Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.09.35

M.S. Silk, Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2000.  Pp. 456.  ISBN 0-19-814029-0.  $85.00.  

Reviewed by Ian C. Storey, Ancient History & Classics, Trent University (
Word count: 1561 words

For nearly a century Aristophanic studies have been dominated by the debate over the "seriousness" of the genre or its only extant exponent, whether Aristophanes in a play such as Knights or Wasps was writing "comedy" or "satire". Here the earlier champions of the discussion (Gomme [1938] v. de Ste Croix [1972]) have passed their respective torches on to Halliwell and Heath, to Henderson and Sommerstein. In the last decade the "serious" intent of the comedian has been expanded to include intertextuality (Hubbard, Sidwell), the "war between the poets", the use and re-use of comic material by Aristophanes and his rivals. Michael Silk, however, has for two decades eschewed discussion of intent ("this book is not written on intentionalist premises"--346) and directed our attention to the text itself, to Aristophanes' style, his use of language. In particular his study of 1980 caused us to re-think our views of Aristophanes' lyrics and introduced us to his catch-phrase "low level plus" to describe Aristophanes' unique lyric creations.

This is a discursive book, as much about general thoughts on comedy as it is a particular study of Aristophanes. For Silk "disassociation" will be a principal feature of Aristophanic comedy, and in a sense the same can be said for this book. Silk moves from close textual study of passages of Aristophanes to the much larger themes of "what is comedy?", "is comedy the polar opposite of tragedy" (in his view, no), "what is pathos?". In reading Silk, I was rather reminded of Reckford's (1987) introduction to Aristophanes, both lengthy volumes, both discursive rather than intensely focussed, both ranging far outside Greek literature for parallels, and both subordinating the "serious" side of Old Comedy.

As my own interests lie with the particular rather than the general, I shall concentrate this review on what Silk has to say specifically about Aristophanes. I took away the following conclusions about Aristophanic comedy: (1) for Silk his comedy is a comedy of words, of language and expressions, the product of conscious artistic creation--here he makes the interesting argument that "Aristophanes himself preferred to write the book and leave the producing/directing to someone else" [5], (2) that Aristophanes' comedy is dominated by an obsession with tragedy, especially with Euripides, who like Aristophanes was dedicated to the redefinition of his own art [52]; the seriousness of Aristophanic comedy lies in his search to define his art in terms of its older tragic sibling--this ultimately leads Silk to the intriguing conclusion that Clouds is the most "tragic" of Aristophanes' comedies and at the same time "much the least Aristophanic" [358]; (3) Aristophanes is unique; later comedy would display the logical realism that Aristotle prized (and in fact this can be seen already in Ploutos). Anything that we know of the other poets of Old Comedy suggests that they were not writing anything like that of Aristophanes, and some (Krates, Pherekrates) were already creating something that Aristotle and others would consider as the ancestor of later comedy; (4) to ask "is Aristophanes 'serious'?" is to ask a misleading question--"serious" can suggest "sober", "honest", and "substantial" [311-20], and only the third meaning can apply to Aristophanes, and here his seriousness does not lie in political expression or even in satire, "Aristophanes may be celebrated as a comic satirist...not so much because his comedy is satirical, as because his satire is comic" [365]; and (5) the comic technique of Aristophanes may be described as "open-ended" and "accumulative", veering constantly to the physical and particular, especially to the mundane level, and always "discontinuous" [136]--the description "he switches" can always be applied to Aristophanes, not just in terms of language but also in terms of character and plot. "Realism" is not a useful term here; what Aristophanes is doing is "recreative", "because Aristophanic people have (or are given) the capacity to recreate themselves anew; and...because these people do enjoy some relationship with 'reality', but a less straightforward one than the mimetic relationship implied by 'realist'" [221].

The great strength of Silk's study lies in his close reading of passages from Aristophanes ("why Aristophanes still matters to us as a living his words" [4]). He begins by reading three openings, the first lines of Ploutos, Frogs, and Acharnians [ch. 1], concluding that the start of Ploutos is coherent, lifelike, logical, and realistic, that Frogs proceeds by violence to the dramatic illusion, by exuberance, and by unpredictability (for Silk the dominant feature of Aristophanes' comedy), and that Acharnians displays the rich immediacy of a great poet. Again and again Silk opens our eyes to the richness of Aristophanes' language--apart from these three openings, I was particularly impressed with his exegesis of the epirrhemata of Peace [111-6], the wool metaphor at Lysist. 572-8 [141f.], and the ode to Phales at Ach. 263-79 [181-7]. From reading these sections, one comes away impressed both by Silk's virtuosity and the versatility of Aristophanes' language (Silk's term is "mobility"). I recently had to read a draft of a new translation of a comedy by Aristophanes, unhappily pitched constantly at the same low level (heavy on the colloquial and an "in your face" tone) and oblivious to the incredible variety in the comic highs and lows in an Aristophanic comedy. My recommendation was that the translator read Silk's book and try again.

I was unhappy with three aspects of this book, however. First, it is long and discursive, perhaps too far-ranging in its citations of all sorts of literary parallels. There were times when I lost sight of Aristophanes, partly in chapter 2 where Aristophanes' pre-occupation with tragedy leads into an intense discussion of "tragedy" and "comedy", but especially the 26 pages on pathos [375-402] which did seem digressive from the rest of chapter 8. And I am not sure whether the piling on of examples was always necessary. Some pruning would have given this book more of a punch.

Second, Silk concentrates on Aristophanes to the exclusion of the rest of Old Comedy. He does admit early on [6] that Aristophanes was a member of "the Old Comic club" and does wonder to what extent the rest of the genre shared or imitated his brilliance. Silk, I think, is interested in a different sort of "audience reception", in showing just how good (sophos) Aristophanes is, but I was often left with the questions: "how unusual was his sort of comedy?" and "if he was so good, why did he not win more often?" There are enough fragments of the "rivals" where Silk could use his technique of close reading to see whether we get hints of the same thing elsewhere (Eupolis frr. 99, 172, Kratinos fr. 171, Pherekrates fr. 113, 155, Hermippos frr. 47-8). To be fair to Silk, he does do this in his paper in The Rivals of Aristophanes, where he concludes inter alia about Eupolis "that there is little to compare with Aristophanes and nothing to suggest that he learned anything about writing poetry from him" [172]. Silk is probably correct, but I would have liked more balance in this area.

Finally as one who believes that we can do something with authorial intention and audience reception, I was disappointed with his discussion on the serious in Aristophanes (ch. 7). I am afraid that Silk sets up rather a "straw man" by concentrating on the term "serious", showing that its various overtones have been misapplied by the critics, and arguing that critics have been working on the assumption that "serious" equals "better". His points may be well taken and certainly thought-provoking, but he seems to dodge essential questions such as: "in Frogs was Aristophanes advocating measures that were in tune with the Athenian right?", "is it significant that in Lysistrate the comedy depends on a policy which was advocated by the extreme right?". He does tackle [334-45] the question of whether Aristophanes was out to "get" Kleon in Knights and concludes that, while "Aristophanes' antipathy to Cleon...need not be doubted,...the antipathy, though pervasive, is subordinate to an exhilarating projection of a Punch-and-Judy confrontation whose remarkable virtuosity dominates the action". I was not convinced by his attempt to distinguish the comic from the real, and while Silk shows us wonderfully well how Aristophanic comedy operates, de Ste Croix's point still stands, that comedy can be comic and still have a serious base. Silk is very good on the "how", but gives less attention to the "why". On one point I disagree strongly, when he argues [228 n. 38] about the possible identity of Lysistrate and Lysimache, priestess of Athena Polias, that "even if the speculation convincing, is no part of the play". Pace Silk, it is part of the play, both in terms of authorial intention and in audience reception. Given the closeness of the names, the actual mention of Lysimaches at Lysist. 554, and the setting on the Acropolis with its religious shrines, we (and the ancient audience) must make the connexion.

But on the whole this is a valuable book. Silk has made us think about a number of important points, the uniqueness of Aristophanes, the astonishing versatility of his comic genius, the very nature of comedy itself and its symbiotic relationship with tragedy. Most valuable of all is the light that Silk sheds on Aristophanes' words and expressions. No would-be translator or commentator on Old Comedy can proceed without a careful consultation of Silk's studies of comic language.



A.W. Gomme, "Aristophanes and Politics", CR 52 (1938) 97-109.

G.E.M. de Ste Croix, "The Political Outlook of Aristophanes", in The Origins of the Peloponnesian War (Ithaca 1972) Appendix XXIX, 355-76.

F.S. Halliwell, "Comedy and publicity in the society of the polis", in A.H. Sommerstein et al. (edd.), Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis (Bari 1993) 321-340.

M. Heath, Political Comedy in Aristophanes (Göttingen 1987).

J. Henderson, "The Demos and Comic Competition", in J.J. Winkler & F. Zeitlin (edd.), Nothing to do with Dionysos? (Princeton 1990) 271-313.

A.H. Sommerstein, "How to avoid being a komodoumenos", CQ 46 (1996) 327-56.

T. Hubbard, The Mask of Comedy: Aristophanes and the intertextual parabasis (Ithaca 1991).

K. Sidwell, "Aristophanes' Acharnians and Eupolis", C & M 45 (1994) 71-115.

K.J. Reckford, Aristophanes' Old-and-New Comedy (Chapel Hill 1987).

M. Silk, "Aristophanes as a lyric poet", YCS 26 (1980) 99-151.

M. Silk, "Aristophanes versus the rest: comic poetry in Old Comedy", in D. Harvey & J. Wilkins (edd.), The Rivals of Aristophanes (London 2000) 299-315.

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