Tuesday, July 26, 2016


Gwendolyn Compton-Engle, Costume in the Comedies of Aristophanes. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xiv, 198. ISBN 9781107083790. $99.00.

Reviewed by Natalia Tsoumpra, University of Glasgow (Natalia.tsoumpra@glasgow.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site


Recent trends in scholarship reflect the growing interest in aspects of performance both in Greek and Roman contexts. This book makes a most welcome contribution to this field by providing an engaging and insightful analysis of the workings of costume in Aristophanic comedy. The purpose of the book is not to give a systematic analysis of the materiality of comic costume and its use in each of the Αristophanic plays (though in many ways it does that, too); rather, it focuses on costume as a means of empowerment for both the comic (female and male) characters, who compete with one another through costume manipulation, and the comic poet, who often vies for status and asserts comedy's superiority over the rival genre of tragedy through costume. It should be noted that this is the first systematic study of the agonistic nature of costume in Aristophanic comedy. It brings to the fore important relationships between gender, genre and performance, issues that were only briefly addressed or treated circumstantially in previous scholarship.

In Chapter 1, the author offers a comprehensive introduction to her project, explicating her academic precursors and influences as well as her methodology and approach. Most importantly, this chapter introduces the four basic types of costume manipulation which are examined in the subsequent chapters (voluntary stripping, involuntary stripping, addition of clothing or accessories, and costume changes and exchanges). This classification is indeed helpful (although, as the author acknowledges, there is significant overlap and interplay among the four types). However, since the important key to understanding costume dynamics, according to the author, is that of control, I wonder whether the main distinction should have been between voluntary and involuntary changes of costume.

Chapter 2 examines "the comic body as costume" and is particularly laudable for its survey of the visual and material evidence (much of it published subsequent to Stone's study).1 The author rightly notes that we are never allowed to permeate the bottom layer of costume (since no part of the σωμάτιον or mask of an actor is ever removed on stage), but we are nevertheless constantly reminded of its artificiality (as also evidenced by comic art practices, which choose to highlight the fakeness of the body suit). This artificiality, it is argued, moderates the pornographic effect that certain actions might have produced on stage, while the artificiality of the male (nude) comic body in particular refutes the claim that concealment and artificiality are especially associated with women. Moreover, an important observation is made regarding women and (degrees of) artificiality: women in vase painting are not consistently presented with the same degree of artificiality and grotesqueness as male comic characters, but may be rendered more realistically. If this reflects actual stage practice it may mean that attractive women (by contrast to the unattractive ones) were rendered as non-artificial on stage, which of course would have had an impact on the way they were seen and perceived. A more extensive discussion of the debate about the conception of the comic body as anti-civic would be desirable, apart from the rather laconic comment that "there is more in play here than Athenian notions of conduct (un)-becoming a citizen" (p. 26).

Knights and Lysistrata are discussed as case studies in which the comic body performs a number of functions. In Knights, not surprisingly, the male comic body serves as a visual representation of the bodily metaphors which are integral in the play. The discussion of Lysistrata is engaging and informative: the emphasis on the nude male body as patently artificial in this play effectively refutes the claim for the gendering of artificiality as female. What is more, the author convincingly argues for the women's (temporary) control over (male) body costumes, although I am more inclined to see the men's erect phalli as a pathology and a sign of their failure to control their bodies, rather than as the "reclaiming of the comic stage by protuberantly male bodies" (p. 55). Similarly, I would argue that the dressing of the male chorus by the female one effectively signifies the humiliation of men and victory of women, and not the recovery of men's control over an exposed woman's body (p. 56). Lastly, since the author throughout the book draws comparisons with epic with reference to the control of costume/clothing/armour, it would perhaps have been pertinent to mention here examples of women in the world of epic who exert power through clothing and cloth manipulation.

Chapter 3 focuses on the second layer of comic costume, that is the characters' clothes, in Wasps, Assemblywomen and Wealth. It is argued that there is a strong correlation between boots, cloaks and participation in the assembly. Cloaks and shoes do indeed delineate the border between oikos and polis, yet I think the connection between shoes and political participation in the assembly is rather overemphasized. embades and Lakonikai are footwear for the outdoors that all men would have been expected to wear when going out of the house; this covers a much wider range of activities than just assembly or court attendance. When the chorus wonders about Philocleon's failure to appear for jury duty, the loss of his embades is only one of the possible reasons they contemplate among minor house injuries or medical problems due to old age (l. 273–8). Thus, the loss of their shoes is listed among a number of reasons that would prevent someone from going out of the house, not because the shoes are linked to jury duty (as Compton-Engle suggests) but because it would simply be unimaginable to go out of the house without shoes. Moreover, Philocleon's reluctance to wear the Lakonikai shoes later on, because they are the "hateful shoes of the enemy" (l. 1159–60), shows that these two types of footwear cannot be grouped together. Despite this minor quibble, the Wasps section argues well the political and social implications of Philocleon's attempted, but failed, transformation. Philocleon's claimed resemblance to Odysseus is intriguing and offers an alternative model for understanding the relationship between costume and character. The likeness of Philocleon to Odysseus lies, it is argued, mostly in his "utter resistance to any actual change of character", and his final costume is that "of a comic character stripped down to his bodily essence" (p. 73). Here it would perhaps have been useful to touch on issues of genre competition too, and to discuss the role of costume in Philocleon's transformation from what could be seen as a tragic character (an old, sick man) to a purely comic one (especially in the final dancing scene). Finally, the discussion about how costume change in Assemblywomen reflects the socioeconomic themes of the play is insightful and leads to an equally engaging analysis of reversals of socio-economic status and genre rivalry effected through costume change in Wealth.

Chapter 4 ("lightly revised," 165, n. 1, since its first publication in 2003, mostly through the inclusion of a section on the St. Agata vase) deals with disguise, the layers of costume added on top of the comic actor's σκευή, and gender and genre issues in Acharnians, Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs. As far as gender is concerned, the main argument is that costume mastery correlates with masculinity, costume failure with feminization. This is true for all the male characters, but may be less accurate for the female ones. For instance, the women in Assemblywomen never appear masculinized, but their femininity is retained and repeatedly emphasized when in disguise (and so I do not agree that this play confirms the correlation between control of costume and heightened masculinity, p. 100). The term "costume failure" (used for the piggies and eunuchs in Acharnians, the Proboulos in Lysistrata and the Relative in Women at the Thesmophoria) is rather loosely applied: does it denote a failure to deceive or lack of control or both? At any rate, the Relative's disguise does deceive the women up until the advent of Cleisthenes.

The author also argues that characters who experience costume failure are not only feminized and ridiculed, but also connected with tragedy, while characters who exhibit costume dominance are linked to the comic poet. This is due to comedy's fondness for "correlating tragic parody with failed female disguise" (p. 102). This position is demonstrated well through the examples of Dikaiopolis in Acharnians (where the assimilation of Lamachus at the end of the play to a lame Euripidean hero could be emphasized more), of Agathon, the Relative, and Euripides in Women at the Thesmophoria, and of Dionysus in Frogs. However, the idea also presents some difficulties: Dionysus in Frogs, much like Euripides in Women at the Thesmophoria, has limited success with his disguise, and it does not become very clear why his buffoonery increases at the end of the play. Most importantly, why should we connect Dionysus unequivocally with the world of tragedy? One could argue that Dionysus emerges as the typical male Aristophanic hero, who finally opts for the manly, virile art of Aeschylus and experiences sexual rejuvenation at the end of the play.

Chapter 5 is devoted to choral costumes, which are normally distinguished from the actors' costumes, with the exception of Birds, in which "costume achieves its most spectacular effects by fusing the animal-chorus tradition with the costume- control dynamics that we have seen expressed by successful Aristophanic protagonists" (p. 110). This chapter is extremely well- written and, in my opinion, the best one of the book: it contains valuable information about visual evidence for animal choruses as well as a lucid survey of choral costume in Attic comedy. The section on Birds showcases very effectively that "the wings and beaks that fill the play function not merely as metaphors but as tangible objects on stage that reify the play's imagery, propel the plot's development, and signal the status of the characters" (p. 130). The chapter also brings together all the earlier examined stock elements of costume manipulation in order to explain and elucidate Peisetairus' gradual ascent to power; as such, it provides a most fitting conclusion.

The last chapter, in lieu of a conclusion, looks ahead to costume developments in Middle and New Comedy, and to potential future research on costume in the area of Roman comedy.

All in all, Compton-Engle has produced an important, thought-provoking work, badly missing from scholarship to date. Despite recent work in the field, comic costume remains still a mainly untrodden path, and this book will no doubt impel further discussion and scholarly debate. It is well-written and well-produced, and highly recommended to students and teachers, to specialists of comedy, and to those interested in gender and performance studies.


1.   Stone, L. M. Costume in Aristophanic Comedy. New York: Arno Press, 1981.

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