February 12, 2002
Agathon: Lampooned or Revered?
Aristophanes and Agathon were peers in Ancient Greece. Aristophanes was the master of comedy, and Agathon was the master of tragedy. They traveled in the same circles and are present in the same works. In looking through the comic lens at Agathon in Aristophanes Women at the Thesmophoria, the reader is presented with a portrayal of an effeminate man with a flair for the dramatic and a queenly attitude. Aristophanes Agathon is a comic character to be laughed at, a man that is more female than male. In looking at this view of Agathon, Greek views of homoeroticism are brought up and Agathons reputation and character in the world of Ancient Greece is brought into question. How much of this portrayal is actual, and how much is Aristophanes use of comedy? More importantly, what is exposed in viewing Agathon in this light? In order to answer these questions, an alternate, non-comic view of Agathon must be looked at, which Platos Symposium offers. By comparing Agathons portrayal in both works, views on Agathon and on Greek homoeroticism can be inferred. Aristophanes portrait of Agathon is not true to Agathons actual self, but rather uses cultural stereotypes and bigotry to gain laughs. Looking at Aristophanes portrayal of Agathon in both Symposium and Women at the Thesmophoria and in looking at the general treatment given to Agathon in Symposium, a basis for this interpretation is created, allowing the modern reader a clearer look at Greek life. Three lenses are presented- Aristophones comic lens in his famous comedy, Aristophanes personal lens through his speech in Symposium, and Platos non-comic lens in Symposium, providing a wide range of views to be explored.
Aristophanes Agathon in Women at the Thesmophoria is one that is seen by the average citizen as unmanly and as a target for degradation. The kinsman in the play makes comments to the character Agathon of ultimate disrespect, such as, "Ill get behind you with my hard on and show you" (line 178, Women at the Thesmophoria). Aristophanes is using Agathon as a punch line, costuming him in dresses, letting him offer up his own high heels, giving him a wig, "Even better, this wig I wear at night!" (line 310, Women at the Thesmophoria). Aristophanes portrayal of Agathon as a passive, effeminate man would be highly comedic. In Ancient Greece, although homoeroticism was accepted, it was seen as a disgrace and a joke to be a passive male in a homoerotic relationship after one is considered a man. Therefore, this portrayal of Agathon as a lady-like homosexual is one that presents Agathon as a character to be lampooned and satirized. The question arises as to whether Agathon was actually this way and viewed in this ludicrous manner, or if this was just Aristophanes comic usage of Agathon, a known homosexual, which can be answered after exploring all lenses available to the modern reader.
In looking at this portrayal of Agathon, it also brings into question Aristophanes view of homoeroticism. In looking purely at Women at the Thesmophoria, Aristophanes seems to be pushing the commonly held negative notions of passive homoeroticism. In his choice to ridicule Agathon by means of his effeminate nature, is Aristophanes a believer of these commonly held notions of homoeroticism, is he simply playing to the crowd, or is he commenting on the beliefs of the masses?
To further understand both Aristophanes view of Agathon and his view of homoeroticism, it helps to look at the second lens available to the modern reader- that of Aristophanes speech in Platos Symposium. In Symposium, Aristophanes talks of Agathon and homoeroticism in depth. Depending on how one reads this speech, two different meanings can be inferred. First, the speech can be looked at in a serious nature, then it must be examined satirically.
In order to understand Aristophanes statements on homoeroticism, it is necessary to understand Aristophanes views on homosexuality. In Platos Symposium, Aristophanes relates his view on love. In this speech, Aristophanes talks of homoeroticism, citing it as the most exalted form of love, that those that are truly masculine will find love in other men, as those are their other half:
"And any men who are offcuts from the male gender go for males These boys are the ones who are outstanding in their childhood and youth, because theyre inherently more manly than others. I know they sometimes get called immoral, but thats wrong: their actions arent prompted by immorality, but by courage, manliness, and masculinity Theres good evidence for their quality: as adults, theyre the only men who end up in government" (line 191e-192a, Symposium).
If this speech is taken seriously, it shows a very positive view on homosexuality. Aristophanes seems to be promoting homoerotic love as the ultimate form of love, making his take on homosexuality in Women at the Thesmophoria not his own view, but rather a way to make the more common people laugh. Taking into account Aristophanes comic nature, this completely serious message does not seem likely, as some degree of humor must be expected. For this reason, the serious interpretation can be disregarded. If the speech is taken tongue in cheek, which would be inferred through Aristophanes comment on the government, then different views could be taken. This more satirical approach can be taken in two manners: the first that Aristophanes is being completely sarcastic and doesnt believe that homoeroticism is moral, going along with his play, or secondly, that it is more satirical in the fact that although society does not see homoeroticism as moral, it is societies misunderstanding. The first approach I feel can be discounted in that this view of total sarcasm is not textually supported nor was it in Aristophanes nature. The second view is most likely the correct way to interpret the speech- that although Aristophanes does believe in homoerotic love, he feels societies misunderstanding of it to be ironic, and politicians denial of it to be even more absurd. This understanding of Aristophanes take on homoeroticism leads to looking at Agathon through this light.
Aristophanes refers to Agathon directly in Symposium. As Aristophanes finishes his speech on love, he refers to Agathon and Agathons lover, Pausansis, saying:
"I dont want Eryximachus to treat my speech as a satire and imagine that Im talking about Pausanias and Agathon. It may well be that they do in fact belong to that category and are both inherently masculine; but what Im saying applies to everyone, both men and women."
If this statement is taken in the same vein that Aristophanes view of homoeroticism is taken, it shows that although Aristophanes approves of Agathons long-term homoerotic relationship, he does not believe Agathon to be masculine and manly, as this fact is historically disputed. It does not show Agathon in the negative light of Women at the Thesmophoria, but at the same time does not change his effeminate image. It does not show disrespect, as the play does, but still does poke fun at Agathon.
Looking at Agathon through the third lens, the lens of Platos Symposium without Aristophanes tint, a third interpretation of the character of Agathon can be seen, leading towards a more complete understanding of his character and sexuality. This view is more clear, as the comic overtones do not need to be worked through. Through this lens, Agathon is seen as intelligent and respected by his peers, as Socrates calls him, "good-looking" (line 174a, Symposium), says of him, "Id be wrong to call you uncultured" (line 194c, Symposium) and continues, "I claimed a short while ago that Agathon would speak beautifully" (line 198a, Symposium). Platos representation of Agathon in Agathons speech is one that is both intelligent and insightful, "Agathons speech was greeted with cries of admiration from everyone in the room "(line 198a). Through these words and many others, it is clear that Agathon was greatly respected and liked by Athens best and brightest. This does not take away from the fact that Agathon was effeminate, it only shows that among the most cultured, the stereotypes of the masses were ignored.
Through combining all three lenses, it is clear that Aristophanes portrait of Agathon is not true to Agathons actual self, but rather uses cultural stereotypes and bigotry to gain laughs. Though Agathon was a womanly man in a long-term homo-sexual relationship, Women at the Thesmophoria plays on stereotypes, exposing the common Greek ideals of masculinity and homoeroticism. Through further exploration of Symposium, both with Aristophanes tint and without, it is apparent that Agathon was no one to be lampooned, but was rather an intelligent, well-respected member of the highest social circles. Women at the Thesmophoria serves as more of a lens into common Greek beliefs then a lens into Agathons character, showing that the comic lens of Aristophanes goes deeper culturally then it does personally.