Classical Influences on English Poetry

By J. A. K. Thomson | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER SIX
COMEDY

COMEDY, as a form of art, originated, like tragedy, in ancient Athens, and has a parallel history, both having developed from rituals in the worship of the god Dionysus. This history lasts till the beginning of the fourth century before Christ, after which comedy begins to diverge on a path of its own. It then becomes what was called by ancient scholars the New Comedy to distinguish it from what was called the Old Comedy. The chief differences were these. The Old Comedy had a Chorus, which was a very important part of it; the New Comedy had not. The Old Comedy satirised and burlesqued known and living persons; in the New Comedy this was forbidden. The Old Comedy was farcical throughout; not so the New. A play of the Old Comedy had little or no plot; in the New Comedy the plot was ingeniously complicated. In the Old Comedy there was little or no attempt at characterisation; in the New a real effort was made to make the characters true to life.

The chief master of the Old Comedy (which may be said to have died with him) was Aristophanes. He is a very great figure in literature, but his direct influence necessarily all but disappeared with the extinction of that form of art in which he excelled and which he so largely helped to create. We cannot imitate him, we can only admire. The New Comedy produced no comparable genius, but it has profoundly influenced the whole history of literature. It is the New Comedy then to which we must give our attention.

Its chief master was the Athenian Menander. Of his plays only fragments, though very considerable fragments, have survived. They enable us to understand, if not altogether to accept, the extremely high reputation which he enjoyed among

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