The Ethics of Democracy in Menander's Dyskolos

By Lape, Susan | Helios, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Democracy in Menander's Dyskolos


Lape, Susan, Helios


Introduction

Menander's comedies insistently correlate male eros with Athenian citizen marriage. (1) Usually, the plays establish and affirm this link only retrospectively. In some cases, marriages based on a young citizen's attraction for a female citizen come about as if by accident, as chance events made possible by the last minute discovery of the heroine's true citizen identity. (2) For instance, the protagonists in Menander's Perikeiromene and Misoumenos are perfectly content to remain in nonmarital relationships. In the conclusion of both plays, however, the heroine's civic status is restored, allowing a relationship initially based on male erotic and emotional attraction to be normalized in marriage. Similarly, the rape plays establish a backhanded, seemingly inadvertent linkage between male desire and marriage. (3) In every case, Menander's comedies construct rape as an act of overwhelming male passion that eventually leads to the formation of a legitimate citizen marriage.

The romantic plot in Menander's Dyskolos deviates significantly from these conventional patterns. In the prologue, the god Pan explains that he has made the protagonist Sostratos fall madly in love with the heroine in return for her careful tending (flattering, 37) of his shrine and the nymphs (39-44). The action opens with Sostratos explaining to his incredulous friend, the parasite Chaireas, that he has just seen a girl, fallen irrevocably in love, and decided to marry her. (4) After listening to Sostratos's story, Chaireas describes the services he usually provides for friends in love:

[LANGUAGE NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (58-66)

...suppose one of my friends conceives

a passion for a courtesan; right way I seize her

and bring her, I get drunk, I set fires, I don't endure reason.

It's necessary to have her before you find out who she is.

Delay greatly increases passion,

but a quick beginning means a speedy conclusion.

Say a man suggests marriage with a freeborn girl;

I'm a different man; I make inquiries about her family,

economic status, and character. (5)

In effect, Chaireas rehearses the conventional parts that he, the comic parasite, knows how to play. In so doing, he suggests that Sostratos has gotten his plots mixed up, that he is treating a freeborn girl like a courtesan. Chaireas does not, of course, succeed in convincing Sostratos of the error of his ways. Rather, the sole point of his brief appearance in the play seems to be to call attention to the unusual romantic plot about to unfold. (6) While the first scene underscores the novelty of Sostratos's immediate decision to marry for love, by the conclusion of the play the erotic basis of marriage (for men) is recast as an unquestioned orthodoxy when Sostratos's father simply states that eros makes a young man's marriage more secure (788-90). Thus, rather than following the more typical Menandrian strategy of retrospectively linking desire and marriage, the Dyskolos deploys eros specifically and explicitly to generate a citizen marriage.

In contrast to other New Comic plays in which young men desire to marry women they love, in the Dyskolos Sostratos does not even know who the heroine is. (7) This "love at first sight" strategy has a twofold political significance: it neutralizes the implicitly political considerations of kinship, class, and social status which went into the making of Athenian marriages, even as it naturalizes the arbitrary rule limiting legitimate marriage to native Athenians. From 451/0 onwards, the democratic state restricted polis membership to men born from two native Athenians. (8) This restriction tightened the link between citizenship and marriage, allowing the state to use marriage to reproduce and maintain the borders of the specifically Athenian citizen community. In the Dyskolos, Sostratos ardently desires to obey the norms of civic matrimony and membership, not out of a sense of civic duty or conscious intention, but purely for reasons of personal romantic preference. …

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