The political art of Athenian wit

Greek Comedy and Ideology
August 11, 1995

The interpretation of comedy is perhaps one of the most difficult forms of literary criticism. Is the purpose of comedy solely to entertain, or does the dramatist have a more serious, indeed insidious, point to make?

David Konstan seeks to disinter ideological truths from ancient classical comedy. He does this with a close reading of several plays by Aristophanes and Menander. The broad distinction between the two playwrights can briefly be summarised as political, in the case of Aristophanes, and social, in the case of Menander. Athens, during the time of Aristophanes, was mistress of her destiny in a way that by the time of Menander had long since ceased to be true. The comedy of Aristophanes thus reflects this political fact. The Peloponnesian war, predominant feature of the political landscape, is reflected in several of Aristophanes's comedies, usually by resort to a utopian alternative. Konstan shows how Aristophanes develops the plot of each play in this regard: in The Birds, for example, by the vocabulary used and the stock characters for whom the average Athenian had little respect. Oddly, the play's utopian character is compromised towards its end by its depiction of Pisthetaerus as being more despotic than he was viewed by the Athenians he had abandoned.

By Menander's time, however, Athens was part of a larger political entity, no longer free to pursue her interests. His comedy utilises the contradictions inherent in the organisation of the civic state. Again Konstan develops the argument by close exposition, such as his discussion of the central speeech of Charisius in Arbitrants: here he argues convincingly that previous interpretations have missed the point that Charisius judges both himself and his wife by the same criteria and finds himself wanting. The comedy of Menander is more "middle-class" in outlook than that of Aristophanes, almost of the drawing-room variety.

Konstan does not subscribe to the view that the classical dramatist had to create laughter at any cost. But if his plays were not funny, it is difficult to see how he could have been successful and how his plays could have survived to this day. Comedy is predicated on taking a recognisable situation to a degree of absurdity. Konstan does however successfully show how these dramatists plotted their comedies out of the prevailing conditions of the day to create the comedy. But he does not resolve whether commentary or comedy was the primary intention.

Philip Warnock is librarian of The THES.

Greek Comedy and Ideology

Author - David Konstan
ISBN - 0 19 509294 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 244

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