Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900

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.

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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 that anticipated the later comedy. However, later dramatists eliminated the divine interventions that Euripides had staged, to concentrate on the element of coincidence in the resolution of human problems. It seems altogether fitting that Menander was buried beside Euripides.

The Arbitration is one of two plays by Menander to have survived nearly intact. Of the rest, there are no more than fragments and snippets. Even this would not be extant if papyrus manuscripts had not been found in Egypt late in the nineteenth century. As a result, the names of eighty of his plays have been ascertained, which show the extent to which the Roman dramatists borrowed from him.

In The Arbitration, Menander blends two common themes of New Comedy writing, those of the frustrated romance and of the foundling. He makes skillful use of dramatic irony by manipulating the plot so that the audience is fully aware of a situation to an understanding of which the characters must slowly grope their way. It is only when the characters grasp what the audience already knows that the solution to the problem occurs. The suspense lies in the author’s devices to delay the solution. The audience is led logically into a maze where the end is what was stated in the prologue and where a lot of cleverness has been spent in making the maze as complex as possible. It is clear from the outset that Charisius is the sole cause of the misery afflicting him and his wife Pamphila. The end of the play is not extant, but it is certain that Charisius must recognize his guilt and beg Pamphila’s forgiveness before the comedy can end.

If the plot is more or less a pat formula, the characters are something more than pure types. Although they conform to stage patterns—Smicrines (small) is the tight-fisted father; Habrotonon (pretty thing) is the mistress with the heart of gold; Onesimus is the rascally servant; and Pamphila (wholly lovable) is the forgiving wife—they transcend their patterns in the natural way Menander has them react to their circumstances. Habrotonon’s greatest desire is to gain her liberty, for which she resorts to deception, but when the welfare of a helpless infant is at stake, she is willing to expose her deception and sacrifice her liberty. This sacrifice is not made with great theatrical flourish but rather as an intrinsic part of her character. Menander even takes pains to individualize Davus the goatherd and Syriscus the charcoal-burner in the arbitration scene, where Smicrines unwittingly judges the fate of his own grandson.

The world of The Arbitration is one in which commoners are depicted as having dignity, in which slavery is altogether undesirable, and in which the most unlikely people might turn out to have respectable backgrounds. This is a sharp change from the aristocratic outlook of earlier Greek drama. The theme of the foundling, here developed in Pamphila’s infant and in Habrotonon, mirrors a democratic view of society, not so much in politics but in morality. It stresses that everyone, regardless of his or her social position, has a right to be treated with consideration. Even though Menander had privileges of birth, wealth, and fame, he subscribed to this outlook wholeheartedly, and The Arbitration is illuminated by it.

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