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  • Humiliation?Voyeurism, Violence, and Humor in Old Comedy*
  • Ian Ruffell (bio)

One of the principal attributes of Old Comedy, as much for modern critics as for ancient, is its aggression. From attacks on individuals, particularly historical individuals, to the behavior of its protagonists while pursuing their crazy schemes, the implications of such verbal and actual violence have proved in different ways problematic. The visual elements, in particular, have often proved troubling when set against the big political issues and self-proclaimed ambitions of the plays. While the resources of the comic stage have often been considered, the specific contribution of the spectacle of comic aggression has rarely been considered directly, even compared to obscenity, which has been treated primarily from a linguistic viewpoint.1 For some critics, this comic aggression is all too easily dismissed as slapstick, childish jokes, a ritual hangover, or the integration of elements of popular nonliterary comedy—all far from any serious dimension.2 Some critics, conversely, accept Aristophanic claims to be moving away from low comedy, despite patent evidence to the contrary. Others use the very crudeness of such humor to tell a simple story of power, in terms of genre-specific comic heroism or the straightforward expression of masculine power and male sexuality, common to other expressions of phallic aggression.3 It is certainly the case that the visual dimension of comic aggression puts issues of masculinity and power center-stage and that the visual dimension to aggressive humor offers a particularly immediate source of ideological engagement for the spectators. I shall argue here, however, that the spectacle of violence is an altogether more anxious one, and poses questions about the exercise of power and nature of authority in fifth- and early fourth-century BCE Athens.

This paper falls in two parts. In the first part, I consider the violence of Old Comedy in relation to theories of humor that emphasize audience superiority, group solidarity, and the humiliation and social marginalization of targets. I shall argue that even in instances of comic violence and slapstick, a straightforward identification of victim with comic target is not always possible, that comic violence is less about social stratification than about political rivalry, and that the targets of violent humor betray as much political anxiety as they do triumphant heroism. In the second part, I develop these anxieties over masculine power within Old Comedy by bringing into this account of violence the elements of sexual aggression and [End Page 247] humiliation. I discuss the audience’s visual experience and pleasure, and its implications, by engaging with positions within feminist film theory: on the one hand, Laura Mulvey’s (1975) theory of the sadistic, dominant male gaze, and on the other, Kaja Silverman’s (1992) account of masculinity in crisis. Sexual aggression in plays of the 420s and earlier 410s use, I argue, sexual dominance as part of a process of ‘remasculinization,’ an attempt to cover up and compensate for the anxieties over masculine power.4 In the latter part of the fifth century and in the early fourth century, such remasculinization in any visual sense was considerably more questionable and the process of male humiliation gathered apace. The watching (for pleasure) of male abjection, impotence, and lack occurred in the sexual sphere but has acute implications for claims to power in other spheres, not least politics.

Political Violence and Comic Mastery

Physical violence and slapstick humor constitute the most direct expression of power on the comic stage, and as such, readily offer the prospect of being analyzed in terms of a superiority theory of humor. According to this theory, the audience focalize through the speaker or actor and are laughing, usually with them, at the target, butt, or victim. Such aggressive laughter certainly has a long history in Greek culture, going back most obviously to the fate of Thersites in Iliad 2.265–78 or the lesser Ajax in Iliad 23.773–84. They also had a place in ancient theories of comedy specifically, starting with the contemporary witness Ps.-Xenophon in his Constitution of the Athenians 2.18, where it is argued that the dêmos (the audience) exerts through Old Comedy a form of political and...


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pp. 247-277
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