Although, among the remaining works of Aristophanes, we have several of his earliest pieces, they all bear the stamp of equal maturity. He had, in fact, been long labouring in silence to perfect himself in the exercise of an art which he conceived to be of all others the most difficult; nay, from diffidence in his own power, (or, to use his own words, like a young girl who consigns to the care of others the child of her secret love,) he even brought out his earliest pieces under others' names. He appeared for the first time without this disguise with the Knights, and here he displayed the undaunted resolution of a comedian, by an open assault on popular opinion. His object was nothing less than the overthrow of Cleon, who, after the death of Pericles, was at the head of all state affairs, a promoter of war, and a worthless man of very ordinary abilities, but at the same time the idol of an infatuated people. The only opponents of Cleon were the rich proprietors, who constituted the class of horsemen or knights: these Aristophanes in the strongest manner made of his party, by forming the chorus of them. He had the prudence never to name Cleon, though he portrayed him in such a way that it was impossible to mistake him. Yet such was the dread entertained of Cleon and his faction, that no mask-maker would venture to execute his likeness: the poet, therefore, resolved to act the part himself, merely painting his face. We may easily imagine the storms and tumults which this representation must have excited among the assembled crowd; however, the bold and well-concerted efforts of the poet were crowned with success: his piece gained the prize. He was proud of this feat of theatrical heroism, and often alludes with a feeling of satisfaction to the Herculean valour with which he first combated the mighty monster. No one of his plays, perhaps, is more historical and political; and its rhetorical power in exciting our indignation is almost irresistible: it is a true dramatic Philippic. However, in point of amusement and invention, it does not appear to me the most fortunate. The thought of the serious danger which he was incurring may possibly have disposed him to a more serious tone than was suitable to comedy, or stung, perhaps, by the persecution he had already suffered from Cleon, he may, perhaps, have vented his rage in too Archilochean a style. When the storm of cutting invective has somewhat spent itself, we have then several droll scenes, such us that where the two demagogues, the leather-dealer (that is, Cleon) and the sausage-seller, vie with each other by adulation, by oracle-quoting, and by dainty tit-bits, to gain the favour of Demos, a personification of the people, who has become childish through age, a scene humorous in the highest degree; and the piece ends with a triumphal rejoicing, which may almost be said to be affecting, when the scene changes from the Pnyx, the place where the people assembled, to the majestic Propylaea, when Demos, who has been wonderfully restored to a second youth, comes forward in the garb of an ancient Athenian, and shows that with his youthful vigour, he has also recovered the olden sentiments of the days of Marathon.
With the exception of this attack on Cleon, and with the exception also of the attacks on Euripides, whom he seems to have pursued with the most unrelenting perseverance, the other pieces of Aristophanes are not so exclusively pointed against individuals. They have always a general, and for the most part a very important aim, which the poet, with all his turnings, digressions, and odd medleys, never loses sight of. The Peace, the Acharnae, and the Lysistrata, with many turns, still all recommend peace; and one object of the Ecclesiazusae, or Women in Parliament,, of the Thesmophoriazusae, or Women keeping the Festival of the Thesmophoriae, and of Lysistrata, is to throw ridicule on the relations and the manners of the female sex. In the Clouds he laughs at the metaphysics of the Sophists, in the Wasps at the mania of the Athenians for hearing and determining law-suits; the subject of the Frogs is the decline of the tragic art, and Plutus is an allegory on the unjust distribution of wealth. The Birds are, of all his pieces, the one of which the aim is the least apparent, and it is on that very account one of the most diverting.
Peace begins in the most spirited and lively manner; the peace- loving Trygaeus rides on a dung-beetle to heaven in the manner of Bellerophon; War, a desolating giant, with his comrade Riot, alone, in place of all the other gods, inhabits Olympus, and there pounds the cities of men in a great mortar, making use of the most celebrated generals for pestles. The Goddess Peace lies buried in a deep well, out of which she is hauled up by ropes, through the united exertions of all the states of Greece: all these ingenious and fanciful inventions are calculated to produce the most ludicrous effect. Afterwards, however, the play is not sustained at an equal elevation; nothing remains but to sacrifice, and to carouse in honour of the recovered Goddess of Peace, when the importunate visits of such persons as found their advantage in war form, indeed, an entertainment pleasant enough, but by no means correspondent to the expectations which the commencement gives rise to. We have, in this piece, an additional example to prove that the ancient comic writers not only changed the decoration during the intervals, when the stage was empty, but also while an actor was in sight. The scene changes from Attica to Olympus, while Trygaeus is suspended in the air on his beetle, and calls anxiously to the director of the machinery to take care that he does not break his neck. His descent into the orchestra afterwards denotes his return to the earth. It was possible to overlook the liberties taken by the tragedians, according as their subject might require it, with the Unities of Place and Time, on which such ridiculous stress has been laid by many of the moderns, but the bold manner in which the old comic writer subjects these mere externalities to his sportive caprice is so striking, that it must enforce itself on the most short-sighted observers: and yet in all the treatises on the constitution of the Greek stage, due respect has never yet been paid to it.
The Acharnians, an earlier piece, [Footnote: The Didascaliae place it in the year before the Knights. It is therefore, the earliest of the extant pieces of Aristophanes, and the only one of those which he brought out under a borrowed name, that has come down to us.] appears to me to possess a much higher excellence than Peace, on account of the continual progress of the story, and the increasing drollery, which at last ends in a downright Bacchanalian uproar. Dikaiopolis, the honest citizen, enraged at the base artifices by which the people are deluded, and by which they are induced to reject all proposals for peace, sends an embassy to Lacedaemon, and concludes a separate treaty for himself and his family. He then retires to the country, and, in spite of all assaults, encloses a piece of ground before his house, within which there is a peaceful market for the people of the neighbouring states, while the rest of the country is suffering from the calamities of war. The blessings of peace are represented most temptingly to hungry stomachs: the fat Boeotian brings his delicious eels and poultry for sale, and nothing is thought of but feasting and carousing. Lamachus, the celebrated general, who lives on the other side, is, in consequence of a sudden inroad of the enemy, called away to defend the frontiers; Dikaiopolis, on the other hand, is invited by his neighbours to a feast, where every one brings his own scot. Preparations military and preparations culinary are now carried on with equal industry and alacrity; here they seize the lance, there the spit; here the armour rings, there the wine-flagon; there they are feathering helmets, here they are plucking thrushes. Shortly afterwards Lamachus returns, supported by two of his comrades, with a broken head and a lame foot, and from the other side Dikaiopolis is brought in drunk, and led by two good-natured damsels. The lamentations of the one are perpetually mimicked and ridiculed in the rejoicings of the other; and with this contrast, which is carried to the very utmost limit, the play ends.
Lysistrata is in such bad repute, that we must mention it lightly and rapidly, just as we would tread over hot embers. According to the story of the poet, the women have taken it into their heads to compel their husbands, by a severe resolution, to make peace. Under the direction of a clever leader they organize a conspiracy for this purpose throughout all Greece, and at the same time gain possession in Athens of the fortified Acropolis. The terrible plight the men are reduced to by this separation gives rise to the most laughable scenes; plenipotentiaries appear from the two hostile powers, and peace is speedily concluded under the management of the sage Lysistrata. Notwithstanding the mad indecencies which are contained in the piece, its purpose, when stript of these, is upon the whole very innocent: the longing for the enjoyment of domestic joys, so often interrupted by the absence of the husbands, is to be the means of putting an end to the calamitous war by which Greece had so long been torn in pieces. In particular, the honest bluntness of the Lacedaemonians is inimitably portrayed.
The Ecclesiazusae is in like manner a picture of woman's ascendency, but one much more depraved than the former. In the dress of men the women steal into the public assembly, and by means of the majority of voices which they have thus surreptitiously obtained, they decree a new constitution, in which there is to be a community of goods and of women. This is a satire on the ideal republics of the philosophers, with similar laws; Protagoras had projected such before Plato. The comedy appears to me to labour under the very same fault as the Peace: the introduction, the secret assembly of the women, their rehearsal of their parts as men, the description of the popular assembly, are all handled in the most masterly manner; but towards the middle the action stands still. Nothing remains but the representation of the perplexities and confusion which arise from the different communities, especially the community of women, and from the prescribed equality of rights in love both for the old and ugly, and for the young and beautiful. These perplexities are pleasant enough, but they turn too much on a repetition of the same joke. Generally speaking, the old allegorical comedy is in its progress exposed to the danger of sinking. When we begin with turning the world upside down, the most wonderful incidents follow one another as a matter of course, but they are apt to appear petty and insignificant when compared with the decisive strokes of fun in the commencement.
The Thesmophoriazusae has a proper intrigue, a knot which is not loosed till the conclusion, and in this possesses therefore a great advantage. Euripides, on account of the well-known hatred of women displayed in his tragedies, is accused and condemned at the festival of the Thesmophoriae, at which women only were admitted. After a fruitless attempt to induce the effeminate poet Agathon to undertake the hazardous experiment, Euripides prevails on his brother-in-law, Mnesilochus, who was somewhat advanced in years, to disguise himself as a woman, that under this assumed appearance he may plead his cause. The manner in which he does this gives rise to suspicions, and he is discovered to be a man; he flies to the altar for refuge, and to secure himself still more from the impending danger, he snatches a child from the arms of one of the women, and threatens to kill it if they do not let him alone. As he attempts to strangle it, it turns out to be a leather wine-flask wrapped up like a child. Euripides now appears in a number of different shapes to save his friend: at one time he is Menelaus, who finds Helen again in Egypt; at another time he is Echo, helping the chained Andromeda to pour out her lamentations, and immediately after he appears as Perseus, about to release her from the rock. At length he succeeds in rescuing Mnesilochus, who is fastened to a sort of pillory, by assuming the character of a procuress, and enticing away the officer of justice who has charge of him, a simple barbarian, by the charms of a female flute-player. These parodied scenes, composed almost entirely in the very words of the tragedies, are inimitable. Whenever Euripides is introduced, we may always, generally speaking, lay our account with having the most ingenious and apposite ridicule; it seems as if the mind of Aristophanes possessed a peculiar and specific power of giving a comic turn to the poetry of this tragedian.
The Clouds is well known, but yet, for the most part, has not been duly understood or appreciated. Its object is to show that the fondness for philosophical subtleties had led to a neglect of warlike exercises, that speculation only served to shake the foundations of religion and morals, and that by the arts of sophistry, every duty was rendered doubtful, and the worse cause frequently came off victorious. The Clouds themselves, as the chorus of the piece (for the poet converts these substances into persons, and dresses them out strangely enough), are an allegory on the metaphysical speculations which do not rest on the ground of experience, but float about without any definite shape or body, in the region of possibilities. We may observe in general that it is one of the peculiarities of the wit of Aristophanes to take a metaphor literally, and to exhibit it in this light before the eyes of the spectators. Of a man addicted to unintelligible reveries, it is a common way of speaking to say that he is up in the clouds, and accordingly Socrates makes his first appearance actually descending from the air in a basket. Whether this applies exactly to him is another question; but we have reason to believe that the philosophy of Socrates was very ideal, and that it was by no means so limited to popular and practical matters as Xenophon would have us believe. But why has Aristophanes personified the sophistical metaphysics by the venerable Socrates, who was himself a determined opponent of the Sophists? There was probably some personal grudge at the bottom of this, and we do not attempt to justify it; but the choice of the name by no means diminishes the merit of the picture itself. Aristophanes declares this play to be the most elaborate of all his works: but in such expressions we are not always to take him exactly at his word. On all occasions, and without the least hesitation, he lavishes upon himself the most extravagant praises; and this must be considered a feature of the licence of comedy. However, the Clouds was unfavourably received, and twice unsuccessfully competed for the prize.
The Frogs, as we have already said, has for its subject the decline of Tragic Art. Euripides was dead, as well as Sophocles and Agathon, and none but poets of the second rank were now remaining. Bacchus misses Euripides, and determines to bring him back from the infernal world. In this he imitates Hercules, but although furnished with that hero's lion- skin and club, in sentiments he is very unlike him, and as a dastardly voluptuary affords us much matter for laughter. Here we have a characteristic specimen of the audacity of Aristophanes: he does not even spare the patron of his own art, in whose honour this very play was exhibited. It was thought that the gods understood a joke as well, if not better, than men. Bacchus rows himself over the Acherusian lake, where the frogs merrily greet him with their melodious croakings. The proper chorus, however, consists of the shades of those initiated in the Eleusinian mysteries, and odes of surpassing beauty are put in their mouths. Aeschylus had hitherto occupied the tragic throne in the world below, but Euripides wants to eject him. Pluto presides, but appoints Bacchus to determine this great controversy; the two poets, the sublimely wrathful Aeschylus, and the subtle and conceited Euripides, stand opposite each other and deliver specimens of their poetical powers; they sing, they declaim against each other, and in all their peculiar traits are characterised in masterly style. At last a balance is brought, on which each lays a verse; but notwithstanding all the efforts of Euripides to produce ponderous lines, those of Aeschylus always make the scale of his rival to kick the beam. At last the latter becomes impatient of the contest, and proposes that Euripides himself, with all his works, his wife, children, Cephisophon and all, shall get into one scale, and he will only lay against them in the other two verses. Bacchus in the mean time has become a convert to the merits of Aeschylus, and although he had sworn to Euripides that he would take him back with him from the lower world, he dismisses him with a parody of one of his own verses in Hippolytus:
My tongue hath sworn, I however make choice of Aeschylus.
Aeschylus consequently returns to the living world, and resigns the tragic throne in his absence to Sophocles.
The observation on the changes of place, which I made when mentioning Peace, may be here repeated. The scene is first at Thebes, of which both Bacchus and Hercules were natives; afterwards the stage is changed, without its ever being left by Bacchus, to the nether shore of the Acherusian lake, which must have been represented by the sunken space of the orchestra, and it was not till Bacchus landed at the other end of the logeum that the scenery represented the infernal world, with the palace of Pluto in the back-ground. This is not a mere conjecture, it is expressly stated by the old scholiast.
The Wasps is, in my opinion, the feeblest of Aristophanes' plays. The subject is too limited, the folly it ridicules appears a disease of too singular a description, without a sufficient universality of application, and the action is too much drawn out. The poet himself speaks this time in very modest language of his means of entertainment, and does not even promise us immoderate laughter.
On the other hand, the Birds transports us by one of the boldest and richest inventions into the kingdom of the fantastically wonderful, and delights us with a display of the gayest hilarity: it is a joyous- winged and gay-plumed creation. I cannot concur with the old critic in thinking that we have in this work a universal and undisguised satire on the corruptions of the Athenian state, and of all human society. It seems rather a harmless display of merry pranks, which hit alike at gods and men without any particular object in view. Whatever was remarkable about birds in natural history, in mythology, in the doctrine of divination, in the fables of Aesop, or even in proverbial expressions, has been ingeniously drawn to his purpose by the poet; who even goes back to cosmogony, and shows that at first the raven-winged Night laid a wind-egg, out of which the lovely Eros, with golden pinions (without doubt a bird), soared aloft, and thereupon gave birth to all things. Two fugitives of the human race fall into the domain of the birds, who resolve to revenge themselves on them for the numerous cruelties which they have suffered: the two men contrive to save themselves by proving the pre-eminency of the birds over all other creatures, and they advise them to collect all their scattered powers into one immense state; the wondrous city, Cloud-cuckootown, is then built above the earth; all sorts of unbidden guests, priests, poets, soothsayers, geometers, lawyers, sycophants, wish to nestle in the new state, but are driven out; new gods are appointed, naturally enough, after the image of the birds, as those of men bore a resemblance to man. Olympus is walled up against the old gods, so that no odour of sacrifices can reach them; in their emergency, they send an embassy, consisting of the voracious Hercules, Neptune, who swears according to the common formula, by Neptune, and a Thracian god, who is not very familiar with Greek, but speaks a sort of mixed jargon; they are, however, under the necessity of submitting to any conditions they can get, and the sovereignty of the world is left to the birds. However much all this resembles a mere farcical fairy tale, it may be said, however, to have a philosophical signification, in thus taking a sort of bird's-eye view of all things, seeing that most of our ideas are only true in a human point of view.
The old critics were of opinion that Cratinus was powerful in that biting satire which makes its attack without disguise, but that he was deficient in a pleasant humour, also that he wanted the skill to develope a striking subject to the best advantage, and to fill up his pieces with the necessary details. Eupolis they tell us was agreeable in his jokes, and ingenious in covert allusions, so that he never needed the assistance of parabases to say whatever he wished, but that he was deficient in satiric power. But Aristophanes, they add, by a happy medium, united the excellencies of both, and that in him we have satire and pleasantry combined in due proportion and attractive manner. From these statements I conceive myself justified in assuming that among the pieces of Aristophanes, the Knights is the most in the style of Cratinus, and the Birds in that of Eupolis; and that he had their respective manners in view when he composed these pieces. For although he boasts of his independent originality, and of his never borrowing anything from others, it was hardly possible that among such distinguished contemporary artists, all reciprocal influence should be excluded. If this opinion be well founded, we have to lament the loss of the works of Cratinus, perhaps principally on account of the light they would have thrown on the manners of the times, and the knowledge they might have afforded of the Athenian constitution, while the loss of the works of Eupolis is to be regretted, chiefly for the comic form in which they were delivered.
Plutus was one of the earlier pieces of the poet, but as we have it, it is one of his last works; for the first piece was afterwards recast by him. In its essence it belongs to the Old Comedy, but in the sparingness of personal satire, and in the mild tone which prevails throughout, we may trace an approximation to the Middle Comedy. The Old Comedy indeed had not yet received its death-blow from a formal enactment, but even at this date Aristophanes may have deemed it prudent to avoid a full exercise of the democratic privilege of comedy. It has even been said (perhaps without any foundation, as the circumstance has been denied by others) that Alcibiades ordered Eupolis to be drowned on account of a piece which he had aimed at him. Dangers of this description would repress the most ardent zeal of authorship: it is but fair that those who seek to afford pleasure to their fellow-citizens should at least be secure of their life.
APPENDIX TO THE TWELFTH LECTURE.
As we do not, so far as I know, possess as yet a satisfactory poetical translation of Aristophanes, and as the whole works of this author must, for many reasons, ever remain untranslatable, I have been induced to lay before my readers the scene in the Acharnians where Euripides makes his appearance; not that this play does not contain many other scenes of equal, if not superior merit, but because it relates to the character of this tragedian as an artist, and is both free from indecency, and, moreover, easily understood.
The Acharnians, country-people of Attica, who have greatly suffered from the enemy, are highly enraged at Dikaiopolis for concluding a peace with the Lacedaemonians, and determine to stone him. He undertakes to speak in defence of the Lacedaemonians, standing the while behind a block, as he is to lose his head if he does not succeed in convincing them. In this ticklish predicament, he calls on Euripides, to lend him the tattered garments in which that poet's heroes were in the habit of exciting commiseration. We must suppose the house of the tragic poet to occupy the middle of the back scene.
DIKAIOPOLIS. 'Tis time I pluck up all my courage then, And pay a visit to Euripides. Boy, boy!
CEPHISOPHON. Who's there?
DIKAIOPOLIS. Is Euripides within?
CEPHISOPHON. Within, and not within: Can'st fathom that?
DIKAIOPOLIS. How within, yet not within?
CEPHISOPHON. 'Tis true, old fellow. His mind is out collecting dainty verses,  And not within. But he's himself aloft Writing a tragedy.
DIKAIOPOLIS. Happy Euripides, Whose servant here can give such witty answers. Call him.
CEPHISOPHON. It may not be.
DIKAIOPOLIS. I say, you must though— For hence I will not budge, but knock the door down. Euripides, Euripides, my darling!  Hear me, at least, if deaf to all besides. 'Tis Dikaiopolis of Chollis calls you.
EURIPIDES. I have not time.
DIKAIOPOLIS. At least roll round. 
EURIPIDES. I can't. 
DIKAIOPOLIS. You must.
EURIPIDES. Well, I'll roll round. Come down I can't; I'm busy.
EURIPIDES. What would'st thou with thy bawling.
DIKAIOPOLIS What! you compose aloft and not below. No wonder if your muse's bantlings halt. Again, those rags and cloak right tragical, The very garb for sketching beggars in! But sweet Euripides, a boon, I pray thee. Give me the moving rags of some old play; I've a long speech to make before the Chorus, And if I falter, why the forfeit's death.
EURIPIDES. What rags will suit you? Those in which old Oeneus, That hapless wight, went through his bitter conflict?
DIKAIOPOLIS. Not Oeneus, no,—but one still sorrier.
EURIPIDES. Those of blind Phoenix?
DIKAIOPOLIS. No, not Phoenix either; But another, more wretched still than Phoenix
EURIPIDES. Whose sorry tatters can the fellow want? 'Tis Philoctetes' sure! You mean that beggar.
DIKAIOPOLIS. No; but a person still more beggarly.
EURIPIDES. I have it. You want the sorry garments Bellerophon, the lame man, used to wear.
DIKAIOPOLIS. No,—not Bellerophon. Though the man I mean Was lame, importunate, and bold of speech.
EURIPIDES. I know, 'Tis Telephus the Mysian.
DIKAIOPOLIS. Right. Yes, Telephus: lend me his rags I pray you.
EURIPIDES. Ho, boy! Give him the rags of Telephus. There lie they; just upon Thyestes' rags, And under those of Ino.
CEPHISOPHON. Here! take them.
DIKAIOPOLIS (putting them on). Now Jove! who lookest on, and see'st through all,  Your blessing, while thus wretchedly I garb me. Pr'ythee, Euripides, a further boon, It goes, I think, together with these rags: The little Mysian bonnet for my head; "For sooth to-day I must put on the beggar, And be still what I am, and yet not seem so."  The audience here may know me who I am, But like poor fools the chorus stand unwitting, While I trick them with my flowers of rhetoric.
EURIPIDES. A rare device, i'faith! Take it and welcome.
DIKAIOPOLIS. "For thee. my blessing; for Telephus, my thoughts."  'Tis well; already, words flow thick and fast. Oh! I had near forgot—A beggar's staff, I pray.
EURIPIDES. Here, take one, and thyself too from these doors.
DIKAIOPOLIS. (Aside.) See'st thou, my soul,—he'd drive thee from his door Still lacking many things. Become at once A supple, oily beggar. (Aloud.) Good Euripides, Lend me a basket, pray;—though the bottom's Scorch'd, 'twill do.
EURIPIDES. Poor wretch! A basket? What's thy need on't?
DIKAIOPOLIS. No need beyond the simple wish to have it.
EURIPIDES. You're getting troublesome. Come pack—be off.
DIKAIOPOLIS. (Aside.) Faugh! Faugh! (Aloud.) May heaven prosper thee as—thy good mother. 
EURIPIDES. Be off, I say!
DIKAIOPOLIS. Not till thou grant'st my prayer. Only a little cup with broken rim.
EURIPIDES. Take it and go; for know you're quite a plague.
DIKAIOPOLIS. (Aside.) Knows he how great a pest he is himself? (Aloud.) But, my Euripides! my sweet! one thing more: Give me a cracked pipkin stopped with sponge.
EURIPIDES. The man would rob me of a tragedy complete. There—take it, and begone.
DIKAIOPOLIS. Well! I am going. Yet what to do? One thing I lack, whose want Undoes me. Good, sweet Euripides! Grant me but this, I'll ask no more, but go— Some cabbage-leaves—a few just in my basket!
EURIPIDES. You'll ruin me. See there! A whole play's gone!
DIKAIOPOLIS (seemingly going off). Nothing more now. I'm really off. I am, I own, A bore, wanting in tact to please the great. Woe's me! Was ever such a wretch? Alas! I have forgot the very chiefest thing of all. Hear me, Euripides, my dear! my darling. Choicest ills betide me! if e'er I ask Aught more than this; but one—this one alone: Throw me a pot-herb from thy mother's stock.
EURIPIDES. The fellow would insult me—shut the door. (The Encyclema revolves, and Euripides and Cephisophon retire.)
DIKAIOPOLIS. Soul of me, thou must go without a pot-herb! Wist thou what conflict thou must soon contend in To proffer speech and full defence for Sparta? Forward, my soul! the barriers are before thee. What, dost loiter? hast not imbibed Euripides? And yet I blame thee not. Courage, sad heart! And forward, though it be to lay thy head Upon the block. Rouse thee, and speak thy mind. Forward there! forward again! bravely heart, bravely.
 The Greek diminutive epullia is here correctly expressed by the German verschen, but versicle would not be tolerated in English.—TRANS.
 Euripidion—in the German Euripidelein.—TRANS.
 A technical expression from the Encyclema, which was thrust out.
 Euripides appears in the upper story; but as in an altana, or sitting to an open gallery.
 Alluding to the holes in the mantle which he holds up to the light.
 These lines are from Euripides' tragedy of Telephus.
 An allusion (which a few lines lower is again repeated) to his mother as a poor retailer of vegetables.
 See previous footnote.
Whether the Middle Comedy was a distinct species—Origin of the New Comedy—A mixed species—Its prosaic character—Whether versification is essential to Comedy—Subordinate kinds—Pieces of Character, and of Intrigue—The Comic of observation, of self-consciousness, and arbitrary Comic—Morality of Comedy—Plautus and Terence as imitators of the Greeks here cited and characterised for want of the Originals—Moral and social aim of the Attic Comedy—Statues of two Comic Authors.
Ancient critics assume the existence of a Middle Comedy, between the Old and the New. Its distinguishing characteristics are variously described: by some its peculiarity is made to consist in the abstinence from personal satire and introduction of real characters, and by others in the abolition of the chorus. But the introduction of real persons under their true names was never an indispensable requisite. Indeed, in several, even of Aristophanes' plays, we find characters in no respect historical, but altogether fictitious, but bearing significant names, after the manner of the New Comedy; while personal satire is only occasionally employed. This right of personal satire was no doubt, as I have already shown, essential to the Old Comedy, and the loss of it incapacitated the poets from throwing ridicule on public actions and affairs of state. When accordingly they confined themselves to private life, the chorus ceased at once to have any significance. However, accidental circumstances accelerated its abolition. To dress and train the choristers was an expensive undertaking; now, as Comedy with the forfeiture of its political privileges lost also its festal dignity, and was degraded into a mere amusement, the poet no longer found any rich patrons willing to take upon themselves the expense of furnishing the chorus.
Platonius mentions a further characteristic of the Middle Comedy. On account, he says, of the danger of alluding to public affairs, the comic writers had turned all their satire against serious poetry, whether epic or tragic, and sought to expose its absurdities and contradictions. As a specimen of this kind he gives the Aeolosikon, one of Aristophanes' latest works. This description coincides with the idea of parody, which we placed foremost in our account of the Old Comedy. Platonius adduces also another instance in the Ulysses of Cratinus, a burlesque of the Odyssey. But, in order of time, no play of Cratinus could belong to the Middle Comedy; for his death is mentioned by Aristophanes in his Peace. And as to the drama of Eupolis, in which he described what we call an Utopia, or Lubberly Land, what else was it but a parody of the poetical legends of the golden age? But in Aristophanes, not to mention his parodies of so many tragic scenes, are not the Heaven-journey of Trygaeus, and the Hell-journey of Bacchus, ludicrous imitations of the deeds of Bellerophon and Hercules, sung in epic and tragic poetry? In vain therefore should we seek in this restriction to parody any distinctive peculiarity of the so-called Middle Comedy. Frolicsome caprice, and allegorical significance of composition are, poetically considered, the only essential criteria of the Old Comedy. In this class, therefore, we shall rank every work where we find these qualities, in whatever times, and under whatever circumstances, it may have been composed.
As the New Comedy arose out of a mere negation, the abolition, viz., of the old political freedom, we may easily conceive that there would be an interval of fluctuating, and tentative efforts to supply its place, before a new comic form could be developed and fully established. Hence there may have been many kinds of the Middle Comedy, many intermediate gradations, between the Old and the New; and this is the opinion of some men of learning. And, indeed, historically considered, there appears good grounds for such a view; but in an artistic point of view, a transition does not itself constitute a species.
We proceed therefore at once to the New Comedy, or that species of poetry which with us receives the appellation of Comedy. We shall, I think, form a more correct notion of it, if we consider it in its historical connexion, and from a regard to its various ingredients explain it to be a mixed and modified species, than we should were we to term it an original and pure species, as those do who either do not concern themselves at all with the Old Comedy, or else regard it as nothing better than a mere rude commencement. Hence, the infinite importance of Aristophanes, as we have in him a kind of poetry of which there is no other example to be found in the world.
The New Comedy may, in certain respects, be described as the Old, tamed down; but in productions of genius, tameness is not generally considered a merit. The loss incurred by the prohibition of an unrestricted freedom of satire the new comic writers endeavoured to compensate by a mixture of earnestness borrowed from tragedy, both in the form of representation and the general structure, and also in the impressions which they laboured to produce. We have seen how, in its last epoch, tragic poetry descended from its ideal elevation, and came nearer to common reality, both in the characters and in the tone of the dialogue, but more especially in its endeavour to convey practical instruction respecting the conduct of civil and domestic life in all their several requirements. This utilitarian turn in Euripides was the subject of Aristophanes' ironical commendation [Footnote: The Frogs, v. 971-991.]. Euripides was the precursor of the New Comedy; and all the poets of this species particularly admired him, and acknowledged him as their master.—The similarity of tone and spirit is even so great between them, that moral maxims of Euripides have been ascribed to Menander, and others of Menander to Euripides. On the other hand, among the fragments of Menander, we find topics of consolation which frequently rise to the height of the true tragic tone.
New Comedy, therefore, is a mixture of earnestness and mirth. [Footnote: The original here is not susceptible of an exact translation into English. Though the German language has this great advantage, that there are few ideas which may not be expressed in it in words of Teutonic origin, yet words derived from Greek and Latin are also occasionally used indiscriminately with the Teutonic synonymes, for the sake of variety or otherwise. Thus the generic word spiel (play), is formed into lustspiel (comedy), trauerspiel (tragedy), sing-spiel (opera), schauspiel (drama); but the Germans also use tragoedie, komoedie, opera and drama. In the text, the author proposes, for the sake of distinction, to give the name of lustspiel to the New Comedy, to distinguish it from the old; but having only the single term comedy in English, I must, in translating lustspiel, make use of the two words, New Comedy.—TRANS.] The poet no longer turns poetry and the world into ridicule, he no longer abandons himself to an enthusiasm of fun, but seeks the sportive element in the objects themselves; he depicts in human characters and situations whatever occasions mirth, in a word, what is pleasant and laughable. But the ridiculous must no longer come forward as the pure creation of his own fancy, but must be verisimilar, that is, seem to be real. Hence we must consider anew the above described comic ideal of human nature under the restrictions which this law of composition imposes, and determine accordingly the different kinds and gradations of the Comic.
The highest tragic earnestness, as I have already shown, runs ever into the infinite; and the subject of Tragedy (properly speaking) is the struggle between the outward finite existence, and the inward infinite aspirations. The subdued earnestness of the New Comedy, on the other hand, remains always within the sphere of experience. The place of Destiny is supplied by Chance, for the latter is the empirical conception of the former, as being that which lies beyond our power or control. And accordingly we actually find among the fragments of the Comic writers as many expressions about Chance, as we do in the tragedians about Destiny. To unconditional necessity, moral liberty could alone be opposed; as for Chance, every one must use his wits, and turn it to his own profit as he best can. On this account, the whole moral of the New Comedy, just like that of the Fable, is nothing more than a theory of prudence. In this sense, an ancient critic has, with inimitable brevity, given us the whole sum of the matter: that Tragedy is a running away from, or making an end of, life; Comedy its regulation.
The idea of the Old Comedy is a fantastic illusion, a pleasant dream, which at last, with the exception of the general effect, all ends in nothing. The New Comedy, on the other hand, is earnest in its form. It rejects every thing of a contradictory nature, which might have the effect of destroying the impressions of reality. It endeavours after strict coherence, and has, in common with Tragedy, a formal complication and denouement of plot. Like Tragedy, too, it connects together its incidents, as cause and effect, only that it adopts the law of existence as it manifests itself in experience, without any such reference as Tragedy assumes to an idea. As the latter endeavours to satisfy our feelings at the close, in like manner the New Comedy endeavours to provide, at least, an apparent point of rest for the understanding. This, I may remark in passing, is by no means an easy task for the comic writer: he must contrive at last skilfully and naturally to get rid of the contradictions which with their complication and intricacy have diverted us during the course of the action; if he really smooths them all off by making his fools become rational, or by reforming or punishing his villains, then there is an end at once of everything like a pleasant and comical impression.
Such were the comic and tragic ingredients of the New Comedy, or Comedy in general. There is yet a third, however, which in itself is neither comic nor tragic, in short, not even poetic. I allude to its portrait-like truthfulness. The ideal and caricature, both in the plastic arts and in dramatic poetry, lay claim to no other truth than that which lies in their significance: their individual beings even are not intended to appear real. Tragedy moves in an ideal, and the Old Comedy in a fanciful or fantastical world. As the creative power of the fancy was circumscribed in the New Comedy, it became necessary to afford some equivalent to the understanding, and this was furnished by the probability of the subjects represented, of which it was to be the judge. I do not mean the calculation of the rarity or frequency of the represented incidents (for without the liberty of depicting singularities, even while keeping within the limits of every-day life, comic amusement would be impossible), but all that is here meant is the individual truth of the picture. The New Comedy must be a true picture of the manners of the day, and its tone must be local and national; and even if we should see comedies of other times, and other nations, brought upon the stage, we shall still be able to trace and be pleased with this resemblance. By portrait-like truthfulness I do not mean that the comic characters must be altogether individual. The most striking features of different individuals of a class may be combined together in a certain completeness, provided they are clothed with a sufficient degree of peculiarity to have an individual life, and are not represented as examples of any partial and incomplete conception. But in so far as Comedy depicts the constitution of social and domestic life in general, it is a portrait; from this prosaic side it must be variously modified, according to time and place, while the comic motives, in respect of their poetical principle, are always the same.
The ancients themselves acknowledged the New Comedy to be a faithful picture of life. Full of this idea, the grammarian Aristophanes exclaimed in a somewhat affected, though highly ingenious turn of expression: "O life and Menander! which of you copied the other?" Horace informs us that "some doubted whether Comedy be a poem; because neither in its subject nor in its language is there the same impressive elevation which distinguished from ordinary discourse by the versification." But it was urged by others, that Comedy occasionally elevates her tone; for instance, when an angry father reproaches a son for his extravagance. This answer, however, is rejected by Horace as insufficient. "Would Pomponius," says he, with a sarcastic application, "hear milder reproaches if his father were living?" To answer the doubt, we must examine wherein Comedy goes beyond individual reality. In the first place it is a simulated whole, composed of congruous parts, agreeably to the scale of art. Moreover, the subject represented is handled according to the laws of theatrical exhibition; everything foreign and incongruous is kept out, while all that is essential to the matter in hand is hurried on with swifter progress than in real life; over the whole, viz., the situations and characters, a certain clearness and distinctness of appearance is thrown, which the vague and indeterminate outlines of reality seldom possess. Thus the form constitutes the poetic element of Comedy, while its prosaic principle lies in the matter, in the required assimilation to something individual and external.
We may now fitly proceed to the consideration of the much mooted question, whether versification be essential to Comedy, and whether a comedy written in prose is an imperfect production. This question has been frequently answered in the affirmative on the authority of the ancients, who, it is true, had no theatrical works in prose; this, however, may have arisen from accidental circumstances, for example, the great extent of their stage, in which verse, from its more emphatic delivery, must have been better heard than prose. Moreover, these critics forget that the Mimes of Sophron, so much admired by Plato, were written in prose. And what were these Mimes? If we may judge of them from the statement that some of the Idylls of Theocritus were imitations of them in hexameters, they were pictures of real life, in which every appearance of poetry was studiously avoided. This consists in the coherence and connexion of a drama, which certainly is not found in these pieces; they are merely so many detached scenes, in which one thing succeeds another by chance, and without preparation, as the particular hour of any working-day or holiday brought it about. The want of dramatic interest was supplied by the mimic element, that is, by the most accurate representation of individual peculiarities in action and language, which arose from nationality as modified by local circumstances, and from sex, age, rank, occupations, and so forth.
Even in versified Comedy, the language must, in the choice of words and phrases, differ in no respect, or at least in no perceptible degree, from that of ordinary life; the licences of poetical expression, which are indispensable in other departments of poetry, are here inadmissible. Not only must the versification not interfere with the common, unconstrained, and even careless tone of conversation, but it must also seem to be itself unpremeditated. It must not by its lofty tone elevate the characters as in Tragedy, where, along with the unusual sublimity of the language, it becomes as it were a mental Cothurnus. In Comedy the verse must serve merely to give greater lightness, spirit, and elegance to the dialogue. Whether, therefore, a particular comedy ought to be versified or not, must depend on the consideration whether it would be more suitable to the subject in hand to give to the dialogue this perfection of form, or to adopt into the comic imitation all rhetorical and grammatical errors, and even physical imperfections of speech. The frequent production, however, of prose comedies in modern times has not been owing so much to this cause as to the ease and convenience of the author, and in some degree also of the player. I would, however, recommend to my countrymen, the Germans, the diligent use of verse, and even of rhyme, in Comedy; for as our national Comedy is yet to be formed, the whole composition, by the greater strictness of the form, would gain in keeping and appearance, and we should be enabled at the very outset to guard against many important errors. We have not yet attained such a mastery in this matter as will allow us to abandon ourselves to an agreeable negligence.
As we have pronounced the New Comedy to be a mixed species, formed out of comic and tragic, poetic and prosaic elements, it is evident that this species may comprise several subordinate kinds, according to the preponderance of one or other of the ingredients. If the poet plays in a sportive humour with his own inventions, the result is a farce; if he confines himself to the ludicrous in situations and characters, carefully avoiding all admixture of serious matter, we have a pure comedy (lustspiel); in proportion as earnestness prevails in the scope of the whole composition, and in the sympathy and moral judgment it gives rise to, the piece becomes what is called Instructive or Sentimental Comedy; and there is only another step to the familiar or domestic tragedy. Great stress has often been laid on the two last mentioned species as inventions entirely new, and of great importance, and peculiar theories have been devised for them, &c. In the lacrymose drama of Diderot, which was afterwards so much decried, the failure consisted altogether in that which was new; the affectation of nature, the pedantry of the domestic relations, and the lavish use of pathos. Did we still possess the whole of the comic literature of the Greeks, we should, without doubt, find in it the models of all these species, with this difference, however, that the clear head of the Greeks assuredly never allowed them to fall into a chilling monotony, but that they arrayed and tempered all in due proportion. Have not we, even among the few pieces that remain to us, the Captives of Plautus, which may be called a pathetic drama, the Step-Mother of Terence, a true family picture; while the Amphitryo borders on the fantastic boldness of the Old Comedy, and the Twin-Brothers (Menaechmi) is a wild piece of intrigue? Do we not find in all Terence's plays serious, impassioned, and touching passages? We have only to call to mind the first scene of the Heautontimorumenos. From our point of view we hope in short to find a due place for all things. We see here no distinct species, but merely gradations in the tone of the composition, which are marked by transitions more or less perceptible.
Neither can we allow the common division into Plays of Character and Plays of Intrigue, to pass without limitation. A good comedy ought always to be both, otherwise it will be deficient either in body or animation. Sometimes, however, the one and sometimes the other will, no doubt, preponderate. The development of the comic characters requires situations to place them in strong contrast, and these again can result from nothing but that crossing of purposes and events, which, as I have already shown, constitutes intrigue in the dramatic sense. Every one knows the meaning of intriguing in common life; namely, the leading others by cunning and dissimulation, to further, without their knowledge and against their will, our own hidden designs. In the drama both these significations coincide, for the cunning of the one becomes a cross-purpose for the other.
When the characters are only slightly sketched, so far merely as is necessary to account for the actions of the characters in this or that case; when also the incidents are so accumulated, that little room is left for display of character; when the plot is so wrought up, that the motley tangle of misunderstandings and embarrassments seems every moment on the point of being loosened, and yet the knot is only drawn tighter and tighter: such a composition may well be called a Play of Intrigue. The French critics have made it fashionable to consider this kind of play much below the so-called Play of Character, perhaps because they look too exclusively to how much of a play may be retained by us and carried home. It is true, the Piece of Intrigue, in some degree, ends at last in nothing: but why should it not be occasionally allowable to divert oneself ingeniously, without any ulterior object? Certainly, a good comedy of this description requires much inventive wit: besides the entertainment which we derive from the display of such acuteness and ingenuity, the wonderful tricks and contrivances which are practised possess a great charm for the fancy, as the success of many a Spanish piece proves.
To the Play of Intrigue it is objected, that it deviates from the natural course of things, that it is improbable. We may admit the former without however admitting the latter. The poet, no doubt, exhibits before us what is unexpected, extraordinary, and singular, even to incredibility; and often he even sets out with a great improbability, as, for example, the resemblance between two persons, or a disguise which is not seen through; afterwards, however, all the incidents must have the appearance of truth, and all the circumstances by means of which the affair takes so marvellous a turn, must be satisfactorily explained. As in respect to the events which take place, the poet gives us but a light play of wit, we are the more strict with him respecting the how by which they are brought about.
In the comedies which aim more at delineation of character, the dramatic personages must be skilfully grouped so as to throw light on each other's character. This, however, is very apt to degenerate into too systematic a method, each character being regularly matched with its symmetrical opposite, and thereby an unnatural appearance is given to the whole. Nor are those comedies deserving of much praise, in which the rest of the characters are introduced only, as it were, to allow the principal one to go through all his different probations; especially when that character consists of nothing but an opinion, or a habit (for instance, L'Optimiste, Le Distrait), as if an individual could thus be made up entirely of one single peculiarity, and must not rather be on all sides variously modified and affected.
What was the sportive ideal of human nature in the Old Comedy I have already shown. Now as the New Comedy had to give to its representation a resemblance to a definite reality, it could not indulge in such studied and arbitrary exaggeration as the old did. It was, therefore, obliged to seek for other sources of comic amusement, which lie nearer the province of earnestness, and these it found in a more accurate and thorough delineation of character.
In the characters of the New Comedy, either the Comic of Observation or the Self-Conscious and Confessed Comic, will be found to prevail. The former constitutes the more refined, or what is called High Comedy, and the latter Low Comedy or Farce.
But to explain myself more distinctly: there are laughable peculiarities, follies, and obliquities, of which the possessor himself is unconscious, or which, if he does at all perceive them, he studiously endeavours to conceal, as being calculated to injure him in the opinion of others. Such persons consequently do not give themselves out for what they actually are; their secret escapes from them unwittingly, or against their will. Rightly, therefore, to portray such characters, the poet must lend us his own peculiar talent for observation, that we may fully understand them. His art consists in making the character appear through slight hints and stolen glimpses, and in so placing the spectator, that whatever delicacy of observation it may require, he can hardly fail to see through them.
There are other moral defects, which are beheld by their possessor with a certain degree of satisfaction, and which he even makes it a principle not to get rid of, but to cherish and preserve. Of this kind is all that, without selfish pretensions, or hostile inclinations, merely originates in the preponderance of the animal being. This may, without doubt, be united to a high degree of intellect, and when such a person applies his mental powers to the consideration of his own character, laughs at himself, confesses his failings or endeavours to reconcile others to them, by setting them in a droll light, we have then an instance of the Self- Conscious Comic This species always supposes a certain inward duality of character, and the superior half, which rallies and laughs at the other, has in its tone and occupation a near affinity to the comic poet himself. He occasionally delivers over his functions entirely to this representative, allowing him studiously to overcharge the picture which he draws of himself, and to enter into a tacit understanding with the spectators, that he and they are to turn the other characters into ridicule. We have in this way the Comedy of Caprice, which generally produces a powerful effect, however much critics may depreciate it. In it the spirit of the Old Comedy is still at work. The privileged merry-maker, who, under different names, has appeared on almost all stages, whose part is at one time a display of shrewd wit, and at another of coarse clownishness, has inherited something of the licentious enthusiasm, but without the rights and privileges of the free and unrestrained writers of the Old Comedy. Could there be a stronger proof that the Old Comedy, which we have described as the original species, was not a mere Grecian peculiarity, but had its root and principle in the very nature of things?
To keep the spectators in a mirthful tone of mind Comedy must hold them as much as possible aloof from all moral appreciation of its personages, and from all deep interest in their fortunes, for in both these cases an entrance will infallibly be given to seriousness. How then does the poet avoid agitating the moral feeling, when the actions he represents are of such a nature as must give rise sometimes to disgust and contempt, and sometimes to esteem and love? By always keeping within the province of the understanding, he contrasts men with men as mere physical beings, just to measure on each other their powers, of course their mental powers as well as others, nay, even more especially. In this respect Comedy bears a very near affinity to Fable: in the Fable we have animals endowed with reason, and in Comedy we have men serving their animal propensities with their understanding. By animal propensities I mean sensuality, or, in a still more general sense, self-love. As heroism and self-sacrifice raise the character to a tragic elevation, so the true comic personages are complete egotists. This must, however, be understood with due limitation: we do not mean that Comedy never portrays the social instincts, only that it invariably represents them as originating in the natural endeavour after our own happiness. Whenever the poet goes beyond this, he leaves the comic tone. It is not his purpose to direct our feelings to a sense of the dignity or meanness, the innocence or corruption, the goodness or baseness of the acting personages; but to show us whether they act stupidly or wisely, adroitly or clumsily, with silliness or ability.
Examples will place the matter in the clearest light. We possess an involuntary and immediate veneration for truth, and this belongs to the innermost emotions of the moral sense. A malignant lie, which threatens mischievous consequences, fills us with the highest indignation, and belongs to Tragedy. Why then are cunning and deceit admitted to be excellent as comic motives, so long as they are used with no malicious purpose, but merely to promote our self-love, to extricate one's-self from a dilemma, or to gain some particular object, and from which no dangerous consequences are to be dreaded? It is because the deceiver having already withdrawn from the sphere of morality, truth and untruth are in themselves indifferent to him, and are only considered in the light of means; and so we entertain ourselves merely with observing how great an expenditure of sharpness and ready-wittedness is necessary to serve the turn of a character so little exalted. Still more amusing is it when the deceiver is caught in his own snare; for instance, when he is to keep up a lie, but has a bad memory. On the other hand, the mistake of the deceived party, when not seriously dangerous, is a comic situation, and the more so in proportion as this error of the understanding arises from previous abuse of the mental powers, from vanity, folly, or obliquity. But above all when deceit and error cross one another, and are by that means multiplied, the comic situations produced are particularly excellent. For instance, two men meet with the intention of deceiving one another; each however is forewarned and on his guard, and so both go away deceived only in respect to the success of their deception. Or again, one wishes to deceive another, but unwittingly tells him the truth; the other person, however, being suspicious, falls into the snare, merely from being over-much, on his guard. We might in this way compose a sort of comic grammar, which should show how the separate motives are to be entangled one with another, with continually increasing effect, up to the most artificial complication. It might also point out how that tangle of misunderstanding which constitutes a Comedy of Intrigue is by no means so contemptible a part of the comic art, as the advocates of the fine-spun Comedy of Character are pleased to assert.
Aristotle describes the laughable as an imperfection, an impropriety which is not productive of any essential harm. Excellently said! for from the moment that we entertain a real compassion for the characters, all mirthful feeling is at an end. Comic misfortune must not go beyond an embarrassment, which is to be set right at last, or at most, a deserved humiliation. Of this description are corporeal means of education applied to grown people, which our finer, or at least more fastidious age, will not tolerate on the stage, although Moliere, Holberg, and other masters, have frequently availed themselves of them. The comic effect arises from our having herein a pretty obvious demonstration of the mind's dependence on external things: we have, as it were, motives assuming a palpable form. In Comedy these chastisements hold the same place that violent deaths, met with heroic magnanimity, do in Tragedy. Here the resolution remains unshaken amid all the terrors of annihilation; the man perishes but his principles survive; there the corporeal existence remains, but the sentiments suffer an instantaneous change.
As then Comedy must place the spectator in a point of view altogether different from that of moral appreciation, with what right can moral instruction be demanded of Comedy, with what ground can it be expected? When we examine more closely the moral apophthegms of the Greek comic writers, we find that they are all of them maxims of experience. It is not, however, from experience that we gain a knowledge of our duties, of which conscience gives us an immediate conviction; experience can only enlighten us with respect to what is profitable or detrimental. The instruction of Comedy does not turn on the dignity of the object proposed but on the sufficiency of the means employed. It is, as has been already said, the doctrine of prudence; the morality of consequences and not of motives. Morality, in its genuine acceptation, is essentially allied to the spirit of Tragedy.
Many philosophers have on this account reproached Comedy with immorality, and among others, Rousseau, with much eloquence, in his Epistle on the Drama. The aspect of the actual course of things in the world is, no doubt, far from edifying; it is not, however, held up in Comedy as a model for imitation, but as a warning and admonition. In the doctrine of morals there is an applied or practical part: it may be called the Art of Living. Whoever has no knowledge of the world is perpetually in danger of making a wrong application of moral principles to individual cases, and, so with the very best intentions in the world, may occasion much mischief both to himself and others. Comedy is intended to sharpen our powers of discrimination, both of persons and situations; to make us shrewder; and this is its true and only possible morality.
So much for the determination of the general idea, which must serve as our clue in the examination of the merits of the individual poets.
Plautus and Terence as Imitators of the Greeks, here examined and characterized in the absence of the Originals they copied—Motives of the Athenian Comedy from Manners and Society—Portrait-Statues of two Comedians.
On the little of the New Comedy of the Greeks that has reached us, either in fragments or through the medium of Roman imitations, all I have to say may be comprised in a few words.
In this department Greek literature was extremely rich: the mere list of the comic writers whose works are lost, and of the names of their works, so far as they are known to us, makes of itself no inconsiderable dictionary. Although the New Comedy developed itself and flourished only in the short interval between the end of the Peloponnesian war and the first successors of Alexander the Great, yet the stock of pieces amounted to thousands; but time has made such havoc in this superabundance of talented and ingenious works, that nothing remains in the original but a number of detached fragments, of which many are so disfigured as to be unintelligible, and, in the Latin, about twenty translations or recasts of Greek originals by Plautus, and six by Terence. Here is a fitting task for the redintegrative labours of criticism, to put together all the fragmentary traces which we possess, in order to form from them something like a just estimate and character of what is lost. The chief requisites in an undertaking of this kind, I will take upon myself to point out. The fragments and moral maxims of the comic writers are, in their versification and language, distinguished by extreme purity, elegance, and accuracy; moreover, the tone of society which speaks in them breathes a certain Attic grace. The Latin comic poets, on the other hand, are negligent in their versification; they trouble themselves very little about syllabic quantity, and the very idea of it is almost lost amidst their many metrical licences. Their language also, at least that of Plautus, is deficient in cultivation and polish. Several learned Romans, and Varro among others, have, it is true, highly praised the style of this poet, but then we must make the due distinction between philological and poetical approbation. Plautus and Terence were among the most ancient Roman writers, and belonged to an age when a book-language had hardly yet an existence, and when every phrase was caught up fresh from the life. This naive simplicity had its peculiar charms for the later Romans of the age of learned cultivation: it was, however, rather the gift of nature than the fruit of poetical art. Horace set himself against this excessive partiality, and asserted that Plautus and the other comic poets threw off their pieces negligently, and wrote them in the utmost haste, that they might be the sooner paid for them. We may safely affirm, therefore, that in the graces and elegances of execution, the Greek poets have always lost in the Latin imitations. These we must, in imagination, retranslate into the finished elegance which we perceive in the Greek fragments. Moreover, Plautus and Terence made many changes in the general plan, and these could hardly be improvements. The former at times omitted whole scenes and characters, and the latter made additions, and occasionally ran two plays into one. Was this done with an artistic design, and were they actually desirous of excelling their Grecian predecessors in the structure of their pieces? I doubt it. Plautus was perpetually running out into diffuseness, and he was obliged to remedy in some other way the lengthening which this gave to the original; the imitations of Terence, on the other hand, from his lack of invention, turned out somewhat meagre, and he filled up the gaps with materials borrowed from other pieces. Even his contemporaries reproached him with having falsified or corrupted a number of Greek pieces, for the purpose of making out of them a few Latin ones.
Plautus and Terence are generally mentioned as writers in every respect original. In Romans this was perhaps pardonable: they possessed but little of the true poetic spirit, and their poetical literature owed its origin, for the most part, first to translation, then to free imitation, and finally to appropriation and new modelling, of the Greek. With them, therefore, a particular sort of adaptation passed for originality. Thus we find, from Terence's apologetic prologues, that they had so lowered the notion of plagiarism, that he was accused of it, because he had made use of matter which had been already adapted from the Greek. As we cannot, therefore, consider these writers in the light of creative artists, and since consequently they are only important to us in so far as we may by their means become acquainted with the shape of the Greek New Comedy, I will here insert the few remarks I have to make on their character and differences, and then return to the Greek writers of the New Comedy.
Among the Greeks, poets and artists were at all times held in honour and estimation; among the Romans, on the contrary, polite literature was at first cultivated by men of the lowest rank, by needy foreigners, and even by slaves. Plautus and Terence, who closely followed each other in time, and whose lifetime belongs to the last years of the second Punic war, and to the interval between the second and third, were of the lowest rank: the former, at best a poor day labourer, and the latter, a Carthaginian slave, and afterwards a freed man. Their fortunes, however, were very different. Plautus, when he was not employed in writing comedies, was fain to hire himself out to do the work of a beast of burthen in a mill; Terence was domesticated with the elder Scipio and his bosom friend Laelius, who deigned to admit him to such familiarity, that he fell under the honourable imputation of being assisted in the composition of his pieces by these noble Romans, and it was even said that they allowed their own labours to pass under his name. The habits of their lives are perceptible in their respective modes of writing: the bold, coarse style of Plautus, and his famous jests, betray his intercourse with the vulgar; in that of Terence, we discern the traces of good society. They are further distinguished by their choice of matter. Plautus generally inclines to the farcical, to overwrought, and often disgusting drollery; Terence prefers the more delicate shades of characterization, and, avoiding everything like exaggeration, approaches the seriously instructive and sentimental kind. Some of the pieces of Plautus are taken from Diphilus and Philemon, but there is reason to believe that he added a considerable degree of coarseness to his originals; from whom he derived the others is unknown, unless, perhaps, the assertion of Horace, "It is said that Plautus took for his model the Sicilian Epicharmus," will warrant the conjecture that he borrowed the Amphitryo, a piece which is quite different in kind from all his others, and which he himself calls a Tragi-comedy, from that old Doric comedian, who we know employed himself chiefly on mythological subjects. Among the pieces of Terence, whose copies, with the exception of certain changes of the plan and structure, are probably much more faithful in detail than those of the other, we find two from Apollodorus, and the rest from Menander. Julius Caesar has honoured Terence with some verses, in which he calls him a half Menander, praising the smoothness of his style, and only lamenting that he has lost a certain comic vigour which marked his original.
This naturally brings us back to the Grecian masters. Diphilus, Philemon, Apollodorus, and Menander, are certainly four of the most celebrated names among them. The palm, for elegance, delicacy, and sweetness, is with one voice given to Menander, although Philemon frequently carried off the prize before him, probably because he studied more the taste of the multitude, or because he availed himself of adscititious means of popularity. This was at least insinuated by Menander, who when he met his rival one day said to him, "Pray, Philemon, dost thou not blush when thou gainest a victory over me?"
Menander flourished after the times of Alexander the Great, and was the contemporary of Demetrius Phalereus. He was instructed in philosophy by Theophrastus, but his own opinions inclined him to that of Epicurus, and he boasted in an epigram, "that if Themistocles freed his country from slavery, Epicurus freed it from irrationality." He was fond of the choicest sensual enjoyments: Phaedrus, in an unfinished tale, describes him to us as even in his exterior, an effeminate voluptuary; and his amour with the courtesan Glycera is notorious. The Epicurean philosophy, which placed the supreme happiness of life in the benevolent affections, but neither spurred men on to heroic action, nor excited any sense of it in the mind, could hardly fail to be well received among the Greeks, after the loss of their old and glorious freedom: with their cheerful mild way of thinking, it was admirably calculated to console them. It is perhaps the most suitable for the comic poet, as the stoical philosophy is for the tragedian. The object of the comedian is merely to produce mitigated impressions, and by no means to excite a strong indignation at human frailties. On the other hand, we may easily comprehend why the Greeks conceived a passion for the New Comedy at the very period when they lost their freedom, as it diverted them from sympathy with the course of human affairs in general, and with political events, and absorbed their attention wholly in domestic and personal concerns.
The Grecian theatre was originally formed for higher walks of the drama; and we do not attempt to dissemble the inconveniences and disadvantages which its structure must have occasioned to Comedy. The frame was too large, and the picture could not fill it. The Greek stage was open to the heavens, and it exhibited little or nothing of the interior of the houses [Footnote: To serve this purpose recourse was had to the encyclema, which, no doubt, in the commencement of the Clouds, exhibited Strepsiades and his son sleeping on their beds. Moreover, Julius Pollux mentions among the decorations of New Comedy, a sort of tent, hut, or shed, adjoining to the middle edifice, with a doorway, originally a stable, but afterwards applicable to many purposes. In the Sempstresses of Antiphanes, it represented a sort of workshop. Here, or in the encyclema, entertainments were given, which in the old comedies sometimes took place before the eyes of the spectators. With the southern habits of the ancients, it was not, perhaps, so unnatural to feast with open doors, as it would be in the north of Europe. But no modern commentator has yet, so far as I know, endeavoured to illustrate in a proper manner the theatrical arrangement of the plays of Plautus and Terence. [See the Fourth Lecture, &c., and the Appendix on the Scenic Arrangement of the Greek Theatre.]]. The New Comedy was therefore under the necessity of placing its scene in the street. This gave rise to many inconveniences; thus people frequently come out of their houses to tell their secrets to one another in public. It is true, the poets were thus also saved the necessity of changing the scene, by supposing that the families concerned in the action lived in the same neighbourhood. It may be urged in their justification, that the Greeks, like all other southern nations, lived a good deal out of their small private houses, in the open air. The chief disadvantage with which this construction of the stage was attended, was the limitation of the female parts. With that due observance of custom which the essence of the New Comedy required, the exclusion of unmarried women and young maidens in general was an inevitable consequence of the retired life of the female sex in Greece. None appear but aged matrons, female slaves, or girls of light reputation. Hence, besides the loss of many agreeable situations, arose this further inconvenience, that frequently the whole piece turns on a marriage with, or a passion for, a young woman, who is never once seen.
Athens, where the fictitious, as well as the actual, scene was generally placed, was the centre of a small territory, and in no wise to be compared with our capital cities, either in extent or population. Republican equality admitted of no marked distinction of ranks; there was no proper nobility: all were alike citizens, richer or poorer, and for the most part had no other occupation than the management of their several properties. Hence the Attic New Comedy could not well admit of the contrasts arising from diversity of tone and mental culture; it generally moves within a sort of middle rank, and has something citizen-like, nay, if I may so say, something of the manners of a small town about it, which is not at all to the taste of those who would have comedy to portray the manners of a court, and the refinement or corruption of monarchical capitals.
With respect to the intercourse between the two sexes, the Greeks knew nothing of the gallantry of modern Europe, nor the union of love with enthusiastic veneration. All was sensual passion or marriage. The latter was, by the constitution and manners of the Greeks, much more a matter of duty, or an affair of convenience, than of inclination. The laws were strict only in one point, the preservation of the pure national extraction of the children, which alone was legitimate. The right of citizenship was a great prerogative, and the more valuable the smaller the number of citizens, which was not allowed to increase beyond a certain point. Hence marriages with foreign women were invalid. The society of a wife, whom, in most cases, the husband had not even seen before his marriage with her, and who passed her whole life within the walls of her house, could not afford him much entertainment; this was sought among women who had forfeited all title to strict respect, and who were generally foreigners without property, or freed slaves, and the like. With women of this description the easy morality of the Greeks allowed of the greatest license, especially to young unmarried men. The ancient writers, therefore, of the New Comedy paint this mode of life with much less disguise than we think decorous. Their comedies, like all comedies in the world, frequently end with marriages (it seems this catastrophe brings seriousness along with it); but the marriage is often entered upon merely as a means of propitiating a father incensed at the irregularities of some illicit amour. It sometimes happens, however, that the amour is changed into a lawful marriage by means of a discovery that the supposed foreigner or slave is by birth an Athenian citizen. It is worthy of remark, that the fruitful mind of the very poet who carried the Old Comedy to perfection, put forth also the first germ of the New. Cocalus, the last piece which Aristophanes composed, contained a seduction, a recognition, and all the leading circumstances which were afterwards employed by Menander in his comic pieces.
From what has been said, it is easy to overlook the whole round of characters; nay, they are so few, and so perpetually recur, that they may be almost all enumerated. The austere and stingy, or the mild easy father, the latter not unfrequently under the dominion of his wife, and making common cause with his son against her; the housewife either loving and sensible, or scolding and domineering, and presuming on the accession she has brought to the family property; the young man giddy and extravagant, but frank and amiable, who even in a passion sensual at its commencement is capable of true attachment; the girl of light character, either thoroughly depraved, vain, cunning, and selfish, or still good-hearted and susceptible of better feelings; the simple and clownish, and the cunning slave who assists his young master in cheating his old father, and by all manner of knavish tricks procures him money for the gratification of his passions; (as this character plays a principal part, I shall shortly make some further observations on it;) the flatterer or accommodating parasite, who, for the sake of a good meal, is ready to say or do any thing that may be required of him the sycophant, a man whose business it was to set quietly disposed people by the ears, and stir up law-suits, for the conduct of which he offered his services; the gasconading soldier, returned from foreign service, generally cowardly and simple, but who assumes airs and boasts of his exploits abroad; and lastly, a servant or pretended mother, who preaches very indifferent morals to the young girl entrusted to her care; and the slave-dealer, who speculates on the extravagant passions of young people, and regards nothing but his own pecuniary advantage. The two last characters, with their revolting coarseness, are, to our feelings, a real blot in the Greek Comedy; but its very subject-matter rendered it impossible for it to dispense with them.
The knavish servant is generally also the buffoon, who takes pleasure in avowing, and even exaggerating, his own sensuality and want of principle, and who jokes at the expense of the other characters, and occasionally even addresses the pit. This is the origin of the comic servants of the moderns, but I am inclined to doubt whether, with our manners, there is propriety and truth in introducing such characters. The Greek servant was a slave, subject for life to the arbitrary caprice of his master, and frequently the victim of the most severe treatment. A man, who, thus deprived by the constitution of society of all his natural rights, makes trick and artifice his trade may well be pardoned: he is in a state of war with his oppressors, and cunning is his natural weapon. But in our times, a servant, who is free to choose his situation and his master, is a good- for-nothing scoundrel if he assists the son to deceive the father. With respect, on the other hand, to the open avowal of fondness of good eating and drinking which is employed to give a comic stamp to servants and persons in a low rank of life, it may still be used without impropriety: of those to whom life has granted but few privileges it does not require much; and they may boldly own the vulgarity of their inclinations, without giving any shock to our moral feelings. The better the condition of servants in real life, the less adapted are they for the stage; and this at least redounds to the praise of our more humane age, that in our "family picture" tales we meet with servants who are right worthy characters, better fitted to excite our sympathy than our derision.
The repetition of the same characters was as it were acknowledged by the Greek comic writers, by their frequent use of the same names, and those too in part expressive of character. In this they did better than many comic poets of modern times, who, for the sake of novelty of character, torture themselves to attain complete individuality, by which efforts no other effect generally is produced than that of diverting our attention from the main business of the piece, and dissipating it on accessory circumstances. And then after all they imperceptibly fall back again into the old well-known character. It is better to delineate the characters at first with a certain breadth, and to leave the actor room to touch them up more accurately, and to add the nicer and more personal traits, according to the requirements of each composition. In this respect the use of masks admits of justification; which, like many other peculiarities of the ancient theatre, (such as the acting in the open air,) were still retained, though originally designed for other departments of the drama, and though they seem a greater incongruity in the New Comedy than in the Old, and in Tragedy. But certainly it was unsuitable to the spirit of the New, that, while in other respects the representation approached nature with a more exact, nay, illusive resemblance, the masks deviated more from it than in the Old, being overcharged in the features, and almost to caricature. However singular this may appear, it is too expressly and formally attested to admit of a doubt. [Footnote: See Platonius, in Aristoph. cur. Kuster, p. xi.] As they were prohibited from bringing portraits of real persons on the stage they were, after the loss of their freedom, very careful lest they should accidentally stumble upon any resemblance, and especially to any of their Macedonian rulers; and in this way they endeavoured to secure themselves against the danger. Yet the exaggeration in question was hardly without its meaning. Accordingly we find it stated, that an unsymmetrical profile, with one eyebrow drawn up and the other down, denoted an idle, inquisitive, and intermeddling busy- body, [Footnote: See Jul. Pollux, in the section of comic masks. Compare Platonius as above, and Quinctilian, 1. xi. c. 3. The supposed wonderful discovery of Voltaire respecting tragic masks, which I mentioned in the fourth Lecture, will hardly be forgotten.] and we may in fact remark that men, who are in the habit of looking at things with anxious exact observation, are apt to acquire distortions of this kind.
Among other peculiarities the masks in comedy have this advantage, that from the unavoidable repetition of the same characters the spectator knew at once what he had to expect. I once witnessed at Weimar a representation of the Adelphi of Terence, entirely in ancient costume, which, under the direction of Goethe, furnished us a truly Attic evening. The actors used partial masks, cleverly fitted to the real countenance, [Footnote: This also was not unknown to the ancients, as it proved by many comic masks having in the place of the mouth a circular opening of considerable width, through which the mouth and the adjoining features were allowed to appear; and which, with their distorted movements, must have produced a highly ludicrous effect, from the contrast in the fixed distortion of the rest of the countenance.] and notwithstanding the smallness of the theatre, I did not find that they were in any way prejudicial to vivacity. The mask was peculiarly favourable for the jokes of the roguish slave: his uncouth physiognomy, as well as his apparel, stamped him at once as a man of a peculiar race, (as in truth the slaves were, partly even by extraction,) and he might therefore well be allowed to act and speak differently from the rest of the characters.