Cratinus Introduction

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Cratinus c. 519 b.c.-c. 422 b.c.

Greek comic dramatist.

A major force in shaping Athenian Old Comedy, Cratinus was one of the three greatest practitioners of the genre, along with Aristophanes and Eupolis. Cratinus is credited with composing the first fully-constructed comedy, one which boasted a defined literary style. His comedies, many of which were invective-laden satires on political and topical events, won him first place prizes in literary festivals on nine separate occasions, including six victories at the prestigious City Dionysia festival. Cratinus used many of his dramas to denounce those who offended him, subjecting them to ridicule before the public. His sometimes obscene attacks were most frequently directed at the Athenian politician and general Pericles, although there was also considerable animosity between Cratinus and Aristophanes—who sometimes competed for the same literary prizes. Cratinus also produced parodies of myths. His works survive today only in fragments and have not been translated into English.

Biographical Information

Very little is known of Cratinus's life. His career most likely spanned several decades, possibly beginning in the 450s b.c. His first known victory in a literary contest occurred in about 437 b.c.He was influenced by the invective of the satirist Archilochus. Cratinus was frequently attacked by other playwrights, most notably Aristophanes, who referred to him as an adulterer, a drunk, incontinent, senile, and bad smelling, most notably in his play Knights. In response, the following year Cratinus produced Pytine (423 b.c.; The Wine Flask) in which he not only does not deny his drunkenness, but extols alcohol's virtues, contending that the gods never favor a poet who drinks plain water. Cratinus died shortly after producing the play, reportedly at the age of ninety-three.

Major Works

Although some 460 fragments survive of Cratinus's plays, none even approach completeness. Scholars do not agree on how many plays Cratinus wrote; suggestions range from twenty-one to thirty-one. The discrepancy stems from the fragmentary nature of what remains of his works, some of which are also probably spurious or misattributed. For some titles thought to be the work of Cratinus, nothing whatsoever is known about their content except what can be deduced from the titles themselves. The plots of a few others are explained in the writings of his contemporaries. Archilochoi (circa 448 b.c.; Archilochus and His Companions) seems to feature the ghosts of Archilochus, whose satires influenced Cratinus's works, and other epic poets brought together in order to compete against each other in a literary contest. Pericles suffers ridicule in three of Cratinus's plays: in Cheirones (date unknown; Chiron and His Companions), in which his head is compared to an onion; in Nemesis (date unknown), which uses the tale of Zeus (representing Pericles), Leda, and Helen as its basis; and in Dionysalexandros (circa 430 b.c.; Dionysus as Alexander), a mythological and political satire in which Pericles, who had just recently started the Peloponnesian War, is likened to Dionysus, who began the Trojan War. Cheimazomenoi (425 b.c.; The Tempest-Tossed) took second prize to Aristophanes's Acharnians in the Lenaean Festival. Pytine was Cratinus's last play and took first prize, defeating Aristophanes's Clouds, which came in third.

Critical Reception

Although some information can be gleaned from the hundreds of surviving fragments and the few summaries of his works made by contemporary writers, scholars of Cratinus are severely limited by the fact that not even one complete play by him is extant. Two ancients are responsible for the best critiques of Cratinus: Aristophanes, who states that Cratinus was praised for his imposing style, likened to flood water destroying all the trees in its path; and Platonius, who writes: “Though admirably inventive in the opening and scheme of his plays, he rends his plots to pieces as he goes on, and fills up his plays with inconsequent matter.” From the little they have to go on, modern critics are in no position to disagree. Gilbert Norwood examines what remains of the comedies and, like all Cratinus scholars, explores his feud with Aristophanes. Keith Sidwell speculates on the interrelatedness of the plays of the two great comic poets, suggesting there was a great deal more communication between them than previously considered by modern critics. Ralph M. Rosen examines the nature and targets of Cratinus's invective and his inspiration for it, writing that “in looking to the iambos as a poetic antecedent of comic drama, and by incorporating iambographic elements into his plays, Cratinus succeeded in elevating his genre to a level of literary refinement which it had not attained before. He articulated a literary lineage for Old Comedy, and for the first time helped to define this otherwise eclectic genre for his successors.”