Aristophanes first appeared on the stage in his Knights, and here he maintained the boldness of a comedian in full measure by hazarding an attack on the popular opinion. Its object was nothing less than the ruin of Cleon, who, after Pericles, stood at the head of all State affairs, who was a promoter of the war, a worthless, vulgar demagogue, but the idol of the infatuated people. His only adversaries were those more wealthy men who formed the class of knights, and these Aristophanes blends with his party in the strongest manner by making them his chorus. He had the prudence nowhere to name Cleon, but merely to describe him so that he could not be mistaken. Yet, from fear of Cleon's faction, no mask-maker dared to make a copy of his face. The poet therefore resolved to play the part himself, merely painting his face. It may be conceived what tumults the performance excited among the collected populace; yet the bold and skillful efforts of the poet were crowned with success, and his piece gained the prize. He was proud of his feat of theatrical heroism, and more than once mentions with complacency the courage displayed in this first attack upon the mighty monster.
None of his comedies are of more interest from a political and historical point of view. It is also irresistibly powerful as a piece of rhetoric to excite indignation; it is truly a philippic drama; yet it seems by no means the best in respect of wit and startling invention. Perhaps it might be that the thought of the actual danger in which he stood gave the poet a more earnest tone than was suitable to a comedian, or that the persecution which he had already undergone from Cleon provoked him to utter his wrath in a manner too serious for comedy. It is only after the storm of jeering sarcasms has wasted its fury that droller scenes follow, and droll scenes they are, indeed, where the two demagogues, the leather-cutter, that is to say, Cleon, and his antagonist, the sausage-maker, by adulation, by prophecies, and by the offer of dainties, vie with each other in wooing the favor of the old Demos, the personification of the people. The play ends with a triumph almost touchingly joyous, where the scene changes from the Pnyx, the place of the popular assemblies, to the majestic Propylaea, and Demos, wondrously restored to youth, comes forward in the garb of the old Athenians, and together with his youthful vigor has recovered the noble feelings of the times of Marathon.
Purchase The Knights