BMCR 2007.03.29

Kômôidotragôidia: intersezioni del tragico e del comico nel teatro del V secolo a.C

, , , Kômôidotragôidia: intersezioni del tragico e del comico nel teatro del V secolo a.C. Pisa: Edizioni della Normale, 2006. xi, 354. €25.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book contains thirteen papers from a conference held at Pisa in June 2005. The theme of the conference and the book is defined by the subtitle. Fifth-century tragedy and comedy can be seen as “intersecting” in many different ways and senses, and since the aim of the conference was, in the editors’ words (vii), “far interagire approcci critici diversi e avviare un fecondo dibattito su interrogativi e questioni che possono ricevere migliore definizione e risposte solo dall’incrocio delle distinte prospettive”, it is not surprising that the contributors take a wide variety of approaches. With a few exceptions it is not clear how much the contributions, as published, have benefited from the “fertile debate”, but the best of them make the book definitely a worthwhile one for research libraries to acquire.

Basta Donzelli shows convincingly that the Cadmus-Teiresias scene of Bacchae is not, as Seidensticker 1 had claimed, comic in tone and effect: Cadmus and Teiresias are simply “accepting the invitation of the god and his followers” — as the rest of Thebes ought to be, but isn’t — while Pentheus’ behaviour in this scene demonstrates that Dionysus’ description of him in the prologue was no more than the truth. (It is worth remembering that the gods were proverbially pleased when old men danced.2) Pentheus’ derisive attitude to the two old men, unique among human characters in tragedy, makes it appropriate that he is later exposed to the derision of all Thebes when paraded through the city in maenad garb. I am less sure that Pentheus in the cross-dressing scene would be likely to move spectators to pity (12): quite apart from his theomachia against Dionysus, he has already insulted his grandfather, ordered an act of sacrilege in the destruction of Teiresias’ place of augury ( Ba. 346-351), and declared war on his mother ( Ba. 780-6, cf. 681, 689, 719-721), and Euripides has not yet done anything to arouse sympathy for him.

Battezzato discusses a papyrus fragment ( trag. adesp. 646a TrGF), presenting a speech in anapaestic tetrameters apparently by Silenus, which has been assigned by some to a fifth-century comedy, by others to a Hellenistic satyr-drama. He argues strongly for the former alternative, but seems to me to underrate considerably the difficulties this view faces. The almost invariable presence of a diaeresis after every metron of the tetrameters in the papyrus, with a sequence of nineteen lines each with a clear word-break four syllables from the end, is quite unlike anything in Old Comedy.3 The phrase τραγικῶν ὁ παρὼν πόνος ὕμνων (line 23 of the papyrus), which gives Battezzato’s chapter its title, is one I would be loth to debit to a fifth-century author; it is of course common in poetry for a noun, or even a phrase consisting of a noun and adjective, to be sandwiched between two words forming a genitive phrase dependent on it, but not when the contained phrase includes an article : one may pray for τῶνδ’ ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων, but not for * τῶνδε τὴν ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων. And Battezzato fails to persuade me that “the great singer of Salamis” (line 19; see pp. 50-53) could be anyone other than Euripides — Homer is sometimes associated with Cypriot Salamis, but always only as one of several possible provenances — and Euripides is never linked to Salamis in any fifth-century text. Nor are his objections (61) to a satyric source for the fragment particularly cogent: we know that historical personages were mentioned by name in some satyr-dramas of the fourth century and later, and, so far as concerns “la rottura della non-autoreferenzialità esplicita del testo teatrale”, one can hardly thrust a sheet of paper between our fragment and Astydamas fr. 4 TrGF. Battezzato rightly points out (57-59) that many comedies had satyr choruses (though his references to Anaxandrides and Ophelion are mistaken); but if our fragment does come from a comedy of that kind, it cannot have been a fifth-century play, and the only remaining possibilities would be two plays by Timocles (fl. 345-315), Demosatyroi and Ikarioi Satyroi; the latter would be an attractive possibility in view of the connection of Icaria with Dionysus and with Thespis. And we do not know enough about the techniques of Hellenistic satyr-drama to be able to rule that out as an alternative.

Bonanno discusses the use of the ekkyklema in Aristophanes, specifically in the Euripides and Agathon scenes in Acharnians and Thesmophoriazusae respectively. She does not reach any very enlightening conclusions and does not even consider whether the ekkyklema may have been used more widely in Old Comedy and what that might imply for the question whether it was perceived as an essentially tragic device.4

Goldhill discusses passages in tragedy that seem likely to have provoked audience laughter (as well as some — like the Nurse scene in Choephoroi or the Guard scene in Antigone — which he rightly considers unlikely to have done so). He emphasizes the likelihood that the audience response to, for example, Menelaus’ joke about Helen’s weight at Troades 1050 may have been divided or “fissured”, but I am far from sure he is right to conclude (98-99) that a key effect of such passages is to make every spectator aware of the fissure itself and that this “go[es] to the heart of Euripides’ tragic engagement with democracy”. I can imagine a spectator saying to himself, on hearing Menelaus’ joke, “What did he say that for?” I can imagine another one saying to himself “Should I be laughing, like the man behind me?” But I do find it difficult to imagine any spectator, if his mind is to any degree at all engaged with the play, saying to himself “Ah, we’re split down the middle on whether to laugh, just as we so often are in the Assembly!”

Graf refreshingly dismisses all ancient and modern theories on the ritual origins of drama as “learned contributions in a guessing game. . .determined by [whatever] template … was fashionable and therefore convincing in their time”. He argues, nevertheless, that “ritual and drama obviously are closely connected with each other” because they both consist of action, take place in a dedicated space, consist in a re-enactment of past events, and have a “simple and clear structure” (110-2). Of these four points of resemblance, the first, second and fourth apply to many other things besides ritual and drama, and the third applies neither to all ritual nor to all drama. Like most of those who acquiesce in “the consensus that ancient drama was ritual” (114), Graf does not tell us what he means by ritual; he would have benefited from pondering the radical challenge of Scullion,5 even if only in order to produce a reasoned rejection of it.

Guidorizzi explores the fluctuating popularity of mythological themes in fifth- and early fourth-century comedy, concluding rightly that the surviving plays of Aristophanes give a very misleading picture: almost throughout this period, from Epicharmus onwards, between a third and a half of all comedies were on mythological subjects, with a single downward blip in the 420s and 410s which more or less coincides with the career of Eupolis (of whose seventeen comedies only one, at most, was mythological). His focus on Cratinus throws some doubt on the relevance of the paper to this volume, since Cratinus, unlike most of his successors, takes little interest in tragic versions of the myths he uses.

Mastromarco in an extremely well argued piece shows conclusively that Wilamowitz and Pfeiffer were wrong to conclude, partly from the evidence of comedy, that reading texts of tragedy were widespread in late fifth-century Athens. Rather, the dissemination of knowledge of tragedy will have been crucially aided by restagings at the Rural Dionysia — which may have taken place anything from a few months to many years after the original performances — and also by symposiac performance of speeches and songs (152), on which Mastromarco cites valuable evidence not often adduced in this connection. He classifies Aristophanes’ paratragic passages according to the extent to which they apparently presuppose a good acquaintance with their models on the part of their audience and concludes that only a rather small minority do so and that these come preponderantly from a few memorable plays such as Telephus, Alcestis and Hippolytus. By an analysis of the parodies of Bellerophon in Peace, and of Andromeda in Thesmophoriazusae, he further shows that they require their audience to recall not just the text of the tragedy being imitated but also its music and staging — knowledge which they could not have acquired by reading but only in the theatre.

Mureddu compares tragic and comic imagery. The latter tends to be much more physical, particularly in reference to the human body. When tragedy speaks, for instance, of rowing, “i remi parevano muoversi da soli”, whereas in comedy we are made to visualize the bodies of the oarsmen — legs, arms, rumps and all. Not every kind of physicality is acceptable in comedy, however: Mureddu makes the acute, and so far as I know new, observation (206) that in comedy any mention of human blood is (almost) completely taboo.6

Paduano’s discussion of protagonists in Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes is largely vitiated by some extraordinary claims about certain tragedies: that “una concezione ‘moderna’ dell’individuo” did not yet exist in the time of Aeschylus (232-3; even the meagre surviving fragments of his Myrmidons are enough to refute this); that in Sophocles’ Electra the vengeance taken on Agamemnon’s murderers is the product of Electra’s will alone, while Orestes has an “atteggiamento sereno e attendista” much like that of Chrysothemis (233); that Calchas “promette l’aiuto divino per salvare Aiace” if only he can be kept in his hut for the day (234-5; in fact Calchas says only that in that event Ajax’s friends might be able to save him if the gods are willing); and that Oedipus at Colonus has a “lieto fine. . .ancor meno discutibile” (sc. than that of Electra) (245; this when Oedipus, by cursing his sons to kill each other, has unknowingly condemned his beloved and, in this play, flawless daughter Antigone to death). His classification of Aristophanic heroes (246-7) into those who strive primarily for themselves and those who strive primarily for the community is useful but debatable: Dicaeopolis makes peace for himself only after being improperly prevented from trying to persuade the community to do so, and the rule of Peisetaerus over the birds, however much it constitutes a betrayal of his promises to them, is very good news for human communities, whose welfare is likely to be of more interest to Aristophanes’ audience.7

Tammaro gives a good brief analysis of the portrayal by Aristophanes of Euripides (three times) and of Aeschylus and Agathon (once each). He suggests at the end (260) that whether or not, as sometimes alleged, Euripides killed tragedy, he certainly killed Old Comedy with a rationalism and an “ethos ‘borghese'” that were inimical to the spirit of utopian fantasy essential to the genre; that this effect was delayed (the story-pattern of Wealth does not differ significantly from that of Acharnians)8 does not necessarily refute the suggestion, since it may have had to wait for the emergence, and the rise to confident maturity, of a new generation of comic dramatists.

Telò notes that in Eupolis’ Demes two of the four resurrected statesmen, Miltiades (fr. 106) and Aristeides (fr. 99.102), use words associated with famous Euripidean women (Medea and Melanippe respectively), and argues that he is engaging in a subtle anti-Euripidean polemic — so subtle, I fear, that hardly any spectator would have understood it with the possible exception of Euripides himself. This would not be the only comedy in which characters use memorably expressed Euripidean lines that happen to be appropriate to the situation in which they find themselves, and the appropriateness of the sentiments, combined with the incongruity of giving expression to them in tragic language in the midst of a comic drama, is an entirely sufficient explanation for the phenomenon.9

Zanetto discusses the presentation in comedy, from Cratinus to Plautus, of rivalry (i) between comic poets themselves and (ii) between comedy and tragedy, arguing that comic dramatists use comparisons with, and disparagement of, their comic rivals and their tragic counterparts, in very much the same way and with the same purpose, namely to exalt themselves. He ends by discussing the word τρυγῳδία, but makes no significant advance on Taplin,10 repeating his implausible suggestion that the word was coined for Acharnians 499-500 (if that had been the first time it was used, no one would have understood it; rather, at its first appearance, the word must have stood in explicit contrast with τραγῳδία).

Zimmermann, in the shortest and nearly the best contribution in the book, articulates more fully and with fuller documentation an argument I made briefly over thirty years ago11 — that the action of Clouds, particularly as regards the role of the Cloud-goddesses themselves, is fundamentally a tragic one. He sees the Aeschylean principle πάθει μάθος at work, but queries what Strepsiades can be supposed to have learned from his experiences, in view of his savage violence at the end of the play; he suggests that the ending is deliberately jarring (he notes how it contradicts claims made for the play in the parabasis) in order to show that the dénouement is no more than a superficial solution to the problems explored in the play. Here I think he may be somewhat idealizing the Athenians: the city that convicted Anaxagoras and Socrates, put a price on the head of Diagoras of Melos, and behaved like a flock of headless chickens when some sacred images were mutilated and some private ritual parodies made known to the public, may not have thought it in the least inappropriate that men who rejected the gods (cf. Clouds 1506, 1509), and encouraged various kinds of immorality, should pay for it by having their house burnt down.

Three editorial decisions are perhaps unfortunate. No attempt appears to have been made to encourage cross-reference from one paper to another; for example, Goldhill’s brief discussion (90-91) of the Cadmus-Teiresias scene in Bacchae cries out for a cross-reference to Basta Donzelli, and there are several other places where readers could have benefited from an invitation to look across to another chapter. The decision to present the contributions in alphabetical order of authors, as if they were articles in JHS, likewise disrupts any attempt to compare and integrate discussions of related topics. And the title chosen for the volume is uncomfortably close to that of another, still well known after forty years to all students of Old Comedy, Κωμῳδοτραγήματα : Studia Aristophanea viri Aristophanei W.J.W. Koster in honorem (Amsterdam, 1967). But the proofreading, and the actual production of the book, are excellent; the howler Nichomachean Ethics (84) is unlikely to be the fault of the editors or publishers.


Giuseppina Basta Donzelli, “Il riso amaro di Dioniso. Euripide, Baccanti, 170-369″ (1-17)

Luigi Battezzato, “La fatica dei canti: tragedia, commedia e dramma satiresco nel frammento adespoto 646a TrGF” (19-68)

Maria Grazia Bonanno, “L’ ἐκκύκλημα di Aristofane: un dispositivo paratragico?” (69-82)

Simon Goldhill, “The thrill of misplaced laughter” (83-102)

Fritz Graf, “Drama and ritual. Evolution and convergences” (103-118)

Giulio Guidorizzi, “Mito e commedia: il caso di Cratino” (119-135)

Giuseppe Mastromarco, “La paratragodia, il libro, la memoria” (137-191)

Patrizia Mureddu, “Metafore tragiche, metafore comiche: il gioco delle immagini” (193-224)

Guido Paduano, “Sofocle, Euripide, Aristofane: alcune affinità nella costruzione del protagonista” (225-247)

Vinicio Tammaro, “Poeti tragici come personaggi comici in Aristofane” (249-261)

Mario Telò, “Milziade, Aristide e il sicofante: personaggi ‘tragici’ nei Demi di Eupoli” (263-306)

Giuseppe Zanetto, ” Tragodia versus trugodia : la rivalità letteraria nella commedia attica” (307-325)

Bernhard Zimmermannm ” Pathei mathos : strutture tragiche nelle Nuvole di Aristofane” (327-335).


1. B. Seidensticker, Palintonos harmonia: Studien zu komischen Elementen in der griechischen Tragödie (Göttingen, 1982)

2. This proverb is preserved textually only in Latin (Servius on Aeneid 3.279 and 8.110), but a comic fragment (Phrynichus fr. 9 K-A) proves that a version of it existed in Greek, and W.J. Slater, GRBS 41 (2001) 117-121, brilliantly showed that this proverb lies behind the famous question of the Theban elders in Oedipus Tyrannus (895), τί δεῖ με χορεύειν;

3. In all the anapaestic tetrameter sections in Aristophanes’ agones and parabaseis, there are nowhere more than nine successive lines that have a word-break of any kind at this point.

4. See my discussion in CQ 28 (1978) 385-390 and 29 (1979) 53-54, and the note on Frogs 830 in my edition of that play (Warminster, 1996).

5. S. Scullion, “‘Nothing to do with Dionysus’: tragedy misconceived as ritual”, CQ 52 (2002) 102-137.

6. I can find only one mention of human blood in the surviving plays of Aristophanes — a reference to a bleeding blister or chilblain at Eccl. 1057.

7. Similarly in Ecclesiazusae, though the women become the holders of political power, the new social order they introduce brings more benefits to men than to women in respect of everything except sex. I have discussed these two plays of revolution in ” Nephelokokkygia and Gynaikopolis : Aristophanes’ dream cities”, in M.H. Hansen ed. The Imaginary Polis (Copenhagen, 2005) 73-99.

8. See G.M. Sifakis, “The structure of Aristophanic comedy”, JHS 112 (1992) 123-142.

9. On the date of Demes, which Telò and L. Porciani ( QUCC 72 [2002] 23-40) have dated to 410 (412 plerique, 417 Storey), see now G. Torello, Eupolis and Attic Comedy (Diss. Nottingham 2006) 145-165, who argues for Lenaea 414. Telò’s attempt to date Euripides’ Melanippe Desmotis by reference to Athenian activity at Metapontum in 413 (Thuc. 7.33.5) has no cogency (Athens and Metapontum were already in alliance before that [ ibid. ]), and is not supported by the article of Katerina Zacharia which he cites (in A.H. Sommerstein ed. Shards from Kolonos: Studies in Sophoclean Fragments [Bari, 2003] 57-76, at 61) which makes no claim about the date of Melanippe Desmotis and no reference to the Thucydides passage.

10. O.P. Taplin, “Tragedy and trugedy”, CQ 33 (1983) 331-3.

11. Aristophanes: The Acharnians, The Clouds, Lysistrata (Harmondsworth, 1973) 109.