Ugly is as Ugly Does: The Conclusion of the Ecclesiazusae

Mike Lippman

Duke University

            After Praxagora's plans for a utopia are put into practice in the Ecclesiazusae, the Epigenes scene (938-1111) illustrates why her communist republic is not ideal for all concerned.  Under the new regime Praxagora had established that in the name of equality all old ugly men could sleep with the prettiest women before the good-looking young men would have a chance at them.  It is soon revealed that this equality works both ways.  Epigenes, a handsome young man trying to meet his girlfriend, quickly becomes the prize for the winner in the "ugliest woman in Athens" contest.  Each woman forcefully insists on having her passions fulfilled to the horror of poor Epigenes.  Many critics find this scene offensive, for it seems to play into an Athenian comic stereotype (and tragic fear) that if given the chance, women would run sexually rampant.  Thus, they argue, by showing Praxagora's utopia to be ineffective, the play ultimately re-affirms traditional masculine values.  Such an analysis robs the Epigenes scene (and to a large extent the entire play) of its formidable comic power.  Nor does it credit Aristophanes as an innovative playwright.  The scene is not an attack against women, but rather a key to understanding the ironic ending of the play.

            Praxagora's egalitarian utopia offers men and women the same treatment.  Throughout the Ecclesiazusae Aristophanes keeps the same perspective.  Distinctions between the sexes are regularly broken down to suggest Aristophanes believes in the same sort of equality Plato explores further in the Republic.  In Plato, quality is shown in a positive light, but Aristophanes displays equality in comic terms.  Men and women alike are mocked for being weak-willed and enslaved by bodily passions.  Until the Blepyrus scene, men appear far worse than women.  The play as a whole but particularly the Epigenes scene establishes a pattern by which Blepyrus' alleged triumph must be judged.  It has been said that Aristophanes constructs his heroes to reflect the target audience of older male Athenian citizens and aims at validating their own self-images.  When the final scene finds an older hero in the arms of a young flute girl, it is typically interpreted as a rejuvenation of sexual prowess.  Whereas this may be true in earlier plays, the model does not work in the Ecclesiazusae.  Instead, the play shows the early stages of the drift from the former Aristophanic hero like Dicaeopolis to the silly old senex of New Comedy.  For Blepyrus is never shown in a positive light.  From his first appearance in his wife's clothing groaning with constipation through his gullibility to the gluttony and lasciviousness which convince him to accept Praxagora's republic, Blepyrus is always an object of mockery.  Aristophanes often emphasizes his unappealing old age and his overall greediness.  The play gives us every reason to judge him a buffoon.

            The audience is therefore already primed to laugh at Blepyrus.  Three comic hags eagerly pursuing a horrified handsome young man are immediately followed on stage by an old man established as both sexually unappealing and ridiculous with his arms around a pretty young girl.  The first scene shows what it was like to be sexually objectified.  With the play's motif of equality, this implies just how repulsive the advances of old men are.  Once Blepyrus has been equated with heinous old harridans, Aristophanes slyly makes use of his earlier heroic model to parallel the audience with Blepyrus.  The play ends just as it began; a commentary on the greed and selfishness which had taken over Athens.  If Aristophanes gives any "triumph" to Blepyrus, he does so with his tongue firmly in his cheek.

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