Skip to main content

Presumably because tragedy’s contribution to Aristophanes’ comedy is considered exhausted in the Thesmphoriazusae and the Frogs, the paratragic elements in the Ecclesiazusae and the Plutus have usually, if implicitly, been regarded as non-essential and sporadic vestiges of an obsolete and abandoned practice (Rau 1967; Ussher 1973; Taaffe 1993). In this paper I argue that, by contrast, the tragic material is an indispensable component of the Ecclesiazusae, although (or, rather, precisely because) it is no longer openly acknowledged by Aristophanes.

I focus on the penultimate episode, the rape of the young man by the three ugly old women (Eccl. 975-1111), the disturbing oddity of which has long been recognized: it is a “scandal… staged… in a long scene of rarely appreciated caustic comedy pushed to the limits of objectionable” (Saïd 1986; similarly, Wheat 1992). In keeping with such assessments, I discuss several intriguing features of this scene, the two most illustrative being the imagery of abductors as Erinyes, and, especially, the similarities of the abduction-scene in the Ecclesiazusae with the one in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus.

First, an association with the Erinyes is all but natural for the three gruesome women bent on exacting due revenge (announced at Eccl.1043), and, given the context, their description unmistakably evokes Orestean nightmares: “dressed in a bloody blister” (Eccl. 1057)finds its closest parallel in the habitual portrayal of Erinyes with bloody ooze dripping from their eyes (A. Eum.55, Cho. 1058; E. Or. 255); indeed, a comparable Aristophanic figure, Poverty, is explicitly compared to tragic Erinyes (Plut. 423). Accordingly, the tragic development of the entire scene is in my view conveniently highlighted by the two apparently synonymic, yet perfectly antithetical expressions that frame it: at the onset of the abduction the assailant invokes proper authority: “Yes, by Aphrodite, whether you like it or not!” As the victim is finally being dragged offstage, the invocation is appropriately updated: “Yes, by Hecate, whether you like it or not!” (Eccl.981; 1097).

Second,and most importantly, the only direct tragic reference in the Ecclesiazusae is that if young men are forced into sex with older women, they will all become Oedipuses (1041). Although one might rather have expected a reference to, say, Hippolytus, the mention of Oedipus seems deliberately chosen to allude to the source-model of the scene. Namely, the rape-scene of the Ecclesiazusae is in details and the overall dynamics strikingly similar to Creon’s abduction of Antigone—and attempt of abduction of Oedipus—in Sophocles’ OC (800-885). The central section of this paper is therefore a comparative analysis of the two scenes, parsed, for convenient comparison, into corresponding units:

1) victims looking for help both from absent allies (OC815; Eccl. 1023-4), and bystanders (OC 822-3; Eccl. 1054-5; 1056-7);

2) victims’ reluctance and denial (OC 882; Eccl. 1011), cries of despair (OC 847; Eccl. 1051);

3) abductors silencing the victims (OC 864; Eccl. 1005, 1058, 1088);

4)abductors claiming inescapability (OC862, 883; Eccl. 1008, 1011, 1029,1081), accordingly,

5) threatening ‘whether willingly or unwillingly’ (OC826-7; Eccl. 981, 1097), and

6) ‘taking what is mine’ (OC 829-32; Eccl. 1037);

7) vigorous tug of war (OC. 835, 838-40, 856-7,874; Eccl. 1075, 1085, 1088);

8) when the worst seems over, yet worse comes (OC850; Eccl. 1048);

9) victims’ own descriptions of being dragged away (OC828-9, 844-6; Eccl. 1066, 1093-4).

The powerful Sophoclean scene—“perhaps the most elaborate and varied scene of violence in extant Greek tragedy”(Kaimio 1988)—stages a girl being kidnapped in front of her helpless blind father; nor should we forget that Sophocles, unlike Aeschylus and Euripides, was never a komoidoumenos. Thus, the abduction-scene of the Ecclesiazusae makes an unprecedented use of tragedy by no longer performing an unconcealed Euripidean burlesque; the practical application of the Assemblywomen’s controversial regime is, in effect and on a closer look, anything but comic. Seemingly unexpectedly, but in fact all too symptomatically, the scene is wrapped up by a burying ritual, the typically Euripidean closure—for the show must go on.