- From ‘G’ to ‘PG-13’:The Passion of Sostratos in Menander’s Dyskolos
On the surface, the differences between Aristophanes and Menander are obvious. Aristophanes’ political invective is laced with obscenity and explicit sexual content, whereas Menander’s comedies are more genteel and refined. But sometimes such apparent differences conceal deeper connections and continuities. Susan Lape (2004), for example, has shown that Menander’s ‘domestic’ comedies are in fact political in their themes of citizenship and marriage. In the same vein, we shall argue that Menander’s style is not so genteel, and owes more to Aristophanes than has been recognized previously. By focusing on the character of Sostratos in Dyskolos, we shall demonstrate that Menander’s language sometimes incorporates surprisingly Aristophanic themes.
To be sure, scholars have already acknowledged that Menander uses occasional obscenity or double-entendre, yet this fact has not translated into a wider recognition of Menander’s ability to be risqué.1 We propose to build on earlier, isolated observations, and argue for a re-evaluation of Menander’s style. In particular, we shall consider a passage that showcases an extended double-entendre: Sostratos’s soliloquy in Dyskolos (522–45). This monologue offers insight into Menander’s comic idiom and the characterization of Sostratos specifically. Furthermore, it opens up larger questions of style, acting and performance, and Menander’s use of previous comic models. By using suggestive verbal humor, Menander is able to accomplish what Aristophanes achieved through much more overt mechanisms, such as costuming, gestures, and graphic language. Menander’s clever turns of phrase create a sophisticated sexual joke between poet and audience, and allow for subtleties of performance that might enliven our view of his art and his characters. Passages such as Sostratos’s soliloquy not only demonstrate the need to rethink previous conceptions of Menander, but also shed light on questions surrounding the continuity of Old, Middle, and New Comedy.
The young man Sostratos’s pursuit of marriage to the girl he loves drives the plot of the Dyskolos. In order to win over her curmudgeonly father Knemon, who is an experienced farmer, Sostratos plays farmhand [End Page 99] for a day. We learn of his activities in a field and his desire to catch sight of the girl from a long soliloquy in which he bemoans his labors. Although critics have acknowledged sexual themes in other parts of the play, they have not seen anything sexual in this scene.2 Geoffrey Arnott’s translation (1979) of the following Greek demonstrates the typically nonsexual reading:
If anybody’s short of troubles, let Him come to Phyle for the hunting. Oh, The pain! It crucifies my loins, back, neck— In short, my whole body! You see, I tore Hard into it straight off, the young fanatic! Swinging the mattock heftily up, like A labourer, I’d smash in deep. I kept On strenuously—not too long. Then I’d turn round [End Page 100] A bit, and look to see when the old man Would turn up with the girl. That’s when, by Zeus, I felt my back. First, furtively. But as It went on, hours and hours, I started to Go bow-backed. I was quietly stiffening up. But no-one came. The sun was frizzling me. And Gorgias would look up and see me going up Just like a see-saw, slightly up, then down Again with all my strength. ‘Young man,’ he said, ‘I don’t think he’ll come now.’ ‘What shall we do Then?’ I replied at once; ‘Look out for him Tomorrow, and call it a day now?’ Daos Arrived to take the digging over. So that’s how The first assault has ended. And I’m here. Why? I Can’t tell you, by the gods, but of its own Accord the venture draws me to this spot.
Arnott’s translation illustrates the standard reading of the scene and suggests that Sostratos is doing nothing more here than simply overexerting himself: he massages his aching lower back after enduring a serious case of muscle stiffness caused by bobbing up and down with a mattock. We argue, however, that the entire...