Be careful though. Aristophanes is no feminist or advocate of equal rights. (That just isn't a thing in the ancient world.) Instead, he's parodying stereotypes about women and men. There might be a critique of assumptions about each gender here, but it's the playwright is more likely using those stereotypes to mount a critique of the Peloponnesian War. The basic message seems to be, "Well, the men have made a mess of this war. What if the women got involved?" His answer is ambiguous - it's not entirely clear how absurd he's being or how serious...
A few final notes.
- Please be aware that this text does a fair bit of sexual content--most of it is euphemisms, but there also a few not-so-euphemistic references to non-consensual sex.
- All of the roles in this comedy would have been played by men.
- This text looks long, but it's a quick read. Promise.
(SCENE: At the base of the Orchestra are two buildings, the house of LYSISTRATA and the entrance to the Acropolis; a winding and narrow path leads up to the latter. Between the two buildings is the opening of the Cave of Pan. LYSISTRATA is pacing up and down in front of her house.)
LYSISTRATA Ah! if only they had been invited to a Bacchic revelling, or a feast of Pan or Aphrodite or Genetyllis, why! the streets would have been impassable for the thronging tambourines!1 Now there's never a woman here-ah! except my neighbour Cleonice, whom I see approaching yonder.... Good day, Cleonice.
CLEONICE Good day, Lysistrata; but pray, why this dark, forbidding face, my dear? Believe me, you don't look a bit pretty with those black lowering brows.
LYSISTRATA Oh, Cleonice, my heart is on fire; I blush for our sex. Men will have it we are tricky and sly....
CLEONICE And they are quite right, upon my word!
LYSISTRATA Yet, look you, when the women are summoned to meet for a matter of the greatest importance, they lie in bed instead of coming.
CLEONICE Oh! they will come, my dear; but it's not easy, you know, for women to leave the house. One is busy pottering about her husband; another is getting the servant up; a third is putting her child asleep or washing the brat or feeding it.
LYSISTRATA But I tell you, the business that calls them here is far and away more urgent.
CLEONICE And why do you summon us, dear Lysistrata? What is it all about?
LYSISTRATA About a big thing.
CLEONICE (wearily) And is it thick too?
LYSISTRATA Yes, very thick.2
CLEONICE And we are not all on the spot! Imagine!
LYSISTRATA (wearily) Oh! if it were what you suppose, there would be never an absentee. No, no, it concerns a thing I have turned about and about this way and that so many sleepless nights.
CLEONICE (still unable to be serious) It must be something mighty fine and subtle for you to have turned it about so!
LYSISTRATA So fine, it means just this, Greece saved by the women!
CLEONICE By the women! Why, its salvation hangs on a poor thread then!
LYSISTRATA Our country's fortunes depend on us-it is with us to undo utterly the Peloponnesians.
CLEONICE That would be a noble deed truly!
LYSISTRATA To exterminate the Boeotians to a man!3
CLEONICE But surely you would spare the eels.4
LYSISTRATA For Athens' sake I will never threaten so fell a doom; trust me for that. However, if the Boeotian and Peloponnesian women join us, Greece is saved.
CLEONICE But how should women perform so wise and glorious an achievement, we women who dwell in the retirement of the household, clad in diaphanous garments of yellow silk and long flowing gowns, decked out with flowers and shod with dainty little slippers?
LYSISTRATA Ah, but those are the very sheet-anchors of our salvation-those yellow tunics, those scents and slippers, those cosmetics and transparent robes.
CLEONICE How so, pray?
LYSISTRATA There is not a man will wield a lance against another...
CLEONICE Quick, I will get me a yellow tunic from the dyer's.
LYSISTRATA ...or want a shield.
CLEONICE I'll run and put on a flowing gown.
LYSISTRATA ...or draw a sword.
CLEONICE I'll haste and buy a pair of slippers this instant.
LYSISTRATA Now tell me, would not the women have done best to come?
CLEONICE Why, they should have flown here!
LYSISTRATA Ah! my dear, you'll see that like true Athenians, they will do everything too late.... Why, there's not a woman come from the shore, not one from Salamis.5
CLEONICE But I know for certain they embarked at daybreak.
LYSISTRATA And the dames from Acharnae! why, I thought they would have been the very first to arrive.
CLEONICE Theagenes' wife at any rate is sure to come; she has actually been to consult Hecate.... But look! here are some arrivals-and there are more behind. Ah! ha! now what countrywomen may they be?6
LYSISTRATA They are from Anagyra.
CLEONICE Yes! upon my word, 'tis a levy en masse of all the female population of Anagyra! (MYRRHINE enters, followed by other women.)
MYRRHINE Are we late, Lysistrata? Tell us, pray; what, not a word?
LYSISTRATA I cannot say much for you, Myrrhine! You have not bestirred yourself overmuch for an affair of such urgency.
MYRRHINE I could not find my girdle in the dark. However, if the matter is so pressing, here we are; so speak.
CLEONICE No, let's wait a moment more, till the women of Boeotia arrive and those from the Peloponnese.
LYSISTRATA Yes, that is best.... Ah! here comes Lampito. (LAMPITO, a husky Spartan damsel, enters with three others, two from Boeotia and one from Corinth.) Good day, Lampito, dear friend from Lacedaemon.7 How well and handsome you look! what a rosy complexion! and how strong you seem; why, you could strangle a bull surely!
LAMPITO Yes, indeed, I really think I could. It's because I do gymnastics and practise the bottom-kicking dance.8
CLEONICE (opening LAMPITO'S robe and baring her bosom) And what superb breasts!
LAMPITO La! you are feeling me as if I were a beast for sacrifice.
LYSISTRATA And this young woman, where is she from?
LAMPITO She is a noble lady from Boeotia.
LYSISTRATA Ah! my pretty Boeotian friend, you are as blooming as a garden.
CLEONICE (making another inspection) Yes, on my word! and her "garden" is so thoroughly weeded too!
LYSISTRATA (pointing to the Corinthian) And who is this?
LAMPITO 'Tis an honest woman, by my faith! She comes from Corinth.
CLEONICE Oh! honest, no doubt then-as honesty goes at Corinth.
LAMPITO But who has called together this council of women, pray?
LYSISTRATA I have.
LAMPITO Well then, tell us what you want of us.
CLEONICE Yes, please tell us! What is this very important business you wish to inform us about?
LYSISTRATA I will tell you. But first answer me one question.
CLEONICE Anything you wish.
LYSISTRATA Don't you feel sad and sorry because the fathers of your children are far away from you with the army? For I'll wager there is not one of you whose husband is not abroad at this moment.
CLEONICE Mine has been the last five months in Thrace-looking after Eucrates.
MYRRHINE It's seven long months since mine left for Pylos.
LAMPITO As for mine, if he ever does return from service, he's no sooner home than he takes down his shield again and flies back to the wars.
LYSISTRATA And not so much as the shadow of a lover! Since the day the Milesians betrayed us, I have never once seen an eight-inch gadget even, to be a leathern consolation to us poor widows....9 Now tell me, if I have discovered a means of ending the war, will you all second me?
CLEONICE Yes verily, by all the goddesses, I swear I will, though I have to put my gown in pawn, and drink the money the same day.
MYRRHINE And so will I, though I must be split in two like a flat-fish, and have half myself removed.
LAMPITO And I too; why to secure peace, I would climb to the top of Mount Taygetus.
LYSISTRATA Then I will out with it at last, my mighty secret! Oh! sister women, if we would compel our husbands to make peace, we must refrain...
CLEONICE Refrain from what? tell us, tell us!
LYSISTRATA But will you do it?
MYRRHINE We will, we will, though we should die of it.
LYSISTRATA We must refrain from the male altogether.... Nay, why do you turn your backs on me? Where are you going? So, you bite your lips, and shake your heads, eh? Why these pale, sad looks? why these tears? Come, will you do it-yes or no? Do you hesitate?
CLEONICE I will not do it, let the war go on.
MYRRHINE Nor will I; let the war go on.
LYSISTRATA (to MYRRHINE) And you say this, my pretty flat-fish, who declared just now they might split you in two?
CLEONICE Anything, anything but that! Bid me go through the fire, if you will,-but to rob us of the sweetest thing in all the world, Lysistrata darling!
LYSISTRATA (to MYRRHINE) And you?
MYRRHINE Yes, I agree with the others; I too would sooner go through the fire.
LYSISTRATA Oh, wanton, vicious sex! the poets have done well to make tragedies upon us; we are good for nothing then but love and lewdness! But you, my dear, you from hardy Sparta, if you join me, all may yet be well; help me, second me, I beg you.
LAMPITO 'Tis a hard thing, by the two goddesses it is! for a woman to sleep alone without ever a strong male in her bed. But there, peace must come first.
LYSISTRATA Oh, my darling, my dearest, best friend, you are the only one deserving the name of woman!
CLEONICE But if-which the gods forbid-we do refrain altogether from what you say, should we get peace any sooner?
LYSISTRATA Of course we should, by the goddesses twain! We need only sit indoors with painted cheeks, and meet our mates lightly clad in transparent gowns of Amorgos silk, and perfectly depilated; they will get their tools up and be wild to lie with us. That will be the time to refuse, and they will hasten to make peace, I am convinced of that!10
LAMPITO Yes, just as Menelaus, when he saw Helen's naked bosom, threw away his sword, they say.
CLEONICE But, oh dear, suppose our husbands go away and leave us.
LYSISTRATA Then, as Pherecrates says, we must "flay a skinned dog," that's all.
CLEONICE Fiddlesticks! these proverbs are all idle talk.... But if our husbands drag us by main force into the bedchamber?
LYSISTRATA Hold on to the door posts.
CLEONICE But if they beat us?
LYSISTRATA Then yield to their wishes, but with a bad grace; there is no pleasure in it for them, when they do it by force. Besides, there are a thousand ways of tormenting them. Never fear, they'll soon tire of the game; there's no satisfaction for a man, unless the woman shares it.
CLEONICE Very well, if you must have it so, we agree.
LAMPITO For ourselves, no doubt we shall persuade our husbands to conclude a fair and honest peace; but there is the Athenian populace, how are we to cure these folk of their warlike frenzy?
LYSISTRATA Have no fear; we undertake to make our own people listen to reason.
LAMPITO That's impossible, so long as they have their trusty ships and the vast treasures stored in the temple of Athene.
LYSISTRATA Ah! but we have seen to that; this very day the Acropolis will be in our hands. That is the task assigned to the older women; while we are here in council, they are going, under pretence of offering sacrifice, to seize the citadel.11
LAMPITO Well said indeed! everything is going for the best.
LYSISTRATA Come, quick, Lampito, and let us bind ourselves by an inviolable oath.
LAMPITO Recite the terms; we will swear to them.
LYSISTRATA With pleasure. Where is our Scythian policewoman? Now, what are you staring at, pray? Lay this shield on the earth before us, its hollow upwards, and someone bring me the victim's inwards.12
CLEONICE Lysistrata, say, what oath are we to swear?
LYSISTRATA What oath? Why, in Aeschylus, they sacrifice a sheep, and swear over a buckler; we will do the same.
CLEONICE No, Lysistrata, one cannot swear peace over a buckler, surely.
LYSISTRATA What other oath do you prefer?
CLEONICE Let's take a white horse, and sacrifice it, and swear on its entrails.
LYSISTRATA But where shall we get a white horse?
CLEONICE Well, what oath shall we take then?
LYSISTRATA Listen to me. Let's set a great black bowl on the ground; let's sacrifice a skin of Thasian wine into it, and take oath not to add one single drop of water.
LAMPITO Ah! that's an oath pleases me more than I can say.
LYSISTRATA Let them bring me a bowl and a skin of wine.
CLEONICE Ah! my dears, what a noble big bowl! what fun it will be to empty it
LYSISTRATA Set the bowl down on the ground, and lay your hands on the victim. ....Almighty goddess, Persuasion, and thou, bowl, boon comrade of joy and merriment, receive this our sacrifice, and be propitious to us poor women!
CLEONICE (as LYSISTRATA pours the wine into the bowl) Oh! the fine red blood! how well it flows!
LAMPITO And what a delicious bouquet, by Castor!
CLEONICE Now, my dears, let me swear first, if you please.
LYSISTRATA No, by Aphrodite, unless it's decided by lot. But come, then, Lampito, and all of you, put your hands to the bowl; and do you, Cleonice, repeat for all the rest the solemn terms I am going to recite. Then you must all swear, and pledge yourselves by the same promises,-I will have naught to do whether with lover or husband...
CLEONICE (faintly) I will have naught to do whether with lover or husband...
LYSISTRATA Albeit he come to me with an erection...
CLEONICE (her voice quavering) Albeit he come to me with an erection... (in despair) Oh! Lysistrata, I cannot bear it!
LYSISTRATA (ignoring this outburst) I will live at home unbulled...
CLEONICE I will live at home unbulled...
LYSISTRATA Beautifully dressed and wearing a saffron-coloured gown
CLEONICE Beautifully dressed and wearing a saffron-coloured gown...
LYSISTRATA To the end I may inspire my husband with the most ardent longings.
CLEONICE To the end I may inspire my husband with the most ardent longings.
LYSISTRATA Never will I give myself voluntarily...
CLEONICE Never will I give myself voluntarily...
LYSISTRATA And if he has me by force...
CLEONICE And if he has me by force...
LYSISTRATA I will be cold as ice, and never stir a limb...
CLEONICE I will be cold as ice, and never stir a limb...
LYSISTRATA I will neither extend my Persian slippers toward the ceiling...
CLEONICE I will neither extend my Persian slippers toward the ceiling...
LYSISTRATA Nor will I crouch like the carven lions on a knife-handle.
CLEONICE Nor will I crouch like the carven lions on a knife-handle.
LYSISTRATA And if I keep my oath, may I be suffered to drink of this wine.
CLEONICE (more courageously) And if I keep my oath, may I be suffered to drink of this wine.
LYSISTRATA But if I break it, let my bowl be filled with water.
CLEONICE But if I break it, let my bowl be filled with water.
LYSISTRATA Will you all take this oath? ALL We do.
LYSISTRATA Then I'll now consume this remnant. (She drinks.)
CLEONICE (reaching for the cup) Enough, enough, my dear; now let us all drink in turn to cement our friendship. (They pass the cup around and all drink. A great commotion is heard off stage.)
LAMPITO Listen! what do those cries mean?
LYSISTRATA It's what I was telling you; the women have just occupied the Acropolis. So now, Lampito, you return to Sparta to organize the plot, while your comrades here remain as hostages. For ourselves, let us go and join the rest in the citadel, and let us push the bolts well home.
CLEONICE But don't you think the men will march up against us?
LYSISTRATA I laugh at them. Neither threats nor flames shall force our doors; they shall open only on the conditions I have named.
CLEONICE Yes, yes, by Aphrodite; otherwise we should be called cowardly and wretched women. (She follows LYSISTRATA out.)
(The scene shifts to the entrance of the Acropolis. The CHORUS OF OLD MEN slowly enters, carrying faggots [stacks of wood] and pots of fire.)
- A reference to religious festivals that encouraged the public to attend theater and dance productions - and to consume large quantities of wine. ↩
- Like I said. Euphemisms... ↩
- A myriad of cities are mentioned in the text. This study guide helpfully compiled this quick reference guide:
Athens: Greece ancient city-state in mainland Greece
Acharnae (or Acharnes): suburb of Athens
Peloponnesus (or Peloponesos, Pelopónnisos Peloponnese, Argos): Peninsula making up southern Greece.
Sparta (or Lacedaemon): the capital of the Laconia region of southern Greece. Pylos: city in southwestern Greece on the Peloponnesus Boeotia: region northwest of Athens. Thebes: city in Boeotia. Corinth: city in northeastern Peloponnesus: Anagyra: town on the island of Cyprus Thrace: region in northeastern Greece and now part of Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey ↩
- Eels were a luxury food to the Athenians. ↩
- A Greek city-state, frequently a battle site in the Greco-Persian Wars. The Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE, a victory for the Greeks, produced an era of greater peace for the Peloponnesian city-states. ↩
- A minor Greek goddess of a great many things - including crossroads, entrance-ways, magic, and sorcery. ↩
- Another name for the city of Sparta. ↩
- Spartan women, in some translations of the text, speak their lines in a local, rural dialect to emphasize their supposedly backwater, uncivilized nature - at least according to the Athenians. ↩
- There's no subtler way to put this. This is a reference to a dildo. ↩
- The concept of women withholding sex from their male partners to force the resolution of poltical or social issues has become a trope in Western literature and films - most recently in a Spike Lee film, Chi-Raq, in which women organize a sex-strike in response to gang violence in a Chicago south-side neighborhood. ↩
- Lysistrata's plan has two parts - the older women will take over the Acropolis, the seat of politics and business in Athens, in order to shut down the local economy and therefore funding for the war. The younger women will proceed with their plan to deny their husbands sex until the war is ended. ↩
- "The victim" is a sacrificial animal in most ancient cultures. ↩