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Give Me a Bit of Paratragedy: Strattis’ Phoenician Women

Matthew C. Farmer

Strattis’ comedy Phoenician Women was a spectacular Euripidean parody including Dionysus as a deus ex machina complaining of being dragged on stage yet again to solve other people’s problems, Jocaste simultaneously delivering cooking advice to her sons and encapsulating the art of Old Comic parody, obscene jokes about the Boeotian dialect, and the first extant use of the word “paratragedy.” In this paper I use Phoenician Women to explore the parodic practices of Strattis, a younger contemporary of Aristophanes who presented himself as an expert in Euripidean poetry.

Paratragedy has been an energetic field of Old Comic criticism for half a century (Rau, Silk, Dobrov, Telò, Ruffell), with important contributions in recent years beginning to expand our understanding of tragic parody beyond the intact plays of Aristophanes and into the comic fragments (Zanetto, Bakola, Wright). Strattis has started to attract attention in the form of commentaries and articles (Braund, Miles, Orth, Fiorentini), but the focus of this work has primarily been to establish the texts of his fragments and to reconstruct the plots of his plays. Despite the relatively meager remains of his poetry (fewer than one hundred fragments survive), I argue in this paper that we can glean from this evidence elements of Strattis’ poetics. Strattis’ oeuvre was focused particularly on parody of Euripides, more so even than Aristophanes’, and so Strattis should take pride of place in our efforts to understand tragic parody as a genre-wide practice in Old Comedy.

The fragments of Strattis’ Phoenician Women contain clear indications that the play was constructed as a parody of Euripides’ tragedy of the same name; although no such plays survive intact, titles and fragments of works by Strattis, Aristophanes, and others indicate that a number of comedies in the fifth century were written as parodies of specific, individual tragic models. In this presentation I will demonstrate that Strattis engaged with his Euripidean model in Phoenician Women as a subtle, expert reader of Euripides. Strattis takes the implicit presence of Dionysus in the choral odes of the tragic Phoenissae, for example, and makes it literal by including Dionysus as a character in his comedy. Strattis’ Dionysus complains of how often he’s forced to play of the role of deus ex machina, quoting Euripides’ Hypsipyle as he “dangles on the crane like a fig on a branch.” Strattis thus reveals the climactic epiphanies of Euripides’ tragedies as a mannerism; by inserting such a Euripidean moment into his parody of a tragedy that did not originally include a deus ex machina, Strattis thus makes his parodic revision of Phoenician Women even more Euripidean than its model.

The word “paratragedy” appears for the first time in the extant Greek corpus in the fragments of this play. This suggests a level of self-conscious reflection on the art of parody which, I argue, is also implicit in the other fragments of the comedy. This reading of Strattis’ Phoenician Women shows us a master parodist at work, and expands our understanding of paratragedy and of the role such parody played in the formation of the tragic canon beyond the plays of Aristophanes.

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Politics and Parody in Old Comedy

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