The Birds HTML version
'The Birds' differs markedly from all the other Comedies of Aristophanes which have
come down to us in subject and general conception. It is just an extravaganza pure and
simple--a graceful, whimsical theme chosen expressly for the sake of the opportunities it
afforded of bright, amusing dialogue, pleasing lyrical interludes, and charming displays
of brilliant stage effects and pretty dresses. Unlike other plays of the same Author, there
is here apparently no serious political MOTIF underlying the surface burlesque and
Some critics, it is true, profess to find in it a reference to the unfortunate Sicilian
Expedition, then in progress, and a prophecy of its failure and the political downfall of
Alcibiades. But as a matter of fact, the whole thing seems rather an attempt on the
dramatist's part to relieve the overwrought minds of his fellow- citizens, anxious and
discouraged at the unsatisfactory reports from before Syracuse, by a work conceived in a
lighter vein than usual and mainly unconnected with contemporary realities. The play
was produced in the year 414 B.C., just when success or failure in Sicily hung in the
balance, though already the outlook was gloomy, and many circumstances pointed to
impending disaster. Moreover, the public conscience was still shocked and perturbed
over the mysterious affair of the mutilation of the Hermae, which had occurred
immediately before the sailing of the fleet, and strongly suspicious of Alcibiades'
participation in the outrage. In spite of the inherent charm of the subject, the splendid
outbursts of lyrical poetry in some of the choruses and the beauty of the scenery and
costumes, 'The Birds' failed to win the first prize. This was acclaimed to a play of
Aristophanes' rival, Amipsias, the title of which, 'The Comastoe,' or 'Revellers,' "seems to
imply that the chief interest was derived from direct allusions to the outrage above
mentioned and to the individuals suspected to have been engaged in it."
For this reason, which militated against its immediate success, viz. the absence of direct
allusion to contemporary politics-- there are, of course, incidental references here and
there to topics and personages of the day--the play appeals perhaps more than any other
of our Author's productions to the modern reader. Sparkling wit, whimsical fancy, poetic
charm, are of all ages, and can be appreciated as readily by ourselves as by an Athenian
audience of two thousand years ago, though, of course, much is inevitably lost "without
the important adjuncts of music, scenery, dresses and what we may call 'spectacle'
generally, which we know in this instance to have been on the most magnificent scale."