The following entry presents criticism of Menander's Dyskolos (316 b.c.) For more information on Menander's life and career, see CMLC, Volume 9.
Discovered in a private collection in Geneva in 1957 and published for the first time two years later, the Dyskolos (sometimes translated as The Grouch or The Dour Man) is the only nearly complete play by Menander now extant. It is also the only surviving almost complete New Comedy, and the earliest known play involving the motif of love at first sight. It is invaluable for what it reveals about the evolution of Greek theater, which, based on the Dyskolos and other fragments, changed from a vibrant forum for a wide range of political expression into drama that ignored politics, concentrating instead on family relationships in everyday domestic situations. Menander's comedies and their adaptations by the Roman writers Plautus and Terence also greatly influenced European Renaissance comedies.
Menander was born in the village of Kephisia around 342-41 b.c. to Diopeithes and Hegestrate. His first known production was the Orge [Anger], which won a first place prize in the Lencean festival in 321 b.c. The first production of the Dyskolos took place in 316 b.c. and it also took top honors. Menander is known to have studied under Theophrastus, the successor of Aristotle as leader of the Peripatetic School, adapting what he learned about tragedy for his comedies. He wrote over one hundred plays and obtained first prize eight times. Menander died c. 292 b.c.
Plot and Major Characters
The Dyskolos takes place in the Attic countryside of the village of Phyle, at the shrine of the god Pan and the Nymphs. It begins with Pan telling the tale of how the misanthropic Knemon has forced his wife, Myrrhine, and stepson, Gorgias, to leave him and live in poverty. Knemon kept his daughter and his housekeeper. Feeling sorry for the girl, Pan decides to make a rich, young Athenian named Sostratus fall in love with Knemon's daughter. He causes them to meet, they fall in love instantly, but the girl tells Sostratus that her father will not consent to her marrying anyone who is not like her father. Sostratus thus begins hard labor in the fields, hoping to make a good impression on Knemon; unfortunately Knemon does not come to see him. In a series of comic episodes, Knemon's housekeeper accidentally drops a bucket and then a digging implement down a deep well, and Knemon falls in while attempting to retrieve them. He is rescued by Gorgias and Sostratus. Knemon is touched by their action and admits that he has been wrong to be so hateful. He adopts Gorgias and gives him legal power over his daughter. Gorgias grants permission for his stepsister's marriage to Sostratus and Gorgias marries Knemon's sister. Everyone is happy and celebrates in the festivals.
The Dyskolos treats a standard literary theme, the disapproval by a parent of a child's choice in marriage. Critics have pointed out that Menander's overriding theme, however, is the daily events and interactions in the life of average Greek citizens. He realistically portrays in Dyskolos the world of middle-class Athenian people and their problems, focusing on family crises, relationships with servants, and conflicts between those who have wealth and power and those who do not. In addition, he manipulates these everyday characters and situations to comment on the manners and foibles of his time. The Dyskolos finally affirms and celebrates the benefits of harmonious interpersonal family relations, as Knemon learns that satisfaction does not come through the exercise of control over those who are bound to obey him, but through enabling their happiness.
Menander has long been considered the finest poet of New Comedy; he was immensely famous and influential, and highly spoken of by Plutarch and Quintilian, among many others. But modern critics could only imagine what his work must have been like because only fragments of his works were extant. Before 1959 Menander was known almost exclusively through revisions of his plays by Plautus and Terence, and through quotations recorded by St. Paul. But with the 1959 publication of a third-century manuscript of the Dyskolos, scholars suddenly had something substantial to examine. Other recent discoveries have brought forth most of Samia [c. 321-08; The Samian Woman] and large portions of the Epitrepontes [c. 304; The Arbitrants] and the Perikeiromene [c. 314-10; The Shorn Girl.] Menander's magnificent reputation has been somewhat diminished by the discovery of the Dyskolos, at least in the views of some critics; the comedy has received negative assessments by Robert Graves, who doesn't find it funny, and others who find its characterization wanting. Much of the focus of the critical examination of the play concerns its representation of New Comedy. T. B. L. Webster discusses how Menander used audience expectations to his advantage and E. W. Handley also discusses Menander's use of tradition and what it reveals about Middle Comedy. J. Michael Walton and Peter D. Arnott note that Menander never comments on the contemporary political situation and believe this fact “shows that the Greeks had arrived at a new concept of what political theatre was for.” Gilbert Murray examines Menander's New Comedy in the context of the tremendous change that had been inflicted upon Athens in losing the Peloponnesian War: “One cannot understand the thought of this period … except as a response of the human soul to an almost blinding catastrophe of defeat and disenchantment. All that a fifth-century Athenian had believed in had failed and been found wanting.”
Orge [Anger] (play) 321 b.c.
Samia [The Samian Woman or The Woman from Samos] (play) c. 321-08
Dyskolos [The Grouch] (play) 316 b.c.
Perikeiromene [The Shorn Girl] (play) c. 314-10
Epitrepontes [The Arbitrants] (play) c. 304
The Plays of Menander. 2 vols. (translated by Lionel Casson) 1971
The Dyskolos (translated by Carroll Moulton) 1977
Plays and Fragments: Menander (translated by Norma Miller) 1987
SOURCE: Murray, Gilbert. “Menander, and the Transformation of Comedy.” In Aristophanes: A Study, pp. 221-63. 1933. Reprint. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1964.
[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1933, Murray explains that recognition of the devastating change inflicted upon fifth-century Athens is crucial to the full appreciation of Menander's New Comedy.]
Menander, son of Diopeithes, the chief poet of the Athenian New Comedy, is a figure difficult to estimate. He was born in the year 342 b.c., only some forty years after the death of Aristophanes, but into an Athens which was greatly changed. He must have heard Aristotle; he was on...
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SOURCE: Handley, E. W. “Menander and the Dyskolos.” In The “Dyskolos” of Menander, pp. 3-74. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
[In the following excerpt, Handley discusses how Menander dealt with the traditions of both comedy and tragedy, Menander's views regarding drama, and the changing popular and critical evaluations of him over the centuries.]
‘Menander, son of Diopeithes, of the Kephisian deme, was born in the archonship of Sosigenes’: that is, in the Athenian year 342/1 b.c. The year 321, in which he produced his first play, the Orge, happens to mark the centenary of Aristophanes' Peace; the Dyskolos, produced...
(The entire section is 6816 words.)
SOURCE: Webster, T. B. L. “The Comedy of Menander.” In Roman Drama, edited by T. A. Dorey and Donald R. Dudley, pp. 1-20. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965.
[In the following essay, Webster discusses characteristics of Menander's comedies, commenting on his treatment of plot, establishing of a setting, and use of the mask to play with audience expectations.]
The long line of writers of social comedy from Shakespeare and Goldoni to Galsworthy, A. A. Milne, and their present-day successors have, partly consciously and partly unconsciously, been writing in a tradition which goes back to Plautus and Terence. But Plautus and Terence themselves were adapting and...
(The entire section is 8097 words.)
SOURCE: Goldberg, Sander M. “Dyskolos (The Grouch): A Play of Combinations.” In The Making of Menander's Comedy, pp. 72-91. London: The Athlone Press, 1980.
[In the following excerpt, Goldberg explains how the Dyskolos achieves much of its impact through a careful balance between the serious and the comic.]
Knemon, a thoroughly inhuman human, and a grouch to all. He doesn't welcome crowds …
The rhetorical flourish with which Pan introduces Knemon is calculated to suggest a familiar figure, for the misanthrope was an established comic type by Menander's time with a traditional vocabulary to describe his...
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SOURCE: Konstan, David. “Grouch.” In Greek Comedy and Ideology, pp. 93-106. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
[In the following excerpt, Konstan analyzes Menander's uses of passionate love in the Dyskolos in order to comment on class conflict.]
Menandrean drama differs from the Old Comedy produced by Aristophanes and his contemporaries in its concentration on the domestic world, and above all on the vicissitudes of youthful passion—the passion, that is, of young men who are blocked by stern fathers, rich rivals, or greedy masters from attaining the women they desire, and must rely on intrigue or luck to gain them.1 Thus Plutarch...
(The entire section is 7940 words.)
SOURCE: Walton, J. Michael and Peter D. Arnott. “Menander in Time and Place.” In Menander and the Making of Comedy, pp. 21-43. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
[In the following excerpt, Walton and Arnott explain how the history and politics of Greece in the century leading up to Menander affected his comedies and Greek theater in general.]
Menander was born some forty years after the death of Aristophanes and did not begin writing for the stage until the last twenty years of the fourth century b.c. The second half of the fourth century was a time of change in more things than the theatre. Audiences had already learned to accept a social emphasis in the plays...
(The entire section is 10005 words.)
Arnott, W. G. “Menander, Qui Vitae Ostendit Vitam …” Greece & Rome n.s. 2, 15, no. 1 (April 1968): 1-17.
Discusses the impact of discoveries of new texts and fragments, and praises Menander for seminal work in character development and for showing the irony of failure.
———. “From Aristophanes to Menander.” Greece & Rome n.s. 2, 19, no. 1 (April 1972): 65-80.
Examines what little is known of the transitional period between Old Comedy and New Comedy.
———. Introduction to Menander, edited by W. G. Arnott, Vol. 1, pp. xiii-xlv. Cambridge, MA: Harvard...
(The entire section is 455 words.)