BMCR 2023.11.36

Greek comedy and embodied scholarly discourse

, Greek comedy and embodied scholarly discourse. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2023. Pp. viii, 278. ISBN 9783111080932.

In recent years, there has been increased interest in the embodied aspects in the plays of Old Comedy, as seen in the studies of Meineck (2018) and Compton-Engle (2015). At the same time, Ford (2002) and Porter (2010) have published foundational studies of literary criticism in the pre-Hellenistic world. Anna Novokhatko’s book purports to marry the two fields by addressing “embodied scholarly discourse” in Greek comedy, but in truth this work is far more concerned with ancient scholarly discourse than its embodiment as such in the comic plays. Her main argument is that “the elements that would form the methodological and epistemological basis for scholarship, allowing it to flourish in the third century BCE in particular, had been developed by the end of the fifth century BCE,” (p. 29). By scholarly discourse, Novokhatko refers to grammatical, stylistic, and literary theories, as well as to early Homeric criticism. Using Comedy as a springboard, the author analyses a vast body of fragmentary and epigraphical evidence for these theoretical trends in conjunction with terminology found in the major theorists of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, especially Plato and Aristotle.

Considered as a study of scholarly discourse in comedy, this book provides a useful and erudite synthesis of this early evidence for literary criticism. The discussion of embodiment, however, is confined largely to the ideas spoken (and thus presented) on stage, with little attention to performance or physicality. Some exceptions include dancing as a complement to metrical discussion and the possible personification of laughter on the stage. In general, however, the author suggests that comic performance itself, in the sense of conversation presented on the stage, increased the vividness of concepts for the audience, which in turn contributed to the later fossilization of literary terms and theories.

The book is laid out in eight chapters that cover topics rooted, according to the author, in discourses of the late 5th and early 4th centuries, though crystallized only later. These include etymology, grammar, style, genre, meter, language, Homeric criticism, and τὸ γελοῖον (the ridiculous) as an aesthetic category. All of these, she argues, have some expression in extant Old Comedy. Structurally, each chapter begins with a brief example from Old Comedy, followed by an in-depth analysis of the emergence of that scholarly discourse in other Greek sources. This analysis is then followed by a return to comedy and some further examples.

In her conclusion, the author writes that “This book is primarily concerned with two questions: what role did comedy play in shaping and disseminating early scholarly discourses, and how did the concept of laughter and humour in comedy contribute both to the conceptual categories of later scholarship and to comedy itself?” (p. 216). The first seven chapters deal with the first question, and the eighth deals with the last. She sees the expression of ideas on the comic stage not only as both reflective of and contributing to contemporary scholarly discourse, but also as an example of vivid and living aesthetic categories that become deadened and fossilized in later discourse. The ridiculous, τὸ γελοῖον, transforms from a concept implying physicality through laughter to a completely disembodied one by the time of Aristotle.

Methodologically, Novokhatko bases the concept of embodiment on Peter Meineck’s recent cognitive study of performance in tragedy, Theatrocracy 2018. Quoting Meineck, she focuses on “how certain performative elements impacted [theater’s] audiences, creating absorbing narrative action, emotional intensity, intellectual reflection, and strong feelings of empathy” (p.30). While Meineck embeds his study in a discussion of “text, space, masks, body movements, gestures, music and emotions” (p. 30), Novokhatko primarily discusses speech. The emotional intensity and intellectual reflection provoked by dialogue on the stage are sufficient to make comedy’s role in scholarly discourse unique. This thesis seems underdeveloped, however, and the reader would appreciate a deeper discussion of how comedy’s contribution differs from that of prose writers, not to mention that of tragedy, lyric, or any other genre of performance.

Novokhatko’s thesis that scholarly discourses reflected on the stage are part of broader contemporary conversations, however, is persuasive. Her work is deeply indebted to Ford 2002, and especially to Porter 2010. She seeks to distinguish her work from theirs by looking at “the whole complex of theatrical engagement, the interaction between audience and actors, between director and playwright, the props, masks and costumes, the theater as an essential physical environment for a comic playwright and the environment within the theatrical space as a physical and non-physical location” (p. 16). However, discussion of theatricality feels like an afterthought in most of the chapters. Her examples are primarily literary, even though they are taken from comedy. They often serve as introductory anecdotes that launch a survey of non-comic sources (a survey that is useful in itself, though similar surveys can already be found in Ford, Porter, and Wright 2012).

In chapter one, taking her cue from an on-stage discussion of the etymology of τρίπους in Epicharmus (fr. 147), the author explores semantics and etymology, as well as the debate between nature and convention found in Plato’s Cratylus, and argues that Democritus’ concept of ἰσόρροπον or equipoise is behind the weighing of the words in Frogs (1364-1410). Chapter two discusses grammar in light of Prodicus’ ὀρθότης ὀνομάτων and Protagoras’ ὀρθοέπεια, as well as Protagoras’ analyses of gender and verbal tense, which can be seen in the discussions of grammatical gender in Clouds. Leucippus’ and Democritus’ analogy of letters to elements (τὰ στοιχεῖα) is behind Callias’ Letter Tragedy with its alphabet chorus and numerous other examples of letters on stage, both comic and tragic. These observations are not necessarily new, but the synoptic view she offers is useful. She concludes with a late 5th-century Hippocratic treatise that treats “the art of grammar… as a physical process” (p. 76). In light of all this, she claims that the enacting of grammatical concepts and formation of letters on the stage contributed to the conception of the art of grammar as physical. As for embodiment, she claims that the gestures of embodied letters “penetrated the shared cognitive space between the author, the actors and the audience” (p. 73). In essence, the letters are vivid on the stage, but it remains unclear how this relates to the connection between letters and the physical world, which, as Novokhatko recalls here and others have shown, is quite pervasive.

Chapter three is a treatment of style. Building on Harriot 1969 and Porter 2010, Novokhatko discusses various craft or ‘environmental’ metaphors for style. Taste metaphors also make an appearance in Cratinus’ Archilochoi, which she suggests may compare Archilochus’ poetry to Homer’s in the guise of barking fish sauce (fr. 6 PCG). She cites this passage as an example that blends the visual, auditory, somatosensory, olfactory, and gustatory. However, her claim does not concern the theatrical performance, but the content of the speech. She cites the discussion in Telò 2013 of Cratinus’ ‘garlicky breath’ as a reference for an ‘enactivist reading’ but does not offer one herself. The visual aspect, for example, refers to words for sight and blindness in the passage, and, as she notes herself, similar synaesthetic language can be found in Homer (a ‘barking heart’). It remains unclear how the comic treatment of synaesthetic language differs from other types of literature.

Chapter four covers genre. Novokhatko proposes that the personification of genre on stage in Cratinus’ Pytine, Aristophanes’ Poēsis, and the likely late 4th-century comedy by Antiphanes, also titled Poēsis, may have been in Aristotle’s mind during his cursory discussion of comedy in the Poetics. Old Comedy “shaped the audience’s acceptance of the genre, and thus defined its key characteristics” (103). Terms go from experimental to fixed, Poēsis becomes Poetics.

Chapter five contains a useful discussion of the development of metrical terminology with solid examples of embodiment. Novokhatko outlines several metrical terms, explaining how they were fluid in their use in comedy but later became fixed, like ἀνάπαιστος, which is exclusive to parabases — or were eventually discarded, like ἐνόπλιος. The dancing embodies the references to meter on the comic stage. Surprisingly, while she notes the use of deictics in pointing to the switch to anapests for the parabasis, she does not mention the costume change that often accompanies it (cf. Compton-Engle 2015, p. 127).

Chapter six focuses on language and dialect. Novokhatko argues that discussion of dialect and linguistic errors on stage played a role in “the development of the notion of linguistic norms and standards…” (p. 135) In particular, she highlights the word ἀττικίζειν, which is first found in Plato Comicus (fr. 183), and a papyrus fragment of Eupolis’ Dēmoi (P.Cair. 43227 fr. 1 verso). She offers examples of non-native speech and Greek dialect that have been well covered by Willi 2003. The embodiment she finds here is both in discussions of dialect in learned discourse, and in the embodiment on stage of dialect-speaker, though perhaps the second is an example rather of caricature than of embodiment, since dialect is already primarily auditory.

Chapter seven examines Homeric criticism, an examination continued in much of chapter eight. Novokhatko builds her argument around Strato’s Phoenikidēs (fr. 1), about the cook who speaks in Homeric verses. The cook mentions Philitas, who was an important figure for Aristarchus’ Homeric criticism. This chapter contains the most extensive discussion of non-comic material. She tries to identify the influence of οἱ ἀρχαῖοι κριτικοί (p. 178) who are mentioned by Aristarchus and later Homeric editors, such as Theagenes of Rhegium. There is little discussion of embodiment in this chapter, though she finishes the chapter with this statement: “Homeric glosses and formulas experienced by the audience in a spatial theatrical context, were thus understood in a further dimension, transferred from dusty rolls to the vivid and sensory reality of Athenian audiences” (p. 187).

Only the last chapter deals with a topic that is essentially comic. Chapter eight discusses the fossilization of the term γελοῖον as an aesthetic category. The author argues, as she has hinted throughout the book, that comedy is as serious as it is silly. She states that γελοῖον was particularly associated with comedy and referred originally to the physical act of laughter, but the seeds of γελοῖον as an aesthetic category are also sown on the comic stage. Beginning with the Pre-Socratics, she analyzes linguistic-critical terms in Pre-Alexandrian scholarship. She takes particular care in her discussion of the Cratylus and Plato’s contribution to terminology. She notes that laughter was likely personified on the stage in Sannyrion’s late 5th-c. comedy Γέλως (“Laughter”), and others. She returns to Homeric criticism with a discussion of Zoilus, to show that, while laughter was considered beneath the gods by Zoilus, he uses the terminology of γελοῖον to evaluate it. Her analysis shows the movement from γελοῖον implying the physical act of laughter to a “partially desiccated” (p. 214), unembodied sense.

Her most interesting contribution, to my mind, is the suggestion of a developmental theory of terminology. She consistently suggests that the ideas either demonstrated or discussed on the stage reflect an embodied conception of those topics, most obvious in her treatment of the dancing of letters (chapter two), of meter (chapter five), and of the ridiculous (chapter eight). When the terminology for these topics became fixed, however, they lost their vivacity and became dead metaphors. What I find intriguing is her suggestion that they were still living metaphors when they were on the stage. Yet, is Old Comedy a reflection of scholarly discourse that is essentially material both on and off stage? Or does Old Comedy defamiliarize ideas that, as Novokhatko admirably demonstrates, are already starting to acquire a fixed place in the intellectual milieu?

This book will be useful both to scholars and students of Old Comedy and of Pre-Alexandrian literary criticism. Each chapter contains a helpful synthesis of fragmentary and literary material that can be used to gain a broader understanding of the intellectual debates found in more robust form in the likes of Plato and Aristotle. At the same time, it will enable a reader of Old Comedy to better connect the literary observations in the plays to the broader context, as well as to better appreciate the seeds of later fixed terminology. One only wishes that there had been more exploration of exactly how comedy contributes to the discourse as an embodied performance-based medium, rather than a textual one.



Compton-Engle, Gwendolyn. Costume in the Comedies of Aristophanes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Ford, Andrew. The Origins of Criticism: Literary Culture and Poetic Theory in Classical Greece. Princeton, NJ, USA: Princeton University Press, 2002.

Harriott, Rosemary M. Poetry and Criticism before Plato. London: Methuen, 1969.

Meineck, Peter. Theatrocracy: Greek Drama, Cognition, and the Imperative for Theatre. London: Routledge, 2018.

Porter, James I. The Origins of Aesthetic Thought in Ancient Greece: Matter, Sensation, and Experience. Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Sommerstein, Alan H. Talking about Laughter and Other Studies in Greek Comedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Telò, Mario. “Aristophanes, Cratinus and the Smell of Comedy.” In Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses. Routledge, 2013.

Willi, Andreas. The Languages of Aristophanes: Aspects of Linguistic Variation in Classical Attic Greek. Oxford Classical Monographs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Wright, Matthew. The Comedian as Critic. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 2012.