Making Comedy of the court-system in The Wasps
Old comedies are not derived from the traditional Greek mythological
and legendary elements; rather they are the very fabrications of the comic
poet himself typically involving the current social issues of the specific
time. They are a mixture of good humor, audacious and malevolent satire,
wit and freedom of political and social criticisms. They are also quite
similar in structure, containing three main traditional elements: the
ingredients, the arrangement and the dynamic. Aristophanes exemplifies all
these characteristics in his humorous comedy The Wasps, as he satirizes the
present court system in Athens. The central characters in the play are
once again a father and son figure, Philocleon (in favor of Cleon) and
Bdelycleon (detester of Cleon). This instantaneously demonstrates the
quick 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 of
Aristophanes’ comedies. There is always an important social or political
figure mocked, another example being Socrates in The Clouds. Since Cleon
is the main figure to be mocked, the audience can hence foresee that this
comedy 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 of
Philocleon, in his address to the audience. We are told that judging is
Philocleon’s hobby and that “he is so accustomed to hold the balloting
pebble, that he awakes with his three fingers pinched together as if he
were offering incense to the new moon (
)” As well, the audience also gets privy to the knowledge that he is a
merciless judge and his son has locked him up in order to prevent him from
going out and judging. When Philocleon comes into the scene, he is making
ridiculous attempts to escape in order to get to the tribunals. These
attempts are quite comical, for example, he pretends to be the smoke coming
out of the chimney. This allows us to see how insane Philocleon is about
judging and permits us to first see Aristophanes’ view on the lunacy of the
jurymen themselves. We also see Aristophanes’ comical interpretation of
the jurymen when the chorus enters the scene. They are representing the
other jurymen coming to get Philocleon. However, they are depicted as
wasps and in fact come into scene dressed up as wasps. This is meant to
foolishly show how addicted these men are to the court proceedings, who
swarm outside the tribunal in hopes of getting picked for one of the day’s
trials. They are not men of real justice; rather they are men who have
simply become addicted to judging. This gives us real insight into how the
court systems worked. Aristophanes’ wished to display what a farce the
court system was. There was no real justice done, the only justice was
that through these jurymen’s blind eyes for conviction. In fact,
Philocleon compares himself and the other jurymen to a king in asking if
there was anyone whose might was greater than theirs. He also voices that
if “A father on his death-bed names some husband for his daughter, who is
his sole heir; but we care little for his will or for the shell so solemnly
placed over the seal; we give the young maiden to him who has best known
how to secure our wavour (” This in
turn shows the utter disregard for the laws of the city by the jurymen.

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They rule according to what they see as best fit, despite what the laws
might say and despite the actual best-fitted situation. Once again, this
offers an amusing insight into the jurymen’s minds and the court system as
a whole. With such an absolute disregard of the law, and a virtually slim
to none chance of acquittal, Aristophanes desires to demonstrate that there
really 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 be
disregarded at the jurymen’s discretion. Aristophanes is in turn
expressing that there is no need for a court system with such customs and

Perhaps the most ludicrous and comical scene displaying Aristophanes’
view on the court system begins when Bdelycleon wins in the debate over his
father and suggests Philocleon set up a court at home. Most would find
this ridiculous and humorous, however, Philocleon responds in claiming that
the prophecies he has heard are coming true and that soon every Athenian
citizen would have a court set up in their home. If everyone was to have a
court at home, there would be virtually nothing to bring to court since
everyone would be more preoccupied with the court itself rather than
committing any crime. As well, in turn the trials that would be held would
most likely more farcical then the idea for a home based court-system
itself as is later portrayed in the comedy. Aristophanes’ satire of the
court system continues to prevail in the describing of the objects
Philocleon 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 some
lentils and a fire should he get hungry and a cock is present “should you
doze during some pleading, he may awaken you by crowing up there
(” Undoubtedly, all of these objects
are unnecessary in the court and it simply reiterates the fact that
Philocleon should not be judging in the first place. A court system that
allows a judge to fall asleep during trial is completely preposterous. Too
further reaffirm this satirical portrait of the Athenian courts,
Aristophanes begins to exhibit Philocleon’s first trial. However, this
court case is unlike anything one might imagine. The trial has been held
to prosecute a dog for the theft of a piece of cheese. This comically
displays the point that the court system is a mockery and there really is
no need for many of the cases that are presented. As well, before any of
the arguments are heard Philocleon has already prejudged the defendant and
has agreed upon a guilty verdict. Again, Aristophanes wishes to present
that this is quite typical in the court system at the time and he laughably
expresses this in Philocleon’s words. However, the humor not only lies in
the words of the characters themselves but in the actions presented as
well. As part of the trial, Philocleon asks the witnesses of the act to
come forward. These witnesses, however, are a plate, a pestle, a cheese
knife, a brazier, a stew-pot and other half-burnt utensils and later adding
to this scene of comedy, Philocleon then asks the grating knife to come
forward and asks it a question. This again demonstrates the lunacy that
lies within Philocleon, who is supposed to be a representative of the law.

To further satirize the courts in Athens, Aristophanes then has Philocleon
easily deceived into giving a non-guilty verdict, despite the fact a guilty
verdict was already decided upon. This was accomplished in the simplest of
ways as well. Bdelycleon merely gets Philocleon to place his voting pebble
in the not-guilty urn. Being so distraught by this verdict Philocleon then
proceeds to give up judging all together. He cannot bear to continue after
letting an accused go free and agrees to the life that his son has wished
for him. However, this life has left Philocleon being nothing more than a
drunk and ironically he almost gets prosecuted himself.

Aristophanes The Wasps is an excellent comedic portrayal of the court
system present in Athens. He wished to express the corruption of the
system, the ludicrous claims and cases, the undying love of litigation by
the jurymen and the overall lack of justice itself. Through Philocleon, a
juryman, Aristophanes accomplishes all of this. First with his refusal to
acquit any accused defendant, then his refusal to quit judging, the
decision upon a home based court, and lastly with the ludicrous trial