Monday, November 21, 2011


Gregory W. Dobrov, Brill's Companion to the Study of Greek Comedy. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010. Pp. 579. ISBN 9789004109636. €189.00.

Reviewed by Andreas Markantonatos, University of the Peloponnese (

Version at BMCR home site

In the book's blurb Gregory Dobrov, a leading expert in Greek Comedy, rightly states that "the present volume sets forth the main resources for the advancing student of Ancient Greek Comedy", and much more than this I might add, principally because with its clear purpose and breadth of vision this companion offers both acute younger readers and seasoned scholars of the classics a wide-ranging synthesis of the current debates on the recently blossoming field of the study of Greek Comedy, as well as breaking fairly new ground in those areas of scholarship on Greek comic playwrights that were previously considered shadowy and uninteresting mainly on account of lack of textual evidence and unsystematic primary research. The editor has brought together an impressive cast of specialists, judiciously dividing this tightly packed volume into three sections focusing on contextual, historical, textual, linguistic, and dramaturgical issues. It should be noted from the start that although there is a difference of opinion as to the interpretation of the existing ancient evidence, the thirteen academic experts never fail to provide a wider perspective on the problems.

The first part of the book contains five well-argued chapters illuminating, among much else, the political and social backdrop to Greek Comedy, while also discussing in detail a broad array of highly interesting topics concerning the material remains, the production and performance of comedy in antiquity, and the special use of mythological and ritual motifs in the plays. The second part comprises four chapters which shed light on the three periods of Greek Comedy, beginning with a clear-eyed presentation of fifth-century comedy (a separate chapter is justly reserved for Aristophanes alone) and continuing with informative discussions of Middle Comedy and New Comedy. The third and last part includes another four chapters exploring in depth crucial aspects of Greek Comedy such as the manuscript tradition of Aristophanes, the study of comic fragments, structure and metre, and last but not least the language of Old Comedy.

Gregory Dobrov, "Comedy and her Critics" (pp. 3-33), kicks off the volume with a both lucid and profound survey of critical trends in the study of Greek Comedy, giving particular focus to ancient literary criticism. His account of ancient scholarship on comedy segues into an unbiased appraisal of contemporary readings of Greek Comedy. He rightly points out that since August Meineke's groundbreaking study of Greek comic playwrights published in 1839 the critical idiom shifted "from a literary-philological perspective to a broad-spectrum approach that includes history, archaeology, epigraphy, papyrology, and performance" (p. 30) 1. The companion is distinctly underpinned by this principle, and Dobrov has carefully chosen the contributors with an eye to accommodating both traditional approaches and complex interpretative methods.

Douglas Olson, "Comedy, Politics, and Society" (pp. 35-69), tackles the hotly debated topic of comic politics head-on by taking the rather conservative position that comic plays do not endorse a practical political agenda, given that, as he argues, there is not a shred of irrefutable evidence that comic censure, however acute and unrelenting, had ever changed the audience's mind about matters of great moment. Much as Olson is right to insert certain caveats into the prevailing orthodoxy which purports to unlock greater political meaning in Greek Comedy, he slightly overplays his hand in suggesting that the plays are merely "raucous interventions in what looks to have been a vigorous public debate" (p. 47). Perhaps we would be one step closer to the truth if we accept that the political proposals of Greek Comedy did feed back into the Athenian people, although slowly. The comic poets' severe critique of the city's traditional social elite was not intended to tear up the manifesto of Athenian democracy, or rather, the values and axioms of the Athenian empire. The Athenian polis was based on a firm belief in power to make the most of capacities and opportunities, and the comic playwrights gave substantial expression to natural sentiments of exhaustion and depression after so prodigious an effort, while simultaneously guiding the Athenian citizens to reach a new height of spiritual strength: as a matter of fact, whenever spirits flagged and the social structure was shaken by the corruption of war, Old Comedy buttressed the optimistic idea that life could suddenly be enhanced and illuminated.

Richard Green, "The Material Evidence" (pp. 71-102), and Eric Csapo, "The Production and Performance of Comedy in Antiquity" (pp. 103-142), give us fascinating insights into the material evidence (i.e. theatre structures, vase- paintings, terracotta figurines, marble reliefs, paintings and mosaics) and the circumstances of dramatic production, as well as trying to look at things from a different viewpoint, often qualifying widely-held opinions and correcting assumed certainties in the light of new discoveries. One would wish nonetheless that Richard Green had not commenced his impressive argument for the direct correlation between art and theatre with a discussion of a highly controversial series of vases allegedly depicting comic choruses (pp. 71-74). This group of Athenian vases decorated with male figures specially dressed up for an unidentifiable occasion, together with another set of depictions of a chorus of dolphin-riders, does not provide conclusive proof of elaborated comic performances before the official recognition of comedy at the City Dionysia in 486 BCE.

Angus Bowie, "Myth and Ritual in Comedy" (pp. 143-176), expands his brilliant structuralist analysis of mythological and ritual schemata in Aristophanic poetry to include Middle and New Comedy, as well as Sicilian comedy and the earlier period of Attic comedy 2. He laments the almost total loss of 'mythological comedy', warning readers that his remarks and conclusions must be treated as tentative and contingent, while also maintaining that "it is only from around the middle of the [fifth] century that we have a clearer picture of use of mythological comedy" (p. 145). As regards the subject matter of those plays which put popular mythical figures into humorous situations, he notes that the Trojan saga occupies centre stage in Old Comedy (p. 147), no doubt one of the reasons being that the stories clustered around the Greek invasion of Troy allow for all sorts of political allusions and allegories. In later comedy, however, the political force of mythological plays gradually diminishes without disappearing completely: comedy continues to feature contemporary institutions, individuals, and events, but the earlier piquancy and verve have petered out. Bowie's research into myth and ritual should prove invaluable in the study of the special ways in which ancient comedy combines real-life and mythical elements to form complex networks of metaphors and analogies.

Ian Storey, "Origins and Fifth-Century Comedy" (pp. 179-225), and Ralph Rosen, "Aristophanes" (pp. 227-278), discuss the origins of the comic genre and the main representatives of Old Comedy. Though their topics are open to considerable debate, their appraisal of the evidence should stimulate readers to study the subject in more depth, even to seek further comparisons which may well show considerable disagreement between widely accepted theoretical principles and the comic texts. In particular, Rosen offers a detailed but slightly lopsided account of Aristophanes and his work, placing heavy emphasis on the difficulties surrounding the two-way communication between the poet and his audience. Unlike Ian Storey, however, who is very cautious about letting his personal views affect the line of his argument, he puts an inordinate amount of his energies into the critique of Aristophanic politics, casting serious doubt on the prevalent idea that in ancient comedy political and social themes can serve various analogical functions in a coherent and logical way. For instance, in his analysis of Aristophanes' Acharnians 509-539 he welcomes the apparent elusiveness of the poet's intentions, suggesting that any attempt at distinguishing the fictions from the facts would be ill-conceived and fruitless. But it is obvious that contemporary traditional configurations, mostly based on historiographical prototypes of difficult interethnic relationships (see principally Herodotus 1.1-5), hammer home the fact that history repeats itself in cycles of almost cosmological duration: the whore-stealing from which allegedly broke forth the origin of the war between Athens and Sparta mirrors the wife-stealing which triggered the war between the Greeks and the barbarians. Rosen fails to appreciate the strong intertextual connection between Dicaeopolis' famous speech in Acharnians and Hermes' account of the war in Peace 604-648. One might reasonably argue that both speeches are a further proof of Aristophanes' political manifesto for peace: Hermes' cosmogonic theory of the universe puts the Hellenic problem into humbling perspective, thereby strengthening the resolve of peace-loving citizens.

Geoffrey Arnott, "Middle Comedy" (pp. 279-331), and Stanley Ireland, "New Comedy" (pp. 333-396), offer dazzling pieces of scholarship, literally showering readers with valuable information about so obscure periods of comedy as Middle Comedy and New Comedy. Ireland has authored an extremely informative chapter on New Comedy, weaving together all the available evidence, while in his exploration Arnott has deserved well of the general reader and the scholar alike. Arnott, in particular, has undertaken to present a consistent and balanced picture of Middle Comedy, and he has handled his complicated subject skilfully and fairly; be that as it may, at times one has the feeling that the sheer bulk of the evidence, impressively displayed in the middle sections of his essay, needs much more elucidation.

Alan Sommerstein, "The History of the Text of Aristophanes" (pp. 399-422), and Heinz-G√ľnther Nesselrath, "Comic Fragments: Transmission and Textual Criticism" (pp. 423-453), explore important issues of textual transmission, bringing home to us the fact that the survival of the comic scripts has consistently been subject to the vagaries of fate. Sommerstein is justified in laying much stress upon Hellenistic scholarship, especially this giant of a critic, Aristophanes of Byzantium, who "constituted a critical text [of Aristophanes] on the basis of the manuscript evidence available to him" (p. 407). Fortunately for Aristophanes, Nigel Wilson has recently offered the public an excellent critical edition of Aristophanes, together with a most helpful collection of notes explaining some of his editorial decisions 3. Nesselrath, on the other hand, turns his critical faculties to a wide-ranging study of comic fragments; his discussion of textual variants makes fascinating reading, while also he compellingly argues that "Middle Comedy in later times appealed – at least in part – to people with interests rather different from those we could detect for the reception of the remains of Old Comedy" (p. 431).

Bernhard Zimmermann, "Structure and Meter" (pp. 455-469), and Andreas Willi, "The Language of Old Comedy" (pp. 471-510), round off this companion with highly enlightening chapters on the Bauformen of Greek Comedy, as well as the verbal art of Old Comedy. Zimmermann, widely acclaimed for his remarkable studies in the dramatic technique of Aristophanic poetry, provides a most useful overview of traditional comic forms and structures, pointing out significant developments from one period of comedic style to another. Similarly, Willi is concerned with developments and differentiations, in this case as regards the language used by Aristophanes and his numerous, but more shadowy peers of Old Comedy. Though the textual evidence is not robust enough to support ironclad statistical conclusions, he makes the most of the comic fragments, discussing a broad range of linguistic topics such as parodies of text genres, the humorous use of foreign dialects, verbal accumulation, punning, neologisms, and comic names.

It is only fair to conclude by saying that the contributors to this immensely learned companion will command the attention of both their professional colleagues and the advancing students of classical literature. The thirteen specialists, far from scripting a lengthy rehearsal of hackneyed arguments, have written perceptive and innovative (in certain cases even slightly controversial) introductions to their subjects, while at the same time offering arresting reassessments of important aspects of Greek Comedy. This heavy volume deserves every bit of shelf space it will occupy.


1.   Meineke, A. (1839), Fragmenta Comicorum Graecorum, vol. I: Historia Critica Poetarum Comicorum Graecorum (Berlin).
2.   Bowie, A. M. (1993), Aristophanes: Myth, Ritual and Comedy (Cambridge).
3.   Wilson, N. G. (2007a), Aristophanis Fabulae (Oxford) and (2007b), Aristophanea: Studies on the Text of Aristophanes (Oxford).

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