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  • Women and the Comic Plot in Menander
  • Vincent J. Rosivach
Ariana Traill . Women and the Comic Plot in Menander. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. x, 301. $99.00. ISBN 978-0-521-88226-2.

Traill has given us a perceptive study of the motif of mistaken identity in the plays of Menander. Significantly, all of these mistakes are about socially marginal women (hetairai, foreigners, and slaves). After an introductory chapter laying out her approach to the material, Traill examines plays involving "Misperceptions of Status" (chapter 2) typically hinging on the identity of the soon-to-be hetaira who is conveniently discovered to be the long-lost daughter of a respectable citizen, and "Misperceptions of Character" (chapter 3), when individuals, thinking in terms of stereotypes, misconstrue the moral character of others, notably hetairai. Traill's aim in both these chapters is to show why individuals within the plays make the mistakes they do (most often because their reasoning is distorted by emotion), and how these marginal women and the mistakes made about them contribute to the complex fabric of the plays. If the audience is to appreciate the irony of these mistakes, it is essential that they correctly evaluate these women, especially the long-lost daughters whose discovery will result in a promotion of their status by the end of the plays; chapter 4 ("Informing the Audience") examines how Menander displays the character of these women by dramatizing the choices they make and the reasons they give for making them. Chapter 5 is a detailed examination of "The Women of the Epitrepontes" leading to a remarkably sophisticated reading of the hetaira Habrotonon's personality and motives. The final chapter poses the question of "Why Women?" Traill's answer is that the typical plots of New Comedy, love affairs with socially marginal women, provided a romantic alternative to the staid world of polis and oikos, an alternative that allowed the male audience to indulge in illicit fantasies without jeopardizing their social standing or self-image, and without challenging the civic order that made these fantasies illicit.

While Traill is appropriately sensitive to the need to read these plays in their original historical context (notably understanding the place of women in contemporary Athens), her focus is primarily literary, tracing the multiple ways Menander uses the device of mistaken identity to develop his characters and add complexity to his plots. This requires a good deal of close reading [End Page 274] of individual scenes, which is in fact the strength of this book. Indeed one suspects that most readers will consult the book for what it has to say about a particular play, but those who do so will do well to read also at least the book's introduction and conclusion. Since Traill's subject is Menander, she rightly concentrates on the surviving Greek texts, although she also occasionally considers Latin adaptations, legitimately for broader issues of plot structure but perhaps less so when she turns to close textual analysis. Many of her observations are striking, e.g., how Habrotonon's chatty diction suits her role as a hetaira "of the less educated sort" in the Epitrepontes (227), why Glykera resented Polemon's cutting off her hair in the Perikeiromene (146-47), and how conventional costumes and masks limited the possibilities of character development (241). Traill's translations of the Greek are pleasantly idiomatic but occasionally slightly off the mark (e.g., "strange problem" for νεὸν κακόν, Mis. 90 [112], "sweetheart" for φίλτατε, Perik. 708 [144]; "disgusting" for αἰσχρῶν, Epit. 796 [184]). There are also some unnecessary factual errors (the "Old Oligarch" was not an historian [74]; Clitipho, not Clinia, is forced into marriage at the end of the Heautontimoroumenos [247]), and Traill sometimes forces the evidence to make her point (the clothing and jewelry Thrasonides gives Krateia in the Misoumenos are typical gifts a lover gives a hetaira, not parapherna, much less part of a dowry [28, 116; Traill gets it right on 44]; and it is a stretch to see Knemon's daughter in the Dyskolos as "lost" [52] because her father's impossibly high standards keep her from marrying). On the whole, though, Traill's book is a welcome addition to...


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