Wednesday, June 17, 2015


David Christenson, Hysterical Laughter: Four Ancient Comedies about Women: Lysistrata, Samia, Casina, Hecyra. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 286. ISBN 9780199797448. $19.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Natalia Tsoumpra, University of Glasgow (

Version at BMCR home site


As suggested by its title, this volume translates four Greek and Roman comedies in which women hold a prominent place (Lysistrata, Samia, Casina and Hecyra), with a general introduction, shorter introductory essays for each individual play, running commentaries, and an appendix on Olympian deities. Translating "more for the classroom than the stage" David Christenson intends to "produce lively, highly readable translations of the four comedies that are accurate reflections of their originals" and to "strike a fruitful balance between liveliness and fidelity"; in these goals he is certainly successful. David Christenson has produced highly readable, lively and entertaining prose translations that accurately reflect the content and style of the comedies. The introduction provides ample cultural background about the development of the genre of comedy in Greece and Rome, as well as the representation of women in the ancient world, while the notes offer concise and useful information. Bibliography is full, without being overwhelming, and it is up-to-date, with useful suggestions for further reading.

Why these four plays? Christenson justifies his choice in the introduction by the claim that all four plays in some way challenge ancient stereotypes about women but do not go so far as to overturn the pre-play world's status-quo: on the contrary, they end up re-establishing it. Christenson thus wisely refrains from advocating an overtly feminist agenda for the plays. He notes that to varying degrees they all "reveal how gender roles can be constructed, examined, undermined, deconstructed, or reasserted" and that they illustrate "the possibilities for theatre as an agent of gender awareness or destabilization even in environments most unreceptive of social transformation, i.e. the traditionalist and patriarchal societies of ancient Athens and Rome".

Starting with Greek Old Comedy, the 31-page introduction offers useful information on the religious festivals, staging and theatrical space, and the generic traits, content, and structure of Aristophanic comedy, with a rather brief statement on the political voice of Aristophanes as "both elitist and enlightened". Christenson appears to accept the presence of women in the audience during the Great Dionysia (p. 5), and it would perhaps be worth expanding on the implications of this female presence and on the different ways in which the plays (especially Lysistrata) could have resonated with the women. The introduction moves on to describe the evolution of the Old into the New Comedy, and to outline the general characteristics of Menandrian comedy, which sharply distinguish it from the Aristophanic one and make Menander "the father of the modern sitcom". In his treatment of Roman comedy, Christenson discusses the production of the Roman plays and their dependence on and departure from the Greek originals, as well as the different character of Plautine and Terentian comedy. Christenson devotes the introduction's final section to the position of women in Greece and Rome: starting with the myth of Hesiod's Pandora (Greece) and Livy's accounts of the Sabine women and Lucretia (Rome), he covers various aspects of the lives of women in the Greco-Roman world, such as their role in the family structure, participation in religious activities and exclusion from the political process. All this is useful background information about the worlds in which the plays originated; yet, a brief discussion of the paradox of women's prominence in the plays and the dramatists' preoccupation with strong female characters, which comes in strong contrast with their rather marginalized role in society, would have been expedient.

The introductory essays give essential background information and overviews of the plots, while highlighting important gender issues raised in each play (empowerment of female figures, overturning of stereotypes, consideration of male and female roles within the institution of marriage, and, as the author nicely puts it in Hecyra (p. 235), the capacity "to push audiences out of their comfort zones"). The commentaries on all four plays are very helpful and concise, but also thorough throughout. Footnotes, instead of endnotes or a back-of-the-book commentary, are a very sensible choice, since they are highly accessible and convenient. What is particularly commendable is the referencing, which is very systematic and consistent: there are cross-references to observations and comments within the volume, which make it easy to find what one is looking for.

Some inevitable oversights in the commentary area: in Lysistrata it would be useful to have a comment about the kind of peace made in the end after the bargaining between Spartans and Athenians: is it a peace that gives more advantages to Athens than to Sparta?1 In Samia, the question of the child's future is not addressed (could it be that Chrysis will keep the child in the end and that was her intention all along?). It would also be good to have more information about stereotypical characters and scenes: there is a comment about the stock character of the soldier in Roman comedy (p. 241, n. 21), but one would expect a similar note on the role of the boastful, self-important cook in Samia. Similarly, in Lysistrata the threats against the slaves (1216-23), apart from a "reminder of the harsh realities of slavery in a society where it was naturalized" (p. 109, n. 191), are also part of a standard slapstick routine most typical in Old Comedy. This is emphasized by Aristophanes in his usual self-conscious and self- deprecating way (1219-20 "how played is that? I'm simply not going to do it. But if we really have to, we'll somehow get ourselves through it to please you").

Faithful to his promise that he will use an uninhibited language in his translation, Christenson preserves Aristophanic obscenity intact and conveys the humour and the double-entendres of the original in appropriate English (e.g. 124 πέος = dick, 143 ψωλή = cock, 771 φαλῆς = penis, 137 παγκατάπυγον γένος = ass-fucked bunch, 1001 ὕσσακος = pussy, 1004 τώ μύρτω = sweet-cherries). Cursing and exclamations in Aristophanes are notoriously difficult to translate, but Christenson strikes a nice balance between a faithful and a lively rendition (364 εἰ μὴ σιωπήσει, θενών σου 'κκοκκιῶ τὸ γῆρας = shut up or I'll tan your ugly-ass old hide, 433 ὦ μιαρά = filthy thing, 521 ὦ κακόδαιμον = my unfortunate friend).

Dialectal differences are another tricky issue in translating Aristophanes, and translators have chosen various practices (for instance Scots, a hill-bill variety of American English or a regular translation with a mere indication of the different dialects). For the Spartans in Lysistrata, Christenson applies a form of broken English (p. 55, n. 30), which "features linguistic slips commonly made in the course of second language acquisition (e.g., improper use of articles, confusion of words, unidiomatic syntax)". The Aristophanic versions of non-Attic dialects do contain some comic details, as Christenson also notes (p. 55, n. 30), but I wonder whether his representation of the Laconian dialect may convey the wrong impression that a non-Attic dialect was in itself comic and was perceived by Athenians as an imperfect version of their own dialect. Athenians would have heard other Greek dialects spoken on many occasions, and there are no compelling reasons to suppose that they found them laughable or amusing.2 Broken English would perhaps have been more suitable as a translation of barbarians' speeches. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible to find an entirely unproblematic way to convey the dialectal differences in English, and this choice has the advantage of pointing out the different dialect while being highly readable.

Samia's translation is lucid and engaging. I cite one out of many fine examples from a particularly emotional scene in the play (348-56):

The woman's a slut, a menace! But what of it? She won't be around for long. Now, Demeas, you must be a man! Forget that you missed her (ἐπιλαθοῦ τοῦ πόθου), stop wanting her, hide the trouble that's happened as best as you can for your son's sake. And as for the lovely Samian lady: throw her out of your house, headfirst and straight to hell! You have the excuse that she kept the child. Nothing else needs to be made known. Bite your lip, be tough, brave, and strong!

πόθος denotes the desire for what is absent, and, thus, the translation "forget that you missed her" is more appropriate than Arnott's "forget your ardour" in the Loeb edition. All in all, Christenson produces an accurate translation, consistent with the tone of the play.

I found the Plautus translation to be the most entertaining of the volume. Although not significantly altered from his older one (for the review see BMCR 2009.07.03), it is worth comparing it to the most recent Loeb translation by Wolfgang de Melo: Christenson's translation is more lively and animated and can be easily used for a performance, whereas de Melo's is more technical and closer to the original. It is helpful to examine some examples: 172-3 sed quid tu es tristis, amabo? = why the knitted brow? (de Melo: "but what are you upset about, please?"); 201 stupro invenerit = earned on her back (de Melo: "got hold through sexual liaisons"); 346 benedice = bite your tongue (de Melo: "speak good omens"); 453 voluptas mea = my sweetie-pie (de Melo: "my darling"); 574 ei misero mihi = ouch! (de Melo: "poor me"); 645 ludibrio pessuma adhuc quae me habuisti = you've been yanking my chain all this time, bitch! (de Melo: "you've been making a fool of me all this while, you wicked woman"); 950 sufferamque ei meum tergum ob iniuriam = and to offer her up my sorry hide for punishment (de Melo: "and I'll offer her my back as compensation for the injustice"). In lines 195, 725 and 795, de Melo translates amat as "he is in love (with her)", amas as "you are in love" and qui amat as "a lovesick man", while Christenson chooses the more pragmatic (and realistic) "he is hot (for her)", "you are horny" and "a horny man".

Two more extensive examples:

line 362
Chal.: comprime istum. Ol.: immo istum qui didicit dare.

Chal.: Stick it to him! Ol.: No, to him — he likes the receiving end of that.

de Melo:
Chal.: Subdue that chap. Ol.: No, subdue that one: he has learned how to submit.

lines 598-9
Lys.: satin propter te pereo ego atque occasio?
Alc.: quin tu suspendis te?

Lys.: And thanks to you, I am screwed, and so is my big opportunity!
Alc.: Go screw yourself!

de Melo:
Lys: Aren't I and my opportunities sufficiently ruined because of you?
Alc.: Why don't you hang yourself?

Thus, while for those seeking an aid in English to understanding the Latin de Melo's translation may be more accessible, as it is more literal, Christenson's translation is more animated and entertaining.

The translation of Hecyra is equally lively and fluid. Christenson does a great job in finding modern equivalents for Latin words and expressions, and strays from a literal translation only to convey more natural colloquial English: 118 sese senem esse dicere = I am not getting any younger, 203 in eodemque omnes mihi videntur ludo doctae ad malitiam = it's as if they all earned their doctorates in depravity in the same school!, 406 o fortuna, ut numquam perpetuo's data = oh Fortune, why you are never in it for the long term!, 424 haud clam mest = duh!, 544 sed ut olim te ostendisti, eadem esse nil cessavisti usque adhuc = but from the moment you showed your feelings, you never budged an inch!

Of course there is always room for disagreement: in line 373 (postquam intro adveni, extemplo eius morbum cognovi miser = the minute I got inside, I saw what her "sickness" was) miser is left untranslated and Pamphilus' feelings upon witnessing his wife's unexpected pregnancy are conveyed indirectly by putting the word sickness in quotes. However, the quotes communicate a bitter, sarcastic feeling, whereas the word miser expresses a sentiment of sadness and dismay 3 (cf. Barsby's translation in the Loeb edition "to my dismay").

To sum up, this is a well thought-out and beautifully produced volume: the juxtaposition of the four comedies, which, on their own, offer an excellent example of each playwright's work, raises important questions about the potential of ancient comedy as an agent of gender awareness and (de)construction. I recommend this volume to all colleagues and students interested in ancient comedy, cultural and women's studies.


1.   See, for instance, Sommerstein, A.H. 2009, "Lysistrata the warrior" in Sommerstein, A. H. (ed.), Talking about Laughter and Other Studies in Greek Comedy: 223-36. Oxford.
2.   See Colvin, S. 1999, Dialect in Aristophanes and the Politics of Language in Ancient Greek Literature: 302- 8. Oxford.
3.   See Udine Salat, P. 1967, "L'adjectif miser, ses synonymes et ses antonymes chez Plaute et chez Terence" REL 45: 252-75.

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