Drama and dramatic performances have consistently been present throughout human society, both as a medium for entertainment as well as a forum for education and critique. Aristophanes, the “father of modern drama”, was the first to really successfully amalgamate these two ideas together within his dramatic pieces, as can be seen in his works Wasps and Frogs. Shakespeare was the next great dramatist, and arguably the great dramatist, and he has evolved Aristophanes’ ideas and methods and developed them to greater extent.
These can be seen in works such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, King Lear and Hamlet, but are present in the large majority of his works. And with the invention of cinema and eventually television, drama diversified so drastically that the different forms of drama vary an astonishing amount. But even within modern comedies, such as Bro’town, South Park and Blackadder, we still find elements of the Aristophanaic drama. Aristophanes and Shakespeare: Both Aristophanes and Shakespeare used conventions common to comedy to entertain the audience, and sometimes even used them to convey serious messages.
Both were great fans of the Poneros, or loveable rogue: In Wasps, Aristophanes uses Philocleon to great effect, as while he is essentially the antagonist, the wrong-doer in the play, the audience is drawn to his dim charm and his incessant escape attempts. For example, when he attempts to escape Bdelycleons clutches, he first attempts to climb out the chimney as “a puff of smoke”, and then by clinging to the underside of a donkey, with his head in its rear.
When Philocleon declares himself “No-man”, the amalgamation of visual humour (Philocleon’s head up the asses behind), parody (the hiding underneath/inside the donkey parodies the escape Odysseus and his men made, avoiding the Cyclops by hiding underneath a flock of rams; and the use of “no-man” parallels the name Odyssseus gave to the Cyclops) and our Poneros Philocleon would have had the audience in stiches. Much like Shakespeare, who in A Midsummer Night’s Dream crafts Bottom to the same effect. A loud, energetic character, Bottom is very much a more modern Philocleon.
He spends much of his time on stage with an asses head (the donkey is obviously a common comedic device), which becomes very amusing when Puck causes the fairy queen Titania to fall head over heels in love with him. And during the mechanical’s play Pyramus and Thisbe, Bottom overacts the part of Pyramus so much that it takes him minutes to deliver his dying speech. Like Aristophanes, Shakespeare has cleverly combined the humour devices of hyperbole (Bottom overacting Pyramus) with caricature (The mechanicals awful imitation of a respectable story) and again our loveable rogue, Bottom, to create humour within the play.
This is exemplified with his line: “I see a voice: now will I to the chink, To spy an I can hear my Thisby’s face. ” But both Aristophanes and Shakespeare used their plays for a much more serious purpose; as highlighted in Aristophanes’ Frogs: “We chorus folk (and thus the playwright, for in the parabasis the chorus speak the thought of the writer) two privileges prize; to amuse you, citizens, and to advise. ” And both of these magnificent playwrights do advise, educate and critique, though to serve a different purpose according to the customs of their societies.
In Aristophanes’ times, playwrights were seen as the educators of the adults: children had tutors and adult had playwrights. So each of Aristophanes’ works aims to enlighten the audience, to teach them something new or advise them on a current issue. This can be seen in both Wasps and Frogs: In Wasps Aristophanes shows the Athenian people the truth about their demagogue Cleon, whom Aristophanes describes as a “rapacious-looking creature with a figure like a whale and a voice like a scalded sow. He criticises Athens for her following and support for Cleon, and reveals to the audience the extent of his corruption in the Comic Episodes, the Trial of the Dog. Here the First Dog, representative of Cleon, is accusing Laches not of having “siciliating” (embezzling) cheese (money) but of not having given the first dog his fair share. “How can anyone claim to be serving your interests if I, the Dog, am not given my fair share? ” says the first dog.
Aristophanes uses the character of the dog to highlight the corruption of Cleon and how he has his fingers in all of the proverbial pies. He also uses the parabasis to criticise the jurymen of Athens, comparing the jurymen to wasps and highlighting to the Athenians how the jurymen are prone to harsh sentencing and unjust treatment of the accused: “if you haven’t got a sting, you get no jury fee. ” The entire play is Aristophanes’ comments on the corruption of the jurymen, and their exploitation by the demagogue Cleon. Philocleon personifies the elf-interested, corrupt jurymen, who are taking incentives from Cleon (an increased pay) to judge harshly and sentence even more so. Cleon was using these trials to gain public appraisal as a seeker of justice, of course at the expense of the accused, which had been treated with an injustice by the jurymen eager to get their pay. Thus Aristophanes is enlightening the audience about the nature of their jury system, and is appealing to them to fix it. Likewise, Shakespeare addresses the issue of corruption within his play Hamlet.
While not drawn from a real life example (at least, not one that is known), he uses the character of Claudius to represent the corruption. Now in Shakespeare’s time there was a very strong belief system relating to a divine order, known as the Chain of Being. The Chain of Being was God’s set hierarchy for earth, with himself at the top, and passing through angels, humans and animals all the way down to minerals. Within the human category there were multiple sub-levels; the highest one could climb was King or Queen, then came nobles, then merchants, and so forth.
Men were above women in the household, and thus the order was established. The regent was seen as Gods representative on earth, chosen by divine order. To upset the divine order was in defiance of god himself, and thus in itself a sin. So when Claudius takes the throne by killing the true regent, he upsets the established order within Denmark. Thus the entire Kingdom of Denmark is corrupt, for it is ruled by an unrighteous leader. So Hamlet’s remark: “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark” was completely accurate: it was the state herself.
Until the rightful leader assumes power within Denmark, she will be subject to bad luck and tragedy, which occurs through the death of all those involved with Claudius bar Horatio, who is the only one spared. And the audience would have reacted accordingly as well: They would have recognised that Claudius had broken the Divine Chain, and thus immediately become sympathetic towards Hamlet, who aims to right the wrongs committed by Claudius and resume the Status Quo. Even though throughout the play Hamlet feigns madness, kills nobles and drive a woman mad, this would have been seen as a necessary evil in order to correct Claudius’s folly.
Thus Shakespeare’s comments to society are as follows: we cannot function as a society if those who are leading us are false and corrupt. While this was not in any way directed at his regent of the time; If Shakespeare had indeed directed this at Elizabeth, he would have probably lost his head for questioning the very divine power he is commenting on; it was still a warning to the people of his time that they should be careful of whom steps in to follow the queens footsteps, especially since they will not be from the direct lineage of the “virgin” queen.
In a way both playwrights are commenting on the same thing: that a state cannot function with a corrupt leader as its figurehead, be it an unrighteous regent or a dishonest demagogue. Corruption is undoubtedly ever-present in any society with a leader and those who seek to influence them, and thus the idea of corruption is a timeless one that can be found in a plethora of texts, including Aristophanaic and Shakespearean texts. It is also a rather exciting topic, and one that creates good drama, and is popular within dramatic forums as it keeps the audience interested.
Aristophanes and Modern Comedy: Aristophanes was the first to really define the comedic genre, and his influence can be felt across many modern comedic texts. As described above, he enjoyed using the character of the poneros, one which has repeatedly surfaced throughout Modern texts. Characters like Dr House or the Joker, or even Shrek exemplify the nature of the character archetype which Aristophanes coined with characters like Philocleon. Another modern example of the poneros is the character of Blackadder, portrayed by Rowan Atkinson.
For example, in the episode Amy and Amiability, Blackadder acts as the middle man between Prince George and Amy Hardwood in order to work himself out of financial debt. Blackadder’s sarcastic tone and manipulation of the Prince instantly wins over the audience, and even though he performs acts that were completely unacceptable for the time period he is set in, such as re-writing the dictation of the Princes letter, the ridicule of the action appeals to a modern audience, and thus much like Philocleon the audience becomes enamoured with the character.
And like Aristophanes, Ben Elton and Richard Curtis who wrote the episode have used sources for their jokes which are directed specifically at their target audience. For example, when Baldrick asks Blackadder if he is becoming a highwayman, Blackadder responds with: “No, I’m auditioning for the role of Arnold the Bat in Sheridan’s new comedy! ” referring to the contemporary comic Richard Sheridan, with whom the British Public would have been familiar and thus would have found funny, whereas an audience from outside of the England would have not understood he reference.
The similarities in humour devices used can be attributed to the fact that humour never changes; it is something that is inherent to the human psyche and thus is a timeless feature of drama, as the same jokes will appeal throughout the ages. Thus even within a modern context, such as the characters of Dr House or the Joker, we sympathise with them and enjoy them as characters, because they provide us with a humorous point of view, and they satisfy our guilty pleasure of wanting to be bad, act out or be a little naughty.
These archetypes remain constant throughout comedy, and we can attribute this character to Aristophanes. But the serious messages that Aristophanes touched on in his plays are also present within modern comedic texts. For example, both Aristophanes and the writers of Blackadder comment on their discontent with leadership. In Frogs, Aristophanes uses the extended the image of the currency of Athens to criticize the choice of leadership in Athens.
In the parabasis , Aristophanes writes: “This city treats her soundest men by a coincidence more sad than funny; its very like how we treat her money. The noble silver drachma, which of old we were so proud of, and the one of gold, coins that rang true, clean stamped and worth their weight, throughout the world have ceased to circulate. Instead the purses of Athenian shoppers are full of phony silver-plated coppers. Just so, when men are needed by the nation, the best have been withdrawn from circulation.
Men of good birth and breeding, men of parts, well-schooled in wrestling and the gentler arts, these we abuse, and look instead to knaves, upstarts, nonentities, foreigners and slaves” The silver coins are representative of the leaders of old, who Aristophanes sees as the leaders best suited to pull Athens out of the dire situation she is in. Like the silver drachma, the old leaders who had their citizenships stripped after the Oligarchic Coup was reversed in 410 BC have been kept from returning to lead Athens through the Peloponnesian war.
The lack of appropriate leaders has resulted, in Aristophanes’ eyes, in the appointment of under-par leaders, who have allowed Athens to descend into the shambles that is now present. He argues that Athens should return these former leaders to their rightful positions, in order to ensure Athens best chance at success in the War against Sparta. One of the leaders he suggests should return is the exiled Alcibiades; Aristophanes favours the leaders of old over the current ones and thinks that Alcibiades could greatly aid Athens.
The reference to Alcibiades has to be done subtly within his text, as he was a touchy subject and still had many rivals within Athens. But when the Chorus leader says: “When we have been so wise, it seems a pity that men of our own kin, who’ve served the city in many naval battles-not just one- should still be paying for this thing they’ve done,” while this could be referring to the generals banished after the Oligarchic Coup of 411, the ostracism of Alcibiades, who was a hero to many Athenians. Alcibiades had been a prominent force in Athenian politics, but had fled to the Spartans when his political enemies accused him of sacrilege.
He moved between Sparta and Persia, depending on whoever he aligned himself with, and was known as an excellent orator and general. He was also known for using unconventional tactics in warfare, winning cities through treachery or negotiation rather than typical warfare. Aristophanes recognised this, and thus sought to bring him back to Athens and reinstate him as a general. The topic of Alcibiades would have been fresh in the minds of the Athenians, and thus merely alluding to it would have brought back that memory.
Thus through his parabasis Aristophanes shows his discontent with the authorities that be, and educates his audience in a possible solution. Like Aristophanes, Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, the writers of Blackadder, have integrated the theme of the discontent with authority into their works. In the final Blackadder episode, Goodbyeee, Blackadder, Baldrick and George all find themselves on the Western Front of the British Army in World War I. The news has arrived that they are to advance over the top of the trenches, an order given by a General who is safely stowed away at the rear of the front.
Blackadder is discontent with this, and makes various remarks about the absurdness of the orders and the disparity in who are going over, such as: “Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin. ” Blackadder felt it absurd that soldiers were being sent to their certain deaths while General Melchett stays safely in the trenches. This was a sentiment shared by many after the war, as the gigantic losses accumulated by both sides were dealt with back at home.
In other modern portrayals such as Galllipoli, the Mel Gibson film, the reality of the decimation that was faced by the Allied Forces as decided by superiors was highly criticised, and remains one of the darker patches of Western History. This criticism of leadership is present in Aristophanes as well as modern comedy, and can be attributed to the fact that no matter how good a leader one is, there will always be those who can find fault with them. And there will always be good leaders and bad leaders, and it is society’s job to criticise the bad ones so that future leaders don’t make the same mistakes the bad ones did.
It holds future leaders accountable for any mistakes they make, and maintains the democracy both our modern society and the Ancient Greek society held so dearly Conclusion: As highlighted in the report above, Aristophanes has had a significant impact on subsequent drama and comedy, as both his humour devices and serious themes have been replicated in both Shakespearean texts and in modern comedies. He was truly a pioneer of comedy, and fully deserves the name of the “father of modern comedy”.
Courtney from Study Moose
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