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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama


(tr. Jeffrey Henderson)

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Birds

Title: Birds
Author: Aristophanes
Genre: Play
Written: 414 BCE (Eng. 2000)
Length: 251 pages
Original in: ancient Greek
Availability: in Birds. Lysistrata. Women at the Thesmophoria - US
in Birds. Lysistrata. Women at the Thesmophoria - UK
in Birds. Lysistrata. Women at the Thesmophoria - Canada
in Les Oiseaux / Lysistrata - France
Die Vögel - Deutschland
in Le vespe / Gli uccelli - Italia
in Las avispas / La paz / Las aves / Lisístrata - España
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • Greek title: Ὄρνιθες
  • Edited and translated by Jeffrey Henderson
  • There are numerous other translations of this work
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Greek text

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Our Assessment:

B+ : unfolds almost too easily, but a lot of good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
BMCR . 27/7/2001 Wilfred Major

  From the Reviews:
  • "H. finds Birds largely apolitical and reflecting the general optimism which accompanied the jubilation prior to the failure of the Sicilian expedition. He calmly but firmly downplays two readings of the play which have been much aired in scholarly discourse: that of the grandiose utopia and that of the sinister warning against hubristic arrogance. (...) The printed text continues to meet the goals of the series. H. offers a smooth Greek text. With a play as vexed as Birds, it is impossible for any two specialists to be happy with every choice, but H. does a good job providing a sensible and workable Greek script." - Wilfred Major, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Birds begins with Athenians Peisetaerus and Euelpides having: "up and left our country with both feet flying". They're tired of the city where the locals: "harp on their lawsuits their whole lives long", and seek instead: "a peaceable place, where we can settle down and pass our lives". With a jackdaw and crow to guide them they're searching for Tereus, the former Thracian king, "who once was a human and turned into a bird" -- a hoopoe.
       Tereus seems like the ideal being to turn to: as Peisetaerus points out to him:

Well, originally you were human, like us, and once owed money, like us, and once enjoyed not repaying it, like us; then trading all that for the guise of birds, you've flown the circuit of land and sea, and your mind contains everything a human's does, and everything a bird's does too. That's why we've come to visit, hoping you knew of a nice cushy city, soft as a woolen blanket, where we could curl up.
       (Tereus' transformation was not voluntary, but rather a punishment, ultimately the consequence of his raping his sister-in-law Philomela and cutting out her tongue so that she couldn't tell anyone about it. As translator Jeffrey Henderson notes in his short Introductory Note regarding this story: "its violent episodes are ignored" in Birds -- but Sophocles did dramatize the whole story, and Aristophanes does have his sorry-looking bird-Tereus, with barely any feathers, rail against that playwright: "That's how shabbily Sophocles treats me -- Tereus ! -- in his tragedies !" in some allusion to the bigger story.)
       Tereus has a few suggestions, but not really the sort of places that Peisetaerus and Euelpides had in mind. Instead, it is they who urge him to think bigger, intrigued by the life Tereus has found among the birds. Peisetaerus argues he and the birds should use their position to their advantage -- "Found a single city", even.
       When the birds gather, Tereus tries to sell them on this: "prop of a prodigious plan" -- though the Chorus of birds is, initially, highly skeptical, both of the two humans and the idea. It doesn't look good for Peisetaerus and Euelpides, but Peisetaerus makes the case for bird-rule -- claiming, also, that, after all: "in olden days it wasn't gods who ruled mankind and were kings, but birds" -- and, eager then to reclaim their lofty position, the birds ask his advice as to how to proceed. He encourages them to build: "a single city of birds" -- and then a huge wall.
       Peisetaerus and Euelpides join the flock, themselves taking wing, and then work on selecting a name for the city, settling on 'Cloudcuckooland' (Νεφελοκοκκυγία). The new ideal city immediately attracts a variety of old-world figures -- "a parade of pests and profiteers", Henderson calls them in his Introductory Note -- such as an Inspector and Decree Seller, but Peisetaerus will have none of this and kicks them out.
       The gods, meanwhile, are not happy. Iris -- goddess of the rainbow and messenger of Zeus -- is the first to make an appearance, but is hardly treated better than the other unwanted visitors. She warns: "Provoke not the terrible spleen of the gods", but Peisetaerus is unimpressed. Then Prometheus makes a stealthy visit, and gives Peisetaerus some tips on how to out-do an increasingly desperate Zeus, who is already suffering from the lack of human sacrifices.
       A delegation of Poseidon, Heracles, and Triballian God come to negotiate; Peisetaerus tries to sell them on accepting the sovereignty of birds "down below" -- and does so. The happy ending sees Peisetaerus completely triumphant, brandishing Zeus' thunderbolt and marrying Zeus' princess, consolidating his position as the new all-mighty.
       It's an amusing play, with some decent bits of drama to it too. The Chorus of birds is initially very leery of the two humans, while the gods want to lash out at being undermined -- though in both cases a confident Peisetaerus rather easily navigates matters so that everything goes his way. If the progress and resolution is ultimately all a bit too easy, there is also good comic fun along the way.
       From the predictable jokes -- when the birds overrun them, Peisetaerus observes: "Who's brought an owl to Athens ?" (τίς γλαῦκ’ Ἀθήναζ’ ἤγαγεν; -- which is, as Henderson, notes: "Proverbial, like 'coals to Newcastle.'") -- to familiar kinds of scenes -- the First Herald bearing the golden crown to Peisetaerus, heaping hails on him until he flails: "just give me my cue !" -- to various comic back-and-forths, Aristophanes offers a steady stream of good laughs in a play that moves along well.
       Henderson's translation reads well -- and is more forthright than Benjamin Bickley Rogers' previous Loeb version (1924) regarding the more explicit and risqué language (though that goes for pretty much all the modern translations by now). So, where Rogers only decorously has:
              for if ever you catch them descending
You will clap on their dissolute persons a seal, their evil designs to prevent !
       Henderson has:
And if they do trespass, then clap a seal on their boners, so they can't fuck these women anymore.
       Beyond the explicit, Aristophanes plays with the language a great deal in other ways too, and Henderson's versions are certainly solid if occasionally a bit of an odd reach.
       So, for example, for:
πυκνότατον κίναδος,
σόφισμα κύρμα τρῖμμα παιπάλημ᾽ ὅλον.
       Rogers had:
     The subtlest cunningest fox,
All scheme, invention, craft ; wit, wisdom, paradox.
       And Henderson:
He's the craftiest fox,
all cleverness, a go-getter, a smoothie, the crème de la craft !
       The Triballian Gods rough speech also requires a creative rendering, e.g. for:
              σαὺ νάκα
βακτάρι κροῦσα.
       Rogers has:
I'se sticky beatums.
       While Henderson tries:
No hittum hide wit bat.
       There are very many allusions and incidental mentions in the play -- identified here in footnotes, though a more thorough discussion of these and their use might be of interest to readers.
       Birds is, allusions and language-play aside, a rather light comedy -- though certainly with enough to it that it lends itself to easy (over)interpretation. Henderson favors the simpler reading of: "a fantasy that soars above the world's particulars to a conjured realm", and Birds can certainly be enjoyed as such. This is fine comedy, and enjoyable to read in Henderson's rendering; as always, the facing Greek text of the Loeb edition is welcome, as Aristophanes' (original) word-play and use of language (down to the bird-sounds) is certainly of considerable interest and appeal as well.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 July 2021

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Birds: Reviews (*review of a different translation): Other works by Aristophanes under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Greek playwright Aristophanes (Ἀριστοφάνης) lived ca.446 BCE to ca. 388 BCE.

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© 2021-2022 the complete review

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