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‘Clownish’ Figures in Aristophanes: Some Considerations on the Language of Aristophanes’ Criticism
MRIC 2009/10

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"‘Clownish’ Figures in Aristophanes: Some Considerations on the Language of Aristophanes’ Criticism"

November 10th 
Rosanna Lauriola - Classics, History
Abstract: One of the on-going debates on ancient Greek Literature is that pertaining to Aristophanes’ comedy. What is the aim of the invectives leveled against prominent members of 5th century Athenian society in a genre which is expected to make people laugh is the question most debated by scholars, when they ask whether Aristophanes is to be taken seriously in his attacks on the contemporary politicians (the demagogue Cleon and other corrupt leaders), on the tragic poet Euripides, on the rival comic playwrights, on the new intellectuals (the Sophists) and their fellows.

The debate has produced a polarized view, in that some scholars tend to see a complete identification of comedy and politics, others a complete divorce. Hence for some, Aristophanes’ comedy was intended to have a strong effect on the political and social status of Athens, by promoting a civic awareness of the surrounding reality, for others Aristophanes meant only to amuse and to grant, through his fantastic inventions, a means of evading reality by freeing the audience’s mind from pressure and anxiety. Similar polarized view is applied to the invectives Aristophanes expressed against the contemporary comic playwrights. Indeed, despite the variety of Aristophanes’ targets, scholars mostly tend to focus on politicians and comic playwrights, and they thus tend to discuss the issue of Aristophanes’ seriousness with reference to these categories of persons.

On the basis of some statements of the poet himself, whose voice is often recognizable as surfacing behind a character throughout the comedy, it actually seems that Aristophanes’ comedy is by purpose ‘serious-comic’(spoudaiogeloion), in that it aims not simply to provoke laughter; indeed it aims to promote in the citizens some kind of self-criticism and awareness through laughter. Thereby, the serious component of Aristophanes’ plays can be regarded as a pervasively embedded trait, inseparable from humor. Moreover, it concerns not only politicians and comic playwrights, but all the other persons whose actions are perceived by Aristophanes as responsible for the crisis of the contemporary Athens. One of the strategies that Aristophanes uses to realize a ‘serious-comic’ poetry is a subtle and witty use of specific terminology (lexicon) that consists of laughable (geloion) words, or, still better, words that are meant to provoke mere laughter only on the surface, while communicating serious concerns and criticism (spoudaion).

So far existing scholarship has emphasized a specific trait of Aristophanes’ lexicon, that is the occurrence of terms that the poet would used as catchwords to specifically address his criticism to circumscribed categories of persons that constitute his typical targets. Hence one can speak of a lexicon pertaining to Aristophanes’ literary criticism of the comic and tragic playwrights, or of a lexicon pertaining to his criticism of prominent figures of the polis’ administration, etc. Beside this undoubted trait of Aristophanes’ lexicon, there is, however, another trait that has received little attention: the use of the same kind of words to qualify, to the same degree, different categories of persons, words that are laughable on surface, yet able to communicate a precise serious criticism, which is always the same independently from the individual target.

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