Department of Greek & Latin


Performing Aristophanes in Early Modern Translations

14 March 2023

Written by Giovanna Di Martino

Aristophanes’ Wealth

Imagine that all wealth was distributed equally and that people didn’t have to sweat daily for a meagre meal – in fact, imagine that poverty was cast away from the houses of good, respectful and honest workers.

Yes, this is one of the typically utopian worlds envisaged by the visionary Greek comedian Aristophanes in one if his last plays, Wealth. The God of Wealth, Plutus, is blind and thus unable to distinguish between the honest and the wicked and seems only drawn to the latter – Zeus saw to this because of his envy of the goods of mortals.

A chorus of farmers heralded by the good-hearted Chremylus and his slave Carion, after a heated (and controversial) argument with Poverty (which ends with Poverty’s exile), take Plutus to the temple of Asclepius, the god of medicine, where he is cured of his blindness. He is now able to impart wealth upon the good and poor and take it away from the dishonest and cheats.

At the end of the play, Hermes is sent down to Chremylus’ party to voice the gods’ discontent with Chremylus’ actions: because people are now happy they no longer make sacrifices to the gods, who are now starving.

Seeing the sumptuous banquet that Chremylus and his friends have prepared, Hermes begs them to take him in and refuses to go back to Olympus.

Wealth speaks loud and clear of the inequality and unfairness that the Athenians, Aristophanes’ citizens, were experiencing at the time he was writing: a time when Athens was at war with Sparta and the Athenians were constantly worried about losing everything overnight; but, most importantly, a time when it seemed that the dishonest and greedily wealthy were thriving while the honest and hard-working were quickly falling into disgrace.

What a better time to put on a performance of Wealth than this one, in a world more and more divided economically, where capitalism seems to have taken a turn for the worse, where, in the UK, the month of February saw at least one profession striking each week. University campuses took unprecedented strike action, to demand a pay raise so as to cope with the rising costs of living and to put an end to the widespread culture of insecure contracts.

In February 2023, a group of 18 students from the University of Parma and UCL as well as from a number of state-funded schools (St Olave’s, the Jewish Community Secondary School, Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, and La Sainte Union, Camden) participated in a four-day theatre workshop that I co-led as dramaturg with Italian playwright and director Marco Martinelli (Teatro delle Albe) on Aristophanes’ Wealth.

The script included the use of three early modern translations of the play: Eufrosino Bonini’s 1513 Commedia di Justitia; Thomas Randolph’s 1651 Hey for honesty, down with knavery; and H. H. B. (H. H. Burnell?)’s 1659 The World’s Idol, Plutus a comedy.

The use of early modern translations of the play was suggested by the framework within which this project had been organised: a research conference on Memory and Performance: Classical Reception in Early Modern Festivals which took place in both Parma (13-14 October 2022) and UCL (23-24 February 2023) and that I co-organised with Francesca Bortoletti (Parma). The theatre workshop was funded by the Widening International Didactics and Education Programme (w.i.d.e; Parma 2022) within the EU-funded Erasmus+ initiatives, which aim at supporting innovative approaches to teaching and learning, as well as encouraging students’ mobility. Many thanks to Francesca Bortoletti for applying to and winning the grant that enabled 5 UCL students to travel to Parma and participate in the programme.

Early Modern Aristophanes

Not only was Aristophanes’ Wealth a go-to text to learn and translate ancient Greek in the early modern period but the political and social dimensions of the play much resonated with the contemporary climate in which the script was adapted.

     Bonini’s 1513 Commedia di Iustitia

Bonini’s 1513 Commedia di Iustitia was performed on the occasion of the Carnival in Florence, which featured the triumphal return of the powerful Medici family to Florence after 18 years of exile. The Medici heavily exploited the Carnival and its performance events to present themselves as the peacemakers and guardians of Florence’s freedom. In Bonini’s Iustitia, Asclepius is replaced by a group of ‘Medici’ (in Italian: ‘doctors’), which makes it abundantly clear that the play is a (cheekily?) celebratory one – one that sees in the Medici a restoration of Justice (and culture). But the detailed way in which Poverty is described as well as the realistic living conditions in which the farmers are presented are tells that Bonini’s Iustitia does more than bow to the Medici and exposes a situation of misery that must have been shared by most of Florence’s inhabitants at the time.

     Randolph’s 1651 Hey for honesty

Randolph’s 1651 Hey for honesty, down with knavery, is another highly politicised remaking of Aristophanes’ Wealth: set in Caroline London, it ridicules the various political factions at play during the civil wars and the Puritan interregnum. It is a hymn to freedom of speech and, most importantly, freedom of satire (it was probably performed for a private audience while the theatres were closed). The chorus identifies politically with the 'Levellers' (a movement that was active during the civil wars that fought for popular sovereignty, equal rights for all, and tolerance around religious matters); Poverty is accompanied by a band of Royalists, and – unsurprisingly for the heated political climate of the time – the Pope himself makes an appearance at the end of the play, all worn-out and sad because 'indulgences are grown cheap and at no price'.

     H. H. B. (H. H. Burnell?)’s 1659 The World’s Idol

H. H. B. (Henry Burnell?)’s 1659 The World’s Idol, Plutus a comedy, reflects, as the title suggests, the political as well as religious issues of the time. Probably composed by the Irish Catholic playwright Henry Burnell, the translation is accompanied by a short discourse that explicitly identifies the trajectory from blindness to sight of the God of Wealth, Plutus, with the hope that the same will happen to humankind. Aristophanes is used to make anti-colonial and anti-imperialist statements (both regarding British colonialism, particularly with respect to Ireland, and Spanish colonial expansion into the Indies). A chorus of farmers tirelessly working their land seemed rather appropriate to address the tragic situation of Irish landowners being deprived of their land so that it could be given to English settlers. Wealth is also employed to argue against the use of religion as a colonial weapon: idol was indeed a religiously poignant term to be using in the 1650s in the midst of the iconoclastic frenzy taking place in the Reformed Church in northern Europe.

     The final script

The final script of the workshop is a mosaic of many different fragments created by me, Marco, and all the workshop’s participants. It was first put together in Parma during the first four-day theatre workshop held with the same group of university students from Parma and UCL who would be present in London in February, and with school students from two secondary schools in Parma. The script was then taken to London and enriched by the new workshop participants from local schools in London.

When the script traveled to London, it was reshaped to adapt to the new audience: I had initially modified and translated the lines of the scenes constructed in Parma in Italian into English, using the three early modern scripts as much as possible, but every day of the workshop I would come in with a different printed version of the script as it had absorbed and integrated Marco’s and the students’ inputs as well as, more generally, our collective experience of the scenes and plotline. While the bulk of the play was already there after Parma, the scene enacting the ‘agon’ (‘debating competition’) between Poverty and Chremylus was added in London.

Marco brought into the workshop’s script his own ‘bag’ of (living) texts. As you can perhaps spot in the video of the demonstration performance (below), it is Aristophanes’ Wealth with a (or, better, several) twist(s): there’s a bit of Shakespeare (Timon of Athens), and an ottava from from Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato (Book 1, Canto XVI), sung in what was a well-known and popular motif in the centre of Italy, which Marco used with the workshop’s participants as part of the warm-up and to develop the chorus.

But there are also other fragments, in various languages, that feature in our final mosaic: these are the languages spoken by some of the participants – Portuguese, French, Polish, Italian and Norwegian – all interwoven with the three early modern translations, combined and blended together thanks to the close collaboration between me and Marco and with the students.

Theatre Practice and Ancient Greek Drama

In addition to being inscribed within the research framework of the conference organised with Francesca Bortoletti on Memory and Performance, the theatre workshop is also situated within my own research, which aims at integrating theatre practice into the teaching, research and translation of ancient Greek (and Roman) drama (see the full list of theatre workshops that I have so far organized and co-led here).

The theatrical approach to the texts and the ease with which the students navigated through the different translations and, in collaboration with me and Marco, built a new script – our script of Wealth – was possible thanks to Marco’s exciting way of working and his considerable experience with school students over many years on well-known dramatic and non-dramatic texts. Since 1991, he has been doing theatre workshops in and with Italian schools, a practice and methodology that was given the name of ‘non-school’. The name quite eloquently points at a non-prescriptive way of engaging with texts that may well be the object of study in the classroom but which need to be deconstructed and eviscerated on the stage in order to ‘come to life’. Aristophanes’ comedies have become one of Marco’s go-to texts to ‘play with’ students in workshops (you can read more about 'non-school' here).

The theatrical approach to the scripts integrated into the workshop was amongst the aspects most enjoyed by the school and university students. In the words of some of the school students participating, the theatrical approach to studying and learning Aristophanes’ Wealth and its early modern translations was a ‘great way to fully immerse myself in the play and become more aware of how elements and lines of a script translate into a performance’; another one added: ‘it made the play more exciting and vivid for me as an experience rather than a quiet visualisation which I had built up in my head’.

For some, the workshop was also their first time acting; a student reported how they discovered that theatre doesn’t have linguistic barriers: ‘although we spoke a different language [workshop participants were from Italy and the UK, but the languages spoken by the participants included Polish, French, Norwegian and Portuguese], within the performance it seemed like we all spoke the same language, one of passion and theatre’. In the words of another, being involved in the theatrical process made them realise ‘how a play can change based on the people performing in it and the people interpreting it’.

Videos, photographs and more

The students involved talk about what they’ve learned, their biggest fears going in and what they enjoyed the most!

Thanks to Geoffrey Okol (Senior Video Producer, UCL Access and Widening Participation Office)


Here are some photographs from the four days of workshops. Thanks to Alessandro Bartolomucci.

Director: Marco Martinelli (Teatro delle Albe); Dramaturg: Giovanna Di Martino (UCL)
Organisers: Giovanna Di Martino (UCL), Francesca Bortoletti (Parma)
Participants: Franklin Barron, Zoë Barros, Rosanna Beacock, Janina Corbet, Laura Cupellaro, Flora Grime, Indie Halstead, Josh Hobson, Emily Kerr, Sophie Kerr, Benedetto Loris Pizzo, Luna Malvaso, Aurora Monachesi, Zoë Perry Smith, Anna Rizzo, Lucy Ruddiman, Marta Szatkowska, Agnes Wilhelmsen.
Thanks to the Widening International Didactics and Education Programme (w.i.d.e; 2022, Parma), UCL’s Widening Participation, the Classical Association, the Institute of Classical Studies, the Gilbert Trust Fund, UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies, UCL’s Centre for Early Modern Exchanges, the APGRD, the Leventis Foundation, and Ravenna Teatro / Teatro delle Albe.
@ St George's Church Bloomsbury, Bloomsbury Way, London WC1A 2SA
Research Project approved by UCL’s Ethics Research Committee with the Project Identification Number 22797/001 and Project Title: Theatre Practice and Ancient Greek Drama in Translation. PI: Giovanna Di Martino; Co-Investigators: Francesca Bortoletti (Parma) and Marco Martinelli (Teatro delle Albe).

people standing around kneeling figure