If Aristophanes was the greatest writer of the Old Comedy in fifth century Athens, Menander was certainly the finest practitioner of the New Comedy that flourished there a century later. The difference between these two kinds of theater is vast. The bawdiness and the fearless political and personal satire gave way, in the face of Macedonian military might, to the more timid and bourgeois comedy of manners, in which characters tend to be stock types. The poetic meters are simpler and the language is more colloquial. The chorus has been cut to a bare minimum, usually appearing as a band of revelers bearing no relation to the plot, and their songs are generally omitted from the manuscripts. New Comedy found its subject matter in domestic life and the complications of romance. It exploited sentiment, was given to moralizing, and used complex and improbable plots. Usually it lacked the exuberant vigor that marked the Old Comedy.
This theatrical development may be due, at least in part, to the fact that New Comedy was churned out at a prodigious rate. Menander himself was credited with having written more than a hundred plays, although he was not much older than fifty when he died. Dramatists vied with one another to give their plots ingenious twists as they reworked the same subject matter and the same stereotyped characters. Menander managed to individualize his characters more than his contemporaries, and he gained an international reputation in his lifetime. The Roman playwrights Plautus and Terence adapted Menander’s comedies to suit Latin audiences. Through them Menander became the precursor of later Western drama and a direct ancestor of William Shakespeare and Molière.
Menander’s own predecessor was the tragedian Euripides, who dealt with the theme of the foundling in In (c. 411 b.c.e.; Ion, 1781) and possibly other plays. It was a theme that would form a substantial part of the New Comedy. Euripides also handled romantic material that New Comedy writers adapted to their purpose, and he treated commonplace people in a way that suggested new developments in the theater. Further, Euripides developed a near colloquial diction...
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