Old Comedies Aristophanes' Clouds | The Comedies of Menander | Plautus's Pseudolus

Films The Comedies of Charlie Chaplin | Frank Capra's It Happened One Night | The Marx Brother's A Night at the Opera

The Comedies of Menander

Mosaic of Comic Mask

Old Cantankerous(Dyskolos), The Rape of the Locks(Perikeiromene)

Like Aristophanes, Menander also addresses the issues of class and status in his works. His reasons for this, however, are different. While Aristophanes uses the issues of class and status as a means of poking fun at the social structure and society of Athens, Menander uses them to make a statement about equality and the elements necessary in a democracy.
By Menander's time, the city of Athens was drastically different from the one Aristophanes had known. After the city's defeat by Sparta in 404 BCE, Athens became more cosmopolitan, with people from many different backgrounds and contacts all over the world. The focus shifted from the community of Athens to the individual, and as a result, the individual became more important. Soldiers became mercenary, the theater became a paid profession, unions were formed, and academies of learning and philosophy were established. The democracy became dependent on marriage between citizens with the procreation of legitimate children, and the government, although democracy in name, was actually more like a remote republic. The concept of class and status became much more of an individual focus.

Old Cantankerous (Dyskolos)

Lower-Working Class

Gorgias- This character is concerned about status and wealth because he doesn't have it.. Gorgias is a poor farmer, and when he first meets Sostratos, the son of a wealthy man, he gets defensive because Sostratos has never had to work for his living:

"In my view, all men, be they rich or poor, / eventually reach a point where their luck stops or changes. / . . . . Let me put it / this way: if you're well-endowed with worldly goods, don't rely / on them too much, and don't despise us because we're poor. Let / everyone see that you deserve your prosperity to last" (271-285).

Gorgias only accepts Sostratos after he has proven that he is able to work. It is only then that Gorgias is able to confidently give Sostratos his sister's hand in marriage saying,

KNEMON: He's [Sostratos] certainly been in the sun. A farmer, is he?
GORGIAS: Yes, and a good one, Father. He's not soft, not the kind that strolls idly round all day. (757-758)

As a working-class man, Gorgias does not feel that being a poor farmer is a bad way to live, but he does not want to be handed wealth either. He feels very uncomfortable taking and receiving various things from people. Gorgias is extremely reluctant to accept Kallippides' offer to marry his daughter saying,"I'd get no pleasure from living a soft life on the proceeds of /other people's hard work. I prefer what I've earned myself" (830-831). He does not do this because he feels that he is unworthy, it is just that he does not want to be handed the wealth, power, and status that comes with the marriage. He would prefer to gain wealth and status on his own. The fact that he ends accepting the offer of marriage, shows that he has begun to view status and wealth with a less prejudice eye.

Menander attempted to retaliate against this accepted form of "democracy", by focusing his plays on the relationship between people of different class and backgrounds. Love and marriage between people of different social classes was a means of promoting equality within the community, and thus form the foundations of a working democracy.

Working / Upper Class

Knemon and Sostratos-

Knemon seems to be of a working class. He is a farmer, who must work hard for his living: ". . . he persists in farming it [his farm] all by himself. He won't have any help - no farm servant, no locally hired / labour, no neighbor to lend a hand; just himself alone" (329-330). Sostratos and his family, on the other hand, are wealthy and upper-class: "There's a young man. His father's well-oft, farms a valuable / property here. The son's fashionable and lives in town, but he came out hunting with a sporting friend, and happened to come / here [the countryside]" (40-43). When Sostratos and Knemons' daughter fall in love, they represent a union of different classes and personal backgrounds. They are the means of uniting the urban with the rural, the rich with poor, and perhaps even the educated with the uneducated. This kind of unity was what Menander believed would establish a truly successful democracy in Athens.

The Rape of the Locks (Perikeiromene)

Citizen Status


Glykera can only marry as a citizen, and since she is believed to not have been freeborn, she must content herself with being Polemon's mistress, rather than his wife. Because of this, she is independent, and is able to leave Polemon when he falsely accuses her of having another lover and cuts off her hair:

PATAIKOS: Now, Polemon, if the sort of this you've been telling / me about had happened to your lawful wedded wife -
POLEMON: This is outrageous, Pataikos!
PATAIKOS: It does make a difference.
POLEMON: I regard her as my lawful, wedded wife.
PATAIKOS: No need to shout. Who 'gave away the bride'?
POLEMON: She did.
PATAIKOS: Quite so. Perhaps she liked you then, and doesn't / any longer. Now that you're not treating her properly, she's left.
POLEMON: Not treating her properly? Me? That hurts more than / anything you've said yet.
PATAIKOS: Oh, you're in love, I'm well aware of that. That's why / you're behaving so stupidly. But what are you trying to do? Who / are you trying to take by force? You have no legal standing, she's her own mistress. (486-496)

Polemon's marriage to Glykera-

Polemon himself is "a native-born Corinthian" (129), and thus not a citizen of Athens either. When it discovered than Glykera was freeborn, her union with Polemon creates a unity between the citizen and the non-citizen. Their marriage creates an equality between people of two different standings. The union preserves the citizenship of their children, their property, and the family's good name within the community, thus helping to unite Athens as a whole.

In Menander's plays, class consciousness and status are used to teach the public to break down the distinctions between the people of Athens and help to create a true democracy. He uses love between people of different classes and social status as a means of helping to create an equality within the city. Democracy only works with equality, and Menander uses his plays as a means of communicating this to the public.

Old Comedies Aristophanes' Clouds | The Comedies of Menander | Plautus's Pseudolus
Films The Comedies of Charlie Chaplin | Frank Capra's It Happened One Night | The Marx Brother's A Night at the Opera

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