Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2005.05.33

Isolde Stark, Die hämische Muse. Spott als soziale und mentale Kontrolle in der griechischen Komödie. Zetemata 121.   München:  C.H. Beck, 2004.  Pp. 352.  ISBN 3-406-523-471.  €76.00.  

Reviewed by Markus Asper, Pennsylvania State University (
Word count: 3187 words

In this ambitious book about mockery in Greek comedy, Isolde Stark (henceforth S.) revisits the discussion about the social and political functions of comedy in ancient Greece. Basically, the book falls into three parts: first, a discussion of the prehistory of Greek comedy and its anthropological and social context (chapters 1-2); second, a reconstruction of various regional comic traditions (chapter 3); and, third, the specific case of Attic Old Comedy (chapter 4). Throughout the argument, her main claims are: (i) Greek comedy, no matter where or when, neither has roots in ritual nor does it bear any relation to it. (ii) The mockery in all of Greek comedy is targeted exclusively at 'social types' (as, e.g., the intellectual or the rustic). (iii) Compared to the audiences, these types are socially inferior and this is why they can be mocked by citizens. (iv) The mockery aims at checking the behavior of citizens. Of these claims, only the last seems convincing to me (and not necessarily for the reasons given by S.). Doubtlessly, the numerous and bold claims of S. will arouse criticism. This study is, nonetheless, a major achievement because of the wealth of the material presented and the broad range of its arguments. One should expect the discussion about Greek comedy to profit considerably from S.'s work.

S. relies on some preliminary assumptions laid out in the introduction (ch. 1). First, adopting the concept of "shame culture" she assumes that in archaic Greece rural communities developed certain forms of public mockery in order to check deviant behavior.1 At the same time, the code of honor forbade laughter at the expense of one's fellow citizens. Thus, laughter had to be "asymmetrical", i.e. had to be directed against inferiors. This seems slightly paradoxical: how can a group control the behavior of its own members by laughter, then?. Second, many of her claims rest on Fehr's theory that the padded dancers we know from vase paintings produced in different times and areas do not show ritual dancers as is usually assumed, but beggars, i.e. social outcasts, trying to entertain aristocratic citizens participating in elitist symposia.2

Furthermore, reacting to recent excesses in ritual-centered approaches to Greek comedy, S. adopts the opposite stance: she decidedly tries to rule out ritual from both earlier stages and fully developed forms of Greek comedy. (Her best argument will be introduced later [101]: The City Dionysia was a new festival, the Lenaia an old one. If comedy had some ancient religious root, we would expect it to be an original part of the Lenaia. There, however, comedy became part of the festival only much later than at the City Dionysia.) It is difficult to see why it should be at all necessary to separate social from religious functions of rituals. It seems that in an ancient Greek community all public rituals also served a political, i.e. polis-related, function. Thus, social or political and religious structures should be regarded as different aspects of the same institution, both of them translatable into one another. S. wishes to keep them strictly apart in terms of analysis (e.g. in 15 n. 23). Also, one might feel uneasy with S.'s inclination to use diachronic arguments in order to explain how an institution works in a synchronic context. If the City Dionysia had been newly arranged for around 500 BC, we do not gain much by arguments derived from a speculative reconstruction of its prehistory.

The second chapter seems to me the most valuable of the book and also the one that will provoke the most controversial response: S. discusses at length the well-known ancient testimonies and their use in ancient (Aristotle, Susarion, Sosibius, Plato) and modern theories concerning the emergence of comedy. She traces the emerging group of professional actors back to social outcasts (beggars) who in older times entertained upper class citizens by the display of their own inferiority. Although doubtlessly the social status of actors was often regarded as low, it is difficult to imagine how beggars eventually became professional actors. This leap seems to me one of the major gaps in S.'s argument (not sufficiently addressed in 65ff, 83ff). S. seems to make too much from Aristotle's φαυλότερος (which to her suggests exclusively "social" inferiority). Important, however, seems to me S.'s use of comparison within ancient Greece. What she infers from comedy at Sparta and Sicily is among the most interesting parts of this book. Her use of Plato and Aristotle (esp. 43ff.) tends to accept their accounts too eagerly as descriptions of Attic society instead of as alternative (or even counter-) concepts. Generally, one may doubt the usefulness of 4th century sources for the prehistory of comedy. Instead of reviewing long genealogies of research concerned with comedy and vase-painting (and severely bashing outdated research for being prudish), S.'s argument could probably have profited more from pursuing anthropological approaches to public mockery in small communities. However, it is important to realize that there is no positive evidence for archaic comedy being Dionysiac at all (despite S.'s arguments, this does not rule out that it could not have become like this later on).

In this chapter the reader is informed exhaustively about beggars being the group from which later professional actors allegedly emerge. S. accepts Aristotle's theory (Poet. 1448a35ff about ἀτιμαζόμενοι) as a valid explanation of comedy's prehistory, since it squares well with Fehr's theories about the padded dancers. The way, however, from stand-up self-mockery of social pariahs to comedy with its meter, plot, chorus, dialogue, professionalized personage etc. is a very long one. S. addresses this problem by assuming that competition among beggars led them to develop more sophisticated gestures, scenic elements etc. leading to improvisations and, eventually, drama. Indeed, this is a thrilling application of the often invoked agonistic spirit of archaic Greece. But why has the same development not taken place with parasites? Furthermore, it is odd that, of several theories concerning the prehistory of comedy offered by Aristotle and all treated by S. with the criticism they deserve, only this one should hit upon the truth. Nonetheless, I find her explanations of padded dancers and of actors in comedy in general quite compelling as a symbolically generalized expression of social inferiority (83). In this view, the notorious kordax is funny because it symbolizes inappropriate behavior typical for social inferiors. Unfortunately for S., the padded dancers' costume and the kordax are obviously already a symbol, i.e. have been already generalized. Therefore, with these depictions we grasp an institution which predates comedy, but is already far removed from the actual symposia. That the beggars would choose the kômos for their performances (76) and not the symposium itself, also strikes me as odd. Thus, S.'s new translation of κωμωιδοί (as "singers at the kômos", i.e. singing about people participating in the kômos) fails to convince me. It seems more probable to assume that kômôidos was coined for the public kômoi, i.e. the great public festivals and had lost (or had never possessed) any connection with private symposia altogether.

In terms of method, this part (83-89) of the book seems to me the best. What S. has to say about the imitation of inept upper class behavior as provoking laughter and her idea that the travesty of myths that we find so often in mimes and comedy makes fun not of the imitated gods but of the imitating characters appears both sound and fruitful. Less convincing, however, is her overall claim that dramatic poets and even poets generally had some beggarly status in archaic Greece. Certainly the bards in the Homeric poems or dramatists like Sophocles or Aristophanes do not fit in well with this picture. In passing, we come across an interesting re-interpretation of cross-dressing in Greek drama as a relic of punishment by public humiliation ("Schandstrafe", p. 96). One may wonder, though, whether to dress as a heroine in tragedy or to cross-dress as Agathon is the same phenomenon in terms of both symbolic genealogy and public impact.

The third chapter begins with a survey of research about the social order of rural villages and its maintenance by informal sanctions such as mockery, public laughter, rumors, derisive songs ("Rügelieder"), all of them double-edged, both aiming at the exclusion of deviant behavior and at educating the youth (111). These derisive songs work as an especially convenient prop in order to explain iambic poetry and comedy. But where are these songs in ancient Greece? Rumors do not crystallize into songs. A single farmer doing something his peers dislike has never been the subject of a song as far as I can see. Songs presuppose some kind of detachment, of abstraction, otherwise they will always stay ephemeral. Much of the iambic poetry we have is generalized (whether the named persons were fictitious is still under debate). More important, S. simply transfers Schmitz's ideas about village structures to the archaic polis (112), which certainly retains some of the traditional norms of rural communities but is, as a social space, doubtlessly more complex. It is true that in Aristotle's Politics and Theophrastus' Characters (114) we may find norms that do not differ from what we might infer was part of the set of norms of archaic villages. At the same time, however, many of the incriminated flaws of behavior or character are difficult to be imagined among rural communities. S. proceeds with two case studies (the Dyscolus of Menander and the Amphitruo of Plautus) and with a long list of "social motifs and types" in ancient comedy (116-65: topic conflicts of father and son, adultery, debtor and creditor; as "types" she lists parasite, rustic, intellectual, mercenary, slave, hetaira). This list shows well the continuity of some motifs in all of ancient comedy, which S. sums up as being all about social types (in S.'s occasionally odd terminology, "soziale Typenkomödie"), but is otherwise a bit heavy in paraphrase. A valuable upshot of all this is certainly the conclusion that, first, Greek comic genres of all times and places overlap significantly and that, second, Attic comedy of the 5th cent., the hallmark of which was political satire, represents a development specific to Attica and therefore should be regarded as an exception. Convincingly, S. argues against Athenocentrism in the investigation of comedy (however, Alexis of Thurioi is obviously a less desirable candidate for non-Attic comedy). In this whole chapter, S. demonstrates her impressive grasp of the whole tradition of comic texts of Greece (including the fragments of Attic comedy and comic texts as mimes, farces, Megarian and Sicilian comedy) and Rome. Also, S. shows well how shaky many of the standard arguments concerning Middle and New Comedy as opposed to Old Comedy actually are (211f.). Summing up, S. tries to convince us that asymmetric, i.e. exclusive, laughter always has to be addressed to ἄτιμοι. This claim seems hardly reconcilable with all the citizens being mocked in Old Comedy (a problem addressed by S. in the next chapter) and is, as it appears, explicitly refuted by Plato and Aristotle (Laws 816e, Politics VII/VIII, both quoted by S.), who demand more or less exactly the functions of comedy that are actually seen at work by S. Thus, if Athenians of the 4th cent. demanded this, would we not conclude that the practice of mockery was actually different in 4th cent. Athens?

S.'s last chapter deals with Attic Old Comedy, focusing on two questions: first, how this exceptional form emerged from the all-Greek comedy of social types and, second, how the mockery of real citizens is to be reconciled with the concept of asymmetric laughter to be directed only against ἄτιμοι.

S. assumes that the change took place not earlier than the middle of the 5th cent. She tries to tie this generic change to the constitutional change brought about by Ephialtes (224). S. subscribes to the view of Burckhardt that the Athenians at this time were so much on top of things that they were able to laugh about themselves. I believe that this view is essentially mistaken: S. tries to persuade us that now, in political comedy, the joking relationship turns into a symmetrical one, i.e. of citizens laughing about citizens. I have the feeling, however, that the laughter provoked by Old Comedy is still asymmetrical, that it is still a group that, while laughing about some out-group, affirms itself.3 It is far from clear how this change is actually brought about; also the main argument of S. which centers on the vanishing of political comedy is quite weak: with the end of Athens' power, the self-confidence of Attica's lower classes would have broken down, so that they could no longer laugh at themselves. Besides the fact that Athens soon became a big player in 'international' politics again, it is doubtful that in Old Comedy the thetes ever laughed about themselves at all. In the plays of Aristophanes, we find mostly silence when it comes to the thetes. Sommerstein has advanced the persuasive idea that the audience was not dominated by thetes, but by people better off, mostly zeugites.4 Here S., for once, adopts the traditional stance and largely equates demos and audience (236). She wonders, however, why fleet and rowers (= thetes) play no part at all whenever comedy evokes military prowess (268, 271). This might hint at the fact that the audience less likely consists of thetes than of zeugites.

There has been longstanding discussion about the comic hero and the status of onomasti kômôidein in Aristophanes. Here, S. introduces the concept of symmetric vs. asymmetric laughter, i.e. an audience laughing together with the hero about a comic target. Moreover, according to her, an audience cannot laugh asymmetrically about a real citizen (which is contradicted by the many sycophants in Old Comedy), since this would destroy his honor publicly, an inference from village customs which one might hesitate to apply to Athens. Thus, her solution is that all comic targets who bear the names of real Athenians, Cleonymus, Cleon, Lamachus and the like, have to be de-individualized and disguised as comic social types prior to making fun of them. An Athenian audience laughing about Cleon in the Knights, does not laugh, so S., about the real Cleon, but about a comic stock character, some clown, who would not share anything with the real Cleon but the name. This is why the Knights did not harm Cleon and, more generally, why accusations raised against all comic targets usually would lead directly to trial but do not have any consequences in reality. It is precisely because the comic character is so different from the real citizen who bears the same name that the character provokes the laughter (e.g. 305, 313ff). This is a suggestive and clever attempt to solve the problem of onomasti kômôidein. S. applies it, among others, to the Cleon of Aristophanes, the Pericles of Eupolis and Cratinus and the Socrates of Aristophanes, Eupolis, and Ameipsias. One might wonder, though, whether comic character and real person still share so many features that the mockery hits home in reality (both Cleon and Socrates are believed to have felt an actual aggression). Aristophanic Socrates, e.g., after all, shares much with the "real" one (i.e. the one of Plato): he teaches, his teachings are about subjects deemed irrelevant by most Athenians, and his lifestyle is that of a social drop-out. If preserving any historical truth at all, the anecdote we read in Aelian (quoted by S. on p. 315) shows that Socrates did indeed feel the need to demonstrate the difference between himself and the comic character Socrates.

I find it more practicable to address the same problem by assuming that the audiences of Attic comedy were a specific sub-group of the demos and that, therefore, the views expressed in comedy do not represent the full body politic of Athens. Nevertheless, many of the accusations (euruprôkteia, rhipsaspia, theft and the like) are obviously topical, and here, the difference from reality certainly provokes laughter. Here, however, it is the connection with 'social types' on which S.'s argument relies so heavily, that remains awkward. Maybe we should instead think of comic accusations as of a limited pool of incriminations. Of course, these mirror the social norms that Attic society partly shares with archaic or rural communities. After all, S. arrives at a new explanation of onomasti kômôidein: to her, it is possible only by total de-individualization, does not aim at reducing anybody's influence and is basically an inheritance of archaic songs enforcing social norms by rude mockery. I see it rather as a symbolic humiliation of influential persons, sanctioned by the context of this festival's institutions, by a sub-group of the demos that was opposed to the political aims of these persons.

S. ends her book with ten claims that sum up the four chapters. It seems to me that S. is putting too much weight on the negative function of laughter i.e. social censure. This function of laughter in Old Comedy has always been realized by critics. One misses some thought of the positive effects of public laughter, i.e. what does the community gain by laughing asymmetrically about some out-group? As was mentioned above, some of the value systems of small rural communities were still partly valid in 5th cent. Athens. I do not believe, however, that these were the only ones -- the thetes living off the triôbola, for example, must have felt differently. Generally, S. pays too little attention to the audience. Also, we miss some words about the satyr play, which seems to have a ritual origin and where also some of the characters were stock types.

The book is carefully produced. The occasional typo is never disfiguring. Only one slip should be mentioned: on p. 195 the quote from the NE should read 1128 instead of 11281 and ἴδοι instead of ἴδιοι. In terms of style, I often had the impression that the author had difficulties arranging the wealth of her arguments and materials in a logical and transparent order. Often, within a summary, evidence is adduced which the reader would have welcomed earlier (e.g. 233f).

That being said, I cannot but admire the courage of S. who, throughout this book, constantly challenges traditional opinions, searches them down to their scholarly origins and, by bringing in social history, forces us to look afresh at the texts. S. writes with great zeal. Sometimes the reader might even end up with the impression that S. constructs a uniform phalanx of scholars with the intention to challenge them bravely. Occasionally, this very fervor leads her to some redundancy or regrettable simplifications (e.g., scholars from the 19th and early 20th cent. always seem to be prudish). Although I do not agree with many of the arguments put forward in this book, it seems important to me insofar as it challenges many of the traditional commonplaces about comedy from a strictly historical point of view. Its greatest merits are probably to put Attic comedy back in the context of local forms of comedies all over Greece and to try to explain laughter and its functions in historical/sociological terms. Scholars interested in Greek and Roman comedy should consider S.'s arguments carefully.


1.   S. makes frequent use of an unpublished monograph of W. Schmitz about small rural communities in early Greece, the results of which are published in "Nachbarschaft und Dorfgemeinschaft im archaischen und klassischen Griechenland", in: Historische Zeitschrift 268 (1999), 561-97.
2.   B. Fehr, Entertainers at the Symposium: the Akletoi in the Archaic Period, in: O. Murray (ed.), Sympotica. A Symposium on the Symposium, Oxford 1990, 185-95.
3.   As I argue in "Group Laughter and Comic Affirmation. Aristophanes' Birds and the political function of Old Comedy" (forthcoming).
4.   A. H. Sommerstein, The Theatre Audience, the Demos, and the Suppliants of Aeschylus, in: Ch. Pelling (ed.), Tragedy and the Historian, Oxford 1997, 63-79.

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