Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.10.10


Jeffrey Henderson (trans.), Three Plays by Aristophanes: Staging Women. London: Routledge, 1996. Pp. 244. ISBN 0-415-90744-6 (pb).


Reviewed by Carl A. Anderson, Michigan State University, ander100@pilot.msu.edu.

Aristophanes is hard both to appreciate and to teach in translation. General readers and even nonspecialist researchers usually have too little familiarity with Athenian politics and culture to appreciate Aristophanic humor, and instructors in the classroom too often find themselves explaining jokes rather than enjoying student responses to them. Jeffrey Henderson's (H.) volume, Three Plays by Aristophanes: Staging Women, is a welcome solution to these problems. The translations of the three plays, Lysistrata, Women at the Thesmophoria, and Assemblywomen, are straightforward, reliable, and fun to read. Readers interested in women's history and gender studies will especially welcome H.'s contribution to their fields.

The volume includes a general introduction to the historical and dramatic world of Aristophanes, detailed introductions to the plays with appended notes, an appendix of fragments bearing on the portrayal of women in Aristophanes' lost plays and in lost plays of his rivals, and a bibliography geared (successfully in my judgment) to encourage readers "to interpret the plays for themselves" (p. x). Formal structural elements of Old Comedy are explained in the general introduction (i.e., prologue, parodos, parabasis, agon, episodes, pp. 19-20) and clearly marked for the reader's convenience in the three plays.

Readers will find Aristophanes' Lysistrata accurately rendered and fully contextualized. A striking example of this feature can be found in the treatment of obscene language. As he promises to do in the general introduction of the volume (p. 30), H. preserves Aristophanic obscenity intact and he invariably finds the English equivalent to convey the force and humor of the original (e.g., "peos" = "cock", p. 48; "binein" = "to fuck", p. 66; "yhyssako" = "hair-pie", p. 77). H. is correct, in my view, to insist that these texts be represented honestly, and he is careful to remind readers that obscenity and outrageousness are traditional ingredients of the genre.

The appended notes of this play provide concise and useful information. General readers learn, for example, that Lysistrata may be loosely modeled after Lysimache, the contemporary priestess of Athena Polias; that the setting of the dramatic action on the Acropolis is significant for appreciation of the city goddess Athena's interest in the success of the women's action; that political dissatisfaction with the conduct of the Peloponnesian war was soon to manifest itself in an oligarchic revolution. True to the stated goals of the volume, H.'s notes provide researchers outside the field of Classical Studies with concise and useful information and bibliography. That the Magistrate should swear an oath by the goddess Demeter, for example, is noted as "a common male practice" (p. 60 with n. 109); readers also learn that the Spartan Ambassador's invocation to Artemis Agroteria reflects an aspect of the goddess worshipped both by Athenians and Spartans (p. 85 with n. 214).

The second play of the volume, Women at the Thesmophoria, shares all the virtues of its companions. The translation is accurate and enjoyable to read, and the notes are balanced and informative for novice and advanced readers. H. is especially good at drawing out the elements of literary parody and gender roles which so characterize this play. The following parody of the poet Agathon typifies the translator's ability to capture the tone and humor of the original. Agathon sings: "In turn I invoke praise / the holy spawn of Leto, / Artemis untried in bed (apeirolech)!" Political allusions, however, are not entirely absent from this play. As H. reminds us, the women's hymn to Athena near the end of the comedy, in which the chorus alternates (for the last time) between a demos of female celebrants at the festival and a demos of women functioning as the real male demos, contains timely and pointed political material (n. 169). H. brings the reader's notice to other significant political allusions in the play as well.

Like the preceding two comedies, the final play of the volume, Assemblywomen, is carefully translated and fully placed in its historical and cultural world. H. makes clear the comedy's unusual features by comparing it to the preceding two dramas in the volume. As with the other translations, H. renders the Greek in straightforward idiomatic prose. The informative nature of the notes once again makes the material accessible to readers.

The translation of appended fragments in lost plays of Aristophanes and in lost plays of his rivals and the notes that accompany them match the high quality of the other materials in the volume.

Under the heading of quibbles: despite the citation of Rosen-Farrell (1993) on page 206, notes 20 and 32, this work does not appear in the bibliography. Any other quibbles I have, and there are very few, are of interest only to specialists.

Even though a specialist, I will require this text in my translation courses on ancient comedy and Greek civilization. I recommend it to all colleagues interested in ancient comedy, women's history, and gender studies.