perfectly right and proper. (p. 179)

This call for immigrants becomes of course an issue later in the play, when a number of humans appear and request to join the city of Much Cuckoo in the Clouds; not only the rebellious son, whose discontent is directly mentioned in the parabasis as "the most natural thing in the world" (p. 179), but also several other figures, such as the poet and the informer, come seeking a society purely in order to gain something for themselves.

There are several seemingly irrelevant portions of the parabasis in The Birds which, upon closer inspection, appear in fact to have a strong bearing on the action in the rest of the play. The above-mentioned appeal for new citizens is the most obvious case; the lengthy discourse on the might and superiority of the birds, which makes up the first half of the parabasis, is another. This section, although interesting, has relatively few humorous or comic elements, and as such stands out from most of the rest of the play. Instead, the subject is treated with great seriousness:

 In the beginning there existed only Chaos, Night, Black Erebus and Dreary Tartarus: there was no Earth, no Air, No Sky. It was in the boundless womb of Erebus that the first egg was laid by black-winged Night; and from this egg, in due season, sprang Eros the deeply-desired, Eros the bright, the golden-winged. And it was he, mingling in Tartarus with murky Chaos, who begot our race and hatched us out and led us up to the light. (p. 178-179)

Although this description is certainly a form of parody, it is nonetheless delivered in a rather dry and earnest format; this leads the audience to conclude that it was intended as a serious explanation, at least within the context of the play. If so, it comes to be of relevance in other places in the play: as an explanation of why the birds should be regarded as gods, it gives credence to the ending of the play, in which the birds do indeed become, through the marriage of Peisthetaerus with Sovereignty, the supreme rulers of mortal beings.

Perhaps the passage which bears the most directly on later issues brought up within the drama is the discussion, within the parabasis, of the laws and customs of the birds' society; here we see not only the laws regarding the treatment of parents, which will later come into play with the rebellious youth, but also a general presentation of judicial procedure. This provides a point of reference with which to compare the Athenian system that Peisthetaerus and Euelpides are trying to escape. As it turns out, the birds' society, which these men regard as ideal, bears in reality many of the same characteristics as the Athenian one they despise: there are strict laws determining social and moral behavior, and there are even litigators and political biases, as illustrated by the roasting of some anti-Democratic conservatives by Peisthetaerus.

In both plays appear, as is to be expected, the cynical and sarcastic references to the Greek theater of the day, and even to other specific plays, often written by rivals of Aristophanes. This is most noticeable in The Wasps, but it also appears in The Birds: when extolling the praises of their own race in the parabasis, the chorus of birds describes the usefulness of a pair of wings as regards the theater in explicit detail, complete with jabs at the "tragic choruses" which must be endured by those who wish to see the concluding comedy:

 Have you ever thought of how useful a pair of wings would be in the theatre? No need to sit through all those tragic choruses, getting hungrier and hungrier: just fly home whenever you feel like it, have a good lunch, and get back to your seat in time for our comedy ... Oh, wings are splendid things, make no mistake. (p. 180)

The parabasis in The Wasps seems, in many ways, to have more of a direct relevance to the rest of the play. Firstly, the portrayal of the chorus of older men as wasps is purely a theatrical device, and does not rely on the plot as does the chorus of The Birds. The question of why Aristophanes chose these particular animals to be portrayed in the chorus is answered, as we have seen, within the parabasis of The Birds in a somewhat disguised fashion; in The Wasps, on the other hand, this answer is explicitly stated. It seems clear that some sort of explanation is needed by this point in the play, as the chorus leader states:

 Leader: Should it strike you, dear spectators, as a somewhat curious thing
To find me thus embellished with a wasp-waist and a sting,
A word will be sufficient to complete your education
And elucidate the meaning of our garb and conformation. (p. 78)

After a rather lengthy digression about the glorious younger days of the "wasps," when they were warriors and men to be feared, the answer to the question is finally stated:

 Leader: Now anyone who studies us from various points of view
Will find that we resemble wasps in everything we do ...
Observe our social structure and you'll see that it conforms
To that of wasps exactly - we are organized in swarms;
And according to the jury that we're privileged to be on
We buzz about the Archon's Court, or nest in the Odeon. (p. 79)

Of course, any audience would have understood by this time that the Wasps are supposed to be older Athenian citizens now serving as jurymen, but it is not until the parabasis that all the details of their similarities are drawn together and explicated. Here we learn, for instance, of the tenacity and ferocity of the jurymen: "No creature, to begin with, is more savage and irate, when once provoked, than we are, or less easy to placate." (p. 79) The wasps also manage, on several occasions, to clearly state their own opinions about the state of current affairs, and how things could be better organized: "I think the rule should be that if you haven't got a sting you get no jury fee." (p. 79)

There are instances in this parabasis, however, where the intended effect of the presentation becomes lost, and the relevance of the entire scene comes into question. Such is the case in the chorus' recitation of past military glories; their exaggerated nostalgia seems here not only out of place but ridiculous, since it has little relevance to anything immediately preceding or following it. It does, however, have a certain bearing on the overall message given by the drama. By the end of the play, the audience has become aware of some of the main themes in the work, one of which is a criticism of current Athenian legal practices. Significantly, this criticism is inherent to the descriptions within the parabasis, and it is from this source that they derive their relevance. The chorus states, in what we later recognize as a foreshadowing of Procleon's own evaluation, that the legalistic duties of the jurors fall a distant second place to the importance of patriotism and soldiering:

 Chorus: Not one of us could make a speech.
Denounce, arraign, inform, impeach,
Nor yearned such arts to master.
From these ambitions we forbore:
A question that concerned us more
Was how to ply a lusty oar
And make the ship go faster. (p. 78)

This implied criticism of the contemporary culture finds support in other phrases in the play, and even within the parabasis itself. More than once in the dialogues between Procleon and Anticleon, disparaging remarks are made about the youth of Athens and their apparent degeneration from former times, and this sentiment is repeated in the chorus' lines in the parabasis:

 Chorus: Yes, we may be poor old crocks,
But the whiteness of our locks
Does the City better credit, I would say,
Than the ringlets and the fashions
And the pederastic passions
Of the namby-pamby youngsters of today. (p. 77)

Another relevance that this denouncing of modern customs has can be seen in Aristophanes' vicious attacks on Cleon and his supporters. The most outrageous of these criticisms comes, once again, in the parabasis. Decrying Cleon as "the greatest monster in the land," the chorus then proceeds to give this portrayal of their fearless leader:

 Leader: Jag-toothed it was, and from its staring eyes
Shot rays more terrible than Cynna's smile;
And in a grisly circle round its head
Flickered the tongues of servile flatterers,
Foredoomed to groan; its voice was like the roar
Of mighty floods descending from the hills,
Bearing destruction: noisome was the stench
That issued from the brute as it slid forth,
With camel's rump and monstrous unwashed balls. (p. 76)

These daring attacks are not, of course, confined to the parabasis; indeed, a case could even be made to state that they are the unifying element of the entire drama. The relevance here is clear, and the continuation of the attacks on Cleon throughout the drama makes it obvious that the ideas expressed in the parabasis are as significant and pervasive as any others in the play, or indeed more so.

The final and perhaps most interesting issue brought up within the parabasis of The Wasps relates not as much to the content, but rather directly to the action. The text is here relevant in terms of its descriptions of the contemporary Greek theater, as discussed previously with The Birds, but, more importantly, the very form of the dialogue, in which the chorus narrates the tale of Aristophanes' past successes and failures, is presented as if it were an address by a lawyer. First, there is the accusation and statement of charges, when, at the very beginning of the parabasis, the leader steps forward and presents his case:

 Leader: Now once again spectators, if you love
To hear plain speaking, pay attention, please!
The author has a bone to pick with you
For treating him unfairly, when, he says,
You've had so many splendid things from him. (p. 75)

The evidence is then presented: the history of the author's reception, his attempts at pleasing the audience, and finally, the judgment: "there never was a better comedy." After all this, the prosecuting chorus now lectures the audience, advising it to be a little more careful:

 Leader: And if ever in future
A poet appears
Who can give you a play
That is full of ideas,
With a plot that is fresh
And a line that is new,
I advise you to give him
The praise that's his due. (p. 76-77)

As in The Birds, the significance and relevance of the parabasis of The Wasps often only becomes clear upon closer inspection. Yet the overall effect, even if this relevance is not consciously perceived, is to add to the message of both plays, through such devices as supporting the sentiments expressed in other scenes in the play, or by directly adding to the action. Clearly, the parabasis was for Aristophanes not merely a conventional form which had to be worked into the confines of the play; instead, it was a vehicle for the expression and presentation of many of the comedy's own themes.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1992 for Classics 14 at Pomona College.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "The Thematic Relevance of Aristophanes' Parabases." Website Article. 5 October 1992. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/C14paper1.html>.