The context in which the humor of the play makes sense is that of the litigiousness of Athenian society of the late 5th century. The number of court cases was expanding constantly, creating an ever-increasing need for jurymen to staff the normally 500-strong juries. Pericles had instituted a small amount of pay for jurymen, and for decrepit old men like the character Procleon in this play, this was a valuable source of additional income. Moreover, sitting on juries gave folks like Procleon and the "wasps" of the chorus something more interesting to do than sit around and watch the cheese curdle. The goings-on in the Athenian courtrooms gave them an important role in public life, and provided them with lively topics of discussion and gossip... the ancient equivalent of "Court TV" and "Judge Judy".
Aristophanes, the playwright, is poking fun of this trend in Athenian society in the ridiculous person of Procleon. However, Athenian litigiousness and trial mania are not his only target. In his conversion from his former juryman's life, Procleon becomes a caricature of an upper-class boob engaging in one of the well-heeled set's favorite addictions: dressing up in your finery, attending drinking parties and meetings of all-male secret societies and going on wine-soaked rampages through the streets, beating up passersby, knocking over statues, mauling slaves and women, etc. By the end of the play, it's hard to tell whether Philocleon is any better off for having traded a poor man's pastime for a rich man's.
The names of the main characters, as is frequent in Old Comedy, are joke names: Procleon (Philokleon in the original Greek) is pro-Kleon; Anticleon (Bdelykleon in Gk) is anti-Kleon. Kleon was a pro-democratic politician, prominent in the 420's after the death of Pericles, who fostered the use of the law courts in order to win favor with the common people. Aristophanes generally has nothing but contempt for Kleon and makes fun of him in several other plays. This play was produced in 422, near the end of the first phase of the Peloponnesian war. Athens is doing relatively well in the war at this point; 400 Spartan warriors have been captured (thanks to Kleon's leadership) and Sparta is anxious for their return. The devastating plague that struck Athens earlier in the decade has run its course. These are Kleon's halcyon days, but a little more than a year after this play is produced, he dies in battle outside Amphipolis.
Greek comedy: Of all the types of Greek literature that survive, forensic oratory (like the speech you have read about the murder of Eratosthenes) and comedy provide the most information about the lives and attitudes of ordinary people.
When we talk of Greek comedy we don't mean stand-up comedians or clowns performing in the street, we mean a specific sort of dramatic performance. Greek comedy, like Greek tragedy, was enacted at festivals in honor of the god Dionysos. In Athens, there were two festivals in which competitions between troupes performing comedies and tragedies occurred. The Greater [or City] Dionysia (in March) and the Lenaia [in February].
We know the names of several of the playwrights who produced comedies for these festival competitions, but only two of them wrote plays that survive intact to the present day: Aristophanes and Menander.
Aristophanes and Menander belong to two different periods in the development of the genre of comedy. Aristophanes (c. 450-385 BC) wrote what is called "Old Comedy," while Menander (c. 342-293 BC) wrote "New Comedy". There was considerable difference between the two types of comedy in terms of content, style and staging. Both, however, took as their main subject matter not the activities of kings, gods and heroes (as did Tragedy), but those of middle-class people, poor people and slaves. This is why Comedy of either type gives us a better glimpse into the lives of ordinary folk than most other forms of literature, including formal history, which concerns itself above all with the actions of leaders and aristocrats.
Old comedy (which you will be reading this week) was performed with as many as four professional actors, all male. If there were more than four speaking parts to be performed, the actors would have to do double duty. This was possible because all the performers were heavily costumed, with accoutrements including grotesquely comic masks, padding to emphasize the belly, rump and (for female characters) breasts, and enormous phalluses hanging down between the legs of male characters.
In addition to the actors, an integral part of the performance was a chorus composed of 24 individuals, usually common citizens trained especially for the occasion. In this play, the chorus represent a swarm of "wasps" and were probably costumed appropriately, with wings, stripes and, in place of the customary phallus, a stinger.
What these particular "wasps" actually are, though, are old men addicted to jury duty who swarm outside the courtroom early each morning in hopes of getting picked for one of the day's juries.
As is usual in Old Comedy, the chorus, or one of its members (identified as LEADER in your play) can interact with the characters on stage individually. At other times the entire chorus performs lyric odes which were originally accompanied by dancing and music. These are somewhat analogous to the musical numbers that come between the speaking parts in operettas or Broadway musicals. All that is left to us of these odes are the words, i.e. the "lyrics".
One other important function of the chorus in old comedy is performing what is called the "parabasis" This is a section in the middle of the play, roughly where an intermission might go in a modern play, in which the chorus comes forward and addresses the audience directly on issues that are usually not related directly to the subject of the play. Often the playwright uses the chorus as his mouthpiece in the parabasis, and takes advantage of the occasion to complain about such things as being awarded third prize in a previous competition, etc. When you get to the parabasis in this play (pp. 75-79) don't be put off. Read on!
Read the introduction to the play, and keep in mind as you're reading that there are footnotes to be found at the end of the play which explain some of the more abstruse jokes.