BMCR 2007.02.54

Die griechische Komödie

, Die griechische Komödie. Frankfurt: Verlag Antike, 2006. 232 pages ; 21 cm. ISBN 3938032103. €32.90.

Bernard Zimmermann’s (hereafter Z.) Die griechische Komödie (DgK)1 admirably fulfills the dueling desiderata of an introductory text and an enormous topic. Within approximately two hundred pages, Z. addresses questions concerning manuscripts and ancient stagecraft, describes the major and minor comedic authors, and also treats trends in Fourth- and Fifth-century philosophy and major political events germane to the formation and social background of Greek comedy. Not surprisingly, DgK centers on Aristophanes, the discussion of whose work comprises about one-half of the text. Z. provides an adequate a biography for each of the authors, a plot summary of the major plays and discussion of their themes, and a sketch of the development from Early to New Comedy. DgK serves as an excellent introduction to the field of Greek comedy and is marked by fairness, economy, and erudition. Since DgK is meant to serve as an introductory text to Greek comedy and presupposes no knowledge of Greek literature, culture, history, or language, much of its material will not be new to most readers of the BMCR. This review will then focus primarily on how the text serves as an introductory text for students with some interest in classical studies, and also highlight aspects of DgK which are idiosyncratic, pioneering, or provocative.

The sixty page Introduction chronicles the history of the manuscripts of the comedies, explains the importance of comedy in Athenian society, describes the theater and costumes associated with comedy, summarizes various theories concerning the origin of comedy, and discusses several qualities that are considered necessary to Greek comedy. DgK begins with a summary of the texts available to readers today and a brief examination of why so few manuscripts are extant. The significance of the efforts of the philologists of Alexandria and Rome (11-12), the transfer of dramas from papyrus to parchment, and the destruction of Constantine (13) are all addressed as Z. traces the path to our current texts. Turning to stagecraft, Z. sketches the theater and costumes connected with the comedies, explaining crucial terms and the significance of comedy, theater, and agon to Athenian society. Z. relays the discovery of the spillway before the seats of honor and provides simple evidence for the theory that the stage was raised: the terms ἀναβαίνειν and καταβαίνειν (26). Concerning the mechané Z. cites not only Aristotle’s familiar condemnation on formal grounds (28), but also a more invective criticism by the comic poet Antiphanes, who jealously lambastes the tragedians for employing the device simply to entertain. (27-28, from Fr. 189 PCG)

Concerning the source of Greek comedy, Z. is skeptical of our capacity to provide a trustworthy, detailed image of pre-literate Greek comedy by extrapolating from Aristophanes’ comedies. What the phalloi, masks, costumes, mockery, and obscenity of Fifth-century comedy do indicate is some connection with cults dedicated to fertility gods, such as Dionysus (30-31). Etymologically, κωμῳδία should be derived from κῶμος (“band of revelers”) rather than the Doric κώμη (“village”) (31-32). Thus, Greek comedy is likely to have gestated in the drinking songs, dancing, and festive spirit of symposia. Most significantly, the concomitant rivals among Dionysian cult singers and tragic choruses might have led to the birth of comedy. The self-description of each masked chorus could have given rise to the parabasis, the “Nucleus der Komödie” (35). Z. outlines the gradual displacement of the chorus outside of the action of the comedy and, by the time of the New Comedies, its assuming the role of segue entertainment (42-43). Following the brief but remarkably thorough Introduction, Z. begins his discussion of Aristophanes. As is the case for all the poets introduced, Z. first provides a brief biography and addresses Aristophanes’ contribution to Greek comedy. The plays are not ordered chronologically, but grouped according to themes, and political events which seem to have a bearing upon the play are often described before a group of plays. The causes and significance of the Peloponnesian War are discussed as the backdrop for the Acharnians, Peace, and Lysistrata. The absence of the prospect of peace at the time the Acharnians was written accounts for the fantastic character of that play, while that same hopelessness lends Lysistrata a more somber tone. (83). In the chapter entitled “Mockery, Criticism, and Politics” (“Spott, Kritik, und Politik”), Z. cites Cleon’s controversial domestic and international policies as well as the personal enmity between Cleon and Aristophanes (87-89) as motivating the comedic attacks upon this and other leading political figures in the Knights and the Birds. Similarly the Wasps mockingly criticizes the dependency of the Athenian demos upon the demagogues (100). Z. introduces the theories and influence of Gorgias and Protagoras and makes the case that these sophists and their ilk are among those whom Aristophanes hopes to sting with his Wasps for the pernicious effects of their rhetoric upon an already litigious Athens. In his section on the Clouds, Z. warns readers not to read the play as the harangue of a curmudgeonly Aristophanes against the youth of his day. To the contrary, the Stronger Argument’s use of the provocative terms σωφροσύνη and ἀπραγμαοσύνη in his aristocratic appeal to the days of yore would be off putting to an audience which recently heard these same terms employed to rouse their support for the Peloponnesian War. Likewise Strepsiades’ act of arson at the end of the play is no solution to the conflict between the New Learning and traditional education, so it is facile to read the entire play as a critique of privileging one school over the other (112f.). In “The Path to Utopia,” Z. paints the historical backdrop to the Ecclesiazusae and Plutus by recounting the story of the Athenians’ defeat by the Spartans. Following this summary and analysis of his extant plays, a brief biography for comedians contemporary with Aristophanes is provided, and their extant fragments, thematic content, and contribution to Greek comedy are all examined.

Despite the paucity of texts, Z.’s brief chapter on Middle Comedy is valuable in its clear depiction of the characteristics of Middle Comedy and the theories of its origins. Z. argues that Stoicism encouraged a retreat from the political life and the cultivation of the private life as a response to the political instability and general turmoil following Alexander’s death. This introversion is also reflected in Middle Comedy’s staging daily life instead of critiquing notorious public figures (167). Middle Comedy is also distinguishable from Old Comedy because it features mythological comedy (169) and appropriates devices such as anagnorisis and intrigue from tragedy (170). The known writers and their fragments are introduced and briefly commented upon.

Although today Menander is a far less popular author than Aristophanes, with almost no productions of his plays and frequently excluded from introductory courses to Greek literature, Z. takes pains to show that this obscurity has not always been the case. Z. cites Menander’s powerful influence upon Roman comedy, and also the great respect both Lessing and Goethe had held for the dramatist (177f.). The fact that approximately only five percent of his oeuvre is extant, and much of that discovered relatively recently, accounts in part for Menander’s not being terribly well-known today (178f.). Before examining Menander’s plays and fragments, DgK succinctly contrasts Aristophanes and Menander. Whereas Euripides provides Aristophanes with constant fodder for mockery, Menander is indebted to the tragedian for his inspirational plot twists (181). Philosophy serves almost universally as a negative example in the plays of Aristophanes, whereas Menander seems to incorporate some philosophical trends without traces of sarcasm (186f.). Z. also draws special attention to the presence of Aristotelian philosophy in Menander’s work. Z. makes a case for the influence of Aristotelian ethics upon the Shield, where the constant appeal to moderation cannot be ignored (190). Similarly, the conflicting goals of autonomy and friendship analyzed and debated in the Nicomachean Ethics are recurring themes in Menander’s comedies, especially in Dyskolos (186). As was the case with the chapter on Aristophanes, each of Menander’s plays is summarized, and their themes and possible political, social, and philosophical influences are considered. Finally, Menander’s rivals are also introduced and their fragments discussed.

In the final section, Z. surveys the influence of Greek comedy on German drama. The topics touched upon are handled with Z.’s characteristically compact dexterity, but since the influence upon German literature was rather minimal, the scope of the investigation could have been expanded to include other countries where Greek comedy has had a more sizeable impact.2

DgK is replete with textual examples, preventing that quality most baneful to comedy: insipidity. Instead of being assaulted with theories from secondary literature, neophytes are allowed to eavesdrop as the Greeks speak for and to themselves, with generous selections not only from the comic poets but also from both well known and scarcely mentioned historians, poets, and politicians. Z. carefully draws upon his extensive knowledge to illustrate the reception of Greek comedy by the intelligentsia. Readers may well beg to differ with Z. in his more speculative moments, such as when he theorizes about the impact of certain historical events upon the themes and form of comedy. Nonetheless, Z. composes a compelling narrative of the growth and permutations of comedy while painting a detailed picture of Athenian society, and he is well informed and cautious in his theorizing. The reader of DgK learns much of both. At the same time, readers might wish to be provided with an equally vibrant description of the performative aspects of the comedies. Some description of Aristophanes’ physical humor (e.g., Strepsiades writhing in bed as he’s attacked by bedbugs or Philokleon’s dramatic first entrance in the Wasps) would help draw comedy off the page, demonstrate its poignancy, and illustrate timeless sources of laughter. Likewise an illustrations of the stage, costumes, and images from vases associated with comedy would enhance DgK and are appropriate to an introductory text. At times, Z.’s privileging thematic content of the comedies over their performative aspects and telos of inducing laughter results in readings which are not as rich as might be desirable. For example, Strepsiades’ raving act of arson and communing with the herm in the final debacle of the Clouds certainly is hilarious, which upstages the fact that the contrary modes of life presented in the comedy are left unresolved. Finally, students first encountering Greek comedy would also benefit from annotations to some of the works listed in the selected bibliography.

Z. has provided a marvelous introduction not only to Greek comedy, but, owing to his painting a background for the comedies, to much of ancient Greek history and culture as well. One cannot but be impressed by Z.’s capacity to examine an enormous number of topics without ignoring significant details or being imbalanced.3 It is surprising that there is no such introduction to the entire oeuvre of Greek comedy in English. A translation of Z.’s DgK would certainly be a welcome addition to Anglophone literature on Greek comedy.4


1. Die griechische Komödie is a revised and expanded edition of a book by the same title published in 1998 by Artemis and Winkler. Zimmermann’s writings on comedy, and Aristophanes in particular, are extensive. His three volume Untersuchung zur Form und dramatischen Technik der Aristophanischen Komödien (Frankfurt: Königstein, 1985-1987) is already an indispensable contribution to Aristophanic scholarship.

2. Martin Holtermann’s Der deutsche Aristophanes. Die Rezeption eines politischen Dichters im 19. Jahrhundert (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004) is not mentioned in DgK’s bibliography but would be a welcome addition since it is the most recent monograph on Aristophanesrezeption in Germany.

3. My findings in errata are limited to typographical errors. “4.6.” of the Inhaltsverzeichnis should read “4.6.1”. “Werden” appears instead of “werde” on page 88 (“… er werden in zwanzig Tagen das Unternehmen erfolgreich abschliessen …”). “War” is repeated unnecessarily: “Denn als einzige Grenze war dem Komoedienspott das Verbotgesetzt war, den Souveraen, den attischen Demos, zu verspotten …” (88). “Not” should be capitalized: “Ei, wenn’s not tut, / Da jagen wir mit Steinen sie davon.” Finally, the hyphen is not needed in “be-gonnen” (122).

4. I am very grateful to Professor Thalia Pandiri (Smith College) for providing many valuable suggestions for this review.