Makemedo's Journey to Power in Aristophanes' Birds

Makemedo's Journey to Power in Aristophanes' Birds

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Makemedo's Journey to Power in Aristophanes' Birds


Humans have always journeyed in search of what they want and need. Our earliest ancestors were nomads, wandering the countryside in search of food and shelter. It is no surprise, then, that much of ancient and modern literature deals with the theme of the journey and getting what one wants. This is especially true in the writing of Aristophanes' Birds, from Aristophanes I: Clouds, Wasps, Birds, translated by Peter Meineck, published by the Hackett Publishing Company in Indianapolis, IN, in 1998. The main character, Makemedo, begins his journey by seeking a land free of worry and work, and ends it by becoming a divine ruler. His desire shifts from wanting a simple existence to wanting tremendous power. This change in his ultimate goal is shown throughout the play by a series of visits from other characters. Aristophanes uses the visitors as a way of mirroring Makemedo's journey on the path to power: the visitors represent the state of Makemedo's power, and the way he deals with them is a reflection of his status.

The first visitor on the path to power is Makemedo himself. He begins by journeying ". . . in search of a land free from hustle and bustle / where a man can just settle down and rest" (43-44). His original demands are simple, and his ultimate goal is to find the Hoopoe, a bird who used to be human, who will help him find such a land. Makemedo begins his journey as a seeker, delegating the power to the Hoopoe, who can help him obtain what he wants:

We thought that you might be able to help us.
That in all your flying about, you may have come across
a nice soft and woolly city where two men
can snuggle up and live in peace and tranquility. (119-122)

The power is also in the hands of the birds themselves, who meet Makemedo and Goodhope with great hostility saying, "Now for these two old men, the penalty is clear: / Peck them to death! Tear them to shreds!" (337-338). Makemedo is in a position of very little power until he deviates from his original purpose and comes up with the idea for the birds to found their own city. The power shifts the moment the idea occurs to him. The birds are also won over: "Oh! What a transformation, from bitterest enemy to greatest friend! / You've won us over, from now on we're going to listen to you" (628-629).

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In this first visit, Makemedo has managed to transfer the power from others to himself, and he can begin to assert his newfound authority.

Makemedo's new authority becomes evident through the visitors that arrive in the next episode of the play. The Hoopoe is gone by this time, and Makemedo takes charge by bringing in the first visitor - a priest to sacrifice to the new bird gods. He immediately intrudes on the actions of the priest, and chastises him for his mistakes saying:

Stop! Stop! You idiot! You fool! What the hell are you doing summoning
all these vultures and seagulls to our celebration. Do you think I want
the likes of those filthy, gluttonous birds spoiling the festivities!
Chiffchaff! More like riffraff! Now piss off and take your wreaths
with you! I'll just have to finish the sacrifice off myself. (887-893)

The fact that he can say such things to a priest is an indication that he is in a position of relative power. He also takes control of the sacrifice himself, which indicates that he now has authority. The next visitor is the Poet, who comes to Makemedo wanting clothes. Makemedo has now become a source of interest to others, which is a sign of his rising importance. Makemedo bribes the Poet into leaving with clothes saying, "You need something to clothe this 'magnificent genius.' / Come on, give him your underwear!" (946-947). Makemedo is developing a more high-handed way of dealing with these unwanted visitors, showing that he views himself as a person of importance. He is even more imperious with the next visitor, a Prophet wanting clothes and food. He is rude, teasing the prophet by saying:

A fraudulent scoundrel you will meet
Demanding presents and plenty to eat,
Give him no clothing, feed him no meat,
Take a stick to his arse, and savagely beat! (984)

Threatening a prophet with violence is only something a person with great authority can do, and Makemedo actually does use physical violence against his visitor: "I'm going to take these damn scrolls and shove them right up your . . ." (990). Makemedo also abuses his next visitor, Meton, a famous Athenian mathematician. His visitors are becoming more important, which is a result of his rising importance as a person of authority. Makemedo uses sophisticated threats as a means of ridding himself of this guest saying, ". . . we've got quite a lot of 'rules' ourselves. / One of them says that any fraudster found within the city can be publicly beaten" (1016-1017). This new method of expulsion is an indication of the way Makemedo has begun to view himself: as a leader and great persuader of others. Makemedo is less patient with his next two intruders, the Inspector and Lawyer. He refutes the importance of the Inspector by giving him "a nice back-hander" (1029) twice, and insults the Lawyer by saying, "Sod off back to Athens and find some ambulances to chase! / The last thing I need is a lawyer. All barristers are banned!" (1044-1045). This is an assertion of Makemedo's new authority, especially considering the importance of the visitors.

Makemedo's authority is directly referred to in the next episode, when a messenger bird refers to him as "Prime Minister Makemedo" (1123). Makemedo no longer has any need to assert his power as in the previous episode - it is now firmly established. This becomes evident by the importance of the next visitor to Cloudcuckooland: the messenger of the gods and rainbow goddess Iris. Makemedo handles this important company by insulting her and calling her his "little bitch" (1209), as well as making sexual references by asking her if she has "been properly handled yet" (1213). This rudeness and crude behavior to a goddess portrays how secure Makemedo feels in his position. He even compares the power of the gods to his authority:

We can't let you gods just do as you please,
you have to obey the laws too, just like
everybody else. We're in charge now! (1226-1228)

He also denies the very importance of the gods saying, "The birds are the gods of mankind now" (1237), and threatens Zeus himself: "If Zeus gives me the slightest little bit of trouble / I'll incinerate his place like 'the halls of Amphion' / with my fire-brandishing eagles" (1248-1250). These statements show that Makemedo views himself as powerful enough to be on equal terms with the gods. His next callers merely uphold this notion. Makemedo has become "the toast of all mankind" (1280), rather than the gods, and the flock at his door are the Athenians themselves. The first of these is a youth who wants to "fly like a bird in the sky!" (1342). He wants wings and the ability to fly, which is a step up from the more basic demands of Makemedo's first visitors. This shows how much Makemedo's power has increased; he is now able to grant more important and difficult requests. The youth also wants to beat his father, and Makemedo uses this desire to trick him into joining the army:

If you really want to beat someone up,
here, take this wing. . .
and put this talon in your other hand.
Imagine that this is a nice cockscomb. . .
Right! You little bastard, you're in the Army now! (1363-1367)

This is a portrayal of Makemedo's powers of persuasion as a leader. The next guest, Cinesias, a poet of Athens, also desires flight. Makemedo asserts his authority once again by using physical violence to rid himself of his visitor: "I'll 'waft these wings' and your arse I'll whip!" (1401). He actually does whip his next guest, an Informer from Athens who also desires wings. At first, Makemedo attempts to use his powers of persuasion by saying, ". . . I am giving you wings, with my words!" (1437), but ends with, "It's not wings you need, but a good horse. . . A good horsewhipping!" (1465). His power is once again manifesting itself in persuasion and the physical abuse of others.

Makemedo's power is finally acknowledged by the gods in the next episode, when Prometheus seeks out Makemedo to tell him of Zeus's delegation. He even risks Zeus's displeasure for Makemedo: "Shh, don't say my name out loud! / If Zeus sees me here, I'm in big trouble" (1506-1507). This shows how highly Prometheus regards Makemedo's position. Moreover, Makemedo feels vastly superior to Prometheus, because he dares to tell Prometheus to remove a chamber pot: "Good idea, and while you're at it, you can be a stool bearer too!" (1552).

The next to come calling are the gods themselves, finally proving that his power and influence has risen to an equal level with theirs, and that they acknowledge that fact. Makemedo is so powerful, he treats the gods casually, calling Poseidon "mate" (1582) and inviting the deities to dinner (1602). He uses his powers of persuasion to convince the delegation of gods to give him the Divine Princess's hand in marriage as well as a large portion of Zeus's power. Makemedo does this by convincing Heracles that he has nothing to lose from giving away the power of the universe:

According to the law, none of your father's property
will go to you, nothing! You won't get an obol, mate,
because quite simply, you're a bastard. (1648-1650)

Makemedo reaches his ultimate power upon his marriage with the Divine Princess. He is hailed by the birds themselves:

Now Makemedo wields Zeus' power,
To shake the earth and make rain shower.
The princess who sat by Zeus' side
Has now been given as Makemedo's bride. (1751-1754)

The final visitor to Makemedo is the most important of all: the Divine Princess herself, and his marriage to her allows him to be elevated to a divine level. She is the final step in Makemedo's path to power.

Throughout Birds, Makemedo's ascent to ultimate power is mirrored in the people who visit him. Who they are, what they want, and how he deals with them are all indicators of where he is in the establishment of his power. Every person he comes in contact with is a step on his journey to power. Aristophanes uses these many unwanted guests as a means of subtly showing the gradual change in Makemedo's desires and social position. The people that come and go in the story are like the many events that can influence a person to change and achieve importance. They are the roadblocks and challenges that can make a person great.
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