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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 Lysistrata

Title: Lysistrata
Author: Aristophanes
Genre: Play
Written: 411 BCE (Eng. 2000)
Length: 187 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
Lysistrate - Deutschland
Lisistrata - Italia
in Las avispas / La paz / Las aves / Lisístrata - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
directly from: Harvard University Press
  • Greek title: Λυσιστράτη
  • Edited and translated by Jeffrey Henderson
  • There are numerous other translations of this work, including Benjamin Bickley Rogers' translation, in the previous Loeb edition (1924)
  • This is a bilingual edition that includes the original Greek text

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Our Assessment:

A- : a solid, direct translation of a sharp, bawdy classic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Antiquité Classique . (2002) Simon Byl
BMCR . (2001.07.27) Wilfred Major,
Gnomon . (78) 2006 Martin Hose

  From the Reviews:
  • "En bref, voilà un livre d'un excellent connaisseur d'Aristophane mais dont l'érudtion a été limité par les impératifs de la Collection." - Simon Byl, L'Antiquité Classique

  • "The translation especially shines. H. has translated Aristophanes before, for Focus Press, but he provides a totally different, and much sharper translation here. (...) H. seems more comfortable rendering vigorous and clear prose than in generating abbreviated light verse." - 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:

       The plot of Lysistrata is surely among the most famous original ones (rather than myth-based, as most are) found in the classical Greek plays that have come down to us, Lysistrata convincing the women of Athens and Sparta that they must take drastic measures to bring the ongoing warring to an end: ἀφεκτέα τοίνυν ἐστὶν ἡμῖν τοῦ πέους. -- "All right. We're going to have to give up -- the prick", in Jeffrey Henderson's translation. She proposes that all women deny their menfolk sex, certain that that will bring them quickly to their knees and senses -- as it then does.
       Lysistrata's plan is actually twofold: besides refusing men sex, they blockade access to the treasury of Athena, at the Acropolis, denying the Athenians the funds they need to pay for the war. As Lysistrata explains, it is a two-pronged attack (or rather, defense):

No, that's also been provided for: we're going to occupy the Acropolis this very day. The older women are assigned that part: while we're working out our agreement down here, they'll occupy the Acropolis, pretending to be up there for a sacrifice.
       The story is simple, and plays out quite straightforwardly to its happy end. The set-up of course makes for a lot of sexual banter, pitting women against men in an amusing, sex-centered battle of the sexes.
       The play is particularly noteworthy in the significant roles and power it gives women. As Henderson points out in his Introductory Note
Aristophanes assimilates the polis (Athens) to the individual household, and the aggregate of poleis (Greece) to a neighborhood. For, in effect, Lysistrata converts the Acropolis into a household for all citizen women. Its exclusivity turns the tables on the men,, who have neglected their wives and excluded them from the process of policy making.
       Sex is one of the weapons deployed here, but the women (who are also better-organized) act more tactically and rationally in other ways as well -- not least in recognizing the power and temptations of the purse, and in seizing control of it:
We're at war on account of the money, is that it ?

Yes, and that's why everything else got messed up too. It was for opportunities to steal that Pisander and the others who aimed to hold office were always fomenting some kind of commotion. So let them keep fomenting to their hearts' content: they'll be withdrawing no more money from this place.
       Lysistrata easily puts the Magistrate in his place, too:
You'll manage the money ?

What's so strange about that ? Don't we manage the household finances for you already ?

That's different.

How so ?

These are war funds !

But there shouldn't even be a war.
       The set-up, pitting men against women, is, however, not as simple, or black and white, as the premise might suggest. Aristophanes does not present sex simply as a matter of give (or not giving, in this case) -- by the women -- and take -- by the men: the women are just as eager for sex as the men are, and forgoing it is no small sacrifice for them. Indeed, one of their main complaints about the on-going war is that it keeps the men away -- and keeps the women from getting the sexual satisfaction they enjoy. As one complains:
Even lovers have vanished without a trace. Ever since the Milesians revolted from us, I haven't even seen a six-inch dildo, which might have been a consolation, however small.
       Indeed, when Lysistrata first proposes that women withhold sex from men, the immediate reaction of the women is that it is far too high a price, and far too much to ask, leading a despairing Lysistrata to grumble: ὦ παγκατάπυγον θἠμέτερον ἅπαν γένος -- "Oh what a low and horny race we are !" (In the previous Loeb translation (1924), Benjamin Bickley Rogers couldn't work himself up beyond: "O women ! women ! O our frail, frail sex !" (which doesn't really do παγκατάπυγον justice).)
       So also, Lysistrata is a contest in willpower, with much of the play's humor found in just how weak and desperate representatives from both sides are. A lengthy back and forth between Myrrhine and Cinesias is the most extended of several examples -- a cruel tease that, in that case concludes with him complaining: "she's pumped me up and dropped me flat !" It's not easy for the women either, Lysistrata acknowledging that the women's resolve also wavers: βινητιῶμεν, ᾗ βράχιστον τοῦ λόγου -- "The story in briefest compass: we need a fuck !" (Rogers has it: "Aye, in one word. The girls are -- husband-sick".)"
       The comic scenes include many of men with very obvious erections, with various embarrassed explanations for the sight -- not least:
Why, you've got a hard-on, you dirty rascal !

I certainly do not ! Don't be talking twaddle.

Then what do you call that ?

A Spartan walking stick.

Then this is a Spartan walking stick too. Listen, I know what's up, you can be straight with me. How are things going in Sparta ?

All Sparta rises, and our allies all have hard-ons.
       Henderson does quite well with the word-play such as here, but Lysistrata is a challenge, not least in its often raw language.
       Even the simply suggestive is challenging, and maybe Henderson has it right, for example, at the play's opening, when Lysistrata has just called the women to gather, and Calonice asks::
Well, Lysistrata dear, what exactly is this business you're calling us women together for ? What's the deal ? Is it a big one ?

It's big.

Not juicy as well ?

Oh, yes, it's big and juicy.
       'Juicy', with its several connotations, does work for παχύ, and perhaps even mirrors Aristophanesean crudity well, but it's a hard balance to strike, and Henderson does teeter back and forth some in the text as a whole.
       (As to that exchange, certainly Henderson's is an improvement over Rogers' not least in being much closer to the original, but Rogers' version has appeal as well:
              Well, but Lysistrata,
Why have you, dear, convoked us ? Is the matter
A weighty subject ?

              Weighty ? yes.

                            And pregnant ?

Pregnant, by Zeus.
       Even if occasionally Henderson seems to be trying too hard, it's hard not to at least smile at some of his solutions. So, for example, when, when dildos are proposed as a means of tiding the women over for the time being, Calonice dismisses them with the words: φλυαρία ταῦτ᾽ ἐστὶ τὰ μεμιμημένα, Henderson has it as: "Facsimiles are nothing but poppycock". (That said, Rogers': "Those imitations are rubbish" is a slyer solution than it might first appear as well.)
       The Rogers Loeb edition certainly needed updating, if only for a more blunt approach to the explicit language, of which there is quite a bit. The frankness is welcome: Aristophanes remains a challenge to read when relying on, for example, the otherwise so comprehensive Liddell-Scott lexicon, where ὄλισβον is translated only as 'penis coriaceus', πέους as 'membrum uirile', ἀπεψωλημένος as 'praeputium retrahere alicui' (from: the Athenian delegate's desperate cry: ἐγὼ δ᾽ ἀπόλλυμαί γ᾽ ἀπεψωλημένος, rather nicely translated by Henderson as: "My cock is bursting out of its skin and killing me !"), and κύσθον as 'pudenda muliebria'. Henderson's forthright translations -- from tits to cunts -- can still feel slightly jarring, but for a translation that is meant to be close and faithful to the original (and with the original Greek printed on the facing pages) is the best solution; the oft-translated Lysistrata in any case already exists in many freer re-writings. This perhaps wouldn't be the first choice for a staged Lysistrata, but for someone reading it, especially with the original Greek, it fits the bill.
       A classic play, Lysistrata is not just bawdy but sharp as well, and the title-figure a particularly impressive invention. Written during the ongoing Peloponnesian War, it was also very much of the moment -- quite remarkably on the one hand and perhaps less so on the other, given how little it seems to have swayed or influenced any of the decision-makers of the time; it seems to have been appreciated merely as (absurdist ?) fantasy.
       An Introductory Note does concisely provide useful background and commentary, and there is some annotation, but this is a somewhat barebones edition; nevertheless, this presentation of the Greek original along with a very solid and direct translation makes for an entirely satisfactory edition of this classic play.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 June 2022

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Lysistrata: Reviews: 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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© 2022 the complete review

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