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Comedies of Aristophanes, viz. The Clouds, Plutus, The Frogs,
The Birds. Translated into English, with notes.
(We have already inserted an article on this work from one of the minor reviews
of Great Britain, and have likewise given a dissertation on Greek literature, from the Edinburgh Review. The following article, howerer, contains general remarks on the Greek stage, and is worthy of attention not merely as coming from so highly classical a source as the Quarterly Review, but from its being in a manner a rival dissertation to the one last mentioned.]
While the tragic writers of Greece have been cherished by us with an eagerness bordering on enthusiasm, the only perfect remains of that celebrated country, in the opposite walk of comedy, have been consigned to comparative neglect and obscurity. Tragedy, indeed, as speaking a more general language than comedy, and uttering much the same kind of sentiments, whether by the mouth of a Medea, or a Lady Macbeth, might naturally be expected to be more popular than her sister muse, whose allusions must necessarily be more local and confined; yet it still appears unaccountable, that a people, possessed with so decided a taste for bumour as the English, and keenly susceptible of personal VOL. III. New Series.
satire, should have done so little for an author, who yields to few writers either ancient or modern in both these qualifications.
More than three centuries have elapsed since the first edition of Aristophanes was printed; and during that period, the continent has produced a succession of commentators on his text: the Italians have made themselves masters of him by the translation (a very miserable one, we own) of the *Rositini, and the French by that of Poinsinet, while in England we have little more than the London edition of the Plutus and the Clouds, the Oxford edition of the Knights, the Acharnenses of Mr. Elmsley, enriched with the notes of Bentley, and different translations of one or other of the four plays, which are here collected. This is the more surprising, because the scholia on Aristophanes are reckoned among the most valuable of this species of writing; the poet himself too, we should think, presented a most inviting harvest to the philologist and the commentator: there were many words to be traced to their roots, many customs to be elucidated, many difficulties to be explained ; various passages to be restored; dialogues which had escaped from their right owner to be returned; verses out of number, which required the hand of a metrical Procrustes; and an abundance of those delicious passages, at which commentators are accused of running riot. Had no specimen of the Greek comedy come down to us, there are few things, we believe, which would have excited greater regret. The scenical representations of a nation present us with so lively and exact a picture of the people themselves, that we can scarcely be said to possess data sufficient for forming a decided opinion upon the character of any nation, unless we have the exhibitions of their stage, both serious and comic, to assist our judgment.
The eagerness with which the octavo edition of Brunck, unsatisfactory as it is, has been purchased, is a sufficient proof, that it is not from a defect of taste in this country that the works of Aristophanes have been so much more talked of than read, and so much more read than understood. That he will ever be very generally popular here, we cannot undertake to say. When the drama of a country is poor, they are frequently content to borrow amusement from their neighbour; the Roman was for a long time diverted with Athenian customs in Roman language, and the Frenchman laughed at Spanish phrases and habits which he scarcely understood: but when their own literature affords dramatists of the highest excellence, few people will feel much indulgence for the elementary exhibitions of a foreign nation. This locality,
The editor of Terucci's Italian translation of the Plutus and the Clouds says that the Rositini made their translation from a wretched transfusion of Aristophanes into Latin. We have no doubt that this was the case, for the translation itself is ut. terly unlike the original. Terucci has succeeded better, and his translation is enriched with some excellent notes.
which belongs so particularly to comedy and satire, must necessarily abate the relish of the unlearned reader for the writings of Aristophanes; and after every assistance, the difficulty of the ori- . ginal text must prove a great bar to all but finished scholars. Comic writers are the last authors to whom the student of a foreign language has recourse. There is necessarily so much idiom in them, the elliptic mode of speech is so continually recurring, and the transitions are so rapid, that the mind is startled at every turn, instead of sliding with ease into the subject, and catching the little niceties of the dialogue. A maxim in ethics does not lose its force while we are consulting Hederic or Scapula. Even the sublimer emotions, excited by the writings of Euripides and Pindar, are not so likely to evaporate, while we pause to ascertain the precise meaning of a word, or a phrase, as the lighter shades of feeling excited by comedy. To be consulting the scholiast, when we ought to be carried away by the wit and spirit of the dialogue; to be searching in Bisetus, or Geraldus, whether we may laugh " by authority," soon exhausts the patience and fatigues the imagination.
There is one thing, on which we are particularly anxious to put the reader upon his guard, who is not familiar with the Grecian stage, and that is, not to come to the perusal of these plays with English feelings and English ideas about him. If he come fresh from his own drama, and expect a similar exhibition in that of the Grecian poet; if he look for intricacy of plot, for gradual development of character, for a leading story with a subordinate one attached to it, which at the same time shall help forward the main story and form a relief to it; above all, if he look for the delineation of that universal passion, whose innumerable varieties of tenderness and gayety, of whim and caprice, it is the delight of modern comedy to exhibit, he will find himself sorely disappointed. He will meet with characters, marked, it is true, with strong humour, but exhibiting few lights and shades; he will find a story that has no intricacies in it; and for love-he will see but little of it indeed, and that little he will wish to have expunged. The correct refinement of modern times, the considering of love as a sentiment and not as an appetite, with all the light badinage and amiable gallantry which this feeling engenders, the "dolci durezze, e placide repulse,” were unknown to the ancients. Nothing, in fact, car be conceived more gross than the old comedy, as exhibited in Aristophanes and the small remains of his cotemporaries which have come down to us. The worst of things are called by the worst of names; and the meanest of our appetites and grossest of our necessities are perpetually called in to make sport for the audience, who, if we are to judge of them by those exhibitions, (and they certainly took a singular delight in them,) can have beex
little better than semibarbarians.* The plot of the Lysistrata turns upon a proposal so gross, that we shall not insult our readers with it; and though the effects of it upon the dramatis personæ are ludicrous in the extreme, the poet deserves no indulgence for his shameless and unparalleled effrontery. The marginal references of some of our old moralities, and even mysteries, are suffi-. ciently significant; but they are purity itself when compared with the licentiousness of the Athenian stage.
The grossness of the comic theatre of Greece forms a singular contrast with the gravity, the decorum, and the sustained elegance of the tragic poets of the same period; and we can scarcely conceive it possible that the same people who had listened with the warmest enthusiasm to the wild sublimities of Æschylus and the moral pathos of Euripides, could have not only endured, but encouraged and insisted upon the buffoonery and ribaldry of the comic writers. We can ascribe this depravity of taste to no cause so much as the little intercourse which subsisted between the two sexes, and the partial exclusion of women, that is, women of virtue, (for the restriction did not extend to the profligate part of the sex,) from entertainments of the theatre. Mr. Dunster has suggested, that the grossness of Aristophanes was merely an artifice, and that it served him as a sort of battery for making his assaults upon the vices of his countrymen with more effect. True, indeed, it is, that the higher the object which he has in view, and the greater the danger of bringing it before the audience, so much the lower frequently is the ribaldry to which he descends. When by the most ridiculous buffoonery he has put his audience entirely off their guard, then it is that he suddenly strikes the deadliest blow. To the better part of his audience his admonitions might have the ludicrous appearance of a Bacchus preaching sobriety from a tub; but to the vitious no reproof comes so home as that which they hear from persons who appear to think as little of virtue as themselves. After all, this post is scarcely tenable; the poet seems voluntarily to wallow in his filth; and if his muse is not an absolute prostitute, she at least seems always willing to meet the public half way.
Besides the embarrassments to which we have alluded, the unlearned reader will be encumbered with a new set of dramatis persona, called the chorus, whom he will find possessed of a most persevering attachment to the stage, never forsaking the performers, and diving into every thought, which is within the conception and intention of the actors. To add to this seeming absurdity, he will find this exalted post allotted to creatures of a very inferior situation in the comic poets; to Frogs, to Wasps, to
* We must not, however, conclude too generally. It is well known that the phi. losophers rarely frequented the comie theatres, and their example, no doubt, was followed by the more respectable part of the citizens.