Something to do with Demeter: Ritual and Performance in Aristophanes' Women at the Thesmophoria
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Something to do with Demeter:
Ritual and Performance in Aristophanes' Women at the Thesmophoria

Like his character the Kinsman, Aristophanes invades Athenian women's religious space. He puts onstage for the whole city a religious festival restricted to women. He suggests that women use this occasion to drink and plot against men, and he portrays them as carrying on adulterous affairs and duping their husbands. As a result of this negative portrayal of women, scholars have concluded that the play undermines women's position in the festival and in the city. Elizabeth Bobrick (1997), for example, argues that the play misrepresents women's experience in ritual. Lauren Taaffe (1993) insists the play shows that women are only men in disguise, that it is not really about women at all but rather uses them to highlight male concerns. And Angus Bowie (1993, 227) concludes that in this play Aristophanes demonstrates that comedy, not tragedy, has the right to "give an accurate and fulsome picture of female villainy."

On the face of it, Women at the Thesmophoria satirizes women's real ritual experience and does not respectfully depict the Thesmophoria-a very important festival celebrated throughout Greece, which promoted agricultural and human fertility. And yet, despite the Kinsman's invasion and his mockery of women, the role of women in ritual is not really undercut in this play. The female characters who inhabit the comic stage and protest their portrayal in drama do not aim to redefine their social roles as wives and mothers. Instead, they use the authority of their roles to mount a successful attack against Euripides because he undermines these functions. In fact, the play acknowledges and validates women's contribution to the fertility of the polis in two different ways.

After the Kinsman is unmasked and taken captive by the women, four different strategies for rescuing him are staged. After all these strategies, derived from plays by Euripides, fail, a fifth strategy succeeds. As scholars have noted, the Kinsman's captivity and rescue parallel the founding myth of the Thesmophoria festival, the story of Persephone's [End Page 329] abduction and imprisonment by Hades and her rescue by her mother Demeter.1 My reading of Women at the Thesmophoria builds on this analysis by demonstrating how each of the Euripidean parodies moves closer to the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Moreover, with each of the parodies the actors become increasingly feminized. In the final scene of the play every character onstage but one is wearing female dress. Ironically, structurally and theatrically, Aristophanes' play celebrates women's power, as it is demonstrated in Demeter's rescue of her daughter and the rebirth of human and agricultural fertility.

Moreover, the play affirms the centrality of women to the fertility of Athenian drama. Earlier studies have seen Women at the Thesmophoria as a competition between Euripides and Aristophanes and between tragedy and comedy (e.g., Hubbard 1991, Henderson 1996, Zeitlin 1996b, Gibert 1999-2000). The play's movement from male to female, especially in the arrangement of the parodies, is also a move from Dionysus to Demeter. The captivity/rescue plot is associated with not only Demeter and Persephone but also Dionysus, the presiding deity of Athenian theater. The stories of Dionysus' captivity and rescue are different, however; in these the god rescues himself and punishes his captors (e.g., Pentheus and Lycurgus). As the rescue strategies in Women at the Thesmophoria [End Page 330] unfold, they move from the Dionysian pattern of self-liberation and punishment of opponents to a Demetrian one of cooperation and reconciliation. This is also a movement from tragedy to comedy, in which tragedy fails to liberate while comedy succeeds. The four parodies and the final scenario move from explicitly tragic situations, including the threat of human sacrifice, to love/marriage plots and finally to men dressing as women to deceive a parodically hypermasculine male, thereby achieving a return to normality. By the end of the play, male cross-dressing does not show how easy it is to become female, but how essential women are to comedy-not only to creating laughter but also to the basic function of comedy: affirming and celebrating the...


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