Essays and Miscellanies, by Plutarch

Abstract of a Comparison Between Aristophane and Menander

To speak in sum and in general, he prefers Menander by far; and as to particulars, he adds what here ensues. Aristophanes, he saith, is importune, theatric, and sordid in his expression; but Menander not so at all. For the rude and vulgar person is taken with the things the former speaketh; but the well-bred man will be quite out of humor with them. I mean, his opposed terms, his words of one cadence, and his derivatives. For the one makes use of these with due observance and but seldom, and bestows care upon them; but the other frequently, unseasonably, and frigidly. “For he is much commended,” said he, “for ducking the chamberlains, they being indeed not chamberlains [Greek omitted] but witches [Greek omitted]. And again — “This rascal breathes out nothing but roguery and sycophanty”; and “Smite him well in his belly with the entrails and the guts”; and, “By laughing I shall get to Laughington [Greek omitted]”; and, “Thou poor sharded ostracized pot, what shall I do with thee?” and, “To you women surely he is a mad plague, for he was brought up among these mad worts”; — and, “Look here, how the moths have eaten away my crest”; and, “Bring me hither the gorgon-backed circle of my shield”; “Give me the round-backed circle of a cheese-cake”; — and much more of the same kind. (See Aristophanes, “Knights,” 437, 455; “Thesmophoriazusae,” 455; Acharnians,” 1109, 1124.) There is then in the structure of his words something tragic and something comic, something blustering and something low, an obscurity, a vulgarness, a turgidness, and a strutting, with a nauseous prattling and fooling. And as his style has so great varieties and dissonances in it, so neither doth he give to his persons what is fitting and proper to each — as state (for instance) to a prince, force to an orator, innocence to a woman, meanness of language to a poor man, and sauciness to a tradesman — but he deals out to every person, as it were by lot, such words as come next to his hand, and you would scarce discern whether he be a son a father, a peasant, a god, an old woman, or a hero that is talking.

But now Menander’s phrase is so well turned and contempered with itself, and so everywhere conspiring, that, while it traverses many passions and humors and is accommodated to all sorts of persons, it still shows the same, and retains its semblance even in trite, familiar, and everyday expressions. And if his master do now and then require something of rant and noise, he doth but (like a skilful flutist) set open all the holes of his pipe, and their presently stop them again with good decorum and restore the tune to its natural state. And though there be a great number of excellent artists of all professions, yet never did any shoemaker make the same sort of shoe, or tireman the same sort of visor, or tailor the same sort of garment, to fit a man, a woman, a child, an old man, and a slave. But Menander hath so addressed his style, as to proportion it to every sex, condition, and age; and this, though he took the business in hand when he was very young, and died in the vigor of his composition and action, when, as Aristotle tells us, authors receive most and greatest improvement in their styles. If a man shall then compare the middle and last with the first of Menander’s plays, he will by them easily conceive what others he would have added to them, had he had but longer life.

He adds further, that of dramatic exhibitors, some address themselves to the crowd and populace, and others again to a few; but it is a hard matter to say which of them all knew what was befitting in both the kinds. But Aristophanes is neither grateful to the vulgar, nor tolerable to the wise; but it fares with his poesy as it doth with a courtesan who, when she finds she is now stricken and past her prime, counterfeits a sober matron, and then the vulgar cannot endure her affectation, and the better sort abominate her lewdness and wicked nature. But Menander hath with his charms shown himself every way sufficient for satisfaction, being the sole lecture, argument, and dispute at theatres, schools, and at tables; hereby rendering his poesy the most universal ornament that was ever produced by Greece, and showing what and how extraordinary his ability in language was, while he passes every way with an irresistible persuasion, and gains every man’s ear and understanding who has any knowledge of the Greek tongue. And for what other reason in truth should a man of parts and erudition be at the pains to frequent the theatre, but for the sake of Menander only? And when are the playhouses better filled with men of letters, than when his comic mask is exhibited? And at private entertainments among friends, for whom doth the table more justly make room or Bacchus give place than for Menander? To philosophers also and hard students (as painters are wont, when they have tired out their eyes at their work, to divert them to certain florid and green colors) Menander is a repose from their auditors and intense thinkings, and entertains their minds with gay shady meadows refreshed with cool and gentle breezes.

He adds, moreover, that though this city breeds at this time very many and excellent representers of comedy, Menander’s plays participate of a plenteous and divine salt, as though they were made of the very sea out of which Venus herself sprang. But that of Aristophanes is harsh and coarse, and hath in it an angry and biting sharpness. And for my part I cannot tell where his so much boasted ability lies, whether in his style or persons. The parts he acts I am sure are quite overacted and depraved. His knave (for instance) is not fine, but dirty; his peasant is not assured, but stupid; his droll is not jocose, but ridiculous; and his lover is not gay, but lewd. So that to me the man seems not to have written his poesy for any temperate person, but to have intended his smut and obscenity for the debauched and lewd, his invective and satire for the malicious and ill-humored.

Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24