Aristophanes and Homoeroticism: Admiration or Scorn? Alma Mazer
In reading the comedies of Aristophanes, modern readers are able to catch a rich glimpse of the gender norms and expectations of his time. Visions of power-hungry, crafty women and bumbling, foolish men pervade his plays and reveal ancient Greek views and stereotypes regarding male and female roles. One of the more complicated concepts to grasp, however, is Aristophanes’ true sentiment regarding homosexual love and practice. The aim of this paper is to compare Aristophanes’ presentation of homoeroticism in The Women at the Thesmophoria to that of his speech in Plato’s Symposium and attempt to clarify the playwright’s stance on the matter. In these two works, Aristophanes offers a mix of mocking and approving sentiments oh homosexual men and the practice of homosexuality itself. As he is a comedian, Aristophanes immerses his characters in satire in order to gain laughs from the audience; by looking carefully at the texts, we can see he does not actually see homoeroticism as an institution to be derided and ridiculed.
To begin, an examination of The Women at the Thesmophoria can provide valuable insights into the prevailing culture’s notion of homosexual relations. Just before Euripides and the Kinsman reached Agathon’s house, they discussed the poet briefly:
Euripides: There is an Agathon …
Kinsman: You mean the suntanned one, strong guy?
Euripides: No, a different one. You’ve never seen him?
Kinsman: The one with the full beard?
Euripides: You’ve never seen him?
Kinsman: By Zeus, never, as far as I can recall.
Euripides: Well, you must have fucked him, though you might not know it (38-45).
This exchange, which foreshadowed the entrance of Agathon, provides us with a clear idea of how a man ought to look: tan, strong, and bearded. The joke here is that Agathon was by no means a masculine man, as proven by Euripides’ last comment, which solidifies Agathon’s effeminacy by stating he prefers a passive sexual position. While the statement may apparently show disdain for homosexual acts in general, it actually emphasizes the lack of manliness only in taking the passive homosexual position.
Still preceding the entrance of Agathon, one of his slaves and the Kinsman engaged in several exchanges that further shed light upon views of homoeroticism:
Slave: For that craftsman of poesy, Agathon our helmsman, prepares-
Kinsman: to get fucked? (63-5).
Slave: He’s warping fresh strakes for his verses; some he planes down, others he couples, minting aphorisms, swapping meanings, channeling wax and rounding the mold and funneling metal-
Kinsman: and giving blow jobs (70-5).
Kinsman [mimicking the slave]: One who’s ready, for you and your craftsman of poesy too, to fashion and mold and funnel this cock of mine into your back portals (63-5).
Again, the problem the very masculine Kinsman seemed to have with male-male relationships is not so much the idea of two men being together, but rather that to be sexually subservient is to forfeit one’s masculinity entirely. All of the attacks he made on Agathon center not so much on simply him enjoying homosexuality, but more on him being a vessel for other men’s pleasure. Of course, this poses the problem that in a sexual context, one partner must usually take a more passive role, and thus with two men, one can affirm his value as a man while the other’s diminishes.
Finally, the interaction between Agathon and the Kinsman indicates further how the Kinsman felt about adhering to masculine standards:
Agathon: To be a poet one must suit his fashions to the requirements of his plays. If, say, he’s writing plays about women, his body must partake of women’s ways.
Kinsman: So if you’re writing about Phaidra, you straddle your boyfriend?
Agathon: If one writes of manly matters, that element of the bosy is at hand. But qualities we do not have must be sought by mimicry.
Kinsman: Well, let me know when you’re writing about satyrs: I’ll get behind you with my hard-on and show you how (170-8).
Agathon: Misfortune should by rights be confronted not with tricky contrivances but in a spirit of submission.
Kinsman: You certainly got your wide asshole, you faggot, not with words but in the “spirit of submission”! (217-21).
Clearly, the Kinsman was determined to convince Agathon of his deficiency as a man and emphasize his own desire to take a dominant sexual position and prove he fit into his expected role. The two of them, then, form a juxtaposition of extreme effeminacy and militant masculinity.
In using these passages to understand Aristophanes’ view of homoeroticism, the question arises of who was intended to be a more laughable character, the Kinsman or Agathon. While Agathon’s feminine ways and lack of concern in proving himself to be manly would certainly have accrued laughter, we should not overlook the humor of the Kinsman’s character as well. He was obsessed with slandering those not manly enough and incorporating grossly inappropriate sexual references into conversation. For all his masculinity, it is he who was shaved and singed onstage and dresses in female garb. Later, he made a fool out of himself at the Thesmophoria by lapsing into his crass manner once again and was apprehended by a throng of infuriated women. If Aristophanes created the Kinsman to be a character with whom the audience identified, the play may be seen as homophobic. However, if the Kinsman is merely one of many characters to be mocked, then the homophobia he expresses is not necessarily laudable or a reflection of Aristophanes’ real values. Being a comedic writer, it serves him well to make fun of as many people as he can; perhaps The Women at the Thesmophoria aims to rib anyone who fitts a stereotype too well, and point out the humor in either discarding one’s manliness or obsessing over it.
To further discussion of Aristophanes and homoeroticism, a look at Synposium provides a better idea of Aristophanes as a person and not simply a comic writer. Before looking at his individual points, we might want to consider that, being a rather biting comedian, Aristophanes may have been trying to use sarcasm in his speech, thereby invalidating the views he presents. However, the other speeches in praise of Love are not intended to be cynical or gruff, so it is unlikely that Aristophanes was being entirely sarcastic. He even prefaced his speech by commenting, “I mean, my worry is not that what I’m about to say might be funny- that would be a bonus and typical of my Muse- but that it might be absurd” (189b). Surrounded by intellectual heavyweights such as Socrates, Eryximachus, and, interestingly enough, Agathon, it would seem to benefit Arsitophanes, in the context, to present an intelligent, philosophically sound praise of Love. So let us assume that Aristophanes was being sincere in the opinions he expressed during his speech and take them to be honest.
Aristophanes began his speech by discussing how humans used to be two halves sealed together to form a perfect whole, leading to the existence of three genders- male, female, and a combination of the two. Angry with them, Zeus had split them in half, but after they had begun to die off from misery and starvation, he realigned their bodies and allowed them the privilege of intercourse. Aristophanes explained, “His reasons for doing this were to ensure that, when couples embraced, as well as male-female relationships leading to procreation and offspring, male-male relationships would at least involve sexual satisfaction…” (191c). Aristophanes here placed greater importance on homosexual relationships than on heterosexual ones, which he deemed useful primarily in the result of offspring. The relationship between a man and another man, however, was his main source of pleasure and satisfaction. This is certainly a contrast from the crude terms the Kinsman used in Thesmophoria; Aristophanes spoke sentimentally and with regard to the human condition..
Another interesting point Aristophanes made was the difference in men’s personalities depending on whether their missing half had been a male or a female. Males who came from androgynous wholes, he said, “are attracted to women, and therefore most adulterers come from this group” (191e). Men who came from purely male wholes, however, were regarded as special:
These boys are the ones who are outstanding in their youth, because they’re inherently more manly than others. I know they sometimes get called immoral, but that’s wrong: their actions aren’t prompted by immorality, but courage, manliness, and masculinity. They incline towards their own characteristics in others. There’s good evidence for their quality: as adults, they’re the only men who end up in the government (192a).
This passage offers a great deal of information on homoeroticism in the eyes of both Aristophanes and Greek culture on the whole. Evidently, homosexuality was not accepted by everyone, as he mentioned some people felt it immoral. Aristophanes, however, not only didn’t shun homosexual tendencies but exalted them as a sign of virtue. Also unusual was his insistence that homosexuality increased a man’s masculinity, and that it was a sign of outstanding manliness. Thus we see an inversion from the views of the Kinsman in Thesmophoria, as he upheld the more common view that homosexuals were effeminate and not true men.
Furthermore, Aristophanes saw heterosexuality as a societal construct, for when talking about men sliced off from other men he mentioned they “would have nothing to do with marriage and procreation if convention didn’t override their natural inclinations” (192b). In Thesmophoria, this view also is supported by the huge gap in how husbands and wives lived and saw the world. To Aristophanes, men and women were often at odds and unable to see eye-to-eye with one another. He admired interactions between men, however, in Symposium, and applauded homoerotic love as a very pure and honorable emotion. Unless he marked his speech in Symposium with sarcastic comments and cynicism, Aristophanes showed no sign of disapproval of or disgust with men loving other men, and even saw it as deeper than the love that can be achieved between a man and a woman.
Based on his own words in Thesmophoria and Plato’s description of him in Symposium, it is likely that any homophobia Aristophanes expressed was done so for the purpose of generating laughs, not necessarily to reflect his own views. For while Agathon and his slave were portrayed as effeminate to perhaps a comical degree, the boorish Kinsman was not written in a particularly flattering light either, suggesting that Aristophanes generally enjoyed pointing out the humor in people. His occupation and joy was to poke fun at the quirks in people and societal institutions; a particular distaste for homosexuality was not particularly evident. In addition, his speech in Symposium suggested he was a tolerant and even romantic person. Thus, Aristophanes’ treatment of homosexuality did not reflect any true animosity towards it.