The Wasps

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    Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press

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(SCENE:-In the background is the house of PHILOCLEON, surrounded by a huge net. Two slaves are on guard, one of them asleep. On the roof is BDELYCLEON.)


Why, Xanthias! what are you doing, wretched man?


I am teaching myself how to rest; I have been awake and on watch the whole night.


So you want to earn trouble for your ribs, eh? Don't you know what sort of animal we are guarding here?


Aye indeed! but I want to put my cares to sleep for a while.

(He falls asleep again.)


Beware what you do. I too feel soft sleep spreading over my eyes,


Are you crazy, like a Corybant?


No! It's Bacchus who lulls me off.


Then you serve the same god as myself. just now a heavy slumber settled on my eyelids like a hostile Mede; I nodded and, faith! I had a wondrous dream.


Indeed! and so had I. A dream such as I never had before. But first tell me yours.


I saw an eagle, a gigantic bird, descend upon the market-place; it seized a brazen buckler with its talons and bore it away into the highest heavens; then I saw it was Cleonymus had thrown it away.


This Cleonymus is a riddle worth propounding among guests. How can one and the same animal have cast away his buckler both on land, in the sky and at sea?


Alas! what ill does such a dream portend for me?


Rest undisturbed! Please the gods, no evil will befall you.


Nevertheless, it's a fatal omen when a man throws away his weapons. But what was your dream? Let me hear.


Oh! it is a dream of high import. It has reference to the hull of the State; to nothing less.


Tell it to me quickly; show me its very keel.


In my first slumber I thought I saw sheep, wearing cloaks and carrying staves, met in assembly on the Pnyx; a rapacious whale was haranguing them and screaming like a pig that is being grilled.


The Wasps is the fourth in chronological order of the eleven surviving plays by Aristophanes, the master of an ancient genre of drama called 'Old Comedy'. It was produced at the Lenaia festival in 422 BC, a time when Athens was enjoying a brief respite from the Peloponnesian War following a one year truce with Sparta. As in his other early plays, Aristophanes pokes satirical fun at the demagogue Cleon, but in The Wasps he also ridicules one of the Athenian institutions that provided Cleon with his power base: the law courts. The play has been thought to exemplify the conventions of Old Comedy better than any other play, and it has been considered to be one of the world's greatest comedies.

Aristophanes (c. 446 BC – c. 386 BC), son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his thirty plays survive virtually complete. These, together with fragments of some of his other plays, provide the only real examples of a genre of comic drama known as Old Comedy, and they are used to define the genre Also known as the Father of Comedy and the Prince of Ancient Comedy, Aristophanes has been said to recreate the life of ancient Athens more convincingly than any other author. His powers of ridicule were feared and acknowledged by influential contemporaries; Plato singled out Aristophanes' playThe Clouds as slander that contributed to the trial and subsequent condemning to death of Socrates although other satirical playwrights had also caricatured the philosopher. His second play, The Babylonians (now lost), was denounced by the demagogue Cleon as a slander against the Athenian polis. It is possible that the case was argued in court but details of the trial are not recorded and Aristophanes caricatured Cleon mercilessly in his subsequent plays, especially The Knights, the first of many plays that he directed himself. "In my opinion," he says through the Chorus in that play, "the author-director of comedies has the hardest job of all."


What is the result?


We shall see. (He examines both urns.) Labes, you stand acquitted. (PHILOCLEON faints) Eh! father, what's the matter, what is it? (To slaves) Water! water! (To PHILOCLEON) Pull yourself together, sir!


Tell me! Is he really acquitted?


Yes, certainly.

PHILOCLEON (falling back)

Then it's all over with me!


Courage, dear father, don't let this afflict you so terribly.

PHILOCLEON (dolefully)

And so I have charged my conscience with the acquittal of an accused being! What will become of me? Sacred gods! forgive me. I did it despite myself; it is not in my character.


Do not vex yourself, father; I will feed you well, will take you everywhere to eat and drink with me; you shall go to every feast; henceforth your life shall be nothing but pleasure, and Hyperbolus shall no longer have you for a tool. But come, let us go in.

PHILOCLEON (resignedly)

So be it; if you will, let us go in.

(They all go into the house.)


Go where it pleases you and may your happiness be great. (The CHORUS turns and faces the audience.) You meanwhile, oh! countless myriads, listen to the sound counsels I am going to give you and take care they are not lost upon you. That would be the fate of vulgar spectators, not that of such an audience. Hence, people, lend me your ear, if you love frank speaking.

The poet has a reproach to make against his audience; he says you have ill-treated him in return for the many services he has rendered you. At first he kept himself in the background and lent help secretly to other poets, and like the prophetic Genius, who hid himself in the belly of Eurycles, slipped within the spirit of another and whispered to him many a comic hit. Later he ran the risks of the theatre on his own account, with his face uncovered, and dared to guide his Muse unaided. Though overladen with success and honours more than any of your poets, indeed despite all his glory, he does not yet believe he has attained his goal; his heart is not swollen with pride and he does not seek to seduce the young folk in the wrestling school. If any lover runs up to him to complain because he is furious at seeing the object of his passion derided on the stage, he takes no heed of such reproaches, for he is inspired only with honest motives and his Muse is no pander. From the very outset of his dramatic career he has disdained to assail those who were men, but with a courage worthy of Heracles himself he attacked the most formidable monsters, and at the beginning went straight for that beast with the sharp teeth, with the terrible eyes that flashed lambent fire like those of Cynna, surrounded by a hundred lewd flatterers who spittle-licked him to his heart's content; he had a voice like a roaring torrent, the stench of a seal, the unwashed balls of a Lamia, and the arse of a camel. Our poet did not tremble at the sight of this horrible monster, nor did he dream of gaining him over; and again this very day he is fighting for your good. Last year besides, he attacked those pale, shivering and feverish beings who strangled your fathers in the dark, throttled your grandfathers, and who, lying in the beds of the most inoffensive, piled up against them lawsuits, summonses and witnesses to such an extent, that many of them flew in terror to the Polemarch for refuge. Such is the champion you have found to purify your country of all its evil, and last year you betrayed him, when he sowed the most novel ideas, which, however, did not strike root, because you did not understand their value; notwithstanding this, he swears by Bacchus, the while offering him libations, that none ever heard better comic verses. It is a disgrace to you not to have caught their drift at once; as for the poet, he is none the less appreciated by the enlightened judges. He shivered his oars in rushing boldly forward to board his foe. (With increasing excitement) But in future, my dear fellow-citizens, love and honour more those of your poets who seek to imagine and express some new thought. Make their ideas your own, keep them in your caskets like sweet-scented fruit. If you do, your clothing will emit an odour of wisdom the whole year through.