Aristophanes’ classical Greek play Lysistrata and Oliver Goldsmith’s 18th century British play She Stoops to Conquer, both contain various types of humor. The humor found in these plays was certainly enjoyed by the audiences of the time. However, it is certainly true that much of this humor is still enjoyed today.
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For contemporary audiences yet delight in the satire of Lysistrata, the farcical comedy of manners in which the themes of national war and peace, and yes, even war and peace between the sexes, all receive humorous treatment. Next, She Stoops to Conquer is a comedy of manners, where irony prevails amid frequent misunderstandings. Set in the environs of that prevailing polite society, the characters try very hard to preserve the amenities and civility, but frequently fail, as their true actions become known.
First, in Lysistrata, there is much levity in the degree to which the men are made to appear foolish, and to be rather easily manipulated by their women. Further, constant sexual innuendos abound.
There is humorous interplay between the choruses of old men and women. Clearly, the language is very earthy and bawdy. For example, in Part 12, an exchange between several chorus members goes thusly: The woman threatens, “Suppose I let fly a good kick at you?”
Whereupon, the old man rejoins with, “I should see your thing then.” Then, the woman, older herself as well, has the last word with stating, “You would see that, for all my age, it is very well plucked.” (Aristophanes 753)
Further, a primary component of the costuming was an enormous phallus, constructed from leather. And all the men persistently maintain large penile erections. In addition, there’s sexual referencing throughout the play.
Then, there are incongruous and ridiculous situations as well. A definite slapstick element is present as women run after old men using their spindles as weapons.
Then, too, even the dialogue between Lysistrata and the commissioner debating the futility of war is mildly funny. (Aristophanes 782) In addition, note how Aristophanes blends the slapstick scene of the women chasing of old men with weapons like weaving spindles and the intellectual humor of the commissioner’s attempt to argue with Lysistrata’s exposition of the incompetence of the men’s pursuit of the war.
The culmination comes when the warriors return from the Peloponesian Wars, all with gigantic erections. Their women tease them further by showing them a nude female servant, which only makes the men feel more desperate. However, the women will not allow their men sexual satisfaction, until all Athenians and Spartans declare a truce.
In the second play, She Stoops to Conquer, the elitist Charles Marlow is a study in contradiction. A snob by nature, he does actually seek out servants and maids rather than females from the upper classes.
The main premise of the play is that he is en route to meeting up with a family friend, and is “pranked” on the way, which actually ends up with a variety of misunderstandings.
There is humor in these events, such as culture clashes and identity confusion. Also hilarious are the secretive love entanglements surrounding himself and the other male protagonist.
He even has a slightly humorous way of insulting a young lady, claiming, “ Goodness ! “What a quantity of superfluous silk hast thou got about thee, girl!”
(Goldsmith 41) Then, on his journey, he becomes lost, and levity ensues when he and his companion are told, “Why, gentlemen, if you know neither the road you are going, nor where you are, nor the road you came, the first thing I have to inform you is, that — you have lost your way.” (Goldsmith 55) This is definitely understated humor.
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Finally, another example that will provoke a chuckle is the scene between Tony and Hastings. Hastings asks eagerly, where has Tony left the ladies. Tony them replies, by way of a riddle, “Left them? Why, where should I leave them, but where I found them? (Goldsmith 176)
In summary, these are but a few of the scenes and references from these two plays that may be as funny today, as they were at the time of the original productions. It is definitely true that although humor evolves through time, some elements of levity remain both timeless and universal.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata, edited by Jeffrey Henderson, The Focus Classical Library, 1992.
“She Stoops to Conquer.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Web. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/She-Stoops-to-Conquer>.