Department of Greek & Latin


Menander's Dyskolos Study Guide

Menander (c. 342-290 BC), the chief representative of ancient Greek New Comedy, wrote over one hundred plays. Only Dyskolos ('The Grouch') survives nearly intact. At least eight of his plays won first prize in the comedy competitions of the Lenaea and Dionysia festivals, including Grouch (winner at the Lenaea in 316 BC). Menander's comedies had survived mostly in fragments until the early twentieth century, when remarkable discoveries unearthed substantial portions of several texts.

Menander: a New Comedy for Athens, by Dr Rosa Andújar

As early as the third century BC, Ancient Greek comic drama was perceived to have had three major stages: Old, Middle, and New. Typical of Old Comedy were the fifth-century BC comedies of Eupolis, Cratinus, and Aristophanes, which discussed contemporary Athenian social and political issues, abused prominent politicians, poets and intellectuals (often obscenely), and featured a chorus. Two of Aristophanes' surviving plays from the fourth-century BC, Assemblywomen (392?) and Wealth (388), give evidence to a transitional point, Middle Comedy, in which both the role of the chorus and the amount of political and social commentary diminish. Finally, though again created in Athens, New Comedy appears completely divorced from the political and social crises of the city as it features a cast of ordinary men and women in rather stereotypical roles, who fret about bourgeois affairs concerning love, marriage, and money. The three stages consequently chart a move from a specific drama by and for Athens, reflecting anxieties related to the city's politics, culture, and society, to a more plot-oriented one centred on the universal elements of the human experience.

The New Comedy of Menander (342-290 BC) thus no longer relies on scathing attacks on politicians and obscene jokes as in the comedies of Aristophanes, but rather focuses on a restricted set of characters (e.g. tricky slaves, young lovers, parasites) appearing in a similar number of dramatic situations. Most plots revolve around a young man's difficulty in attracting the attention of a beautiful girl in the face of various obstacles, such as a controlling father, or her social position. He is typically aided by an ingenious slave, who devises a scheme that ends in the young lovers' happy marriage. This is also the basic story of The Grouch (Dyskolos), which is the only comedy to survive in nearly completed status (out of over 100 plays). Despite their general similitude, Menander's plays seem to have been extremely popular throughout the Greek-speaking world: hundreds of quotations from his plays are preserved in a variety of literary sources. The first century AD philosopher and historian Plutarch also thought Menander to be superior to Aristophanes. To compose successful plays containing recurring characters and recognizable themes requires particular skill. Menander creates colourful and memorable characters, who feel like individuals, despite being traditional types.

Ironically, the 'universal' plays of Menander were produced during a particularly troubled chapter of Athenian history corresponding with the rise of Macedon. Starting in 346, Philip of Macedon begins to gain control of northern and central Greece. In 338 at the Battle of Chaeronea, he crushes an alliance of southern Greek states, led by Athens and Thebes, a watershed event that ultimately changes the course of both Greek and ancient history. Menander's formative years took place in the aftermath of Chaeronea and as a teenager, the comic playwright witnessed the rise of Philip's son, Alexander. Though there were various revolts against Macedonian rule in the city throughout the period, the Athenian democracy never recovered its full glory, and various oligarchic regimes ruled Athens at various points, until in 307 the Antigonid prince Demetrius Poliorcetes, son of Antigonus I Monophthalmus (a Macedonian general under Alexander), 'liberated' Athens from Macedonian rule. It is perhaps no coincidence that Menander's 'New' comedy eschewed the biting social and political commentary that was characteristic of Aristophanes' 'Old' comic drama.

Until the early twentieth century Menander was known only through quotations and the Latin plays by Plautus and Terence, but several twentieth century discoveries uncovered papyri with considerable fragments of his work. In 1905 archaeologists at Aphroditopolis in Egypt unearthed a papyrus book dated to the fifth century AD containing significant portions of five of his plays: The Shield (Aspis), The Arbitration (Epitrepontes), The Man She Hated (Misoumenos), The Girl with the Shaven Head (Perikeiromene), The Girl from Samos (Samia). In 1958 scholars found another papyrus book in a private collection which contained Dyskolos nearly intact. The discoveries of these papyri mean that Menander, unlike other ancient authors, arrives in modernity in a uniquely direct and unmediated manner: his texts are entirely free from the comments and impressions of postclassical scholars, which were handed down through the generations as ancient texts were copied into manuscripts. (© Dr Rosa Andújar)

Roman New Comedy and Menander, by Professor Gesine Manuwald

Menander was one of the most famous representatives of what is known as 'Greek New Comedy'. In a typical play of this genre there are no explicit references to political issues or famous historical individuals. Instead, the action takes place on a private level and depicts the experiences of middle-class families. In many plays there is a young man in love with a courtesan, who is an unacceptable marriage partner due to her social standing, and he does not have the money to get hold of her (as she is often in the possession of a pimp). Therefore the young man needs a clever slave to help him win the girl in the face of rivals and to trick his father into agreeing to the relationship. Frequently it turns out that the girl is the long-lost daughter of a respectable family, so that marriage becomes possible. The play can thus conclude with everybody reconciled and returned to their proper social standing.

The depiction of such complex love affairs and family relationships is timeless and not linked to a particular society. As a result, New Comedy had the potential to travel widely. Therefore, when the Romans started to develop their own comedies on the basis of Greek examples from about 240 BCE, what they selected as models were almost exclusively pieces of New Comedy. Accordingly, this type of comedy in Rome is often called 'Roman New Comedy'. The most famous playwrights producing such comedies in Republican Rome were Plautus and Terence. Many of their plays survive and have had an influence on later European dramatic history. This is why most information about New Comedy in Greece and Rome nowadays comes from Latin sources.

Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 250-184 BCE) is the earliest Roman comic writer of whom complete plays are extant. He is generally regarded as exuberant and farcical, while his successor Publius Terentius Afer (c. 195/4-159 BCE) is seen as more restrained and Hellenized. Since their Roman comedies were based on the model of Greek New Comedy with its standard story-line, many of their plots and characters are rather similar. The poets themselves were aware of this, commented on the standard features of their dramatic genre and sometimes deviated from it.

From the prologue to Terence's comedy Eunuchus ('The Eunuch') one can infer that the poet had been accused of using the same parasite and the same soldier, two quintessentially comic and negative figures, who had already appeared in another Roman comedy. In his defense Terence has the prologue speaker argue (Terence, Eunuchus 35-43): criticizing the poet for introducing these figures does not make sense; all comedy consists of set of typical figures, all of whom have already been presented by other poets; and if one is not allowed to use them again, one cannot write comedy.

In this context Terence gives a list of key features of this kind of comedy, such as an old man being deceived by his slave, usually because the old man's money is needed to pay for the escapades of the young man, his son, or to secure his beloved. In the course of the play, however, it turns out that Terence does not use all these stock characters in Eunuchus and the figures he introduces display slightly different characteristics. Therefore, Terence might have wanted to hint at these deviations. For a modern audience Terence's list gives a welcome insight into what comic poets of the time regarded as characteristics of their dramatic genre of 'Roman New Comedy'.

Although there is an element of farce and banter, 'Roman New Comedy' does not provide just meaningless entertainment. Behind the entertaining façade the plays address issues relevant to contemporary society. Due to the mixture of features appropriate to Greek and Roman settings, their fictional elaboration and the insertion of metatheatrical remarks, the stage action in Roman Greek-style comedy does not present a coherent picture of a single society, but rather creates a fantasy world. This mixture and the setting in a different context give playwrights the freedom both to provide parallels and to set off modes of behaviour against the usual customs in Rome. Issues addressed include the relationship between family members, between different generations or between men and women, the role of slaves or problems of education. Social issues and political problems can also surface, such as the treatment of conquered peoples and foreigners, the confrontation of different ethnic groups, the position and power of soldiers and the consequences of war or questions of agrarian and mercantile economies. Ethical values such as faithfulness, piety or morally upright behaviour may be presented.

For some pieces of 'Roman New Comedy' it is known that they are based on Menander; for some it can be inferred; others are modelled on plays by his Greek contemporaries. Since in the majority of cases the Greek basis is not fully extant, it is often difficult to make comparisons and distinguish clearly between Greek and Roman elements or characteristics of Menander and other Greek playwrights. But it is obvious that Menander had a huge influence on the development of Roman comic drama; some of the key features of his plays were taken up by the Roman playwrights, fused with Roman elements. Since some of the Latin comedies survive in full (and Latin was more widely read than Greek in many periods), these pieces in turn have had a great impact in subsequent centuries and were instrumental in shaping the development of European drama. So it is not unlikely that traces of Menander, transmitted indirectly, surface in many plays written in the main European languages since the Renaissance. (© Prof Gesine Manuwald)

Study Questions

1. What were the three stages of Ancient Greek comedy, and how did they differ?

2. Describe the typical plot of Menander's comedies.

3. What is ironic about the historical context in which Menander's comedies were written?

4. How did Menander come to be known in the modern world?

5. Why did New Comedy have ' the potential to travel widely'? 6. Most information about Ancient New Comedy from Latin sources. Why?

7. What were the key features of Plautus' and Terences' comedies? How did they differ from their Greek predecessors? How were they similar?

8. What issues relevant to contemporary Roman life and society do these comedies reveal?

Further Reading

  • Books

•     Menander: The Plays and Fragments, translated by Maurice Balme and with an introduction by Peter Brown (Oxford World's Classics 2001)

General works of criticism

•  K. B. Frost, Exits and Entrances in Menander (Oxford 1988)

•  S. M. Goldberg, The Making of Menander's Comedy (London 1980)

•  R. Hunter, The New Comedy of Greece and Rome (Cambridge 1985)

•  S. Lape, Reproducing Athens: Menander's Comedy, Democratic Culture and the Hellenistic City (Princeton 2004)

•  M. Revermann, The Cambridge Companion to Greek Comedy (Cambridge 2014)

•  A. Traill, Women and the comic plot in Menander (Cambridge 2008)

•  D. Wiles, The Masks of Menander (Cambridge 1991)
The Reception of Menander

•  S. Nervegna, Menander in Antiquity: The Contexts of Reception (Cambridge 2013)

  • Online

•    BBC: Comedy in Ancient Greek Theatre (In Our Time) >>

•    National Theatre of Great Britain: An Introduction to Greek Comedy and Satyr Drama >>

•   Mark Damen's page on Later Greek Comedy >>

•    John Gruber-Miller's page on Menander's Dyskolos and Hollywood >>