Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.02.50 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.02.50

André Hurst, Dans les marges de Ménandre. Recherches et rencontres, 33.   Genève:  Librairie Droz, 2015.  Pp. 174.  ISBN 9782600018883.  CHF 35.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Antonis K. Petrides, Open University of Cyprus (


In the Margins of Menander is a collection of nine essays by the renowned Swiss classicist André Hurst. Eight of these were previously published in various venues over the last four decades. The essay that opens the book appears for the first time. The chapters are arranged thematically rather than chronologically. The volume commences with an essay on Menander’s didactic value. There follow four pairs of thematically linked studies: chapters 2 and 3 explore Menander’s Nachleben; chapters 4 and 5 inquire into his engagement with literary and cultural intertexts, such as tragedy and Athenian law; chapters 6 and 7 examine aspects of his theatrical technique; and, finally, chapters 8 and 9, the oldest studies reprinted here (they both date from the 1970s), turn mostly to the criticism of the text.

Chapter 1 (“What does Menander teach us?”, pp. 15–32) explores Menander’s role as an educator of the polis—a role New Comedy poets still assume for themselves, albeit indirectly. Hurst argues that Menander’s enseignement revolves around the contrast between appearance and reality. He distinguishes three facets of this contrast: (a) The characters are victims of appearances (in some cases the audience, too, are deceived, but, unlike the dramatis personae, they soon wise up to the truth thanks to a delayed divine prologue); (b) The characters create appearances, in order to obtain an objective; and (c) the public itself falls victim to appearances, which the poet eventually exposes. Interestingly, in (c) the poet exploits the spectators’ preconceptions, in order to expose them as fallacies—especially as regards certain social classes, such as slaves, women, courtesans, illegitimate children and professional soldiers. Furthermore, Menander draws attention to several deficiencies of Athenian society (legal absurdities, gender and class issues), but also, in the spirit of generic antagonism, he lambasts tragedy as an ineffective educator of the polis. The chapter makes a clear case, although the intentionalist overtones of the term enseignement may strike one as obsolete and the reference to tragedy is inadequately explored (in light of Chapter 4, it could have been excised here altogether). Moreover, rather surprisingly for what was initially a 2014 conference paper, the most recent bibliography on Menander and/in his social context is not reckoned with.1

Chapter 2 (“Menander in everyday language”, pp. 33–55) explores a special aspect of Menander’s reception in antiquity, namely the penetration of his proverbial discourse into everyday speech. Prime relevant evidence is the famous γνῶμαι gathered in two authoritative collections (Μενάνδρου γνῶμαι μονόστιχοι and Μενάνδρου καὶ Φιλιστίωνος γνῶμαι καὶ διάλεκτοι). Hurst recognises that the use of these sources for the matter at hand is replete with methodological problems. In most cases of undoubtedly genuine γνῶμαι, Menander probably rehashes pre-existing material. Hurst shows convincingly, however, that occasionally the playwright can mask formulations of his own as part of the savoir collectif. Anyhow, the very fact that, spurious or not, this discourse is credited to Menander evinces his grip on the collective unconscious. For Hurst, one further, indirect sign of this is the existence of variants in the tradition of Menander’s maxims. These may be simple mistakes, but just as possibly the origin of the “error” could be that a form of the maxim was ingrained in the copyist’s memory.

Chapter 3 (“Menander misunderstood?”, pp. 57–72) attempts to account for the reversal of fortunes between Aristophanes and Menander on the modern stage. Unlike Aristophanes, Menander is rarely performed nowadays. However, among the educated public of the Imperial period he was the clear favourite. Hurst suggests that the modern directors’ partiality for Aristophanes rests not only on the ease with which he can be adapted to contemporary concerns, but also, more importantly, on the parallel impression that Menander’s oeuvre “has the unpardonable fault of being anodyne” (p. 64). For this grave misunderstanding Hurst blames Plutarch and the socio-political climate of the Imperial period. Although Plutarch states that he prefers Menander for reasons of style, the matter, for Hurst, goes deeper: in a period where political freedom was lacking, it was natural for outspoken Aristophanes to be regarded as subversive and for urbane Menander to be deemed politically harmless, although in his own way he was as much of a social critic as his predecessor. Hurst is certainly right that Menander has been misunderstood, but, in my opinion, this fact alone (along with the scarcity of complete or near-complete texts) cannot account for his near-eclipse from the modern stage: for three decades now at least, scholars have looked at New Comedy in new, illuminating perspectives,2 yet the proportion of Menandrian performances has not significantly increased.

Chapter 4 (“Menander and tragedy”, pp. 73–103) is the book’s best known and most seminal study. Doing away with the outdated notion of “influence” and building on Richard Hunter’s proactive model of “exploitation”, Hurst approaches Menander’s intertextual relationship with tragedy as a set of “reactions”, divided into three categories: (a) implicit use of tragic diction (vocabulary as well as metre); (b) “designation of tragedy as such”; and (c) arrangement of the plot in the tragic manner (p. 78). Hurst’s categories (a) and (b) correspond to what Hunter calls “use of paratragic language and of the terms tragedy and τραγικός”. Category (c) is also the equivalent of Hunter’s “use of tragedy as part of the comic texture”. Hurst’s most original contribution in this study is placing Menander’s reaction to tragedy in the context of genre politics. Menander occasionally retains the traditional parodic use of tragic diction (an example is the mock-tragedy of Daos in Aspis). More importantly, though, tragic language serves to expose the tragic paradigm as a false guide to life. In Samia 326, for example, “the poet associates the intrusion of tragic language with the impossibility of learning the truth . . . . It is as if tragic sentiments can render blind even the most reasonable of men” (p. 81). In other cases, however, such as the messenger speech in Sikyonios (strongly reminiscent of Euripides' Orestes), this implicit criticism of tragedy is absent and “the poet finds himself drawn to the possibilities offered by tragic diction” (p. 82). Hurst here sees an “ambiguity”, which for him characterises Menander’s reaction to tragedy in general (pp. 82-83). As for the second category, speakers like the messenger in Sikyonios and the slave Syriskos in Epitrepontes can refer to tragedy as the ultimate source of credibility, but soon tragedy is debunked as empty and vain (κενός). Tragedy blurs one’s vision of reality. Nonetheless it can still constitute “an important source for the poet, who seeks to provide credit to a narrative . . . , although it is significant that he immediately keeps his distance from it” (p. 94). Hurst contends that the third and final category, arranging the plot in the tragic manner, should exclude elements like prologues or messenger speeches, which may be common solutions to problems faced by tragedy and comedy alike. But scenes like the anagnorisis in Perikeiromene, which recalls Euripides’ Ion, certainly deserve attention. Hurst here endorses Gomme–Sandbach’s acute observation regarding the “complicated multiple response” which the audience is induced to have by the combined presence in this scene of tragic diction and a comic element, an eavesdropping Moschion. The presence of a comic personage in such an elevated scene marks the boundaries between the two genres.

In chapter 5 (“Menander and the wicked legalist”, pp. 105–114) Hurst examines Menander’s fr. 768 K.-A., where, he believes, someone dismisses a “legalist” who abuses his expertise for personal gain. Based on this, Hurst broaches the question of Menander’s attitude towards the law focusing mostly on the three Bodmer plays. In fact, only one of these, Aspis, presents a character who takes unethical advantage of the law. For Hurst, this makes it clear that Menander promotes legal knowledge not as a means of personal advancement, but as a tool for improving society. Hurst also submits that in Knemon Menander presents the opposite extreme to Smikrines’ “legalist” type; that is, a character showing total indifference for any kind of law, even for the unwritten code of hospitality. This argument is open to objections. Knemon, in fact, knows and uses the law when he adopts Gorgias, transferring to him his daughter’s κυριότης. Moreover, if by so doing Knemon intends to eschew his responsibilities and procure himself a guardian for his final days, then he, too, applies the law to his own morally dubious benefit, even if his motives and the overall situation are indeed different. Chapter 6 (“Nooks and crannies in Menander”, pp. 115–132) examines the fine details of Menander’s dramatic technique, which are shown to be very carefully handled. Specifically, Hurst analyses three secondary characters: the cook in Samia, Simiche in Dyskolos and the fake doctor in Aspis. To gauge the importance of these “small roles” Hurst gleans two criteria from ancient authors: from Antiphanes, fr. 189 K.-A., that ancient audiences expected everything in a comedy, even minor characters, to be wittily invented; and from Aristotle, Poet. 1451a, that everything in a drama must have an organic, if minor, role in its design. Samia’s cook, “paradoxical” as he is (p. 121), meets the “Antiphanic” criterion: far from the conventional affected chatterbox, he is a proper professional asking legitimate questions. His role in the plot also satisfies the “Aristotelian” criterion. In ll. 283–95, Parmenon wants to see the cook as the traditional type, which he is not. This error fits in well in a comedy that revolves around the antithesis between reality and appearances or false impressions: even such a small role as the cook is designed to underline a major theme. The Antiphanic criterion is easily met by Simiche, too: although the old woman and the old female slave are stock types, she is highly individualised. Simiche’s role is crucial: her first error, dropping the bucket in the well, facilitates the onstage meeting of the lovers, whereas her second mistake, dropping also the mattock, initiates the chain of events that lead Knemon to realise that one cannot live secluded from society. Furthermore, Hurst argues, Simiche and Knemon’s daughter, with their obedience and ability for self-criticism, accentuate his misanthropy (here, too, one could object that, on the contrary, their unconditional love humanises Knemon, preventing him from being a mere caricature and confounding the moral evaluation of his ways). Hurst᾽s final observation is characteristically astute. It is through a number of “errors” that Knemon gets to recognise his own erroneous ways: society has value not because it is perfect, but precisely because it is composed of fallible human beings, who need one another. Finally, the fake doctor of Aspis, too, meets both of Hurst’s criteria. He is a clever invention, inasmuch as he is not the traditional quack, but a performer playing the type. Beyond Daos’ stratagem, his function is to highlight both Smikrines’ pettiness and Chaereas’ moral value (see below).

In Chapter 7 (“How does Menander effect the doctor's exit?”, pp. 133–43), another influential study, Hurst revisits the aforesaid “doctor” suggesting an alternative way to supplement and interpret Asp. 455–64. In this concluding bit of the scene, Smikrines asks the doctor to step back from Chaerestratos᾽ house, so they can talk privately. According to Hurst, his purpose is to enquire about his own health, not his brother’s. Smikrines᾽ objective is purely self-serving, which underscores his malice afresh: he wants to know if he has enough time left to live, to enjoy his newfound wealth. The pseudo-doctor’s answer is not to his liking: he allows him no hope of a much longer life. Nonetheless, being who he is, Smikrines chooses to dismiss the doctor this time, although he had no trouble trusting his earlier diagnosis about Chaerestratos. Hurst sensitively underlines the scene’s strong visual aspect (the doctor examines Smikrines hands-on, thus displaying what supposedly he had done offstage before). Furthermore, Hurst concludes, the young man’s obvious dislike for Smikrines, whom he practically deems unworthy to be alive, reflects positively on the character of his friend Chaereas.

Chapters 8 (“A new Menander”, pp. 145–155) and 9 (“On the text of the Samia”, pp. 157–61), which could have been merged, are both devoted to said play. Chapter 8 contains textual notes on ll. 294–5 and 392–393, and Chapter 9 on ll. 7, 11–12, 30–38, 112–117, 192–195 and 530–532. In Chapter 8 Hurst also offers an assessment of how the Bodmer Samia improved our appreciation of Menander as a playwright. His discussion here overlaps significantly with chapters 1, 4 and 6. In an appendix to chapter 8 the author argues that, contrary to common belief, the verse Phrynichos attributes to Samia (Ecl. 163, p. 173 Rutherford) comes from the play and must be placed in the lacuna after l. 166.

André Hurst’s scholarship is invariably exceptional. His contributions to Menander have made a strong mark, and to have them collected in a single volume, even with some repetitions and overlaps or without the bibliographical updates one might desire, is a real gain.


1.   For example: S. Lape, Reproducing Athens (Princeton, 2004); A. Traill, Women and the Comic Plot in Menander (Cambridge, 2008); B. Akrigg and R. Tordoff (eds.), Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Greek Comic Drama (Cambridge; New York, 2013); A. Sommerstein (ed.), Menander in Contexts (London, 2014); S. Nervegna, Menander in Antiquity: The Contexts of Reception (Cambridge; New York, 2013).
2.   See A.K. Petrides and S. Papaioannou (eds.), New Perspectives on Postclassical Comedy (Newcastle Upon Tyne 2010).

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