GSI Jerilyn Sambrooke
2016 November 26
Wasps ~ Man as Smoke & Madness (A Figurative Reading)
In section 125 of Wasps, the character Philocleon describes himself as the smoke of a fig tree. Philocleon clearly creates the figure of smoke in an attempt to escape recognition from his perceived captors, his son and slaves. Further, the figure of smoke that Philocleon creates in this section allows the reader to understand the character of Philocleon as he is perceived by his son and other characters in the play, including himself.
First, Philocleon uses the figure of smoke to attempt hiding from his son and slaves. Misocleon awakens his slaves in order to help capture his father who was just discovered to be running about and hiding in the stove. Misocleon hears a noise in the chimney and asks who is there (S 125 P 9). Philocleon answers “I am...smoke and I’m coming out” (S 125 P 10). This answer seems ridiculous to the reader and to the other characters present during the scene. Smoke does not make noise and Misocleon had just heard a noise which prompts his question. Smoke does not speak and Philocleon responds that he is smoke regardless. For this reason, the figure of smoke does not work to aid Philocleon in escaping recognition; neither the reader or the characters present believe Philocleon’s claim. Albeit a ridiculously puerile attempt to escape being noticed and captured, Philocleon is able to use the figure of smoke to distract Misocleon and the slaves from pursuing a more offensive attempt at Philocleon’s capture and also enables the asking of a question by Misocleon of which supplies the reader with an interesting understanding of the character of Philocleon and the relationship between father and son.
Second, Philocleon’s response to Misocleon’s question, “...from what sort of wood?” enables the figure of smoke to further aid in an understanding of the relationship between Philocleon and Misocleon. Misocleon’s response to his father’s metaphorization of himself is similar to how one would respond to a young child. He asks, “Ah! You’re smoke, ey? Let me see now, from what sort of wood?” (S 125 P 11). This question seems to be posed in order to goad on the seemingly puerile figurative speech of Philocleon. This is not surprising considering the fact that according to his slave, Misocleon already sees his father as a madman (S 100).
Third, Philocleon’s elaboration of himself as the smoke from fig tree wood allows the reader to understand how Philocleon may perceive himself. After being asked what kind of smoke he is, Philocleon responds with “Fig tree wood. Pride of the sycophants!”. (S 125 P 12) It may seem surprising that Philocleon describes himself as being the “Pride of the sycophants” as sycophants were considered unjustified accusers in ancient Athens and measures were often taken to stop them from taking too many issues to the court (MacDowell 63). Following his claim, Misocleon responds with, “Ah, but of course!” He elaborates on the especially annoying characteristics of fig tree wood smoke in comparison to all other kinds of smoke, “Good for coughing and splattering your lungs to death”. (S 125 P 13) It is clear the Philocleon chose to metaphorize himself as smoke, and especially the smoke of a fig tree, because he could see himself in some of the characteristics of this wood’s smoke particularly. The characteristics of smoke that Philocleon seems to relate to are: the smoke’s ability to disappear/escape (P 9) and the smoke’s ability to irritate (P13). Philocleon seems to take pride in being recognized as a sycophant, even if his son does consider him to be both mad and irritating.
The figure of smoke may at first seem to merely be a childish attempt by Philocleon at escaping recognition by his son and his slaves yet, the figure also works to reveal what Philocleon understands about himself and how others perceive him. Philocleon may not be as mad as he is portrayed in the opening scenes of Wasps. In this section, the figure of smoke serves to both help uncover the sentiments that Misocleon has for his father and to reveal the pride that Philocleon takes in his role as an irritator. He recognizes that others may perceive him as agitative or insane but still actively takes on the figure of smoke as a metaphor able to replace himself.
Aristophanes. Wasps: Retrieved on https://bacchicstage.wordpress.com/aristophanes/wasps/
MacDowell, Douglas M. The Law in Classical Athens. Cornell University Press. 1978.