Birds; Lysistrata; Assembly-Women; Wealth

By Stephen Halliwell; Aristophanes | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

ARISTOPHANES' CAREER IN CONTEXT

Psychologically as well as culturally, the workings of comedy and humour are notoriously resistant to analysis. This is because they involve, to varying degrees, the distortion, confusion, and subversion of expectations which settle what counts as 'serious' within a given framework of behaviour. Yet, despite this intrinsic fluidity, it is possible to identify within the Western traditions of drama two major types of humour which define the opposite ends of a comic spectrum. These two types first emerged in ancient Athenian culture, and they came to be known in antiquity itself by the basic labels of 'Old' and 'New' Comedy. Old Comedy, whose roots, as I shall shortly explain, lay partly in the 'folk' traditions of popular festivity, had its heyday in the second half of the fifth century. Its ethos, as we see from the surviving plays of Aristophanes, is quintessentially zany, fantastic, scurrilous, and larger-than-life; its treatment of characters and actions shows slight concern for consistency, plausibility, or coherence; and it tends to rely on a mentality which is physically reductive and crudely cynical. New Comedy, by contrast, which flourished in the time of Menander and other playwrights during the later fourth and third centuries, is marked by semi-realistic though somewhat stylized characterization, integrated and neatly resolved plots, benign sentimentality, and an underlying tolerance; its central interest is in recurrent tensions in human relationships, both within the family and on a larger social scale; and it is the ancestor, via the Roman adaptations of Plautus and Terence, of later European comedy of manners. The history of ancient Greek comedy was a process of evolution from the first to the second of these species of theatrical entertainment. Although we cannot any longer chart the whole of this process in detail, it is possible to see in the last two of Aristophanes' eleven extant plays—Assembly-Women and Wealth—indications of a transitional stage which was subsequently termed Middle Comedy and which roughly occupied the first half of the fourth century. 1

In a career which stretched from 427 to the mid-380s,

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1
For further information on Middle Comedy, see the Introductions to the two plays concerned.

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Birds; Lysistrata; Assembly-Women; Wealth
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Aristophanes - Birds Lysistrata Assembly-Women Wealth *
  • Preface *
  • Contents *
  • Introduction - Aristophanes' Career in Context *
  • Note on the Translation *
  • Select Bibliography *
  • Chronology *
  • Introduction *
  • Birds *
  • Introduction *
  • Lysistrata *
  • Introduction *
  • Assembly-Women *
  • Introduction *
  • Wealth *
  • Explanatory Notes *
  • Index of Names *
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