BMCR 2022.03.07

Muthos. Aristotle’s concept of narrative and the fragments of old comedy

, Muthos. Aristotle's concept of narrative and the fragments of old comedy. Studia comica, 12. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2021. Pp. 212. ISBN 9783949189036 €80,00.


Loren Marsh offers a reinterpretation of Aristotle’s concept of “muthos” in the Poetics. Muthos is generally understood to mean “plot” but Marsh argues that the concept is much narrower than this and not comparable to existing theories of narrative. According to Marsh, muthos refers to a small number of core events that are tightly causally connected and contained entirely within a narrative work but do not constitute the entirety of that work (11, 17, 41). Aristotle uses the concept of muthos, Marsh suggests, to sort narratives into small groups in order to facilitate comparison of them from a structural perspective (50-1). Marsh therefore takes up the concept to analyze the structure of fifth-century Athenian drama, especially comedy. He ultimately concludes that genre is a less helpful category for investigating dramatic structure than a formal system based on a combination of plot type (invented-plot; mythological plot) and tone (humorous; serious).

Muthos adds to the steadily growing body of scholarship on fragmentary Greek comedy. Some of its reconstructions (“muthoi deductions”) offer valuable new readings of individual fragments and interrogate assumptions that all types of Old Comedy were similarly structured is important. Marsh’s analyses of cross-generic structural similarities also contribute to current scholarly interest in interactions between dramatic genres.

The book is organized into four chapters and includes a brief introduction and conclusion. Chapter 1 (“Muthos: the plot within”) offers a close reading of the Poetics and a reassessment of the muthos concept. In the remaining chapters, Marsh applies the concept to Aristophanic and other fragmentary “invented-plot” comedy (chapter 2), to Plautus’ Amphitruo and the fragments of mythological comedy (chapter 3), and to surviving tragedy and satyr play (chapter 4).

In the introduction, Marsh lays out the problem with which Muthos attempts to grapple: muthos is a key concept in the Poetics, yet Aristotle’s statements about it can be contradictory and difficult to reconcile with surviving ancient literature (11). Marsh suggests that a plausible way to address both problems is reinterpreting what Aristotle means by the term muthos. Though Muthos succeeds in squaring the Poetics’ internal inconsistencies, in chapters 2-4 Marsh’s attempt to make all Greek drama conform to Aristotle’s strictures can appear forced.

In chapter 1, Marsh re-reads passages of the Poetics on the size of the muthos to demonstrate that, according to Aristotle, muthos is contained entirely within a narrative work but is not coterminous with it. Marsh argues that Aristotle employs the term μέγεθος in reference to the relative size of the muthos within the work and μῆκος in reference to the absolute size of the work, thereby distinguishing muthos from the narrative in its entirety. Marsh argues that, when μῆκος is applied to muthos, it must refer to the absolute number of muthos parts (a muthos part being an action that contributes by causal necessity to the advancement of the plot, 39-40). On the basis of several passages (Poetics 1550b23-35 and especially 1459b22-31), Marsh concludes that Aristotle counts muthos parts to calculate the correct relative size of a muthos (32). As the book acknowledges, counting muthos parts is problematic: the size of a muthos cannot be defined in terms of lines or words because any part of the text containing muthos also potentially contains non-muthos (37). Nevertheless, Marsh develops a quantitative methodology for determining how much muthos a tragedy (or epic) contains. Using Aristotle’s muthos-summary of Iphigenia in Tauris, Marsh determines that the muthos is contained in lines 467-826 and that, on average, 7% of these lines contain muthos parts. Marsh’s aim is to demonstrate just how little of a narrative work actually consists in muthos.

Marsh’s overall claim in this chapter is convincing enough to warrant investigation and some persuasive readings of the Poetics are offered. Marsh demonstrates, for example, that in Aristotle’s summary of the muthos of Iphigenia in Tauris genitive absolutes and participles are used to give the “premise” of the muthos (i.e to describe elements outside the muthos and/or outside the whole work) and finite verbs to describe the muthos proper (19-21). However, this chapter will be challenging for the Greek-less reader. Though Muthos does offer translations of the Poetics, the translation used is that of Heath (1996). This results in some terminological confusion: despite arguing that muthos does not mean “plot” in our sense of the word, Heath’s translation of it as such is maintained (e.g. 22). Additionally, there is some lack of attention to Aristotle’s use of Greek terms. There is no sufficient explanation of why Aristotle uses the Greek term logos to describe what Marsh would have called the muthos of the Odyssey.

In chapter 2 (“The Aristophanic muthos”) Marsh aims to demonstrate that Aristophanes’ surviving comedies, as well as some fragmentary plays, all utilize the same three-pronged “Aristophanic muthos” (complaint-plan-sufficient implementation of plan which results in a change of fortune). The muthos ends at the parabasis and the parabasis serves as a transition to the episodes in which the plan may be maintained, reversed or disappear entirely. Aristotle, Marsh argues, holds only the muthos, and not the episodes, to a high standard of unity, and therefore plays such as Frogs, whose structure has long caused a headache for scholars, still uphold the Aristotelian standard (60). While the episodes may be unpredictable, Marsh argues that the close causal connection of action in the muthos provides a somewhat more reliable blueprint for reconstructing the muthoi of fragmentary comedies than do attempts to reconstruct entire plots (63). Marsh argues that some non-Aristophanic comedies show evidence of an Aristophanic muthos and so the final part of chapter 2 attempts “muthos deductions” for these plays (including Cratinus’ Wine Flask, Crates’ Beasts, Archippus’ Fishes, Eupolis’ Spongers and Demes).

Marsh acknowledges, but does not sufficiently discuss, the fundamental problem of assuming that non-Aristophanic muthoi will conform precisely to the tendencies of the Aristophanic. For example, Marsh argues that because there is no evidence of an allegorical character as the driver of an Aristophanic muthos, the same must be true of Cratinus’ Wine Flask. Therefore, Comedy cannot conceive the play’s big plan (65). Nevertheless, Marsh does offer plausible readings of individual fragments and proposes intriguing hypotheses about the action of lost plays. These virtues are apparent in the suggestion that Cratinus actually transforms into the titular wine-flask in the course of the play (68-74).

In chapter 3 (“The muthos in mythological old comedy”), Marsh tackles the fragmentary sub-genre of mythological comedy, arguing that mythological comedy differs significantly from Aristophanic comedy in its structure. Marsh concludes that mythological comedy lacks epirrhematic structures based on a statistical analysis of fragments. The analysis is problematic. For example, despite the attempts to prove the essential difference between Aristophanic and mythological comedy, it is argued that a parabasis in both sub-genres would look the same (99). Marsh therefore looks only for the type of parabatic material we associate with Aristophanes in the mythological fragments and (not surprisingly) finds little. There is some inconsistency in which plays are considered mythological. On 106 (with n.39), Cratinus’ Bukoloi is assumed to be an invented-plot play, but on 123 Marsh treats it as if it were a mythological comedy.

In determining muthos size and placement in mythological comedy, Marsh faces an unsurmountable challenge. No complete play in this sub-genre survives. Marsh therefore uses Plautus’ Amphitruo as the basis for analysis (114-20). Though drawing some interesting conclusions (the absolute size of the muthos is 5x larger than in Aristophanes and the placement far later in the play), Marsh fails to acknowledge that these differences could stem from the Romanness of the comedy rather than anything intrinsic to the mythological sub-genre. Marsh links the different size and placement of the muthos to its lack of epirrhematic structures. A parabasis in the middle of a mythological comedy would interrupt the muthos, whereas in an Aristophanic comedy it provided a convenient transition to post-muthos episodes (121). Marsh relies too heavily on these uncertain conclusions in the book’s last chapter.

In chapter 4 (“Muthos and the definition of genre”), Marsh determines the muthoi of all surviving tragedy and satyr play in order to facilitate a cross-generic analysis of muthos patterns and to demonstrate that dramatic structures are determined by a combination of tone (humorous or serious) and plot-type (invented or mythological) rather than by genre alone. As Marsh remarks, the identification of muthoi is a subjective process (40) and the analyses in this chapter confirm this. For example, Marsh identifies Hecuba’s recognition of Polydorus’ murder as the muthos-ending change of fortune, but since she has just lost her daughter to sacrifice, arguably Polydorus’ death makes Hecuba’s terrible situation worse but does not fundamentally alter it (169-70). If there is a change of fortune in Hecuba, a case could be made that it occurs when Hecuba gains revenge for Polydorus’ death. Marsh assumes too readily that all surviving drama must contain a muthos that conforms to Aristotelian strictures. Though acknowledging the difficulty in finding a muthos in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (151), Marsh attempts to force the play to fit rather than admitting either that the muthos is extremely unconventional or that the play has no muthos at all. Again, despite claiming that nothing reported in a messenger speech can be a part of the muthos, Marsh concludes that the only change of fortune in Aeschylus’ Persians occurs when the messenger announces news of the Persians’ defeat (148).

Marsh’s muthoi analyses also, however, demonstrate the utility of the concept, revealing the structural similarities between Alcestis and satyr play. Marsh ultimately concludes that the category of genre ought to be dispensed with in the analysis of dramatic structure because the correlation between plot-type and structure appears to bypass generic categorization (193-4). The conclusion is based primarily on the similarity Marsh perceives in the muthos placement of Persians (an invented-plot tragedy) and the invented-plot comedies of Aristophanes; and on the similarities between Cyclops, Alcestis, and Amphitruo (all mythological but different genres). The problematic nature of the conclusions about Persians and Amphitruo have already been discussed.

Marsh concludes Muthos by proposing that fifth-century poets and audiences may have been aware of and consciously engaging with the muthos concept in the construction and consumption of drama and that Aristotle therefore was theorizing a pre-existing concept in his Poetics (195).

In the introduction, Marsh states that the aim of Muthos is to “make a persuasive case that this understanding of the muthos concept is an entirely plausible interpretation of the Greek text of the Poetics, and that as a result examining its consequences is a…worthwhile enterprise” (12). While not every argument Marsh makes is convincing, this reader is persuaded that muthos in Aristotle is a topic worthy of further analysis.