Thursday, August 26, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
James Robson, Aristophanes: An Introduction. London: Duckworth, 2009. Pp. xi, 244. ISBN 9780715634523. $27.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Anna Peterson, Ohio State University

For the average undergraduate, Aristophanes is paradoxically one of the most appealing and inaccessible authors from antiquity. Students are drawn to his ribald humor, but at the same time struggle with the high concentration of topical and culturally specific references. In response to this problem, Robson's new introduction offers a solid discussion of some of the core issues surrounding Aristophanes' plays: its staging, humor, obscene language, and politics, to name just a few. Although Robson writes in a clear and accessible style, an advanced undergraduate, already somewhat familiar with Aristophanes, would perhaps be best served by this introduction. That said, this book or selections from it would work well both in courses on Aristophanes and those on ancient drama.

Robson's thematic focus fills a gap left by MacDowell's play-by-play approach in Aristophanes and Athens by presenting a more overarching view of Aristophanes as a comic playwright.1 In his introduction, he provides a concise and thoughtful summary of the various recent theoretical approaches to Aristophanes. As Robson admits, his discussion is limited to the plays most commonly read by students, namely Acharnians, Knights, Clouds, Birds, Lysistrata, and Frogs, with Wasps, Peace, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Assemblywomen appearing more sporadically. The casualty of this approach is sadly Wealth, to which I will return at the conclusion of this review.

Robson divides his book into ten chapters, each of which reads as its own distinct essay. Chapter 1 presents a general introduction to Aristophanes and the genre of Old Comedy, covering Aristophanes' biography, Aristophanes' own comments about his work, the conventions of Old Comedy, and finally the general plot movement of an Aristophanic comedy: the comic hero(ine)'s dissatisfaction and subsequent fantastical solution to the problems they face. The most interesting part of this chapter comes in Robson's attempts to "get a grip" on Aristophanes' "'personal sentiments," specifically those found in the Clouds regarding the modesty and originality of that play (p. 4-8). While Robson rightly points to the perhaps irresolvable contradictions between this assertion and the rest of the play, a reader unfamiliar with Aristophanes might find this section confusing since it presumes an understanding of the general conventions of Old Comedy (specifically the role of the parabasis) before it in fact defines and discusses them.

The next two chapters are devoted to the question of performative context. While these chapters, for the most part, present a standard discussion about the dramatic contest, theater space, and costumes, their clarity and refusal to oversimplify will provide a particularly helpful introduction to the questions surrounding the production and staging of Aristophanic plays. Chapter 2, "Putting on a Show," examines the basic features of the two main dramatic festivals, the Lenaea and the Great Dionysia. In considering the performative context of Aristophanes' plays, Robson tackles the questions surrounding the festival program as well as how a play came to be produced, including the roles of the chorĂªgos, the allotment of actors, and the ambiguous relationship between poet and didaskalos. In addition to this, Robson also includes brief discussions of the dramatic contest itself, the potential makeup of the audience, and other smaller festivals such as the Rural Dionysia.

Chapter 3, "Setting the Scene: Theatre Space and Costumes," continues the previous chapter's discussion by examining the physical space of the theater as well as the use of costumes and masks. In addition to a general description of a Greek theater, this chapter explores Aristophanes' use of the theatrical space, shifting from defined places such as the Acropolis or Euripides' house to less specific locations.

From questions concerning performance, Robson shifts in Chapter 4, "Aristophanes the Humorist," to the realm of humor theory. The chapter opens with a systematic study of the different connotations associated with the modern English words: laughter, funny, humor, joke, and serious. This discussion is useful not so much for what it reveals about Aristophanic humor, but rather for the more nuanced view of our modern concept of "humor." From here Robson moves into a summary of the different theoretical approaches to humor, specifically verbal humor, Classical discussions of humor (though Plato is unfortunately overlooked), and social theories of humor, which does not engage with Bakhtin despite the recent work on Bakhtin and Aristophanes by Charles Platter.2 While the lens of humor theory is certainly a valuable way of approaching Aristophanes, Robson surprisingly does not apply it in the rest of the chapter, which focuses largely on the different character types and the types of jokes found in Aristophanes' plays.

Robson continues his focus on the different character types in Chapter 5, "The People of Aristophanes." Beginning with a discussion of the "discontinuity" of characters, namely a character behaving contrary to our expectations, and their "recreativity" or ability to instantly transform, Robson accepts Silk's argument that this represents "a fundamental part of the way they are characterized" (Robson's emphasis) and that Aristophanes' characters do not subscribe to any "realistic understanding of human character." (79-80) This then allows Robson to turn his attention to two character types, women and old men, as well as the characterization of the chorus. Robson's discussion, however, is not limited to the different ways in which Aristophanes makes use of these character types but also begins to raise questions about the use of Aristophanes' plays as a source for social history. For Robson, Aristophanes' portrayal of women, for example, can provide information about women's lives, male attitudes towards women, and ultimately Aristophanes' comic technique. (83) This chapter is useful for the different interpretative approaches that it offers its reader.

In Chapter 6, "Tragic Fragments," Robson tackles the issue of Aristophanes' relationship to tragedy by first discarding the term parody, which he contends is overused to the point that it has lost much of its meaning, and replacing it with "paratragedy." Within this category, Robson draws the distinction between "tragic parody" and "tragic pastiche," the difference being in the treatment of the original tragic material. Parody, on the one hand, is an inherently negative style of imitation that "exaggerates and misrepresents to achieve its effects," while tragic pastiche is the mimicry, not mockery of tragedy (108). Although Robson is precise in his discussion of Aristophanes' treatment of tragedy, this chapter surprisingly lacks an in-depth analysis of one of the main examples of Aristophanes' treatment of Euripides, namely Dikaiopolis' appropriation of the Telephus in the Acharnians. As a result of this, the chapter fails to get at the complexity of Aristophanes' appropriation of tragedy, specifically, as Rosen has shown, his use of it to reveal the disingenuousness of the comic hero. 3

Chapter 7, "Talking Dirty: Aristophanic Obscenity," addresses the role and effects of obscene language. Beginning with a brief account of obscenity in our modern culture, Robson provides a good introduction to the use of obscenities in Classical Athens. In his discussion of this issue, Robson borrows Henderson's distinction between primary obscenities (words that refer to taboo objects or acts in a non-euphemistic way), euphemisms, obscene slang, double entendres, and obscene gestures. As Robson acknowledges, the differences between these terms are not always clear. To illustrate this point, Robson turns to three major contexts in which Aristophanes uses obscenities: personal abuse, humor, and sex. While the distinctions drawn in the first half of the chapter are useful, Robson is at his best when he considers the different roles that obscenity assumes in Aristophanes' plays, such as its ability to highlight the positive value of sexual freedom at the same time as it presents other forms of sexual behavior in a negative light.

Robson rather abruptly shifts gears in Chapter 8, "Waxing Lyrical: Aristophanes the Songwriter," to discuss the range of lyrical passages found in Aristophanes' plays. For a modern reader, Aristophanes' lyrical passages are perhaps the most unfamiliar. In response to this problem, Robson begins by exploring the difference between the metrics of an English poem such as Blake's Infant Joy and that of Ancient Greek, before moving on to the discuss range of tones, from abusive to elevated, that we find Aristophanes striking in these sections. While Robson's attempts to tackle this aspect of Aristophanes are commendable, much of the discussion, such as the distinction between the glyconic and pherecratean meters, is likely to be lost on most undergraduate readers except for the most advanced.

Robson surprisingly delays addressing the politics of Aristophanes' plays until Chapter 9, "Getting the Message: Aristophanic Politics." This chapter largely covers moments of personal abuse and the question of how much truth there is in Aristophanes' caricatures. In addition to this, Robson highlights Aristophanes' tendency to glorify the past, moments of political advice, and the different biases that we find in the plays, for example Aristophanes' mockery of the courts. In his discussion of the political nature of Aristophanic comedy, Robson makes the important argument that we should not read these moments as indicative of Aristophanes' own political views, but should discuss them simply as expressed within the context of the play. The reception of Aristophanes' politically charged statements represents the conclusion of the chapter, both in terms of their potential reception by the audience and external sources, such as Socrates' comments in the Apology.

Robson ends his introduction to Aristophanes with a stimulating chapter on the issues surrounding translation and several modern performances of Aristophanes. Moreover, "Aristophanes in the Modern World: Translation and Performance," provides an interesting history of Aristophanic translations and their censorship, as well as a discussion of the act of translation from a theoretical perspective. Robson's focus in this chapter is almost exclusively on the Lysistrata, which allows him to compare how different translators grapple with issues of dialect, obscenity, and Aristophanes' culturally specific humor. The chapter then concludes with discussion of several modern British adaptations of Aristophanes for the stage. While this chapter represents a fitting conclusion to this introduction, it would have been nice if Robson had included some discussion of the more immediate reception of Aristophanes, for example his presence in Plato's Symposium or Lucian's debt to him.

The only major complaint I have of this book is that it fails to discuss in much detail the rivalry between Aristophanes and the other comic poets, as well as Wealth.4 Although the topic of this book is admittedly Aristophanes, its exclusion of these topics from the discussion has at times the unwanted effect of presenting Aristophanes as if he were in a vacuum, unconnected to other poets and the later comic tradition. In addition to this, since Robson uses endnotes, which an undergraduate is unlikely to consult, it would have been useful if he had included a further reading section at the conclusion of each chapter as a guide for students wishing to further research a topic. That said, overall Robson's text represents a very informative introduction to Aristophanes.

Table of Contents:

1. Aristophanes and Old Comedy 1
2. Putting on a Show 13
3. Setting the Scene: Theatre Space and Costumes 30
4. Aristophanes the Humorist 48
5. The People of Aristophanes 77
6. Tragic Fragments 103
7. Talking Dirty: Aristophanic Obscenity 120
8. Waxing Lyrical: Aristophanes the Songwriter 141
9. Getting the Message: Aristophanic Politics 162
10. Aristophanes in the Modern World: Translation and Performance 188


1.   Douglas M. MacDowell. (1995) Aristophanes and Athens: an Introduction to the Plays. Oxford University Press.
2.   Anthony Edwards. (1993) "Historicizing the Popular Grotesque: Bakhtin's Rabelais and Attic Old Comedy," in R. Scodel (ed.) Theater and Society in the Classical World. Ann Arbor: 89-117; Charles Platter. (2001) "Novelistic Discourse in Aristophanes," in Carnivalizing Difference: Bakhtin and the Other. ed. Peter I. Barta, Paul Allen Miller, Charles Platter, and David Shepherd. Routledge; Charles Platter. (2007) Aristophanes and the Carnival of Genres. Oxford.
3.   Ralph M. Rosen. (2005) "Aristophanes, Old Comedy and Greek Tragedy" Departmental Papers (Classical Studies).
4.   Malcolm Heath (1990) "Aristophanes and his Rivals," Greece and Rome, 143-158; Ralph Rosen (2000) Cratinus' Pytine and the Construction of the Comic Self, in The Rivals of Aristophanes ed. F. D. Harvey and J. Wilkins. University of Exeter Press; and Zachary Biles (2002) "Intertextual Biography in the Rivalry of Cratinus and Aristophanes," AJP 123: 169-204.

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