Saturday, September 5, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Alan H. Sommerstein, Talking About Laughter: And Other Studies in Greek Comedy. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 343. ISBN 9780199554195. $125.00.
Reviewed by Andrew Hartwig, The University of Sydney


[Chapter titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Every student of Greek comedy will be familiar with Alan Sommerstein's Aris & Phillips series containing the text, translation and commentary of the plays of Aristophanes. Many will also be familiar with his numerous journal articles and book chapters covering a variety of themes associated with ancient Greek comedy. This work offers a selection of the latter, published between 1980 and 2008, as well as two new contributions (chapters 6 and 14) and one other paper (chapter 4) translated into English from French for the first time. The content of these papers remains the same as when they were first published, with the original page numbering embedded in the text. But Sommerstein has included addenda at the end of each chapter, keeping them up-to-date with the most recent scholarship and noting where his own views may have since changed. The book also features an introduction (pp. 1-14), a copious index locorum (pp. 307-33), and a general index (pp. 334-43).

The selection of works, Sommerstein admits (p. 1), is somewhat arbitrary. The principle of selection was largely to restrict the book to papers that might otherwise be difficult to find, in particular conference proceedings published by a foreign press. This was a good decision: a review of my own University collection only turned up two of the fourteen chapters contained in this volume. Each chapter, Sommerstein explains, also represents the principal themes that have occupied him continuously throughout his professional career "with the exception of the history and criticism of the Aristophanic text" (p. 1). We have, then, a wide and representative selection of Sommerstein's works. A word of warning might be included here: although the title of the book refers generally to 'Greek Comedy', the book itself deals mainly with Old Comedy and Aristophanes. Those interested in New Comedy or Middle Comedy, however, will find something of interest in chapters 1, 2 and 14.

The following chapter summary is arranged more or less according to the thematic arrangement adopted by Sommerstein in his introduction, with only slight changes: chapters that deal with aspects of language in comedy (chs. 1-4), chapters that look at comedy more generally (chs. 5-7, 10 and 14), and chapters that look at individual plays of Aristophanes in more detail (chs. 8-9, 11-13). To these we can add Sommerstein's wide-ranging introduction (pp. 1-14), which, while ostensibly a survey of the book's contents, is a stimulating analysis in itself of many aspects of comedy, integrating material and views Sommerstein has published elsewhere but has not included in this volume.

Chapters 1-4 focus mainly on linguistic aspects of comedy. Chapter 1 'The Language of Athenian Women' (pp. 15-42) looks at a variety of linguistic features employed by women in comedy (including oaths, address-forms and obscenities), how these reflect the social status of women, and whether there were any marked changes in the century that separated Aristophanes and Menander. Chapter 2 'The Naming of Women in Greek and Roman Comedy' (pp. 43-69) is a comprehensive overview of all ancient comedy, examining every extant instance where a woman is mentioned by name. This study complements and reaffirms the thesis of Schaps1 that respectable living citizen women were never named directly in public. Chapter 3 'The Anatomy of Euphemism in Aristophanic Comedy' (pp. 70-103) classifies various kinds of euphemism found in Aristophanes and notes an increase of the phenomenon in the later plays, partly (but not wholly) as a consequence of the increased role played by women. Sommerstein determines 198 instances of euphemism in Aristophanes, discussing each individual example in a model of concision. Chapter 4 'Talking about Laughter in Aristophanes' (pp. 104-15), published here in English for the first time, analyses the vocabulary and typology of laughter in Aristophanes and concludes that the ultimate aim of comedy was "shared pleasure and the shared laughter it brings" (p. 114). This is a recurrent theme throughout this book.

Chapters 5-7, 10 and 14 discuss comedy more generally. Chapter 5 'Old Comedians on Old Comedy' (pp. 116-35) provides a useful analysis of the various ways in which Old Comic poets speak of themselves and other comic poets on the stage, especially their rivals. Chapter 6 'Slave and Citizen in Aristophanic Comedy' (pp. 136-54), published here for the first time, is a response to the scholarly view that Athenian citizens were in the habit of consciously distinguishing themselves as superior to slaves and citizens. Sommerstein argues that the evidence of comedy seems to make no effort at such a distinction, but instead reserves this treatment only for characters opposed to the comic project. Chapter 7 'Monsters, Ogres and Demons in Old Comedy' (pp. 155-75) examines an underlying pattern in comedy where the protagonist (or poet) is depicted as a hero figure who must battle with monster figures, for example Kleon. Sommerstein detects an apparent twist in this pattern where, paradoxically, the hero-saviour figure of Aeschylus is consciously depicted in monstrous terms in the Frogs. Chapter 10 'An Alternative Democracy and an Alternative to Democracy in Aristophanic Comedy' (pp. 204-22) argues that many of the political measures Aristophanes advocates in his comedies -- such as less pay for public offices, repression of sycophants, aristocratic leadership, and peace with Sparta -- coincide largely with oligarchic views, or at the very least a vigorously conservative form of democracy. Whenever Aristophanes presents a more radical alternative to democracy in his comedies, for example rule by a single person, this is never put forward as a serious proposal, but rather is part of the dramatic fabric of the fantasy plays Birds, Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae. Chapter 14 'Platonios Diff. Com. 29-31 and 46-52 Koster: Aristophanes' Aiolosikon, Kratinos' Odyssês, and Middle Comedy' (pp. 272-88), another new offering, is an important contribution to studies on the development of comedy from the so-called 'Old' Comedy to 'Middle' Comedy. Sommerstein shows that the later scholar Platonios (third century A.D.), whose work preserves much of the evidence relevant to this question, is thoroughly riddled with errors, not least of all in his apparent confusion of the fifth century Odyssês of Kratinos with the fourth century Odysseus of Theopompos, and that the picture of fifth-century comedy inherited by modern scholarship derives from this error.

Chapters 8-9, and 11-13 look more specifically at individual plays. Chapter 8 'The Silence of Strepsiades and the Agon of the First Clouds' (pp. 176-91) examines Aristophanes' incomplete revised version of Clouds and argues that by a few slight adjustments to the original script Aristophanes intended to have Strepsiades present at the agon of the second version, thus lending greater self-responsibility and justification to the treatment he receives later in the play. Chapter 9 'Response to Slater, "Bringing up Father: Paideia and Ephebeia in the Wasps"' (pp. 192-203) looks at the development of the character Philokleon in Wasps, not in terms of anachronistic rites of passage for ephebes, as Niall Slater had argued, but rather in terms of the Dionysiac spirit of comedy which Philokleon comes to manifest later in the play. This spirit, as Sommerstein briefly defines and illustrates in a compact survey of comedy at the end of the chapter, is "the spirit of seeking enjoyment for oneself and others, as inclusively as possible . . . [i]ts enemies are those who seek enjoyment for themselves at others' expense" (p. 201). Chapter 11 'Lysistrata the Warrior' (pp. 223-36) presents counter-arguments against the typical assumption that Lysistrata is a great peace play and Aristophanes himself a pacifist. Sommerstein counter-balances these generalisations, promoted no less by modern revivals that always seem to crop up in times of war, arguing that Lysistrata herself is far from being a pacifist in the traditional sense of the word, and that Aristophanes himself only seems interested in peace with Sparta. Chapter 12 'Nudity, Obscenity and Power: Modes of Female Assertiveness in Aristophanes' (pp. 237-53) closely examines these aspects in Lysistrata and Ecclesiazusae and the topsy-turvy world Aristophanes creates where women assume traditionally masculine modes of behaviour. Chapter 13 'Kleophon and the Restaging of Frogs' (pp. 254-71) is an engaging study of how drama can be exploited by others for political gain. Sommerstein argues that the public honours awarded to Aristophanes for the Frogs and its subsequent restaging the following year (404 B.C.) was engineered by oligarchic sympathizers who wished to exploit criticism in that play of the democratic leader Kleophon. Sommerstein then analyses textual variants found in the latter part of the play, presumably rewritten for the second performance, and considers that Aristophanes adopted these changes for dramatic rather than political purposes, the poet himself likely unaware of any political machinations behind its restaging.

As one would expect, the scholarship in this volume is of a high standard throughout. Sommerstein shows an excellent awareness of the social and political contexts of his subject matter, and his methodology, particularly in the opening chapters on language -- which are valuable as reference works in themselves -- is exemplary. Among potential readers of this volume, those interested in the study of women in comedy will find this collection indispensible, while scholars of ancient Greek comedy in general and libraries would also do well to include it in their collections. Considering Sommerstein's experience and expertise, these essays certainly deserve a wider audience than they would otherwise receive scattered individually among lesser known publications.

There are only a few quibbles to raise here. In chapter 4 (p. 105) Sommerstein renders the verb ἐπιγελάσαι at Ar. Thesm. 980 with the weak sense 'smile upon'. But here it likely denotes actual laughter, especially in combination with προθύμως (981, translated by Sommerstein as 'with ready heart') which suggests a more enthusiastic response than a smile. This also seems more likely when we consider that these lines are spoken, fundamentally, by a comic chorus seeking a favourable response when competing for the prize.2 In chapter 5 Sommerstein argues that in cases where one person applies to produce another poet's works he was recorded in the festival records as the didaskalos while the poet himself had only an "unofficial" and "clandestine" role in the production (p. 118). In support of this Sommerstein cites the example of Araros, the son of Aristophanes, who apparently produced Aristophanes' last two plays, and indeed is officially recorded in the 'Fasti' as the didaskalos for the City Dionysia of 387 (IG II2 2318.196), although he apparently made his own dramatic debut much later in the 370s (Suda α 3737; see Sommerstein's addendum at p. 133). But this question is complicated by the example of the tragic poet Aphareus who is recorded on the official Victors' List for the City Dionysia as winning two victories (IG II2 2325.12), both of which, Plutarch tells us (Mor. 839c-d), were produced by a certain Dionysios. This suggests that the poet himself was officially recognised and openly acknowledged as such. The opposition of our hard evidence effectively leaves the question at a stalemate.

Again in chapter 5 Sommerstein states (p. 124): "no evidence survives of any passage in which an Old Comic dramatist other than Aristophanes claimed credit for the intellectual sophistication of his comedies". Similar claims by Sommerstein that Aristophanes was the only dramatist who sought to present himself as a benefactor and source of good counsel to the Athenians, or the only poet to have presented himself as under divine patronage (pp. 131-2), need to be approached with caution, since, while this may be borne out by the surviving evidence, there is simply not enough that remains of the other (fragmentary) comic poets to compare and make specific assertions of this kind with real confidence. Other points of controversy which may give one pause include the assertion that the theatre audiences of the fifth century were mostly well-to-do (p. 7); and the idea that the restaged version of Frogs may have been the only comedy performed at the Lenaia of 404 B.C. (p. 259). On these questions the balance of probability perhaps leans against Sommerstein, but there seems to be no definitive answer either way.3

Chapter Titles:

1. The Language of Athenian Women
2. The Naming of Women in Greek and Roman Comedy
3. The Anatomy of Euphemism in Aristophanic Comedy
4. Talking About Laughter in Aristophanes
5. Old Comedians on Old Comedy
6. Slave and Citizen in Aristophanic Comedy
7. Monsters, Ogres, and Demons in Old Comedy
8. The Silence of Strepsiades and the Agon of the First Clouds
9. Response to Slater: 'Bringing up Father: Paideia and Ephebeia in the Wasps'
10. An Alternative Democracy and an Alternative to Democracy in Aristophanic Comedy
11. Lysistrata the Warrior
12. Nudity, Obscenity, and Power: Modes of Female Assertiveness in Aristophanes
13. Kleophon and the Restaging of Frogs
14. Platonios Diff. Com. 29-31 and 46-52 Koster: Aristophanes' Aiolosikon, Kratinos' Odyssês, and Middle Comedy


1.   D. M. Schaps, 'The Woman Least Mentioned: Etiquette and Women's Names', CQ 27 (1977) 323-30.
2.   On the question of laughter and smiles see now S. Halliwell, Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity (Cambridge, 2008), Appendix 1 (pp. 520-9).
3.   Errors and omissions are few. Those I noticed: p. 26 n. 34 an addendum is signalled but missing from p. 39; p. 154 the text of Eur. Bacch. 424 should read ᾧ instead of ῷ; p. 203 (addendum to p. 201 n. 45) one can add the journal article of Z. Biles AJP 123 (2002) 169-204 to the list of recent treatments of Cratinus' Pytine; p. 272 Platonios Diff. Com. 29 should read οἷόν instead of οἶόν; p. 273 Platonios Diff. Com. 47 should read οἷον instead of οἶον.

1 comment:

  1. Not objective recension! so many positive!!!