Aristophanes: A Study

by Gilbert Murray
[Oxford University Press, $2.50]
THERE are many reasons why a study of Aristophanes by Mr. Gilbert Murray should be welcomed by a wider public than that of classical scholars alone. Revivals of the ancient comic poet in recent years, as well as the popularity of certain modern satires on public life, suggest, if not a general interest in Aristophanes himself, yet a state of mind peculiarly sympathetic to the dramatic form which came into being and throve in the atmosphere of free speech, political opportunity, and social change pervading Athens of the fifth century B.C. The dedication of the book to George Bernard Shaw marks the spirit in which it was written, and the author states in the preface what he considers the need of the modern world for a satirist as courageous yet as instantaneously popular as Aristophanes. Known chiefly through his charming short study and many translations of Euripides, Mr. Murray is singularly fitted to interpret the comic poet who, as the former’s critic, stands most closely associated with him.
To later generations the comedies of Aristophanes and his rivals presented inevitable difficulties because they dealt, however fantastically, with contemporary persons and policies, and a mass of commentary was included in the editions of the plays by the scholars of Alexandria. It is this topical nature of the so-called old Attic comedy which leads Mr. Murray to discuss the plays of Aristophanes singly, summarizing and often translating; for when each springs from the political or artistic movements of the year, often of the very months, in which it was composed, it is clear that, more than in the case of ancient tragedy, an understanding of the times is necessary to that of the plays. Mr. Murray, therefore, does not separately treat of Aristophanes as a poet or comedian or political theorist, — indeed, he could not in a study which pretends to be neither exhaustive nor final, — but attempts by analysis of the plays themselves to uncover the aim and method of their author; and if his style, interspersed with allusions, suffers, the reader is the better able to approach Aristophanes with sympathetic knowledge. Mr. Murray is at his best in distinguishing between the fiercer and the milder sallies of the poet, finding the causes of the former in his hatred of the leaders and policies of the extreme democracy, and those of the latter in a humorous prejudice, akin to liking, against the intellectual leaders of the time, Socrates and Euripides. Such interpretations give the book its charm; they are fresh and penetrating and, in many cases, carry strong conviction. The study which deals, from the first, with comedy as a vehicle of ideas and as a reflection of the times concludes fittingly with a most happy chapter on the later history of Attic comedy at the hands of Menander.