Social and Rhetorical Functions
Ancient Greek Comedy was one of the final three principal dramatic forms in the theater of classical Greece. Comedy is divided into three periods: Old Comedy, Middle Comedy, and New Comedy. We have examples of Old Comedy in surviving plays of Aristophanes. Middle Comedy is mostly lost though some short fragments by Athenaeus of Naucratis have survived. New Comedy is known from the papyrus fragments of Menander.
Its function, according to the philosopher Aristotle, is to be a representation of laughable people involving some kind of blunder or ugliness which does not cause pain or disaster. The New Comedy influenced much of Western European literature, such as the comic dramas of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Congreve, Wycherley, and Molière. The 5-act structure found in modern plays can first be seen in Menander’s comedies. 1
As early as the 500s, Comedies have been around. They were originally staged in the Greek city of Syracuse but were added to the festivals Athenians threw. Beforehand, they were not seen as important as tragedy and were not held in theatrical spaces. These festivals held competitions for comedic poets in the City of Dionysia, which was dedicated to the god, Dionysus, who was the god of wine, merriment, and theater. All evidence including literary, artistic, and inscriptional evidence shows that these competitions continued until the middle of the 2nd century. At this time Attic comedies were already being read, studied, and performed. This included Latin translations and adaptions throughout the Mediterranean world. 2
According to Aristotle (384– 322) in the Poetics, the origins of comedy can be traced back to iambic (abuse) poetry and ‘those who lead forth the phallic processions’.4 Aristotle is open about his lack of substantial documentary sources for the early history of comedy and his remarks about iambic poetry and phallic processions may therefore be speculative. 3
Out of all the hundreds of plays that were written and staged in these festivals, only eleven by Aristophanes (c .450– 386) and fragments of Menander (c .344– 292) survive more or less intact. The rest have either been lost entirely or are preserved in fragments quoted by other ancient authors or on papyrus scraps from Egypt. 4
The main purpose of any comedy in the ancient world was to be amusing and win the prize of the festivals of Dionysus. However, these plays are set in and comment on a world which is intended to be immediately recognizable to their audiences. Therefore, the fragments represent one of the most important sources of information about ancient Greek literary, political, and social life. 5
Development and Stylistic Features of Ancient Greek Comedy
Old Comedy (5th century BC) is generally characterized by overt and pointed discussion of contemporary social and political issues, bitter abuse of prominent individuals which included politicians, poets, and intellectuals, and unrestrained obscenity. The defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War signaled the end of Old Comedy. This is because the heroes and gods who had played a prominent role in Old Comedy became marked as bad.
Middle Comedy (400-320 BC) changes how comedy is put on and is characterized by a fondness for mythological parody. There is a substantial decrease in the amount of political personal commentary. This marks the emergence of standard character types, such as the parasite, the outspoken slave, the garrulous cook, and the courtesan. It also marks the disappearance of the parabasis and an eventual ending of the chorus from the action.
New Comedy (320 BC to the mid-3rd century BC) is generally taken to be characterized by a superﬁcially apolitical attitude. The cast of characters made up of average men and women taking very typical parts and concerned with domestic aﬀairs such as love, marriage, and money. This also takes after Middle Comedy as it also has no obscenity. New Comedy was introduced by Meander. 6
Features of Evidence Preserved
All of Meander’s comedies dealt with the theme of erotic passion. He favored the representation of young, middle-class lovers who has to fight with strict parents and the lack of resources in order to achieve their desire. His heroes are more unfortunate than bold and depend on luck, which manifests itself through coincidences that are characteristic of the genre. Meanders characters and general story lines are conventional for the time, but he adapts the plots to give a subtle and sympathetic examination of social issues. This included the dependent condition of citizen wives or foreign courtesans, the social tension between rich and poor families, and conflicts between generations.
Aristophanes’ comedies more evidently address social issues. Three plays are devoted to the ongoing war, others to problems of wealth and poverty, Athenian contentious, the dangers represented by new and corrosive philosophical doctrines or by popular leaders whom he regarded as demagogues, the function of public poetry (specifically tragedy), and the role of women in the state, etc. 7
He could comment openly on social questions in his own voice, or thinly disguised behind the persona of the chorus, by means of the formal interlude called thepaiabasis, in which dramatic illusion is wholly abandoned and the poet speaks directly to his audience. 8
1- “Ancient Greek Comedy.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_comedy.
2- Olson, S. Douglas. Broken Laughter: Select Fragments of Greek Comedy. Oxford, [England: Oxford University Press, 2007. Page 1
3- Olson, S. Douglas. Broken Laughter: Select Fragments of Greek Comedy. Oxford, [England: Oxford University Press, 2007. Page 1
4- Olson, S. Douglas. Broken Laughter: Select Fragments of Greek Comedy. Oxford, [England: Oxford University Press, 2007. Page 2
5- Olson, S. Douglas. Broken Laughter: Select Fragments of Greek Comedy. Oxford, [England: Oxford University Press, 2007. Page 3
6- Olson, S. Douglas. Broken Laughter: Select Fragments of Greek Comedy. Oxford, [England: Oxford University Press, 2007. Page 16
7- Konstan, David. Greek Comedy and Ideology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Page 3
8- Konstan, David. Greek Comedy and Ideology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Page 5
9- Tagliapietra, Livia. “A New Fragment of Aristophanes’ ‘Plutus’ (182-189, 211-219).” Zeitschrift Für Papyrologie Und Epigraphik 197 (2016): 33–37.
10- Cartwright, Mark. “Dionysos.” World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia. https://www.worldhistory.org/Dionysos/.
11- “Menander.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menander.
12- Öztürk, Selin. “Cult and Festivals of Dionysus in Ancient Greece.” Typelish. https://typelish.com/b/cult-and-festivals-of-dionysus-in-ancient-greece-100726.
13- “Ancient Greek Comedy.” https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ancient_Greek_Comedy.