- The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Comedy ed. by Michael Fontaine, and Adele C. Scafuro
This collection, comprising an introduction, forty-one chapters, and two appendices, is a remarkably comprehensive guide to Greek and Roman comedy in antiquity. In addition to essays on each of the major comic playwrights (Aristophanes, Menander, Plautus, and Terence), it includes chapters on the origins of comedy in both Greece and Rome; performance; comedy’s responses to tragedy, law, philosophy, politics, and religion; meter, music, language, and style; comic authors whose works survive only in fragments (the appendices are catalogues of recent papyrus finds and names of lost authors); the farcical genre called mime; and the reception of comedy in antiquity, including textual transmission, commentaries, and the influence of comedy on both literature and the visual arts. The primary approach of most essays is a review of the history of scholarship on the topic, combined with the author’s own views on current scholarly controversies. The chapters include paragraphs on additional reading as well as bibliographies. It should be noted that the volume does not include essays dedicated to the important influence ancient comedy has had on modern literature. I assess here the chapters to which scholars, teachers, and students of English literature are most likely to turn for guidance.
Bernhard Zimmermann’s wide-ranging essay on Aristophanes offers an efficient introduction to the playwright’s life and works to those teaching the author in translation. The fourth-century-BCE Greek playwright Menander, whose works were lost until papyrus finds in the twentieth [End Page 525] century, is less often taught in translation; but anyone wanting an accurate understanding of the history of European comedy needs to know his plays, which provided the foundation for many features of comedy that have survived through the present. Adele C. Scafuro’s chapter on Menander reviews these features. Michael Fontaine’s essays on Plautus and Terence are both excellent works of scholarship but will probably be less useful to those teaching Roman comedy in translation or investigating the pervasive influence of Roman comedy on its modern descendants. Fontaine’s chapter on “two paradigms” in Plautine studies oversimplifies the distinction between what he calls the “Saturnalian” and the “Hellenistic” approaches, refusing to acknowledge that the same audience members could appreciate both sophisticated verbal play and wide farce. In a daring essay on Terence, Fontaine argues that the playwright wrote for readers as well as spectators. Whatever one concludes about Fontaine’s thesis, the essay is a good piece to think with for anyone pondering the relationship between performance and reading in the appreciation of drama.
Several other chapters will also be of special interest to readers of this journal. Scafuro’s introduction reviews scholarship on Greek and Roman comedy since the 1960s. Though somewhat idiosyncratic, it provides a good starting point for anyone wanting to know how ancient comedy has been approached during the last half century. Jeffrey Rusten’s piece on “the essence of Old Comedy” includes a review of theories, ancient and modern, about the origins of comedy in Greece. Older introductions to Greek comedy tend to oversimplify these issues, so Rusten’s careful assessment of these theories will be very valuable for those teaching Greek comedy in translation. Questions of origin are equally vexed on the Roman side, so anyone teaching Roman comedy in translation can benefit from Peter G. McC. Brown’s fine essay on the origins of Roman comedy. Boris Dunsch’s methodical review of Plautus’s and Terence’s prologues provides some useful tools for those thinking about exposition and induction in other comic traditions as well.
Those teaching ancient comedy in translation will benefit from several essays on the context and nature of ancient comic performance. Eric Csapo’s essay on Greek comic performance provides an excellent start for anyone approaching features of performance such as masks, costumes, and acting styles. Erica M. Bexley effectively uses several exemplary scenes from Plautus and Terence to ponder how Roman comedy might have been performed...