BMCR 2000.08.32

Response: Major on Nichols on Major on Nichols

Response to 2000.07.30

Response by

Peter Nichols (henceforth N.) recently responded in BMCR (00.07.30) to my review of his book Aristophanes’ Novel Forms ( BMCR 00.02.18). He expands on two examples which I used in my original review to characterize what I perceive as critical weaknesses of the book. Regretfully, I must stand by my criticisms and, in light of N’s response, feel the need to provide details about the issues I only sketched in my original review.

My first example turns on N.’s treatment of the brief notice given to Sophocles in Frogs. I stated that N. attached much significance to the brevity of Sophocles’ role in the play without acknowledging historical, possibly more pragmatic, causes. I mentioned in particular that Sophocles died shortly before the original production of Frogs. N. replies with several claims, arguments, and quotations against the likelihood that the references to Sophocles resulted from timing and deadline pressures. As I stated in my original review, N. may be right. I believe that reasonable people can disagree about this issue.

But my concern was principally that N. did not deal with relevant facts and advance sufficient arguments, to the detriment of the book as a whole. Nothing in N.’s rebuttal affects my assessment. The book nowhere hints at possible explanations for the references to Sophocles other than N.’s own. N. says he footnoted previous discussions on the subject, but the note he cites (note 170 on page 204) reads, in its entirety, “See Strauss, Socrates and Aristophanes, 312, 320 n.3.” In Strauss we find, on page 312, “The Aristophanean (sic) comedy is only a partial mirror of life. Therefore it points to what escapes it or transcends it.” This sentence is linked to note 3 on page 320, which reads, in its entirety, “The most striking example is the verse on Sophocles on the Frogs (82) and the corresponding absence of Sophocles among the characters of the play.” I see no evidence that N. was aware of the historical situation at all. N. has in fact provided a response typical of the vagueness and looseness of historical knowledge his book reflects. In his response, N. quotes relevant discussions from Dover and Sommerstein, but no such helpful discussion appears in the book. Sommerstein’s edition may have appeared too late for N. to use in his book originally; but why N., even in his response, still does not avail himself of Dover’s excellent and very accessible 1993 edition of Frogs (especially pages 7-9, which in fact support some of N.’s positions) remains inexplicable.

My second example criticizes N. for supposing that, at the beginning of Thesmophoriazusae, Euripides stages the appeal to Agathon in order to recruit his kinsman to his cause. N. links the episode to his broader claim about the play’s exploration of gender issues and in turn of the livelihood of the polis. I happen to like and agree with N.’s broader reading of the play but find his assertion about the initial episode of the play unlikely and impractical. Aristophanes did, undeniably, have to write and coordinate plays for a live audience to take in during a single performance. If Aristophanes planned the deception N. posits, he would have had to clue the audience in somehow. N. offers nothing from the play which an audience could have used to discern this subtle plot. Certainly it is possible that the physical and visual performance could have supported N.’s assertion, but such a claim remains entirely speculative. In general, N. needs to be more aware of the mechanics of stagecraft when he develops theories about Aristophanes’ purpose and intentions.

With regard to my original disappointment with N.’s book overall, I emphasize that I value N.’s premise and his willingness to explore issues of gender, politics, and didacticism in Aristophanes’ plays. Unfortunately, 90% of the volume does not discuss these issues or N. fails to make connections explicit and clear. Twice in his response N. suggests that my criticisms derive from privileging classical scholarship over the thinkers (Nietzsche, Hegel, Strauss, Plato, Rousseau, Vernant, among others) N. cites most often. This suggestion is crudely false. I openly applaud N.’s use of philosophers and others to enhance his discussion. Rather, N.’s deficiencies in historical and technical knowledge about Greek Comedy, although he avails himself of other venerable thinkers, undermine his very worthwhile premise.