Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.15 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.15

Stephanie Nelson, Aristophanes and his Tragic Muse: Comedy, Tragedy and the Polis in 5th Century Athens. Mnemosyne Supplements. Monographs on Greek and Latin language and literature, 390.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2016.  Pp. viii, 384.  ISBN 9789004310902.  $175.00.  

Reviewed by Wilfred E. Major, Louisiana State University (

Table of Contents

This lengthy and detailed study takes its place as the most extensive examination to date of the interplay of tragic and comic drama in fifth-century Athens. As such it will be a common book to cite on the topic and it contains many rich ideas for scholars to consider, but it will be disappointing for those seeking an ambitious and coherent model for analyzing this interplay. And while Nelson takes pains to make the book accessible to a broad array of readers, too much here would be misleading to non-specialists to allow recommending it more generally.

Across an introduction and seven chapters, Nelson probes more than a dozen plays to spotlight a number of ways in which the evolution of practices on the comic and tragic stages complemented and impacted each other. The brief introduction includes the broader claims that will recur throughout Nelson’s analysis. She believes that tragedy and comedy as performance institutions “developed an almost polar opposition” (4), which resulted in deep structures for both types of drama that energize various types of surface antinomies, although this development was also fueled by “mutual dependence” (14) of the two genres.

The first chapter (22–73) sketches out a case for understanding fifth-century Athenian tragic and comic drama as continually defined in opposition to each other. Her outline includes discussions of the tidbits of historical evidence for the genres in their early years and of the ramifications for the genres’ differing deployment of performance paraphernalia (masks, costumes, movement, props, dialects). At the deep level of cultural priorities, Nelson posits, each is oriented toward a fundamentally distinct interest: “necessity” in tragedy and “freedom” in comedy (31).

The second chapter (74–105) turns to satyr plays, emphasizing these as hybrids of tragic and comic elements, but fundamentally, like comedy, defined and evolved in opposition to tragedy. How this sits with her portrait of comedy being likewise defined in opposition to tragedy remains unclear. This chapter includes a nice observation about a pattern of satyr plays rewinding to a narrative point prior to that of the tragic trilogies (which they followed in terms of performance sequence, 84–89).

Chapter 3 (106–140) is the first to center on tragedies and comedies proper. The focus turns to politics, by which Nelson means how the polis is projected and explored in drama. She uses Acharnians as an example of a comic polis that is flexible and contingent, in contrast to the polis of tragedy (specifically in the Oresteia and Bacchae), which is caught hardened between the bipolar draw of necessity and freedom. Much of her analysis, however, narrows in on the character of Dikaiopolis, where she finds comic tension between the various roles he plays (embodiment of the whole polis, an individual in the polis, a spokesman for Aristophanes, the performer of the tragic role of Telephus, and so on).

Chapter 4 (141–176) explores heroism, and the integrity of character generally, in Wasps, with contrasting glances at Ajax and Medea. The tragic protagonists Ajax and Medea differ in that Sophocles’ Ajax clings to a steadfastly stable identity, even to the point of extinguishing himself when that identity cannot persist in the world, while Euripides reveals Medea, through a kaleidoscope of episodes, to have a complex and tortured inner life. By contrast Nelson finds Philocleon in Wasps a sort of chameleon who escapes one role to leap into another, culminating in a display of roles that individuals play, but which for a comic protagonist are not meant to add up to an identity of consistency or depth.

Chapter 5 (177–203) analyzes Oedipus Tyrannos and Knights, contrasting their attitudes toward oracles: in tragedy oracular pronouncements manifest the genuine will of the gods, while in comedy humans overtly create and manipulate oracles. Nelson concludes with thoughts on the uneven fit of Aristophanic comedy with the idea of Bakhtinian carnival.

Chapter 6 (204–240) expands on the previous chapter by exploring the hierarchies of the divine and human in Persians, Peace and Birds. Unsurprisingly, Nelson finds that Aeschylus devotes his play more to articulating the impact of divine mechanics on human life while Aristophanes brings the gods down to human level.

The final chapter (241–284) focuses on Thesmophoriazusae and Frogs in order to theorize about what principle demarcates tragedy and comedy according to Aristophanes. Nelson finds this to be a certain level of self-reference, that is, the degree to which the poet makes the mechanics of theater explicitly part and parcel of the comic drama.

A brief conclusion (285–294) recapitulates the book, followed by synopses (295–307) of the plays Nelson discusses, then a glossary, bibliography and index. The press has produced a clean, handsome volume. Typographical errors are few and minor.

Nelson’s prose flows rather well and she comes across as engaging and involved in the material and ideas. In a number of places a reader can sense the voice of an experienced teacher unpacking a complex text for her students. She has taken pains to make the volume accessible for non-specialists and motivated students, offering passages in translation (mostly without the original Greek), providing ample background and support (e.g., the glossary and synopses), and glossing technical terms so that the book is relatively light on jargon. In recognition of these efforts, this reviewer would like to be able to recommend the book as an engaging, thought-provoking series of observations and explorations on an important topic. Unfortunately, underlying problems mean that I can make only the most limited recommendation

Some problems result from a narrower vision of comedy and tragedy than Nelson confesses to. Fundamentally, despite all her talk about the two genres, she reads comedy as a scholar of tragedy who considers thematic coherence, with a smattering of post-modern literary dynamics, the essence of tragedy. Her reflex is to define comedy by how it differs from this tragic essence, even though she presents this book as focused on Aristophanes. Devotees of fifth-century comedy are likely to find her presentation lopsided. She invokes paradox and ambivalence to define comedy so often that the effect becomes wearisome. She posits paradoxes and then insists that comedy, at least Aristophanes, demands acceptance of inconsistency and indeterminacy. Maybe so, but it also easily comes across as the sort of airy sophistry that Aristophanes routinely mocks and deflates.

No study can cover every aspect of these two enormously complex and elusive genres, of course, and Nelson acknowledges that her study is circumscribed to a set of specific foci, even after being somewhat dismissive of previous studies for being limited. A more serious problem is that, despite gaps in her coverage, Nelson is rather fond of generalizations in order to polarize Aristophanes and his tragic brethren. Most of these generalizations are unnecessary to begin with, as Nelson rarely builds up a sustained argument from them. Rather than catalog these generalizations, I will attempt to characterize their flavor and associated faults. Many are vague and ill-defined. The terms and semantic range of “necessity” and “freedom” are never defined or discussed, for example. Typical also is “character” in Chapter 4, where Nelson seems to assume that Aristotelian notions of character are the essence of tragic roles and then cites scholarly debate about a topic as a substitute for articulating and orienting her own position. A number of declarations are unclear, such as, “…just as the meaning of tragedy lies in the tragedy itself, so also the meaning of comedy is located in the comedy” (7) and “In the Oresteia, the city is a fundamental part of the cosmos. In the Bacchae, the political is challenged, and devastated, by Dionysus. But in both, in contrast to the Acharnians’ location of the city squarely within the world of contingency, the city is involved in a necessity that lies well beyond the political. This, I would argue, represents an overall tendency,” (111); or banal: “But while Dikaiopolis and Trugaios are strikingly similar, the difference between them is equally obvious” (224). Many theses or conclusions are vague, unsubstantiated, or both, such as when Nelson claims that non-Athenian material is mostly irrelevant in Attic drama (25).

Nelson’s uneven coverage comes across as shaped, frankly, by passages more easily understood in translation and for which there is ample discussion in (overwhelmingly English) secondary literature. This creates problems when it comes to close readings, since Nelson does not see the deeply paradoxical discourse of tragedy and how close comic language, and not just paratragedy, is to it. Thus her discussion of diction in tragic and comic language is underdeveloped. Her lack of attention to detail and penchant for generalizations lead to outright errors, such as saying that Demos in Knights is called a “monarch” rather than a “tyrant” (195), when he is in fact called tyrannos (line 1114). Nelson never addresses meter, where similarities and differences between tragedy and comedy abound at a very detailed level, nor does she take meaningful account of the registers of language in any detail, such as Aristophanes’ startling range of vocabulary and creative use and extension of language, which earned him praise among ancient commentators familiar with a great many Classical Greek texts. Except for some general comments about the role of the chorus, Nelson bypasses choral song in both genres, in the process excluding not just enormous amounts of text and performance but areas of topic and expression where the genres overlap and diverge (her statement “tragedy is composed of dialogue…” [246] is unintentionally revealing in this regard). Her treatment of more obscure or indirect evidence tends to be simplistic, as when she cites Antiphanes fr. 189 to support the canard that “the stories of tragedy were known to the audience” (33). The passage gives examples of the body of communal knowledge that tragedians could capitalize on and does not at all say that audiences already knew what narratives were to come.

Non-specialists should therefore avoid this book, since Nelson’s confident generalities will mislead them on many crucial points. Readers already familiar with the limited but tricky evidence behind Nelson’s problematic claims, and with a fine-grained knowledge of the Greek texts, can filter out these problematic statements and skim for the truly novel and productive observations that she does make. This still leaves a lot of work for the professional reader, which is a shame, as it makes less accessible the more intriguing and productive material, especially that on satyr plays.

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