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The theme of restraint and agency in Aristophanes’ lysistrata

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Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a play full of possibilities and contradictions. It is marked by the fact that the title of the play spells out the lead character of the play, a female. Furthermore, it portrays the women of Athens as teaming up with the women of Sparta to force their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War. This was fantastical, of course in the Athens of 411 BC. The women didn’t have a vote. They had no say in the matters of the state.

They could not walk out into the city streets without their husband or a slave moving around with them. Even as this play was being performed most probably in the Lenaia with women thrashing down men in all fields possible, the actors were all male, the audience completely devoid of women and the plot a comic impossibility, a fantasy. The relationship between restraint and agency is clearly placed in the very backdrop of the play. It is a society where women are restrained and lack agency altogether.

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The play bases itself on the idea that the women attempt to end the war by capitalizing on their sexuality. This seems to posit several important points about the nature of war and the concept of agency. Lysistrata is about sex, but it is also about gender, war, and the construction of masculinity and femininity. It was a subversive text, as it presented a challenge to men’s authority that otherwise remained unchallenged.

Many Shades of Restraint and Agency.

Restraint or the act of restraining acquires various meanings in the plot and subplots of the play. Accordingly, since agency shares an integral relationship with restraint, it also responds through various shades as action moves along. The chorus of old men complain about the indecency of women to the magistrate. The magistrate in turn answers, Bring me a crowbar, and I’ll chastise with this their impertinence. (Aristophanes, Lysistrata; 387)

Here it can be seen as the act of controlling by restraining someone or something in violation of a set norm. The magistrate reacts to the situation by enforcing the agency of law bestowed upon him by the state. The state is governed by a patriarchal mind-set which supports the war. Women, with their sex strike try to move themselves away from this law which does not suit them. Hence, they seize the Acropolis and establish their control over it. In a way, the Acropolis is their new state. The threat of chastisement is rendered empty when Lysistrata opens the gates of Acropolis on her own and tells them there is no use of force. As she does not recognise his authority over her anymore, she has nothing to fear of him. Magistrate greets her by asking his men to handcuff her, Indeed, you slut! Where is the archer now?

Arrest this woman, tie her hands behind.
(Aristophanes, Lysistrata; 895)

Here, restraint is seen as the state of being physically constrained. Failure of Magistrate’s first attempt of exercising his authority over Lysistrata results into a second, more desperate effort. Only this time it is physical in nature. Lysistrata’s responses are equally aggressive. She warns them against so far as touching her. Through this action Lysistrata makes it clear to the Magistrate and his men that she is not a subject to his agency any more. Rather, by refuting/restraining his agency she establishes the dominance of her agency over him. Restraint is also seen as lack of ornamentation. It is a deterrent against going overboard. The women are successful in their endeavour of asserting their demands and ending the war. They are noticed by men for the importance they hold in society. But it is also noticeable that they restrain themselves from crossing a certain limit, a line, a point of no return.

The subversion is not carried all the way and hence is not all that threatening. But the idea and along with it the fear of upsetting the social order has already been conveyed. The possibility of there being a chink in the armour allows the women agency to further explore it. Away from the fantastical realm of the play, restraint was primarily used as a rule or condition that limited freedom. This defined the general status of women in the times the play was enacted. The shock, the laughs, the humor, the unacceptable theory of women gaining agency, all emerge as a response to this. There was no concept of gender equality. In fact, the supremacy of men over women was seen as a divine order and hence irrefutable. The agency exercised by men over women was absolute. So much that Lysistrata quotes, “Mind your own business,” he’d answer me growlingly

“hold your tongue, woman, or else go away.”
And so I would hold it.
(Aristophanes; lysistrata; 486)

Lastly, restraint as the ability to control or moderate one’s impulses and passions forms the foundation of the play. Through restricting their urge of sexual desires can they gain agency and put things the way they ought to be. It is evident in the following dialogues, CALONICE

Anything else? O bid me walk in fire
But do not rob us of that darling joy.
What else is like it, dearest Lysistrata?

LYSISTRATA
And you?

MYRRHINE
O please give me the fire instead.

LYSISTRATA
Lewd to the least drop in the tiniest vein,
Our sex is fitly food for Tragic Poets,
Our whole life’s but a pile of kisses and babies.
But, hardy Spartan, if you join with me
All may be righted yet. O help me, help me.
(Aristophanes; lysistrata; 130)

The Relationship between Restraint and Agency.

In this play, the first act of agency is women choosing to restrain themselves or in other words, going on a sex strike. The question then arises, why did women choose to go on a sex strike and why not anything else? It is important to understand that in the society this play is based on, it is only sex where men are equally dependent upon women. Otherwise, everything else can be substituted for. Men know that they can do without war, but it would be difficult to go on without women or sex. Hence it is this that the women use against men. They capitalize on their sexuality and turn it against them. They cut out the basic needs thereby trying to make them realise the futility of war which is not at all necessary. From a women’s perspective, this strike is a very crucial move for an opportunity of having a better life. In the debate between the Magistrate and Lysistrata, we are introduced to women sexuality having a shelf life.

LYSISTRATA
Then while we should be companioned still merrily, happy as brides may, the livelong night,
Kissing youth by, we are forced to lie single…. But leave for a moment our pitiful plight,
It hurts even more to behold the poor maidens helpless wrinkling in staler virginity.

MAGISTRATE
Does not a man age?

LYSISTRATA
Not in the same way. Not as a woman grows withered, grows he. He, when returned from the war, though grey-headed, yet
if he wishes can choose out a wife.
But she has no solace save peering for omens, wretched and
lonely the rest of her life.
(Aristophanes, Lysistrata, 551)

The lament of the women seems to be justified. If they don’t marry in their youth, men won’t favour them even if they get a little older. If they are not taken now, they’ll never have the pleasures of a married life. With the prolonged absence of men due to the war, they are unwillingly subjected to celibacy. They have no control over their own life. Therefore, they lack agency. The women also know that only by coming together can they make a difference. One woman abstaining from sex will make no difference. But all of them doing the same will. Pulling away a basic necessity will make the men realise their importance and bring them back to their beds. Only then can they hope for a better married life for themselves. Also, restraining from sex poses another problem for men, war and the society at large. It has been established that the society the play portrays is a highly patriarchal society.

It needs men to run it (though Lysistrata does present a completely different model later). Women abstaining from sex bring about a rupture between the present and the future of the society. No sex will lead to nil reproduction which will mean a lack of able men sometime in the future. This is a direct threat to the survival of the society which primarily bases itself on patriarchy and cannot imagine anything else apart from it. The threat is mirrored in following dialogue, Is there no one to help us, no saviour in Athens?” and, “No, there is Not one,” come back in reply.

(Aristophanes, Lysistrata)

The men, who consider themselves central to the society feel threatened as well and hence have no other option but to make truce. In order to retain their agency over the state, they have to restrain from war and bow down the women’s agency.

But is withholding sex enough to draw men back from the battle field? Sex does seem to have an effect but it is also to be kept in mind that the war has been going on for 20 years now. The Sicilian disaster at hand has shaken up the army. Also when the play was performed, Athens was on the verge of losing the war to Sparta. If only that was not enough, men weighed their whole life with honour. Explicit examples of this can be found in the myths (Iliad) prevalent in their society. Honour could be only earned in the battle field. Lysistrata, at its background, presents a scenario where the private and the domestic are turned inside out by the prolonged wars and domestic negligence. Athens is in a state of alarm. In such a situation, this behaviour of women will not be tolerated and dismissed as something immature, lustful sexual escapades. So what allows the men to tolerate this?

Why would they give up everything to succumb to the demands of their women? Perhaps these were the very questions that led to the capture of Acropolis by women. Sparta had an upper hand in the war. It was more powerful than Athens on land as well as the sea. Athens on the other hand was more rich and resourceful. It could hire soldiers to fight for it. They funded this war from the reserves which were stored up in the Acropolis. Women’s capture of the acropolis leaves them with more agency than ever. They are in charge of the war now. Men do not have a say in it because they do not have the charge of Acropolis anymore. Since the money is not being channelled to fund the navy or the armoury, the men cannot afford the war anymore. With the prospect of war removed from their occupation, sex is the diversion available to. But here as well they are left with nothing. The women are on a sex-strike! In such a situation, men have no other alternative to but accept women’s authority who clearly have an upper hand now. This gives us the two main strands of the plot. Sex strike: restraint; seizure of acropolis: agency.

In the words of David Konstan (reviewed),
“The sexual theme is just an attention-grabber. … [T]he comedy neatly inverts spaces and boundaries — the women turn the city into an extended household and seize control of the actual polis — not as “intruders” but as reconcilers and healers. He [sc. Konstan] demonstrates how the women’s visions and concepts surpass the fractious politics and warfare of the men.” (BMCR review of David Konstan’s Greek Comedy and Ideology.)

Through the Characters.

The relationship between restraint and agency can be well traced through a close analysis of the characters in the play. To begin with, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to regard Lysistrata as the female protagonist who is most restrained and exercises most agency in effect. She was the progenitor of the idea of the sex strike. It is generally difficult to believe in an idea which is ridiculed by the society. Lysistrata, on the other hand internalises it. The internal strife she wouldn’t felt before going public with the idea can only be imagined. Furthermore, the response of her
followers on being introduced to the idea is exemplary of how difficult it is for women to renounce sex (in the realm of the play).

In his famous Chariot Allegory, Plato describes the soul as a charioteer (Reason), and two winged horses: one white (‘spiritedness’, the irascible, boldness 😉 and one black (concupiscence, the appetitive, desire). The goal is to ascend to divine heights — but the black horse poses problems. Lysistrata faces the same duality. Being a woman portrayed with certain stereotypes she has to restrain herself from her desires as well as keep others from falling prey to the same desire. She inspires her followers to assist her in this strike with great difficulty. But her desperation and frustration is really visible when, just on the verge of reconciliation, the women start deserting her. You wicked women, cease from juggling lies.

You want your men. But what of them as well?
They toss as sleepless in the lonely night,
I’m sure of it. Hold out awhile, hold out,
But persevere a teeny-weeny longer.
An oracle has promised Victory
If we don’t wrangle. Would you hear the words?

(Aristophanes, lysistrata)

The promise of victory enthuses them with new hope and brings them back into the struggle. But behind this announcement Lysistrata manages to arouse enough interest and suspense. This helps in calling the attention of the women also on their leader who despite being just as needy holds her ground. In other words, Lysistrata is the director of the play. Like reason, holding the reins of the chariot, she restrains the horses while exercises her agency on them. In order to take them to the desired goal, she has to control both the horses equally but in different ways. The desires and lust have to be curbed whilst the aggression and boldness, channelled. Towards the conclusion of the play, she exercises agency over one and all. She controls women by mobilizing them. She commands men by restraining them.

I agree with all of you.
Now off, and cleanse yourselves for the Acropolis,
For we invite you all in to a supper
From our commissariat baskets. There at table
You will pledge good behaviour and uprightness;
Then each man’s wife is his to hustle home.
(Aristophanes; Lysistrata; 1157)

Lamipto is portrayed as a rough Spartan woman with fairly masculine characteristics. Lysistrata also oscillates between the masculine and the feminine, but more so does Lampito. She has not been given many dialogues in the play but her importance is realised when the Spartan Herald tells us about the effect she has achieved in Sparta. No. Lampito first ran asklent, then the others

Sprinted after her example, and blocked, the hizzies,
Their wames unskaithed against our every fleech.
(Aristophanes; Lysistrata, 980)
Lamipto is hence Lysistrata’s counterpart in Sparta. She has achieved the very same goals and we can say she holds much the same agency over her territory as Lysistrata does in Athens. She is also the first to agree on and internalise Lysistrata’s idea of the sex strike. Despite Lampito being the counterpart of Lysistrata, Myrrhine is often seen as a second protagonist in the play. The prevalent stereotype in the Greek civilization portrayed women as sexually insatiable. Aristophanes used these stereotypes to present women as beings completely dependent upon men for sex. This solidifies the notion of women’s incompetence. Myrrhine reflects this notion the best. Also, she as a character develops the most through time. She finds it most difficult to internalise the idea of the sex-strike and hence, the conflict within her is huge. She is the embodiment of the stereotype which condemned women on men for sex whereas restraint was seen coming easier to men. But we find a complete reversal of this is the Cinesias-Myrrhine event. This scene shows how manipulative the women are to the men. The relationship between restraint and agency reaches its peak at this point. Cinesias is pretty much tied by a dog leash, and whenever Myrrhine wants something, all
she has to do is yank the leash. What is really remarkable about this scene is unlike any other scene in the play, it shows the relationship between two lovers. This could very well be the climax of Lysistrata. Prior to this scene, the only scenes with men and women were scenes with a large group of both sexes at each other’s throats. The scene ends with Myrrhine leaving her husband in pain, and returning to the Acropolis. It is an evident observation, as the play progresses women as a whole gain agency through restraining themselves. Men, on the other hand lose agency in their attempt to restrain women.

Restraint, Agency and Conflict.

The first scene begins with the idea of conflict at its centre. We find Lysistrata standing alone on the stage with an agitated look on her face. She is troubled because no one responded to her call. She recognises the conflict between restraint and agency. She realises that by the act of restraining she can gain agency but also in this process cannot avoid conflict that the society will counter her with. This poses an inverse relationship between agency and conflict. The more the agency, the less is the conflict. This can be better explained with the following diagram,

Lysistrata’s anxiety at the beginning of the play reflects her lack of agency. She proposes the idea of sex strike and subjects her followers to the inner conflict between the two horses of Plato’s chariot. Lysistrata needs her followers because if she goes on the sex strike alone, she’ll be an outcast and consequently ignored or punished. But with the mass behind her, she can claim agency. As Kostas Tsianos quotes in her essay, Action requires conflict rather than debate, a force in conflict with a resistance over some objective. From the opening moment of the play-script, we find Lysistrata standing on stage impatient, frustrated, disappointed, and angry, her spirit in conflict with the spirit of the women of Athens, Sparta, and even Boeotia whom she has invited to solve the problem of war. When the women finally arrive, she confronts the resistance to the force of her plan and only through her intelligence, her authority, and her missionary zeal does she persuade them to accept her proposition; after sufficient
persuasion, she succeeds in convincing them by having them take an oath to carry out the mission. (Kostas Tsianos, the Lysistrata Experience)

The relationship between restraint agency and conflict can be explored further on the lines that women restraining from sex create a conflict in the society. This conflict further clashes with the male obsession of war, the external conflict through restrain, the sex strike. Towards the middle of the play, women are seen defying men openly. Lysistrata has agency enough now that she can suggest an alternate way of running the government. Matters of the state were exclusivity for men. By claiming such knowledge and understand, Lysistrata shows that men’s agency and women’s agency are in conflict. We also see the desire of restraining the other. Lysistrata asserts her supremacy by ridiculing the magistrate and driving him to retreat. By the time the play reaches its end, the restrain, the sex-strike has left men devoid of any power of thought and they submit to the women’s authority. Towards the reconciliation, Women’s agency has grown so strong that now they can drag men from their domain of war into the women’s domain of desire where they easily have an upper hand and hence can get their demands easily fulfilled. “And if he won’t give you his hand, take him by the prick!” (Aristophanes, Lysistrata)

It is also fairly evident in the contrast between the opening dialogues where Lysistrata is worried and curses the women of being slaves in their homes and the closing dialogues where she permits the Spartan to sing the ending song, Over to you our Spartan brother,

We’ve had one new song, so give us another.
(Aristophanes, Lysistrata)

Ideas do not pop out of nowhere. They are a result of repeated scrutiny and modification. The idea of restraint to gain agency must have been existing when Aristophanes wrote the play. Only, he brought it out in a completely new form. It is obvious that if an idea doesn’t fit the society, it is deemed comic and out of question. The playwright, in order to make his idea last longer, must give it a certain touch of reality and reason. If not so,
the audience will completely annihilate it. The question we are left with then is does Aristophanes achieve this? Could he ensure the survival of his idea? More importantly, did he have a choice? Could he exercise his agency over the play he was writing?

The plays performed at the city of Dionysia or Lenaia were funded by the Chorêgos. It was an honorary title for a wealthy Athenian citizen who assumed the public duty of financing and paying the expenses of the preparation of the chorus and other aspects of dramatic production that were not covered by the state. The play had to be approved by the Chorêgos as well as the Archon before it gained the permission for public performance. Also, these were the very people who were funding the war and making major decisions. This indicates that the restraint on the writer’s creativity and idea was colossal. He could not present anything that threatened to upset the political order. So, did Aristophanes exercise his control over his work? Did he do what he set out to do? The intension of the writer is ambiguous at best. The way he has presented the idea leaves scope for many interpretations. Surprisingly, all of them contradict each other completely and yet coexist.

All we can actually say about this masterpiece is fairly limited. But the obvious still needs mention. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is a play full of possibilities and contradictions. And yet it is no surprise that despite tradition, it was performed twice in his lifetime.

Bibliography

Aristophanes, Lysistrara; trans. Jack Lindsay. The Project Gutenberg Ebook. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata; trans. Alan Sommerstein’s; Penguin Classics. Konstan, david; Greek Comedy and Ideology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Tsianos, Kostas, The Lysistrata Experience. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics , Third Series, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Winter, 2005)

Cite this The theme of restraint and agency in Aristophanes’ lysistrata

The theme of restraint and agency in Aristophanes’ lysistrata. (2016, Oct 01). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/the-theme-of-restraint-and-agency-in-aristophanes-lysistrata/

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