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Greek and Roman Comedy — A Brief Introduction
by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

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Greek and Roman Comedy: An Overview

Four major periods have traditionally been identified in the ancient comic tradition, each with its own peculiar style of comedy and its representative authors:

  1. Greek Old Comedy (Athens, from the early fifth century B.C. until the early fourth century B.C.)
    A highly topical form of comedy that focuses on issues of the day. Typically, it presents a comic hero who protests against some element of contemporary Athenian culture and attempts to address the situation through some type of fantastic scheme. (E.g., in Lysistrata the women of Greece, led by a contingent of Athenian women, stage a sex strike in order to compel their husbands to bring an end to the Peloponnesian War. In Birds, the hero is transformed into a bird, builds a bird kingdom in the sky, and, by means of a blockade, compels both humans and the gods to yield power to him and his feathery colleagues.)

    Old Comedy can be quite bawdy, even vulgar at times. It incorporates a number of elements from earlier dramatic/cultic traditions: thus, e.g., the prominence of the chorus (who often appear in the form of animals, insects, natural objects, etc.).

    Today, Greek Old Comedy is represented by Aristophanes, whose eleven surviving plays (dated to 425 - c. 388 B.C.) offer the best evidence for this genre. The plays of Aristophanes also constitute one of our best sources for the Athenian political scene during the period of Peloponnesian War. (For more on the nature of Old Comedy and the plays of Aristophanes, see the course notes page on Aristophanes and Greek Old Comedy.)

  2. Greek Middle Comedy (Athens, in the first half of the fourth century B.C.)
    The last two plays of Aristophanes begin to hint at a different approach to comedy: the humor is less topical, there is much less criticism of specific individuals, the chorus is much less prominent. Scholars disagree as to whether this change is due to the altered social, political, and economic realities of Athens in the period following its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, or merely represents the emergent popularity of an earlier comic tradition. In any case, plays in this period seem to employ a broader, farcical type of humor. The favorite topics seem to be: 1) mythological burlesque, which offers travesties of well-known myths, and 2) attacks on various sorts of "professional" types — philosophers, orators, professional soldiers, cooks, prostitutes — presented in broad caricature as frauds and charlatans.

    Our knowledge of Greek comedy in this period is hindered by the lack of any complete surviving plays. We do, however, have one play, by the later Roman playwright Plautus, that may be based on a fourth-century Greek original. Plautus' Amphitryo (which was produced in Rome, probably in the early second century B.C.) offers a burlesque on the myth of the birth of Heracles (Roman: Hercules) that seems to be very much in the spirit of early fourth-century Athenian comedy.

  3. Greek New Comedy (Athens, from the second half of the fourth century B.C. until the early third century B.C.)
    In the latter half of the fourth century B.C., Athenian comedy undergoes yet another transformation. The broader types of plot evident in the earlier part of the century now become codified into a romantic comedy of manners. Plays now deal with "typical" Greek families and their domestic travails, with a particular focus on disputes between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, etc. The most popular plots explore the domestic turmoil that results from a young man's involvement with a young girl who is either not eligible for marriage (i.e., a prostitute) or, if she is eligible, has gotten pregnant outside of wedlock. The result is the ancient equivalent of a situation comedy. Although the plots of these plays can seem quite bland in the telling, they offer intriguing insights into a number of features of Athenian social history: the status of women; views of women, children, marriage, and the family; moral standards.

    Greek New Comedy is represented by the comic playwright Menander, whose career spans the period of c. 321-c. 290 B.C. The plays of Menander have been recovered over the past 110 years via papyrus finds from Egypt. We have only one complete text (Old Cantankerous) and extensive fragments of some six others. In the hands of Menander, the broad plots of New Comedy are used to explore various ethical or social issues and to examine how essentially decent people behave under trying circumstances. In developing such concerns, Menander draws extensively on the techniques of late Euripidean tragedy: we will discover that his works often seem to have closer affinities to the late fifth-century tragic stage than to the stage of Aristophanes. (See my introduction to Menander.)

  4. Roman New Comedy (Rome, from the late third century B.C. until the mid-second century B.C.)
    Rome becomes a major political/military force in the Mediterranean in the third century B.C. Very quickly, the formerly quite insular Romans begin to see foreign cultural traditions flooding into their city.

    In this period, various Roman authors begin to adapt Greek literary forms to suit the tastes and interests of a Roman audience. Athenian New Comedies of the fourth/third century B.C. become a particularly popular source of inspiration: the result is the genre known as Roman New Comedy (Roman plays, written in Latin, but based, however loosely, on fourth/third-century Greek originals). Two authors of Roman New Comedy survive:

    Plautus (21 plays, dating to c. 215-184 B.C.)
    Plautus offers free adaptations of plays by various fourth/third-century Athenian playwrights. He transforms these plays by introducing elements of a native Italian tradition of improvisational farce. His comedies show little concern for realism, coherence of plot, or character development; instead, slapstick and comic shticks dominate, with an emphasis on stock comic types such as the clever slave, the shameless pimp, the foolish and vainglorious soldier, etc. If Greek New Comedy reminds a modern reader of contemporary situation comedies, the stage of Plautus is reminiscent of vaudeville and the Marx Brothers films.
    Terence (6 plays, dating to 166-160 B.C.)
    Terence is much more sedate than Plautus. He uses Menander as his model in presenting a more reflective comedy of human manners. Terence is interested, e.g., in how an individual's character is revealed by the choices he makes (note: the use of the masculine pronoun is intentional here) or in questions such as the degree to which a father should exert his authority over his son. Terence's plays offer a stark contrast to the wildly boisterous works of Plautus.
    See the introduction to Plautus and Terence on the Roman New Comedy course notes page.

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