Play Comparison of “Lysistrata” and “The Tempest”

Updated October 31, 2021

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Play Comparison of “Lysistrata” and “The Tempest” essay

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According to recent dramaturgical studies of Greek Theatre, “The association of women is with matter and the body, and men with form and the soul. It is the legacy of ancient Greek thought which gendered the physical universe according to social convention: women were considered to be passive and therefore acted upon by the formative male principle” (Byantt, Angles and Insects). I believe this to be true, especially when studying the conventional usage of symbolism in contrast from a comedic greek piece, to a tragedy. Oddly enough, both plays of my analysis, Lysistrata and The Tempest, are both regarded as masterpieces of their time, for their melodic nature and symbolic roots.

Thus, both plays, contrasting in their usage of the literary tool, are able to utilize this tactic to reflect the morals of Greek society, such as highlighting women’s choices as a constitute for comedy, and challenging men’s authority when in the hands of books, magic, water, and yes, phalluses. Among the most popular of the Greek comedic masterpieces circumnavigating classrooms today, is Lysistrata, by Aristophanes. It’s upfront wordplay and innuendoes made it a favorite amongst the Greek community, and many of the literary devices, such as symbolism, still play a part in the modern day teaching curriculum.

Symbolism, along other devices, provide the reader a gateway into the society in which Aristophanes lived his life, and often disagreed with it’s standards. As we learn to identify, process, and compare these devices with other works, we not only gain a proper understanding on the social commentary these symbols hint at, but we start to see the ultimate goal of the writer, and what reaction, if any, he was trying to extract from the audience. One observation I have made about the symbols in Lysistrata, is that a majority of them are far more direct than those in Shakespeare.

However, even Lysistrata’s name symbolizes something. Her name loosely translates as “she who disbands armies.” The fact that she ironically does try to disband the male population of her society makes this detail much more valuable as a literary tool than what meets the eye. Scholars even suggest that her efforts to disband the male authority are even a part pf a larger symbol, one that includes the critique of “tyranny, treason, and pro Spartan learnings,” (Hopper).

The meaning behind Lysistrata’s name is even credited as being tied to the theme of “love not war” (or more precisely “no love until no war”), in order to stage public challenges to military conflict (BBC News). The most significant recent example was the Lysistrata Project, which presented thousands of readings of the play as an action against the pending U.S.-led invasion of Iraq (BBC News). This is in part of the larger symbol as mentioned earlier, how Lysistrata, and it’s representation of love not war, relates to the conversation of ending unnecessary conflict in other countries, and ending the stigmatism of how women in third world countries are treated during war as well. So, while Lysistrata’s symbolism is minute, its impact is crucial, especially in topics that are still relatable to the play in today’s day and age.

Another interesting symbolism to note in Lysistrata, is the actual use and imagery of sex, both as the gender and physical act (complete with…uh, phalluses) to represent Greek society’s inability to progress forward as a whole civilization. This motion and the balance that it creates seems to also be an indirect symbol in the play, specifically because each events seems to move in a domino effect-type way; set into motion specifically because the absence of sex causes an imbalance in Athens.

In fact, the play deals primarily with issues of balance between both male and female, as well as the young and the old. For instance, several times in the play, old women are used as part of the Greek chorus, or in some cases, emerge from the Acropolis behind Lysistrata. There’s even a scene where an old maid of the Greek chorus addresses Lysistrata directly, only for her to respond the the woman, saying: “It’s the way these women act so badly, together with their female hearts, that makes me lose my courage and walk in circles” (Lysistrata, Ian Johnston translation). It is clear that in this play, the male characters all wear the comic phallus, which is an integral part of the action throughout, to symbolise how the women view the men for just sex, and their sexual organs.

However, the older women in the play seem to act as the voice of reason, perhaps because they are not as sexually active or awake as the younger generation, and because they are wiser, and can see the ridiculousness to the youth’s actions, especially in the context of sex symbolizing war. There’s even a passage in the play where the same elderly female chorus member tells of an old story where a dung beetle gets revenge against an eagle by smashing its eggs, which is seen as an obvious threat to harm a man’s testicles (since the chorus too, can see the phalluses as represented onstage). This only amplifies the symbolism of sex, specifically because the older women are against the opposite sex and do not desire them, and therefore are symbolically against the war all together.

Perhaps this is a direct commentary on Aristophanes wanting to tell the men at war and many of the war commanders in charge that “enough is enough,” or that war is fruitless, and ridiculous. In his article, ‘Aristophanes and the Pleasures of Anarchy,’ Douglas J. Stewart argues that Aristophanes’ plays presented an anarchical philosophy, arguing that what makes Lysistrata anarchical is not the fact that it protests war, but the fact that it “presents sex as the central balancing force of civilization” (Stewart). So, one can deduce that perhaps Aristophanes was critiquing Greek society as being imbalanced due to the war, and that there is one key factor that is keeping all men, women, and child from living prosperous lives: and that is violence.

Nevertheless, I believe the use of sex to be a symbolic tool that Aristophanes utilized to critique the war and the lack of wisdom and understanding in Greek society. Another interesting symbol in Lysistrata deals with the issues surrounding the details of the Peloponnesian War itself, from the point of view of the Athenian women. As with the idea that women could refrain from sex, the idea that women could organize a successful campaign for peace would have been ridiculous to the audience for which Aristophanes was writing. Women in ancient Athens were typically confined to the home and took no part in public life except during religious ceremonies.

A woman was always under the watchful eye of a male in the household (a relative, her father, husband, or son), and most likely had little contact with women outside of her home. In her article, Designing Women: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and the ‘Hetairization’ of the Greek Wife, Sarah Culpepper Stroup discusses Aristophanes’ use of imagery to equate the citizen wives in Lysistrata with the courtesans of the time. She argues that, because proper Greek wives would never engage in a public display of sexuality, Aristophanes uses the image of the hetaira to “help bring the private sexual negotiations of the wives into the public sphere” (Stroup). This alone, is a symbol directly critiquing the way in which women are seen during the war period. Aristophanes is bringing to light the fact that sex, like war, is often not upfrontly talked about in terms of the women’s role or obligation to it, or to the equilibrium of Greek society.

When comparing the use of literary devices of Greek comedies to its tragic, artistic counterparts, we start to see a shift in emphasis in how obvious these devices become. We start to see this shift specifically in dramatic works in the Renaissance era, or specifically, in the works of William Shakespeare. The Tempest, especially, is highly regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most daring works, particularly for it’s social commentary about the fluctuating world of the time; a fast paced- theological search for astronomical answers, as shown throughout the Renaissance era. This social commentary, much like Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, uses symbolism as a way to illiterate the changing times, and to serve as a connection between political statement, and artistic endeavor.

In contrast to Lysistrata, I found that The Tempest’s use of symbolism is more indirect and repetitive throughout the play, and yet it still offers a similar importance to the connection of current, and past societies that the playwright (in this case, Shakespeare) was critiquing. For example, it is not unusual to hear someone refer to the ‘storms of life,’ when referencing The Tempest: meaning the various life-based circumstances that are tossed into chaos (or high winds). In some cases, the term also means the biblical tale of the decouples following Jesus and failing to trust in him during the storm while crossing dangerous waters.

Storms, therefore, symbolize an uncertain, swirling disarray of events beyond human control, in which the characters feel like they have no one to put their faith into. Shakespeare extends this idea of the storm, by adding magic to the situation. The storm literally appears out of nowhere, revealing it’s supernatural abilities; a result of Prospero’s long-held plan of revenge against the enemies who drove him from his rightful place as duke of Milan. We can therefore identify Shakespeare’s suggestion: that when the natural order of things is disrupted, the repercussions create a conflict that goes beyond the realm of humans and into the realm of the supernatural.

Perhaps this was in direct commentary to the rise of power of the church, or, in a complete 180 turnaround, the rise of science against the church, and that if you give one thing too much power, then it becomes a force too large and untamable to control. In the end however, the chaos of the storm produces a peaceful outcome and the restoration of order at the end of the play, much like when society conforms to the margins of their existence, and doesn’t overstep the boundaries set before them by the higher powers that be. I would say this critique of social order is among the most important themes of the symbols used in The Tempest.

Particularly, during Shakespeare’s time, it was common to compare the life of contemplation (which focused on intellectual pursuits) to that of action in society and issues of the government. This was primarily found in the symbol of magic. For example, fairly early in the play, the audience learns that it was Prospero’s books that kept him from ruling well in Milan: because he was too focused on meditative pursuits to be an active ruler. As a result, he surrendered too much control to his brother, who then takes over. However, Prospero soon learns to use the power from the books, in order to execute the revenge he so desires.

These books may symbolize Prospero’s unique containment of power to control the world toward his own ends. It is interesting, then, that at the end of the play Prospero surrenders his magical powers and books so that he can rejoin human society and rule well. In fact, many scholars therefore believe the magic in the books represent Shakespeare’s own writing, which he, too, surrenders at the end of the play. However, I like to think that both versions reflect the way in which art and faith in Elizabethan times was viewed, because you were either for, or against the church, and there was no room to stray away from the form or practice the church mandated.

One can perhaps assume that, by using the imagery of magic, which is a sinful practice amongst the catholic faith, Shakespeare was critiquing society, and how many people sercomm to the pressure of society standards and religious rule. Also, since Shakespeare often wrote for the lower class, he might have been critiquing the ways in which social classes were divided in his era. An article from BBC Theatre Archives describes the tile era and social class as such: Certain higher classes did not approve of theatres. There was some opposition from: The Puritans – they believed theatres were the work of the devil, spreading rude and lewd ideas encouraging poor moral behaviour. They also associated the theatre with the Romans, who had persecuted Christians.

The Authorities – an extract from a law passed in 1572 stated that: “All common players…who wander about and have not a license shall be taken, adjudged and deemed rogues, vagabonds and sturdy beggars.” Higher society consisted of the invention of the printing press and spread of education. This meant that gentlemen were part of an elitist culture involved in intellectual pursuits, such as reading the classics, studying music, hunting and hawking. Lower society was the vast majority were involved in popular cultural pursuits, which gave them a brief escape from their harsh living conditions. However, many could not partake in artistic pastimes due to their lack of a higher education (BBC).

So, perhaps Shakespeare was critiquing the use and knowledge found in books, to the tools available for the higher class, and how the common man yearns for vast knowledge, but ultimately will be swayed to follow society instead of his own beliefs. Or, perhaps he is critiquing the way in which men can easily misuse their privileges, such as being accessible to books and wisdom, only to waste it on corruption and wrongdoings, like revenge. Either way, I find his symbolism of magic to definitely be a criticism on the education, and or religious hierarchy of the Elizabethan era.

In the end, Both plays distribute equally compelling critiques on the societies of their respectful eras. While one might have been more blatantly obvious in it’s symbolic representation than the other, they both ideally hold a heavy impact on the way that the social themes relate to 2018, especially in situations we find in headlines and newsrooms today: such as the breakout of war, treatment of women, and the divide of social classes. In the end, each play (whether it’s through books, magic, water, or yes, even phalluses) are able to direct, and indirectly symbolize commentary on each era’s society.


  1. Aristophanes. Aristophanes, Lysistrata. translation by Ian Johnston, Chelsea House, 2002, lcsl.uic.edu/docs/default-source/classics/the-original-ancient-text.pdf?sfvrsn=280e32a5_0.
  2. Europe | Sex Boycott Urged over War.” BBC News, BBC, 3 Mar. 2003, news.bbc.co.uk/ 2/hi/europe/2816191.stm.
  3. Haas, Belinda, and Philip Haas. ANGELS AND INSECTS. Samuel Goldwyn Co., 1996.
  4. Hopper, R. J. “A Note on Aristophanes, Lysistrata 665–70.” The Classical Quarterly, vol. 10, no. 3-4, 1960, p. 242.
  5. STOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org
  6. McClinton-Temple, Jennifer. “Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature.” Encyclopedia of Themes in Literature, Facts On File, 2011.
  7. Reid, Robert L. “Sacerdotal Vestiges in ‘The Tempest.’” Comparative Drama, vol. 41, no. 4, 2007, pp. 493–513.
  8. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23238706.
  9. Shakespeare, William. “HAMLET.” Edited by Charles Kean, Project Gutenberg,
  10. BRADBURY AND EVANS, London, www.gutenberg.org/files/27761/27761-h/27761-h.htm.
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