Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 984

If Plutus had not survived, a vital link in the history of Greek comedy would have been lost. So different is this play from the other surviving works of Aristophanes, one might suppose it to be an aberration or to have been written by a different author. In fact, evidence suggests that Aristophanes wrote other works similar to Plutus, which was presented in 388 b.c.e. The unusual features of this play are also not explained away by the fact that the work was written when Aristophanes was approximately sixty. The poet went on to write two more plays, now lost. Plutus may be regarded as the sole surviving example of the new comic genre referred to as Middle Comedy. The term distinguishes this play from the other surviving plays of Aristophanes, all of which are representative of the style and concerns of Old Attic Comedy. On the other hand, Plutus is not to be classed with New Comedy, which is best represented by Menander (c. 342-291 b.c.e.).

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What distinguishes Plutus—and thus the genre of Middle Comedy—from other plays of Aristophanes is a general retreat from direct political or personal satire, an absence of crude obscenity, and a curtailing or complete omission of some of the traditional elements of Old Comedy, such as choral lyrics. The beginnings of some of these changes are apparent in Ekklesiazousai (392 b.c.e.?; Ecclesiazusae, 1837). Other features of Plutus are not so common in Aristophanes’ earlier work, such as the use of moral allegory with personified abstractions (the Greek word ploutos means “wealth”), the focus on social interaction that suggests the comedy of manners, which would develop later, and passionate, unapologetic idealism. Also different from Aristophanes’ earlier plays is the lack of topical controversy in Plutus: Virtually no person could object to the central concept of Plutus, that Wealth is a blind god and therefore may favor scoundrels and abandon good people to the misery of poverty.

Plutus is not devoid of humor. Although verbal jesting is reduced in the play in comparison to earlier works, it contains some of the irrelevancy and situational humor of the earlier plays. For example, the antics that Cario reports from the temple of Asclepius, where Plutus’s sight is restored, are mildly amusing as a parody of ancient techniques of healing. Cario’s wife is interesting as a comic character who happens to be female. Her reception of her husband’s news adds significantly to the humor of the scene. When the god Hermes comes seeking employment, there is some amusement in the fact that despite his varied skills a suitable position for him is discovered only with considerable difficulty: Finally it is decided that he is to take charge of games that Plutus will soon celebrate.

The reader will detect some of the typical structure of Aristophanic comedy in Plutus, especially observable in the contest between Plutus and Penia (poverty) and in the series of episodes that follow the restoration of Plutus’s sight. The various individuals who appear before him serve to underscore the consequences of his regaining his sight. In form, at least, this design is paralleled in earlier plays of Aristophanes in which the protagonist realizes a plan and then contemplates the positive and negative results.

A diminished role for the chorus is the most outstanding characteristic of Plutus. Despite some traces of lost choral lyrics, in most of the text the presence of the chorus is indicated merely by the Greek word chorou. It is doubtful that the chorus sang a composition relevant to the action of the play. More likely, the notation indicates some kind of interlude during which the chorus danced and played music before the next scene took place.

Many of the characteristics of Plutus prefigure developments in later Greek and Roman comedy. The reduction of the role of the chorus, for example, has the effect of placing more emphasis on the episodes that were originally seen as insertions between choral songs. The consequent development of a play in five acts, which is typical of New Comedy and becomes the established pattern for all later drama, is already seen in this play.

The move away from topicality—that is, specific references to actual individuals and events—naturally results in a preference for types who exemplify common human traits. Cario, for example, is a prototype of the wily slave who will have a role to play in nearly every subsequent Greco-Roman comedy. Misers, shrewish wives, young men in love, and other types common to European drama may have their origins in the works of Greek Middle Comedy, of which Plutus is the one surviving example. The play’s turning away from politics and toward larger aspects of the human condition must have acted to release comedy from the close link to the city of Athens and to the worship of Dionysus, the god of drama. The gradual freeing of drama from the context of Athenian political life and the specific sacred festivals gave birth to a wide range of new dramatic plots and characters.

Some political satire at the expense of specific individuals is still to be found in Plutus, and the reduced economic circumstances of Athens in the fourth century leave a direct mark on the play, because economic conditions may no longer have permitted the provision and training of an expensive chorus. The play is much more concerned, however, with the moral metaphysical aspects of wealth and poverty than with specific economic, social, or political conditions that created the distribution of wealth.

Some of the features of Old Comedy that Plutus lacks worked to ensure its survival in later times. The play is virtually free of topical references that need explanation to all but ancient Athenians and offers an edifying moral message, so Plutus became the most popular work of Aristophanes in later centuries, especially during the Byzantine period.

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