Making Comedy of the court-system in The WaspsOld comedies are not derived from the traditional Greek mythologicaland legendary elements; rather they are the very fabrications of the comicpoet himself typically involving the current social issues of the specifictime. They are a mixture of good humor, audacious and malevolent satire,wit and freedom of political and social criticisms.
They are also quitesimilar in structure, containing three main traditional elements: theingredients, the arrangement and the dynamic. Aristophanes exemplifies allthese characteristics in his humorous comedy The Wasps, as he satirizes thepresent court system in Athens. The central characters in the play areonce again a father and son figure, Philocleon (in favor of Cleon) andBdelycleon (detester of Cleon). This instantaneously demonstrates thequick wit of Aristophanes as he is attempting to poke fun at Cleon, a pro-democratic politician of the time.
This is very common in all ofAristophanes’ comedies. There is always an important social or politicalfigure mocked, another example being Socrates in The Clouds. Since Cleonis the main figure to be mocked, the audience can hence foresee that thiscomedy will be centrally based around the current court system and the jury-men’s love for these litigations.We are first introduced to Philocleon by Xanthias, a slave ofPhilocleon, in his address to the audience. We are told that judging isPhilocleon’s hobby and that “he is so accustomed to hold the ballotingpebble, that he awakes with his three fingers pinched together as if hewere offering incense to the new moon (www.
textkit.com/files/the_wasps.pdf)” As well, the audience also gets privy to the knowledge that he is amerciless judge and his son has locked him up in order to prevent him fromgoing out and judging. When Philocleon comes into the scene, he is makingridiculous attempts to escape in order to get to the tribunals.
Theseattempts are quite comical, for example, he pretends to be the smoke comingout of the chimney. This allows us to see how insane Philocleon is aboutjudging and permits us to first see Aristophanes’ view on the lunacy of thejurymen themselves. We also see Aristophanes’ comical interpretation ofthe jurymen when the chorus enters the scene. They are representing theother jurymen coming to get Philocleon. However, they are depicted aswasps and in fact come into scene dressed up as wasps. This is meant tofoolishly show how addicted these men are to the court proceedings, whoswarm outside the tribunal in hopes of getting picked for one of the day’strials. They are not men of real justice; rather they are men who havesimply become addicted to judging. This gives us real insight into how thecourt systems worked.
Aristophanes’ wished to display what a farce thecourt system was. There was no real justice done, the only justice wasthat through these jurymen’s blind eyes for conviction. In fact,Philocleon compares himself and the other jurymen to a king in asking ifthere was anyone whose might was greater than theirs.
He also voices thatif “A father on his death-bed names some husband for his daughter, who ishis sole heir; but we care little for his will or for the shell so solemnlyplaced over the seal; we give the young maiden to him who has best knownhow to secure our wavour (www.textkit.com/files/the_wasps.pdf.)” This inturn shows the utter disregard for the laws of the city by the jurymen.They rule according to what they see as best fit, despite what the lawsmight say and despite the actual best-fitted situation. Once again, thisoffers an amusing insight into the jurymen’s minds and the court system asa whole. With such an absolute disregard of the law, and a virtually slimto none chance of acquittal, Aristophanes desires to demonstrate that therereally is no need of such a court system.
What is the point of justice,laws and a court system if they are not to be upheld or can easily bedisregarded at the jurymen’s discretion. Aristophanes is in turnexpressing that there is no need for a court system with such customs andbeliefs.Perhaps the most ludicrous and comical scene displaying Aristophanes’view on the court system begins when Bdelycleon wins in the debate over hisfather and suggests Philocleon set up a court at home. Most would findthis ridiculous and humorous, however, Philocleon responds in claiming thatthe prophecies he has heard are coming true and that soon every Atheniancitizen would have a court set up in their home. If everyone was to have acourt at home, there would be virtually nothing to bring to court sinceeveryone would be more preoccupied with the court itself rather thancommitting any crime. As well, in turn the trials that would be held wouldmost likely more farcical then the idea for a home based court-systemitself as is later portrayed in the comedy. Aristophanes’ satire of thecourt system continues to prevail in the describing of the objectsPhilocleon is handed to complete his court.
Firstly, he is given a thunder-mug should the time arise where he has to urinate. He is then handed somelentils and a fire should he get hungry and a cock is present “should youdoze during some pleading, he may awaken you by crowing up there(www.textkit.com/files/the_wasps.pdf).” Undoubtedly, all of these objectsare unnecessary in the court and it simply reiterates the fact thatPhilocleon should not be judging in the first place.
A court system thatallows a judge to fall asleep during trial is completely preposterous. Toofurther reaffirm this satirical portrait of the Athenian courts,Aristophanes begins to exhibit Philocleon’s first trial. However, thiscourt case is unlike anything one might imagine. The trial has been heldto prosecute a dog for the theft of a piece of cheese.
This comicallydisplays the point that the court system is a mockery and there really isno need for many of the cases that are presented. As well, before any ofthe arguments are heard Philocleon has already prejudged the defendant andhas agreed upon a guilty verdict. Again, Aristophanes wishes to presentthat this is quite typical in the court system at the time and he laughablyexpresses this in Philocleon’s words. However, the humor not only lies inthe words of the characters themselves but in the actions presented aswell. As part of the trial, Philocleon asks the witnesses of the act tocome forward. These witnesses, however, are a plate, a pestle, a cheeseknife, a brazier, a stew-pot and other half-burnt utensils and later addingto this scene of comedy, Philocleon then asks the grating knife to comeforward and asks it a question. This again demonstrates the lunacy thatlies within Philocleon, who is supposed to be a representative of the law.To further satirize the courts in Athens, Aristophanes then has Philocleoneasily deceived into giving a non-guilty verdict, despite the fact a guiltyverdict was already decided upon.
This was accomplished in the simplest ofways as well. Bdelycleon merely gets Philocleon to place his voting pebblein the not-guilty urn. Being so distraught by this verdict Philocleon thenproceeds to give up judging all together. He cannot bear to continue afterletting an accused go free and agrees to the life that his son has wishedfor him. However, this life has left Philocleon being nothing more than adrunk and ironically he almost gets prosecuted himself.
Aristophanes The Wasps is an excellent comedic portrayal of the courtsystem present in Athens. He wished to express the corruption of thesystem, the ludicrous claims and cases, the undying love of litigation bythe jurymen and the overall lack of justice itself. Through Philocleon, ajuryman, Aristophanes accomplishes all of this. First with his refusal toacquit any accused defendant, then his refusal to quit judging, thedecision upon a home based court, and lastly with the ludicrous trialitself.