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Innovation and Intertextuality in Greek Mythological Comedy

Dustin W. Dixon

Grinnell College

Greek mythological comedy often entangles audiences in an interpretive double bind. While comedians often acknowledged a debt to poetic predecessors by parodying them, they, at the same time, projected an aggressive posture of innovation. This paper explores this tension between, on the one hand, revisiting a mythological tradition that traced back to Homer, and, on the other hand, emphasizing the originality of their literary endeavors. 

Parody has often been interpreted as signaling intricate reworkings of tragic plots to appropriate tragedy’s prestige (on this point, Taplin is seminal). This paper, however, offers a reading of how parody in mythological plays maximizes intertextual gaps, to borrow a phrase from Briggs and Bauman, from tragedy. I argue that tragic parody draws attention to the craft of innovation itself and thus positions comedy as a nimble genre that could better serve the needs and appeal to the interests of audiences. 

This argument is grounded in case studies of two fragments. Antiphanes fr. 189, from a comedy called Poetry (4th century BCE), presents a humorously reductive understanding of the differences between the two genres. The speaker claims that comedians must invent everything whereas tragedians rely so extensively on tradition that, as soon as a character is mentioned, the plots are known by the spectators (οἱ λόγοι / ὑπὸ τῶν θεατῶν εἰϲιν ἐγνωριϲμένοι, 2-3). This fragment echoes but explicitly contradicts Aristotle’s claim that even familiar myths are familiar only to few people (καὶ τὰ γνώριμα ὀλίγοις γνώριμά ἐστιν, Poetics 1451b). As Konstantakos’ commentary points out, Antiphanes, who wrote a number of mythological plays himself, has constructed a strawman, but this fragments shows how comedians sought to highlight their own genre’s innovation by depicting the tragedians as fossils relying on hackneyed plots. 

Antiphanes’ fragment makes the argument in a heavy-handed way, but it usefully sets up the second case study: a more complicated example of intertextuality in Cratinus’ Wealth Gods (429 BCE), a play which depicted a chorus of Wealth Gods recently released from prison and coming to prosecute the unjustly wealthy citizens of Athens. This play is paradigmatic of the dialectic of tradition and innovation found throughout the mythological comedies. Fr. 171 extensively parodies Aeschylus’ Eumenidesand Prometheus Bound, but it also features a number of mythological innovations, including the idiosyncratic identification of Wealth Gods as Titans. While Bakola suggests that Cratinus has used tragic parody to draw on the cultural prestige of tragedy, I argue that the parody highlights the originality of the persona he has constructed for the Wealth Gods. For example, echoes of the trial scene in Aeschylus’ Eumenides alongside Cratinus’ mythological innovation serve, as in Antiphanes fr. 189, to define both genres in opposition to one another:whereas tragedy lumbers from the past, comedy’s innovative verve can keep pace with the brisk and frenetic charge of the present.

My paper engages long-standing debates about comedy’s critical stance towards tragedy (cf., e.g., Bakola, Silk, Zeitlin), recently renewed by two monographs (Farmer and Sells) which include significant discussion of fragments. My conclusions echo those of Sells, who argues that Aristophanes and his colleagues appropriated other genres in order to position comedy as the preeminent genre of contemporary political, cultural, and artistic discourses, but by focusing on mythological innovation, I expand on important work (e.g., Bowie, Casolari, Nesselrath) on the large number of fragments treating mythological subjects. These fragments are crucial for understanding a vibrant type of Greek comedy not represented by the extant plays of Aristophanes and Menander.

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Greek and Latin Comedy

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