In his comic play, “Knights”, Aristophanes parodies several contemporary characters. His main objective for writing the play was to launch an attack on Athenian politics and political leadership. He focuses particularly on certain members of the Athenian government, making a mockery of them, and holding them up to the ridicule of the audience. Probably the most notable protagonist is Cleon, an Athenian demagogue. Cleon was a low born tanner, who earned his money through trade. This was something which the wealthy land-owning classes greatly looked down upon.
In this play, Aristophanes uses representatives of the ‘Knights’, (a socially elite class who formed approximately the top 5% of the Athenian population) as his chorus. Naturally, the Knights were not very well disposed towards men like Cleon. Aristophanes, who also disliked Cleon intensely wished to portray his vulgar nature through the use of the Paphlagonian, a man who’s character contrasts markedly with that of the average Knight. Although this witty ruse did not name Cleon directly, Aristophanes used his protagonist as substitute for the true identity of Cleon.
The Paphlagonian has numerous undesirable characteristics, all of which are unmistakably reminiscent of those of Cleon. They are both extremely egotistical, and care only about their own popularity and success. Demosthenes describes the way in which the Paphlagonian fawns upon Thepeople to ensure his position as ‘favourite’ politician and consequently safe guarding his power. He says “This tanner-fellow soon got to know the master’s ways, then he fell at his feet, licked his boots, wheedled, flattered, sucked up, everything to take him in.
This is just the sort of unscrupulous manner in which Cleon fooled the people of Athens into doing whatever he wanted. An example of this in the play occurs when the Paphlagonian flatters the Knights by announcing “I was just about to propose that in honour of your gallantry a public monument ought to be set up on the Acropolis! “. Demosthenes also mentions the corrupt business in which the Paphlagonian participates, saying “he takes bribes, blackmails people, making everyone’s teeth chatter. ” The Paphlagonian is also referred to indirectly as a “brazen faced rogue”, which clearly demonstrates Aristophanes’ feelings towards Cleon.
He attacks Cleon as a politician, by saying “you don’t think politics is for the educated do you? Or the honest? It’s for illiterate scum like you now! ” This is a direct allusion to Cleon’s low birth and uncouth character. Aristophanes also wished to highlight the devious and sly nature of Cleon. The chorus says of the Paphlagonian “take care he don’t escape from you ‘cos he knows all the back ways to get through! ” In the play, the Paphlagonian is constantly referring to “when I sailed to Pylos” or, “the seat I won at Pylos”, and the contemporary audience would have been fully aware of what Aristophanes was referring to here.
During the Peloponnesian war, the Athenians besieged a number of the Spartan enemy on the island of Sphacteria. The Spartans, fearing the loss of several hundred men sent to representatives to Athens to negotiate peace. However, Cleon ensured that this peace mission failed. Cleon sailed to Sphacteria with a small force, and soon after his arrival the Athenian general Demosthenes, stormed the island, capturing 300 prisoners, of 100 of whom were Spartans. This credit for this victory was taken by Cleon, who was showered with praise and honours, for effectively doing nothing at all.
Aristophanes makes sure that the Paphlagonian constantly reminds Thepeople of this ‘victory’ to show how dishonest and cowardly Cleon really was for stealing all the glory. He is also terribly boastful about his victory, saying “It’s like when I sailed to Pylos, crept up on the General there, and brought the Spartans home myself. ” We can see here how Aristophanes tries to exploit the unattractive quality of vanity in Cleon. A character with whom the Paphlagonian is closely linked is Thepeople, who represents the Athenian ‘Demos’, or normal Athenian citizens.
Thepeople is represented as an elderly man, in order to celebrate the virtue of wisdom which came with age. In ancient times, men were not allowed to become councillors, jurors, or magistrates until the age of 30, by which time it was assumed that they would have all the knowledge, wisdom and awareness of responsibility needed to undertake such positions of political power. However, Aristophanes also highlights the fact that some old men were not such wise and sagacious statesmen, but obstinate, senile and bad tempered old fools.
Thepeople is the embodiment of such stereotypes, being mercilessly exploited by the whims of the Paphlagonian, who although only recently brought as a slave, is already the most influential. There are several examples in the text of the Paphlagonian and the sausage-seller fighting for Thepeople’s affection. Thepeople is easily swayed by such lavish attention and flattery. He warms immediately to the sausage-seller when he brings him a cushion upon which to rest, saying “That was a truly noble act of yours. You are indeed a lover of Thepeople”.
Similarly, when the sausage seller offers Thepeople a new pair of shoes, he says “I really must say, you’re the best friend I can ever remember Thepeople having. ” It is amusing to think how quickly the Paphlagonian has fallen out of favour with Thepeople, and Aristophanes does this to highlight just how fickle the people of Athens really were. He felt that the Athenians were no longer in control, but ‘under the thumb’ of unscrupulous political puppeteers like Cleon. Thepeople is also easily tricked, an example of this being when the sausage-seller and the Paphlagonian are offering Thepeople their gifts.
The Paphlagonian produces a dish of jugged hare, much to the dismay of the sausage-seller, who cannot rival this offering with any of his own. However, quick to beat the Paphlagonian at his own game the sausage-seller cunningly distracts him by pointing over in the distance to a group of “ambassadors, with purses full of money! ” Typically, the Paphlagonian’s attention is captured by the prospect of swindling money, and the sausage-seller promptly steals the jugged hare, passing it off as his own. Naturally, Thepeople is delighted with the dish!
By the end of the second act, Thepeople has transformed back into his old self, realising how the Paphlagonian has been “pulling the wool over his eyes”. He says he is “ashamed of all the wrong things I did”, and marvels at how he could have been so stupid and senile. By this point, Thepeople has been explicitly identified by the audience. and the message of the play is clear: the power in the state lay in the hands of the Demos, not in demagogues like Cleon. Aristophanes is praising the days when democracy was at its height, or as the Greeks said ‘kalos’ (beautiful).
The last two contemporary characters who Aristophanes impersonates are the generals Nicias and Demosthenes. They form a comic duo, in which Demosthenes is by the far the more dominant character. He issues the orders to Nicias, such as “get the oracles off the Paphlagonian” and “now pour me another cup of wine while you’re about it. ” Demosthenes insists on reading the oracles first, despite the fact that it was Nicias who risked a beating in going inside to get them. While Nicias does the running around, Demosthenes sets about gulping down a jug of wine to aid his “creative potential.
Demosthenes’ penchant for drink is rather amusing, and remonstrative outbursts from Nicias, such as “I don’t know what’s going to become of us with all your boozing, I really don’t” would certainly raise a laugh amongst the audience. Despite this, however Demosthenes is not weak or a quitter. He is determined to devise a plan to get rid of the Paphlagonian, who has the master wrapped around his little finger. he says what they need to do is “find a way to trip the light fantastic away from our master”.
Nicias on the other hand, would quite happily spend the rest of his days running away from the Paphlagonian’s beating. He even contemplates suicide, saying at one point “I know, let’s do what Themistocles did, drink a cup of bull’s blood. What could be a nobler death than that? ” Aristophanes employs these characters for a variety of different uses. Perhaps more notably, Demosthenes is used to describe the Paphlagonian at the beginning of act one, and to persuade the sausage-seller to become a politician. He puts across Aristophanes’ own views about politicians like Cleon, i. . that they are low, vulgar and without virtue.
There is much for the playwright to gain in using protagonists in the way that Aristophanes has chosen to do in ‘Knights’. Obviously, the main objective in writing a comedy is to provide entertainment and amusement for the audience. However, as well as this, Aristophanes intended to use his play as a form of political attack. Because of this, he uses various devices to ensure that the audience are fully aware of who he is impersonating, as well as comic devices designed to keep their attention at all times.
Aristophanes achieves an immediate laugh from the audience when the character he impersonates is finally recognized. For example, when the Paphlagonian says “I know just how and where this conspiracy was stitched together! ” and the sausage seller replies “you oughta know abaht stitching. ‘S your trade innit? ” the audience is immediately reminded of another tanner, not unlike the Paphlagonian, and realise that Aristophanes is parodying Cleon.
After this initial recognition, Aristophanes has the audience’s full attention. ecause everyone is keen to see pompous men, like the Paphlagonian, made a mockery of. It is, perhaps, part of human nature to want to see the boastful man eat his words, the trickster tricked. It is enjoyable to see such characters held up to ridicule. Visual humour provides another source of comedy in ‘Knights’. There are several examples of ‘knockabout’ humour, as well as displays of mock violence. An episode which would certainly achieve a laugh in the audience is when the Paphlagonian and the sausage-seller run into the house to collect their oracles.
They both run to the door, banging into each other. Similarly, when they exit the house, laden with scrolls, they collide once more, before eventually ‘disentangling themselves’ and rushing breathlessly back to Thepeople. As well as having his characters indulge in a little of this ‘slapstick’ comedy, Aristophanes also has a pool of ‘stock’ jokes, which are immediately available. these jokes play on the audience’s knowledge and perception of the characters and situations. This is how the playwright who chooses to impersonate real contemporary characters manages to attain the audience’s awareness.
For example, there are several references made to Cleon’s trade as a tanner. When the Paphlagonian offers Thepeople a new leather coat, he is disgusted, exclaiming “This leather stinks to high heaven! ” This rejection of his gift makes the Paphlagonian look utterly ridiculous, and is a direct allusion to the uncleanliness of the lower classes i. e. Cleon! Another example can be found in the heated exchange between the Paphlagonian and the sausage-seller at the beginning of act two. The sausage seller asks “What does baby like best?
Real stuffed leather purses? ” This comment reveals the unscrupulous behaviour of Cleon, who cheats people out of money by selling purses which are made of stuffed leather, not the real thing. As well as these ‘leather jokes’ Aristophanes makes constant references to Pylos. This is mostly on the part of the Paphlagonian, who brags at every opportunity about “the front seat I won at Pylos. ” (this refers to the honours which Cleon was awarded after Pylos, one of them being the privilege of having the front seat at all major Athenian festivals).
However, the sausage-seller is always ready to take the Paphlagonian down a peg or two, replying “Oh front seat is it now? I’m looking forward to seeing you very soon sitting in the very back row. ” The audience would probably have been roaring with laughter at this point, and the sausage-seller would have had their full support in attempting to outwit the Paphlagonian. a similar joke is made by Demosthenes, who tells the audience about “a lovely Spartan cake I baked the other day down in Pylos. He goes on to say that the Paphlagonian sneaked up on him and grabbed the cake, serving it up as if it were all his own work.
Again, we find another explicit and highly amusing reference to the way that Cleon stole all the glory for the victory at Pylos. To conclude, I would say that Aristophanes has much to gain from impersonating real, contemporary characters in his play. Once the initial ‘mask’ of the character has been unveiled, and the playwright has the audience’s awareness, he can use a number of comic devices to keep them amused and entertained, thus ensuring a truly enjoyable and memorable play.