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Models and Memory in the Comedy of Menander Sander M. Goldberg In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare has combined the two traditions which descended from Menander, pastoral romance and New Comedy, and has consequently come very close to Menandrine formulas as we have them in such a play as Epitrepontes. —Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity A reader today would not know from Frye's confident invocation that, at the time he was writing, very little of Epitrepontes or any other Menandrean play was available to support these generalizations. New Comedy still remained, for the most part, a lost genre. It had indeed been a dramatic form of immense popularity and influence. Plays in its style were performed throughout the Hellenistic world and were read with pleasure until well into the Christian era. Figures sporting its masks and costumes adorned the knick-knack shelves of antiquity; painted scenes from its stage decorated the houses of the rich. Adaptations by the Roman dramatists Plautus and Terence—and through them by modern writers as diverse as Goldoni and Molière, Shakespeare and Wilde—testified to the enduring appeal of its comic formulations and kept the tradition before us. Authentic Greek New Comedy was nevertheless little more than a memory until texts of Menander, its greatest practitioner, began emerging from the sands of Egypt. Remains of a papyrus anthology of Menandrean plays came to light in the years before World War I; Frye in 1962 had one complete play and only two significant fragments to consider.1 There was then something close to a flood of discoveries in the 1960's, and bits and pieces still turn up from time to time. Literary critics now have ample material to study—the Oxford Greek text of Menander, recently revised and augmented, runs to well over three hundred pages—and we can now recognize with precision what many of the "Menandrine formulas" really were. (Frye's sense of the conventions is not, as it turns out, entirely on the mark.) Nevertheless, though the re328 Sander M. Goldberg329 discovery of so much Menander has vastly deepened our knowledge of New Comedy's style and form, a vexing question of literary history remains largely unexamined: How did fourthcentury Athens come to produce such an art form? It is quite different from its more famous predecessor. The fifth-century comedy of Aristophanes was raucous and exuberant —and joyously, deliberately inconsistent in structure and tone. It could be coarse and pedestrian or lyric and refined. It was very often political and almost always fantastic. By the later fourth century, Athenian comedy had become comparatively quiet and restrained. Menander's comedy is consistently domestic in its focus and (to beg a very big question) "realistic" in its treatments.2 Its characters build no kingdoms among the birds, create no Utopias on the earth, and undertake no journeys to Hades or the other place. Lacking the superhuman powers of Aristophanic heroes, they must deal in much more familiar ways with the everyday problems of getting along together, of discovering who they really are (and who their parents really were), and of replacing their false opinions with true ones. New Comedy remains, like its predecessor, penetrating and exacting in its depiction of the world, but it severely limits the range of problems subjected to that scrutiny. What led the Athenian dramatists to narrow their interest in this way? Handbooks once pointed to the decline and impoverishment of Athens after the Peloponnesian War, to an intellectual defeatism that replaced interest in large civic questions with the preoccupations of small personal ones. Athenians, we were told, came to be dwarfed by a larger world around them, intimidated by a Macedonian garrison in their midst, and cowed into laughing only at the petty and the mundane. This kind of explanation is now quite inadequate. Though Athens ceased to be a major power with the emergence of Macedón in the 330's, Athenians continued to live a vigorous civic life throughout the fourth century (and beyond). There were, if anything, increasing numbers of ways to make fortunes large and small in what we call the Hellenistic period, and there was a good deal of intense, rigorous...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1936-1637
Print ISSN
0010-4078
Pages
pp. 328-340
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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