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Detail, side A from a Silician red-figured calyx-krater (c. 350 BC–340 BC).

Ancient Greek comedy was one of three principal dramatic forms in the theatre of classical Greece (the others being tragedy and the satyr play). Athenian comedy is conventionally divided into three periods, Old Comedy, Middle Comedy, and New Comedy. Old Comedy survives today largely in the form of the eleven surviving plays of Aristophanes, while Middle Comedy is largely lost, i.e. preserved only in relatively short fragments in authors such as Athenaeus of Naucratis. New Comedy is known primarily from the substantial papyrus fragments of Menander. The philosopher Aristotle wrote in his Poetics (c. 335 BC) that comedy is a representation of laughable people and involves some kind of blunder or ugliness which does not cause pain or disaster.[1] C. A. Trypanis wrote that comedy is the last of the great species of poetry Greece gave to the world.[2]



The comedies were performed in Athens in formal competitions at two major festivals in honour of Dionysos, the god of wine and fertility. Each festival seems to have featured five comic poets staging a single play apiece, although it is possible that programs were reduced to three poets for a period due to the financial pressures of the Peloponnesian War. Poets applied to the archon in charge of the relevant festival for the right to participate in it. If chosen, they were awarded a choregos, i.e. a wealthy man who funded the performance, acting like a modern theatrical producer.

Playwrights sometimes re-wrote their plays, producing new versions to compete at the competitions.[3]


The Alexandrian grammarians, and most likely Aristophanes of Byzantium in particular, seem to have been the first to divide Greek comedy into what became the canonical three periods:[4] Old Comedy (archàia), Middle Comedy (mese) and New Comedy (nea). These divisions appear to be largely arbitrary, and ancient comedy almost certainly developed constantly over the years.


Old Comedy (archàia)

The earliest Athenian comedy, from the 480s to 440s BC, is almost entirely lost. The most important poets of the period were Magnes, whose work survives only in a few fragments of dubious authenticity, and Cratinus, who took the prize at the City Dionysia probably sometime around 450 BC. Although no complete plays by Cratinus are preserved, they are known through hundreds of fragments.

For modern readers, the most important Old Comic dramatist is Aristophanes, whose works, with their pungent political satire and abundance of sexual and scatological innuendo, effectively define the genre today. Aristophanes lampooned the most important personalities and institutions of his day, as can be seen, for example, in his buffoonish portrayal of Socrates in The Clouds, and in sexual and political farce Lysistrata. It is nonetheless important to realize that he was only one of a large number of comic poets working in Athens in the late 5th century, his most important contemporary rival being Eupolis.

The Old Comedy subsequently influenced later European writers such as Rabelais, Cervantes, Swift, and Voltaire. In particular, they copied the technique of disguising a political attack as buffoonery. The legacy of Old Comedy can be seen today in political satires such as Dr. Strangelove and in the televised buffoonery of Monty Python and Saturday Night Live.[5]

Middle Comedy (mese)

The line between Old and Middle Comedy is not clearly marked chronologically, Aristophanes and others of the latest writers of the Old Comedy being sometimes regarded as the earliest Middle Comic poets. For ancient scholars, the term may have meant little more than "later than Aristophanes and his contemporaries, but earlier than Menander". Middle Comedy is generally seen as differing from Old Comedy in three essential particulars: the role of the chorus was diminished to the point where it had no influence on the plot; public characters were not impersonated or personified onstage; and the objects of ridicule were general rather than personal, literary rather than political. For at least a time, mythological burlesque was popular among the Middle Comic poets. Stock characters of all sorts also emerge: courtesans, parasites, revellers, philosophers, boastful soldiers, and especially the self-conceited cook with his parade of culinary science

Because no complete Middle Comic plays have been preserved, it is impossible to offer any real assessment of their literary value or "genius". But many Middle Comic plays appear to have been revived in Sicily and Magna Graecia in this period, suggesting that they had considerable widespread literary and social appeal.

New Comedy (nea)

The new comedy lasted throughout the reign of the Macedonian rulers, ending about 260 BC.

Actor wearing the mask of a bald-headed man, 2nd century BC.

Substantial fragments of New Comedy have survived, but no complete plays. The most substantially preserved text is the Dyskolos ("Difficult Man, Grouch") by Menander, discovered on a papyrus in 1958. The so-called "Cairo Codex" (found in 1907) also preserves long sections of plays as Epitrepontes ("Men at Arbitration"), The Girl from Samos, and Perikeiromene ("The Girl who had her Hair Shorn"). Much of the rest of our knowledge of New Comedy is derived from the Latin adaptations by Plautus and Terence.

For the first time love became a principal element in the drama. The New Comedy relied on stock characters such as the senex iratus, or "angry old man," the domineering parent who tries to thwart his son or daughter from achieving wedded happiness, and who is often led into the same vices and follies for which he has reproved his children, and the bragging soldier newly returned from war with a noisy tongue, a full purse and an empty head. The new comedy depicted Athenian society and the social morality of the period, presenting it in attractive colors but making no attempt to criticize or improve it.

The New Comedy influenced much of Western European literature, in particular the comic drama of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, Congreve and Wycherley[6].

Much of contemporary romantic and situational comedy descends from the New Comedy sensibility, in particular generational comedies such as All in the Family and Meet the Parents.[5]


Some dramatists overlap into more than one period.

Old Comedy

Middle Comedy

New Comedy

  • Philippides[15], 335 BC, 301 BC
  • Philemon of Soli or Syracuse (~362–262 BC)
  • Menander (~342–291 BC)
  • Apollodorus of Carystus (~300-260 BC)
  • Diphilus of Sinope (~340-290 BC)
  • Euphron[16]
  • Dionysius, after Archestratus
  • Theophilus, comtempoary with Callimedon
  • Sosippus, comtempoary with Diphillus
  • Anaxippus, 303 BC
  • Demetrius, 299 BC
  • Archedicus, 302 BC
  • Sopater, 282 BC
  • Hegesippus
  • Plato Junior
  • Theognetus
  • Bathon
  • Diodorus
  • Machon of Corinth/Alexandria 3rd c. BC
  • Poseidippus of Cassandreia (~316–250 BC)
  • Laines or Laenes 185 BC
  • Philemon 183 BC
  • Chairion or Chaerion 154 BC

See also


  1. ^ Aristotle, Poetics, line 1449a: "Comedy, as we have said, is a representation of inferior people, not indeed in the full sense of the word bad, but the laughable is a species of the base or ugly. It consists in some blunder or ugliness that does not cause pain or disaster, an obvious example being the comic mask which is ugly and distorted but not painful."
  2. ^ Cf. Trypanis, Greek Poetry from Homer to Seferis, Chapter 4, p.201
  3. ^ Csapo and Slater (1993, 5-6). Aristophanes' The Clouds survives in a revised version that dates from c. 420-417 BC (which was probably not performed), while its first version was produced at the City Dionysia in 423 BCE. Writing in the 2nd century CE in his Commentary on Hippocrates' Regimen in Acute Diseases, Galen offers the example of Eupolis's comedy Autolycus, the first version of which was produced c. 420 BCE, while its second version was performed c. 418 BC.
  4. ^ Mastromarco (1994) p.12
  5. ^ a b Seth Lerer, Comedy through the Ages (recorded lecture series), Springfield, Virginia: The Teaching Company, 2000.
  6. ^ The Drama: Its History, Literature and Influence on Civilization, vol. 1. ed. Alfred Bates. London: Historical Publishing Company, 1906. pp. 30-31.
  7. ^ See [1].
  8. ^ Won a second prize with his Κουνος in 423 BC and wona first prize in 414 BC with his Κωμασται. See [2].
  9. ^ See [3].
  10. ^ See [4].
  11. ^ See [5].
  12. ^ See [6].
  13. ^ See [7]
  14. ^ Wrote two plays, Συντροφοι and Εαυτον πενθων. Athenaeus quotes one long fragment from the former and one short fragment from the latter. He is comtempoary with Epicurus, who mentions him. See [8].
  15. ^ See [9]
  16. ^ See [10]


  • Brown, Andrew. 1998. "Ancient Greece." In The Cambridge Guide to Theatre. Ed. Martin Banham. Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 441-447. ISBN 0521434378.
  • Brockett, Oscar G. and Franklin J. Hildy. 2003. History of the Theatre. Ninth edition, International edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0205410502.
  • Carlson, Marvin. 1993. Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present. Expanded ed. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801481546.
  • Csapo, Eric, and William J. Slater. 1994. The Context of Ancient Drama. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P. ISBN 0472082752.
  • Freund, Philip. 2003. The Birth of Theatre. Illustrated ed. Vol 1. of Stage by Stage. London: Peter Owen. ISBN 9780720611670.
  • Janko, Richard, trans. 1987. Poetics with Tractatus Coislinianus, Reconstruction of Poetics II and the Fragments of the On Poets. By Aristotle. Cambridge: Hackett. ISBN 0872200337.
  • Ley, Graham. 2006. A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater. Rev. ed. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P. ISBN 0226477614.
  • Olson, S. Douglas, ed. 2007. Broken Laughter: Select Fragments of Greek Comedy. Oxford: Oxford UP. ISBN 9780199287857.
  • Taplin, Oliver. 1993. Comic Angels and Other Approaches to Greek Drama Through Vase-Painting. Oxford: Clarendon P. ISBN 019814797X.
  • Trypanis, Constantine Athanasius. 1981. Greek Poetry from Homer to Seferis. Chicago: U of Chicago P. ISBN 0226813169.

External links


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