BMCR 1997.03.06

1997.3.6, Segal, ed., Oxford Readings in Aristophanes

, Pp. xxi + 335. $70.00 (cloth), $17.95 (paper).

This volume contains sixteen generally very modestly revised and adapted essays (listed at the end of this review) first published between 1937 and 1990, along with an introduction which is unsigned but presumably to be attributed to the general editor. The majority of the contributions appeared originally in widely distributed journals such as CQ, JHS, and CPh, or in popular anthologies like Nothing to Do with Dionysos?, and at least four have already been reprinted elsewhere. Three of the contributions are nonetheless translated into English for the first time here, two from German and one from French. Collections of this sort are always welcome, particularly when they bring together otherwise genuinely inaccessible material and have been very carefully selected and edited. Although Oxford Readings in Aristophanes disappoints a bit on both counts, it is therefore still a pleasure to see these essays made available to a potentially wider audience.

The first and most obvious question to be asked about any collection of critical essays has to do with audience. Books like this are not really intended for specialists, and readers of this volume are in fact instructed in almost every individual instance to consult the original publication for serious scholarly purposes (pp. 329-31). Instead, the obvious target audience for an anthology of this sort consists (at least in this country) of two main groups: 1) college- and university-level instructors, often but not always classicists and often lacking immediate access to a major research library, who need a resource book to turn to on a day-to-day basis while teaching a course in Greek Literature in Translation or the like, and who frequently have only an hour or two of preparation time for every class; and 2) the students of such instructors, who are occasionally asked to buy a volume of collected critical essays as secondary reading. What readers of both sorts want and need above all else are thus short, highly readable articles that focus on individual plays (i.e. on “today’s reading”) and raise key interpretative questions about them (e.g. “How should we interpret the poet’s apparent hostility toward Socrates in Clouds ?”, or “What does it mean to roast some of your supposed allies in Birds ?”, or “Why does Lysistrata organize both a sex-strike and a seizure of the Acropolis?”). The Oxford Readings in Aristophanes, on the other hand, average over twenty pages in length (only one is under ten), and the majority are either quite technical (e.g. Zimmermann’s analysis of the development of the Aristophanic parabasis over time, or Gelzer’s line-by-line study of how jokes are set up and dramatic tension maintained at the beginning of Birds) or concerned with a whole series of plays rather than with one in particular. Indeed, the only plays to which complete individual essays are devoted in this collection are Acharnians, Clouds, Birds, and Ecclesiazusae, and Frogs in particular is almost entirely ignored. At the same time, although all Greek has been transliterated, much of it has not been translated, and the result is sentences like “The strange idea of the old men that someone who wants to stop their philodikia, which toin theoin psephismata (378) guarantee … ” (p. 192), which to anyone who cannot interpret the italicized words will be incomprehensible. (The glossary on pp. 333-35 is of only very occasional help in this regard.) German, Italian, and even Latin also persist in both footnotes and text (e.g. pp. 5, 190), and it is accordingly difficult to recommend Oxford Readings in Aristophanes as a supplemental text for use in lower-division undergraduate courses.

Professional but non-specialist readers will find the individual essays in this volume more accessible, and will also be inclined to welcome the Introduction, which attempts to offer a synoptic overview of recent scholarship on Aristophanes. A considerable quantity of reading (including some in American classical journals) has obviously been done for this essay, and there are accordingly many useful secondary references here, although the criteria for inclusion are a bit unclear; a trivial debate over the significance of the phrase ληκύθιον ἀπώλεσεν at Ra. 1198-1247 receives a full paragraph, for example, while Nussbaum’s fundamental article on Clouds in YClS 25 (1980) is left unmentioned. Readers lacking a strong background in Aristophanic studies might also have been slightly better served had there been some reference to or evaluation offered of the two most commonly used modern editions of the collected comedies, Hall and Geldart’s Oxford and Coulon’s Budé; had the existence of Kassel-Austin’s monumental new edition of the fragments of the comic poets been acknowledged; and had at least a passing mention been made of Rogers’ commentaries (as opposed to his Loeb translation), which are widely available and in several cases remain the best detailed work on the individual plays in English. There are also a number of specific omissions and errors that will reduce the value of this essay somewhat for the average non-specialist reader. In the discussion of bibliographies (p. xxi), for example, the two most significant recent items, Ian Storey’s collections at EMC 31 (1987) 1-44 and Antichthon 26 (1992) 1-29, are omitted, and Aristophanic metrics are for some reason said to have been “ignored” by earlier generations of scholars (p. xviii), despite the existence of J. W. White’s magisterial and still immensely valuable The Verse of Greek Comedy (London 1912). Numerous typographical errors and the like are also to be found throughout this essay, 1 and it must be said in this context that the new Readings in Aristophanes as a whole is not quite up to Oxford’s traditionally very high standards of editing and proofreading. Particularly unfortunate is the fact that footnotes have not been handled in a consistent fashion, but have instead been removed altogether from some essays (probably appropriate for a volume of this sort), while being allowed to occupy up to half the page in others (e.g. p. 119), and seem not to have been vetted thoroughly; Ehrenberg’s book on the Greek state, for example, was originally published in German and appeared in English in 1969, and there is accordingly no reason for it to be cited in the 1976 French translation (p. 300 n. 74) beyond the fact that the essay in which this note appears was originally written in that language. Nor have references to Kock’s edition of the comic fragments been updated to Kassel-Austin numbers, a simple but important change. The quality of some of the translations (particularly from the German, but also at some points from the French), finally, is disturbingly low. Blame for this can scarcely be placed on the individual authors, who were presumably asked to submit a preliminary translation of their essays in the reasonable expectation that revisions would be made by a native speaker. That crucial final step seems not to have been taken here, however, and while the general editor of the volume may have had too little time to attend to a seemingly minor matter of this sort, someone else clearly should have.

In short, it is a pleasure to see a new volume of collected essays on Aristophanes appear. A modestly revised second edition of the Oxford Readings, perhaps a bit more carefully and consistently checked and edited, and containing a slightly different mix of material, would be welcome. It is nonetheless likely that the current volume will find a permanent place on the shelves of numerous undergraduate and undergraduate libraries in this country and perhaps even in the collections of some individual scholars.

The individual essays included in this volume are, in the order in which they appear: E. Segal, “The Physis of Comedy” (originally in HSCPh 77 [1973]); O. Taplin, “Fifth-Century Tragedy and Comedy” (originally in JHS 106 [1986]); A. W. Gomme, “Aristophanes and Comedy” (originally in CR 52 [1938], and repeatedly reprinted elsewhere); G. E. M. de Ste Croix, “The Political Outlook of Aristophanes” (originally an appendix to Origins of the Peloponnesian War [1972]); J. Henderson, “The Demos and the Comic Competition” (originally in Nothing to Do with Dionysos? [1990]); S. Halliwell, “Aristophanes’ Apprenticeship” (originally in CQ NS 30 [1980]); H. Foley, “Tragedy and Politics in Aristophanes’Acharnians” (originally in JHS 108 [1988]); H.-J. Newiger, “War and Peace in the Comedy of Aristophanes” (published in German in 1975; here in the English version originally published in YClS 26 [1980]); C. P. Segal, “Aristophanes’ Cloud-Chorus” (originally in Arethusa 2 [1967], and previously reprinted in the Wege der Forschung volume on Aristophanes and Old Comedy [1975]); B. Zimmermann, “The Parodoi of the Aristophanic Comedies” (originally in SIFC 3/2 [1984]); T. Gelzer, “Some Aspects of Aristophanes’ Dramatic Art in the Birds” (originally in BICS 23 [1976]); C. Moulton, “Comic Myth-Making and Aristophanes’ Originality” (originally in Luce [ed.], Ancient Writers: Greece and Rome [1982]); M. Silk, “The People of Aristophanes” (originally in Pelling [ed.], Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature [1990]); A. H. Sommerstein, “Aristophanes and the Demon Poverty” (originally in CQ NS 34 [1984]); S. Said, “The Assemblywomen : Women, Economy, and Politics” (originally in Aristophane, les femmes et la cité [1979]); H. Flashar, “The Originality of Aristophanes’ Last Plays” (originally in Poetica 1 [1967], and previously reprinted [in German] in the Wege der Forschung volume on Aristophanes and Old Comedy [1975]).

1. I note the following typographical errors for the benefit of a revised second edition: p. xiv n. 9 Taplin’s article is in CQ, not CO; p. xv read “Martin” for “Marti;” p. xvi n. 27 [Konstan’s article] read “27-46” for “2746,” and note the reprint in Greek Comedy and Ideology; p. xix Komoidotragemata was published in 1967 (not 1968), and Dover is not the editor of Greek and the Greeks but the author of the essays collected there; p. xx Sommerstein’s Peace appeared in 1985 (not 1085), and Platnauer’s Peace (1964), not Dover’s Clouds (1968), was the first volume to appear in Oxford’s new series of editions of the individual comedies; add “NS” to references to volumes of CQ since 1950 throughout, or use continuous numbering. Elsewhere, note in particular the misleading “4. 15-22; cf. 41. 3-4” at the bottom of p. 58, which ought to be reconverted de Ste Croix’s original “IV. 15-22; cf. 41. 3-4”.