Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.07.30

Nichols on Major on Nichols.   Response to 2000.02.18

Response by Peter Nichols

Professor Major dismisses my interpretation of Aristophanes as "unsophisticated" and "unoriginal," offering two specific examples. While I make no claim "always [to] sophisticate and bring in novel forms", I do most respectfully question whether these examples support the criticism.

The first example concerns the absence of Sophocles as a character in the Frogs. Major asserts that I overlook a "more pragmatic cause for the slight notice of Sophocles." The pragmatic cause is the date of Sophocles' demise (406 BC). It followed Euripides' (a few months earlier the same year) and preceded shortly the production of the Frogs (the following year). Aristophanes, hastening to make a deadline, could not "incorporate" Sophocles into the play. He apparently had just enough time to include the deceased Euripides.

To begin with, Aristophanes satirizes the living as well as the dead. Obviously, nothing but his own choice prevented him from making the living, breathing Sophocles a character in any of the comedies before the Frogs. In the second place, Sophocles indeed receives slight mention in the Frogs, but not necessarily "slight notice." Presuming Sophocles' death and presence in Hades, Aristophanes does undertake to explain his ineligibility for return to life (76-82), to establish his reluctance to seek the poetry throne of Hades and his sympathy for Aeschylus in opposing Euripides (786-94), and to affirm that shared opposition to Euripides as the play closes (1515-19). In other words, he brings back the topic of Sophocles not less than three times, rendering his absence fairly conspicuous. Should we really surmise that the omission of Sophocles from the dramatis personae represents a distortion by Aristophanes of his true intent, committed for the sake of a deadline?

K.J. Dover, in Aristophanic Comedy (1972), p. 181, provides a basis for rejecting such an explanation. While noting that the Sophocles passages "must obviously have been composed after Sophokles' death, possibly with little time to spare before the festival", Dover adds:

[B]ut there is no real justification for supposing that if Sophokles had died earlier Aristophanes would have sent Dionysus to the underworld in search of him or that he would have left Aiskhylos out of the play and represented Sophokles and Euripides as rivals for the throne.
Dover goes on to point out the rarity of jokes about Sophocles in Aristophanes and elsewhere. In his edition of the Frogs (1996), pp. 20-21 and 162-63, Alan Sommerstein suggests that the work was revised scantily when Sophocles died, but not that Aristophanes would have made him a character under any circumstances. Sommerstein, replying to the contention that the work was substantially revised, finds it "surprising that more was not done to incorporate the most successful and admired of all tragic dramatists firmly into the action of the play." (p. 21) I would say that whatever Aristophanes did after Sophocles' death, the absence of Sophocles as a comic character is rendered less surprising only by a consideration of Aristophanes' deliberate artistic intent.

My observation about Sophocles' unsuitability for comedy is footnoted (note 170) to acknowledge that the idea has been treated before.1 I am not aware -- perhaps Professor Major is -- of prior attempts to connect Sophocles' absence as a character to the passage from the Peace in which he is mentioned and said to resemble Simonides. Partly on the basis of that passage, I inferred that Aristophanes' Sophocles is not the poetic instigator of one or another political era, as are his Euripides and Aeschylus. He does not aspire to political influence. He is in that sense eukolos, as Dionysus calls him, and not in need of comic debunking. Whatever the mood of the city, Sophocles is in favor (possibly like Shakespeare in the modern world). He is read (commonly, though not by Aristophanes) as being consistent with the prevailing ethos of the city at each stage, including the selfish, mercenary later democracy. Although Simonides is indeed a poet of the older generation (one of those whom Pheidippides declines to recite for Strepsiades), in his supposed grasping nature he reflects what Athens had become by the end of the Peloponnesian War. Sophocles is now read approvingly by those sharing that nature.

Major's second specific example is my hypothesis that Euripides' use of his Kinsman (as opposed to Agathon) in the Thesmophoriazusae reflected Euripides' original intention. Having learned that the women celebrating the Festival of the Thesmophoria intend to sentence him to death, Euripides visits the house of Agathon. His ostensible purpose is that of persuading his effeminate colleague to infiltrate the women's assembly and plead his case. Euripides is accompanied by his aging Kinsman (sometimes thought to be Mnesilochus, his father-in-law). The Kinsman witnesses Agathon's refusal of Euripides' supplication, and agrees to don female attire and go in his stead. When the Kinsman's imposture is exposed, a series of parodies of Euripidean tragedy is necessary to soften the hearts of the women, attain the Kinsman's release, and conclude an accord between them and Euripides. I had raised the possibility that Euripides actually expected Agathon to divulge his plan to his fellow homosexual Cleisthenes, who, in fact, announces it to the women. This diverts the inquisition from Euripides to the Kinsman, and allows Euripides to appear as his rescuer. Major is certain that Aristophanes "would have had no particular reason to consider" such a point as this. But suppose that Aristophanes did intend to portray Euripides as exerting a feminizing influence upon the Athenian manhood. In that light, the act of singeing the kinsman and dressing him in ladies' attire would make more sense metaphorically as part of the original plan. The rescue of the Kinsman indeed provides the dramatic pretext for the parodies. The point I raise, in short, has to do with the organization of the plot, with which Aristophanes presumably was concerned.

Major kindly praises an observation of mine at the beginning of the concluding chapter. It summarizes what I think Aristophanes does in the plays that I discuss.2 I regret that nothing in the twenty pages that follows this sentence, all elaborating upon it, nor in the conclusion sections to the preceding chapters, enables Major to discern a "coherent thesis." Within the limited space of this response I can but sketch what I say in the book.

The poets satirized in these plays about drama stand for the different directions in which drama may drive the polis. The idea, or thesis, is not that Aristophanes uses his caricatured colleagues "to present gender and theological issues to the citizen body," but that through them he illuminates the public effect of different genres of dramatic writing. This includes comedy, through which we are to perceive tragedy, although comedy cannot answer all of the city's needs. The dramatic poet, comic or tragic, is more able to "legislate" (direct the city) than the philosopher, and to show life in its fullness (pages 212-19). The comic depiction of Euripides' influence is of particular interest to us in this country and time. That influence is democratic, rationalistic, litigious, egalitarian, agnostic, likely to inspire compassion, and feminizing of men. In that context, I note the parallel between Euripides in the Thesmophoriazusae and the Frogs and Praxagora in the Assemblywomen. Praxagora and Euripides both defend their endeavors in the name of democracy. She and her confederates infiltrate the male assembly disguised as men while Euripides and the Kinsman attend the Thesmophoria (the women's assembly), disguised as women. The transposition of the traditional roles of the sexes is associated with a certain extreme democratism. Euripides claims to bring the ordinary and the domestic on stage, dispensing with the grander themes of his predecessors. Euripides' influence is opposed to the martial and less democratic spirit of Aeschylus. I attempt to summarize the connection between the Aristophanic presentation of Euripides and the problems of contemporary drama discussed in the introduction at pages 169 and 227-29. On the grounds enumerated above, I suggest that Sophocles' absence reflects the difficulty of associating his drama with any specific political trend in the city, although he is opposed to the recent, Euripidean one (pages 163-65). That distinguishes him from the two tragedians who are characters. I believe that it connects Sophocles to the thesis.

Major asserts that I make insufficient reference to the themes raised in my introduction, including certain philosophic allusions, in the central chapters. In the introduction, I suggest the political relevance of drama in contemporary American society. This encompasses televised popular entertainment. I attempt to justify looking at the problem through the plays of a particular ancient dramatist. Nietzsche's remarks are pertinent because he, above all modern philosophers, extols the role of poets in fashioning and inspiring civilizations, and because he lauds the "profound instinct" of Aristophanes in attacking Socrates and Euripides. He takes the side of Aristophanes against Socrates, of poetry against philosophy. In the Republic, we find Socrates asserting the necessity of political philosophy governing poetry. As I argue at pages 17-18, the case that poetry can soundly educate the city without the governance of philosophy requires finding in the works of a poet an account of the political role of poetry. At pages 18-21, I explain how this leads us to Aristophanes. He is unique among Western playwrights in bringing his colleagues and himself onto the stage to scrutinize, albeit comically, their art.

The introduction then seeks to defend the choices of Aristophanes and of the selected comedies. Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche are relevant in that connection, not because the book is to be a dissertation on Plato, Rousseau, and Nietzsche. The three plays examined are those in which Euripides, Aeschylus, Agathon, and Aristophanes (as protagonist, not merely as chorus leader) appear. Nietzsche is brought back in connection with the Frogs passages that he discusses (pages 167, 192-93) and Plato in connection with the comparison between poetic and philosophic wisdom (pages 214-19), which is to say when relevant to some point that I am making. Hegel, to whom Major does not refer, is introduced at the beginning of the Frogs chapter because he comments on the significance of gods in Aristophanes and the comic hero of the Frogs is a god. If the published writings of our academic colleagues may be cited wherever they pertain to the issue being explored in the text, then surely those of philosophers may be similarly employed.


1.   The prior work that I cite, Leo Strauss's Socrates and Aristophanes, of course, has not been "the starting point for debate for nearly a decade now" (nor for twenty-five years) among classicists. They have denounced it, but in general not considered it seriously. Certainly, Major does not regard indifference to Strauss in the writings of Henderson, Ober, Barry Strauss, and Heath as at all censorable or indicative of incompleteness in their scholarship. I am grateful for the references to these writings, although none of them really deals with Aristophanes' comment upon the political role of drama (upon the tragedians and himself).
2.   "Aristophanes provides a poetic account of the rhetorical and cognitive efficacy of drama." (p. 212).

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