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Mimesis as Metamorphosis in Aristophanes' Acharnians

Zachary P Borst

University of California, Los Angeles

In this paper I argue that Aristophanes stages different perspectives on mimesis in the Acharnians, revealing a concerted interest in theorizing mimesis as metamorphosis. Aristophanes first depicts mimesis as a change in appearance effected through costume (e.g. Cleisthenes “dressed as a eunuch”; εὐνοῦχος ἐσκευασμένος, Ach. 121), but I argue that mimesis is treated as a metamorphic process that ultimately affects a person’s being. I focus on a metatheatrical scene in which the protagonist Dicaeopolis disguises himself as the titular character from Euripides’ tragedy Telephus. I argue that Aristophanes introduces themes of appearance and being as well as a vocabulary of metamorphic mimesis in the Acharnians that we can trace through his later work, such as Thesmophoriazusae, Frogs, and Ecclesiazusae.

Previous scholarly discussions of the Acharnians have noted that Dicaeopolis’ beggar costume produces a comic effect for the external audience while also enabling him to be taken seriously within the action of the play (Lada 1993; Rosen 2005). My paper complicates this view by showing how Dicaeopolis changes over time into the beggar character. I argue that Aristophanes’ attention to the processual nature of this on-stage transformation reveals a preoccupation with working through mimesis as metamorphosis, not merely as a form of disguise. Gwendolyn Compton-Engle has shown how Dicaeopolis, unlike other characters in Aristophanes (e.g. Euripides’ Kinsman in Thesmophoriazusae), possesses a “mastery” over costume, as he succeeds in obtaining a separate peace with his beggar disguise (2003). This view implies that Dicaeopolis’ costume lacks agency, yet his insistence that it provides mere appearance belies an awareness that he may be transformed: “For I have to seem to be a beggar today. I must be who I am, but not appear so” (δεῖ γάρ με δόξαι πτωχὸν εἶναι τήμερον, / εἶναι μὲν ὅσπερ εἰμί, φαίνεσθαι δὲ μή, Ach. 440-41).

My reading of the Acharnians builds upon recent classical scholarship on the materiality of aesthetic experience and drama in ancient Greece (Porter 2010; Telò 2016; Mueller 2016). I show that Dicaeopolis first exhibits an essentialist notion of identity—he’s emphatic that he can remain himself while in costume (“I must be who I am”)—but material objects, such as costumes and props, ultimately transform his character. Dicaeopolis himself suggests that the acquisition of different attributes has changed him when he asks the audience, who know he is in costume, to forgive him for being a beggar rather than appearing to be one (“If being a beggar”; εἰ πτωχὸς ὤν, Ach. 498). I claim that Aristophanes uses the verb εἰμί (in this passage and elsewhere) to mark the end result of Dicaeopolis’ on-stage transformation, exemplifying how Aristophanes’ depiction of mimesis thematizes metamorphosis and being. My paper models a novel approach to this famous scene from the Acharnians, and if time allows, I will give examples from Aristophanes’ later work in order to show a continuity in the themes and vocabulary surrounding mimesis.

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Greek Comedy

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