Models and Memory in the Comedy of Menander


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

In The Winter's Tale Shakespeare has combined the two traditions which descended from Menander, pastoral romance and New Comedy, and has consequently come very close to Menandrine formulas as we have them in such a play as Epitrepontes. -Northrop Frye, Fables of Identity

A reader today would not know from Frye's confident invocation that, at the time he was writing, very little of Epitrepontes or any other Menandrean play was available to support these generalizations. New Comedy still remained, for the most part, a lost genre. It had indeed been a dramatic form of immense popularity and influence. Plays in its style were performed throughout the Hellenistic world and were read with pleasure until well into the Christian era. Figures sporting its masks and costumes adorned the knick-knack shelves of antiquity; painted scenes from its stage decorated the houses of the rich. Adaptations by the Roman dramatists Plautus and Terence-and through them by modern writers as diverse as Goldoni and Moliere, Shakespeare and Wilde-testified to the enduring appeal of its comic formulations and kept the tradition before us. Authentic Greek New Comedy was nevertheless little more than a memory until texts of Menander, its greatest practitioner, began emerging from the sands of Egypt. Remains of a papyrus anthology of Menandrean plays came to light in the years before World War I; Frye in 1962 had one complete play and only two significant fragments to consider.1 There was then something close to a flood of discoveries in the 1960's, and bits and pieces still tum up from time to time. Literary critics now have ample material to study-the Oxford Greek text of Menander, recently revised and augmented, runs to well over three hundred pages-and we can now recognize with precision what many of the "Menandrine formulas" really were. (Frye's sense of the conventions is not, as it turns out, entirely on the mark.) Nevertheless, though the rediscovery of so much Menander has vastly deepened our knowledge of New Comedy's style and form, a vexing question of literary history remains largely unexamined: How did fourth century Athens come to produce such an art form?

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