Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.4.9

D.M. MacDowell, Aristophanes and Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. xiii + 362. $19.95. ISBN 0-19-872159-5 (pb).

Reviewed by Ian C. Storey, Trent University,

Aristophanes has long awaited his definitive study, the book that we can recommend with confidence to students in translation-courses, to upper-year undergraduates reading him in Greek, to students of drama from other ages and cultures, the work which the professional classicist will find of use. Perhaps an impossible dream, but one still opens each new book on Aristophanes with that distant hope. It is not easy to recommend a single introduction to Aristophanes. Spatz' entry in the Twayne series is rather basic and aimed at the complete novice; Dover's Aristophanic Comedy has five good introductory chapters, but the individual discussions are uneven and leave questions untouched. Russo's study, now in English, is really not for the novice, and depends on Anti's two-theatres theory which not many would accept. Cartledge is too slender and superficial, aimed at the contemporary British audience, and too often lets his own reactions to the ancient material show through. Finally McLeish enjoys a fair amount of popularity, but leans too much in the direction of the theatrical experience at the expense of a scholarly approach. More specialised works such as those by Bowie, Hubbard, and Taaffe are good treatments of certain aspects of the comic poet, but hardly the beginner's first reading.

So is MacDowell's new work the long-awaited desideratum? Unfortunately I must say "no", but on the other hand would rank it very high on anyone's reading-list. MacDowell has brought a lifetime of study of Aristophanes, the orators, and the Athenian legal system to bear on this introduction to the great comedian. His title reflects his fundamental approach: Aristophanes in his historical context. Unlike certain recent critics he does not disavow authorial intent;1 in fact his declared main purpose is "to ascertain some of Aristophanes' purposes and intentions in writing his plays" (3), a welcome declaration to those of us who still favour text-based historical criticism. Later he will speculate (6) whether making a serious point was one of the novelties on which Aristophanes would pride himself, although in his concluding summaries of the serious elements in Aristophanes argues that these are more common in the plays of the 420s and reflect the enthusiasms of "an earnest young man" (356).

Thus Acharnians is a serious plea for peace or at least for the concept to be entertained seriously. M. notes that Dikaiopolis (whose name he associates with "right behaviour in politics" [79]) does not engage in a formal agon and that no-one counters his arguments, concluding that this establishes the case for a serious interpretation. But both Birds and Ekklesiazousai have an exposition rather than an agon, and in neither play would we want to argue that this indicates a serious declaration by the poet. So too Knights (translated by M. as "Horsemen") is "a virulent attack on Kleon" (80), not just for his opposition to war (108) but principally for his oratorical and political tactics (112, 355). Here he does allow somewhat for the iambic conventions of comedy (107), but the portrait is meant "to expose Kleon to ridicule and scorn" (111). Here I think that M. understresses the social background of Kleon and Aristophanes' inherent snobbery and the pure dramatic potential of Kleon and other demagogues; they were new and therefore good material. Wasps is not an attack on the jury system itself (against de Ste Croix, Cartledge, Konstan) but on the politicians' exploitation of it (163f.) and the citizens' willingness to be "enslaved". Here I think he singles out Kleon rather too much as the attack at 666ff. is plural and (as M. observes -- 166) Laches/Labes is no innocent antithesis to Kleon. In Frogs M. limits the serious political element to the parabasis and the end of the play (356), but the political jokes begin as early as the "curse" (359-67) and continue through the iambic song (416ff.) and the developed caricature of Theramenes (534-41).

On the whole, M. avoids turning Ar. into the serious young conservative bent on using comedy as moral propaganda. In his discussion of Clouds he does not see the play as an attack either on Sokrates or on "the new learning"; the portrait is "a comic reflection of the man in a distorting mirror" (111). He does, however, overstress the moral baseness of the Weaker Logos; it is more comical than ironic in my view. Birds (probably the best chapter in the book with an excellent discussion of various views of the play -- 221-8) is not any sort of political allegory nor an "escape" from any unpleasant reality: "getting wings is the perfect image for leaving worries behind and doing what one has always longed to do, and the charm of Birds is that it is a dramatization of dreams coming true" (228). And Lysistrate is not a serious satire on women, since on one occasion (588-97) he "invites the men's sympathy for women", the main character throughout the play "commands respect", and there is the underlying impression that women run their homes better than men do the city (247). It may continue the plea for peace begun in the 420s, but on a lower note. Here he might have considered the fact that in 411 making peace with Sparta was an on-going priority of the oligarchs (Thuc. 8.61-98); thus Aristophanes was using as the underlying comic idea an idea which was part of the oligarchic "platform".

This emphasis on the historical context and on the poet's ideas at times tends to obscure the comedy and the humour. For the most part M. does steer the course between political satire and pure farce; this comes through particularly well in his discussions of Clouds, Wasps, and Frogs. He sums up his view of Aristophanes in the very last sentence: "the unique achievement of Aristophanes was to give good advice to the Athenians while never ceasing to entertain them" (356).

M. extends his search for historical context to smaller points in the play, and at times one feels that he gives insufficient space to the purely comical. While I do agree with him that Derketes of Phyle at Ach. 959-70 must represent a real person (76), I cannot agree with his identification (243) of the Kinesias of Lysist. 829-1013 with the dithyrambic poet of Birds 1373-1409. The name may be rare, as M. submits2, but if Ar. had meant us to see the poet here, he surely would have made this clear -- M. emphasizes this criterion early in his study (3). As Henderson has shown, the name is a redende Name, based on kinein = binein and elaborated by an obscene meaning of his wife's name, Myrrhine.3 He insists that the story of Pheidias and Perikles at Peace 601-18 was not simply an Aristophanic invention, but "a recent suggestion, which has not yet reached the ears of country folk like Trygaios and the chorus" (188). His argument is that Plutarch found the story in the majority of his sources, all of which are not likely to derive from Ar., and that if the story is a comic invention, it is not very funny. Here I think he misinterprets the force of "that's the first time anyone has told me that / I'd not heard of the connection that Peace had with Pheidias" (Peace 617f.) -- I suspect that the audience would not have heard of this either. He overestimates the historical sources, who were prone to assume comedy as fact; compare the 'biography' of Kleophon that was passed on as historical 'fact'. Finally if there is little obvious humour, it may confirm de Ste Croix' contention that Ar. blamed Perikles for the war and continued the attack five years and nine years after Perikles' death. M. is right to insist on Ar. as an advocate of peace in this war, against many recent attempts to play down this theme in Acharnians and Lysistrate.

There are four areas where further information and discussion would be of benefit, especially to the beginner. First M. does not say much about the formal structure of Old Comedy, apart from one page in an introductory chapter (18/9). The student is told only very briefly about the parabasis, and M. might have distinguished between the "anapests" and the epirrhematic syzygy, especially in the plays of the 420s where there is a sharp wrench from the poet-centered material of the anapests to the chorus-oriented epirrhemata. There is not much in the book about the individual parabases and their content. The parabasis of Acharnians is discussed (but only the first part) in the chapter on "Early Plays" (31-4); on p. 71 (n.45) he dismisses this parabasis as "largely a digression", even though the theme of old v. young and the misconduct of political leaders pick up the complaint of Dikaiopolis at 595ff. and Bowie has argued strongly against the digressive nature of the parabasis. Other parabases fare equally poorly; the personal histories in Knights, Clouds, Wasps, Peace are not highlighted at all -- Hubbard is cited from time to time by M., but the reader should be introduced to his well argued thesis of the poet's mask that is shown in the parabases. On p. 19 he refers to Frogs as having only a "second parabasis", presumably because all that appears is the syzygy; but Hubbard and others have shown that the "anapests" have been detached and appear at vv. 354-71.

Similarly the beginner will not get an overall description of the formal agon; in his discussion of the former we get a section called "The Contest" (97-103) and he mentions "something like a formal debate" (101) which is in fact the agon. In the chapter on Frogs (292) he does observe that the second speaker usually wins the agon, but immediately adds the unlikely comment that "most of the Athenian audience probably did not realize this fact about Aristophanic technique". The student needs to be told that in Ploutos this 'rule' seems to be broken (with the implications which this has for interpretation) and that in Birds and Ekkl. the expositions possess the technical form of the agon.

Secondly, the reader will not find much about the physical experience of the ancient theatre, again apart from the introductory remarks in chapter 2 and an almost dismissive mention on p. 1 of the "special effects". It would be worth pointing out the paratragedy inherent in Aristophanes' use of both ekkyklema and mechane. Certain notorious scenes pass without comment, e.g. the appearance of the chorus in Birds, the rowing-scene in Frogs, the transition from Olympos to Athens in Peace, and one is not at all sure how M. imagines the cave of Peace. On p. 184 he writes "up out of the cave", but most critics now believe that Peace is drawn out of the central door, i.e. on the ekkyklema. The visual impact of comedy loses out to the "meaning" of the play.

My third desideratum is the thematic or metaphorical levels in the play. Now on p. 52 he does explain the double meaning inherent in spondai, but could have gone farther to let the reader know that here is one of Aristophanes' great skills, to make a metaphor concrete. Thus Paphlagon becomes the lover of Demos in Knights, made all the more effective by the presence in Athens of a kalos of that name.4 The trial of the dogs and the canine imagery surrounding Kleon is the comedian's expansion of the demagogue's claim to be "a watch-dog of the People". On a larger scale M. does not deal very much with the interpretations based on thematic imagery: food in Knights, circular metaphors in Wasps, heterosexual intercourse in Lysist., transvestitism in Thesm. One might not go to the extremes that some critics reach here, but one does miss an analysis based on literary or thematic motifs.5

My final comment deals with the lack of information about Aristophanes' rivals. M. does allow that Ar. was one of many active in the genre, and as mentioned above, suggests that one of his "new things" was the introduction of serious material in comedy. But we hear very little about other poets such as Kratinos, Eupolis, and Platon. On p. 145 M. wonders if the 'failure' of first Clouds was due to the merits of the other plays; what we know about Kratinos' Pytine would support that notion. We get very little (if anything) about the 'war' between Ar. and Eupolis, of the latter's plundering (so-called) of Knights to write his Marikas, and of the rowing-scene in Eupolis' Taxiarchoi which clearly precedes that in Frogs. There is a lot of good material in Hubbard and Heath about the "great game" involving poets and audience; more about the other comedians would help the novice put some of Aristophanes' claims in perspective. In particular, Eupolis seems to share the old=good / new=inferior bias that M. outlines for Ar. -- see his Demoi, Poleis, and perhaps his Taxiarchoi. We need to ask whether this standpoint was endemic to the genre or particular to these two poets.

On the whole one finds in M. good solid discussion of the plays and the issues that they raise. For the most part I found myself nodding in agreement with his survey of various problems: the unity of Wasps, the lack of serious 'satire' in Birds, the ending of the first Clouds, Dikaiopolis as exuberant comic hero rather than selfish exploiter, Lysistrate based loosely on Lysimache with an accompanying strong religious theme and setting, the decision of Dionysos in Frogs who "simply chooses" Aeschylus (297). I think that "reasonable" is the word most likely to be applied to his approach, and students of comedy will use this work with great profit (not the least in the copious citation of recent studies in the notes).

But there are three major points where eyebrows will be raised and of which the novice needs to be warned. First M. is probably the leading exponent today of the Kallistratos-interpretation of Acharnians. He acknowledges that Aristophanes' early plays were produced through others (Philonides,6 Kallistratos), but sees Ar. as "Kallistratos' young assistant" (41) who let the experienced producer run the whole show. The audience, M. argues, would assume that Kallistratos was the author; thus it was he whom Kleon attacked and he who had the connexion with Aigina (Ach. 652-4). However, I am not convinced. Ar. used producers even at the height of his career (Lysist., Frogs), and the scenario that M. imagines (40/41) sounds more like the romantic Life of Terence or A Star is Born. I can't agree that in the very public atmosphere of ancient Athens people were ignorant of who the actual author of these early plays was. His attempt to distinguish the chorus-director from the writer fits modern cinema better than Old Comedy. We must also be careful of accepting too readily what Ar. says of himself in his own parabases; this is all part of his comic persona.

Second, and perhaps the most controversial thing in the book, is M.'s contention that the original version of Clouds lacked an agon at all, that what we have at 886-1106 was a totally new addition and that in the original version the scene with Strepsiades, Pheidippides, and Sokrates flowed on as if there had been no interruption. Acharnians may lack a formal agon, as M. observes, but the speech of Dikaiopolis at 497-556 is agonistic in subject if not in form; on M.'s reconstruction there would have been no formal conflict in the comedy -- on pp. 147ff. he argues that the new ending begins at 1303 and thus the second agon (between father and son at 1345-1451) was part of the revision as well. Dover's careful analysis of the hypothesis which gives us the most information about the two versions (translated by M. on pp. 135f.) shows that what we have replaced what was there in the original. Thus the agon is not an intrusion of the second version but a re-working of what was there in the first place.7 I fully concur. however, with M. in his overall assessment that Clouds as we have it is a "botched job" (149), and unlike many critics, he is rightly cautious of treating the text as a coherent literary entity.

Finally there is his confident assertion (324-7) that the 388-version of Ploutos was very similar to the first play of that name, produced twenty years before. This certainly runs counter to the usual view that the Ploutos of 408 "must have been very different from ours" (Norwood 271). His argument rests on (a) two scholia (to 115, 119) which observe that these lines are changed "in the second <version>", and (b) two further scholia (to 173, 1146 -- he could have added 972) where the scholiast seems to have been bothered by allusions in the text which were later than 408 and concludes that these are imported from the later version. I take M.'s argument to be that had the plays been radically different, the scholiast would have realized which Ploutos he was dealing with and not have mistaken assumed that he had the 408-version before him. M. argues that the cluster of personal jokes at 170-80 (clearly from the 4th c.) as well as the jokes at Neokleides (665f., 716-25) were added in the revision, that all the choruses were scrapped and replaced only with the parody of Philoxenos at 290-321.

My principal objection is stylistic. The comedy that we have is so clearly on the road to Later Comedy that it can fairly be termed "Middle Comedy" that it could hardly have been substantially the same as a comedy of 408. The very blandness of the humour, the absence of personal humour and of real people as dramatis personae, the characters with commonplace names, the more than Athenian theme fit well a comedy of 388; if M. is correct that the theme was similar to the first play, then the revisions must have been more substantial and one wonders then where the line is to be drawn between "revision" and "new play". I would not reject M.'s thesis out of hand -- there definitely is something queer about the scholia -- but the reader needs to be warned the matter is complicated and his attention drawn to the secondary literature, e.g. Ludwig, van Leeuwen who rejects altogether the 408-Ploutos, Norwood, and especially the good discussion in Rogers (vii-xiii). If M. is correct, then our Ploutos shows us what Ar. intended to do with the revision of Clouds that he later abandoned.

I am not sure that I would recommend M. to the complete novice, but for every other sort of student (including the professional classicist) will find a text tightly packed with facts, ideas, and arguments. Again and again one will find a reasoned and commonsensical discussion of the greatest of Old Comic poets, firmly placed within his historical context.


  • [1] In particular see the studies of Bowie and Konstan who to varying degrees deny the possibility of fathoming "authorial intent".
  • [2] Only three entries in LGPN II, one in the 6th c., one in the 5th c. (the dithyrambist), and one in the 2nd c.
  • [3] J. Henderson, Aristophanes' Lysistrata, (Oxford 1987) 174.
  • [4] On pp. 83/4 M. claims that "the real man is irrelevant to Horsemen". I would suggest that the scene with Demos being courted by two suitors gains if the "kalos" is not the contemporary young beauty but the truculent old man described in the prologue. Incidentally, I am not happy with his translation of "Demos" as "Democracy"; there are too many feminine overtones of Demokratia for this to work (at least for me).
  • [5] One might cite Whitman, Moulton, Edmunds (on Ach. and Kn.). His treatment of Frogs was particularly disappointing in this respect -- studies by Whitman, Segal, Konstan, Reckford come to mind.
  • [6] I was glad to see that M. (35) accepts the evidence of the scholiast which makes Philonides, not Kallistratos, the producer of Daitales.
  • [7] Dover (Clouds) lxxxii-lxxxiv. Sommerstein (Clouds) 4 takes the text of the hypothesis, "where the Just Logos talks to the Unjust Logos" to mean only the proagon (vv. 889-948) rather than the whole agon. Thus the revision might be only in that scene and not in the agon as a whole.