Menander (342-291 B.C.) was an Athenian comic playwright. He was the acknowledged master of the so-called New Comedy in Greece. Famed for his realistic portrayal of situations and characters, he greatly influenced later comic dramatists.
New Comedy was the term for the comedy of manners popular in Greece after 320 B.C., in strong contrast to the Old Comedy, whose most famous practitioner was the Athenian Aristophanes (ca. 450-385 B.C.). Whereas the Old Comedy was characterized by broad burlesque, fantasy, coarseness, and biting political and social satire and the Middle Comedy (ca. 400-320 B.C.) by stock "characters" like the courtesan, the parasite, and the braggart soldier, the New Comedy portrayed ordinary people and their private domestic problems. The absurdity and fantasy of the Old and Middle Comedy were abandoned in favor of realistic situations and characters who speak and act as they would in real life. The chorus virtually disappears except as an interlude between the acts.
As with most of the figures of antiquity, there are few facts on the life and career of Menander. He was born in Athens in 342 B.C.; his father, Diopeithes, was a man of wealth and distinction; his mother was Hegistrate. According to ancient sources, he was a boyhood friend of the philosopher Epicurus and a pupil of Theophrastus, Aristotle's successor as the head of the Peripatetic school. He is said to have been the nephew of the comic playwright Alexis, who instructed him in the art of writing comedies.
Menander was said to have been exceptionally handsome, as surviving portraits attest. He was elegant in manner and in dress, easy-tempered, and a lover of luxury and comfort. Tradition relates that he refused an invitation from Ptolemy I of Egypt, an admirer of his work, to visit there because this would disturb his ease. From his association with Athens's oligarchic governor, Demetrius of Phalerum, it is surmised that Menander was antidemocratic in politics, although in his surviving works there is scarcely a mention of political matters. Intellectually, Menander was very much a man of his times, and the influence of Theophrastus's Characters and the teachings of Epicurus and other philosophers is evident in the manner and outlook of his plays. According to the ancient account, Menander died in 291 B.C., drowning in the harbor of Piraeus.
Menander's writing career spanned the 30 years from his first play, Orge (Anger), in 321, to his death. He wrote perhaps as many as 108 comedies, but the fact that he was awarded first prize in the competitions only eight times indicates that his popularity during his lifetime did not equal his later fame. Of his output only one play, the Dyskolos (The Bad-tempered Man), which won the prize in 316, survives in its entirety; large portions of several other plays exist. Numerous smaller fragments and titles to over 90 plays also survive.
Until the end of the 19th century Menander was known only through short quotations from his plays, many of which had survived as maxims collected in anthologies. Among them were "Whom the gods love die young" and "Bad associates spoil a good character." The only other source was Latin adaptations of his plays by the Roman dramatists Plautus and Terence. Since 1900, however, a number of substantial fragments have been recovered from papyri preserved in the dry sands of Egypt, and new discoveries are still being made.
In 1958 the Dyskolos was published from a papyrus manuscript. This play plus large portions of Epitrepontes (Arbitrants), Perikeiromene (The Girl Who Had Her Hair Cut Off), Samia (The Girl from Samos), and Sikyonios (The Man from Sicyon) and other fragments represent less than 10 percent of the works of Menander but give us a good idea of his style.
The plots of Menander's plays are extremely complicated, usually revolving around the obstacles which prevent a pair of young lovers from achieving happiness. The plays open on a problem which becomes increasingly more involved until, finally, all the difficulties are removed, the lovers are united, and the other characters have achieved their goals. Much of Menander's fame rested on his ability in plot construction, and his variations on the love theme are almost infinite.
One typical problem involves the foundling child who is reared as a slave or courtesan and thus is prevented from honorable marriage. Ultimately, however, the slave girl turns out to be the daughter of a rich man, and so, not only are the lovers able to marry, but also the fathers are pleased by the prosperous match.
The Dyskolos was produced in 316, when Menander was 25 years old. Sostratos, a rich young Athenian, has fallen in love with Myrrhine, the daughter of Knemon, a mean-tempered old farmer (the dyskolos). Because of Knemon's surly nature, his wife has left him and lives with her son by a previous marriage, Gorgias.
Sostratos's slave, Pyrrhias, is sent to ask Knemon about his daughter and is attacked by the old misanthrope. Gorgias learns of Sostratos's interest in his sister and concludes that the rich young man has dishonorable intentions. Sostratos assures him that he wants to marry Myrrhine. After a series of comic episodes, which include Knemon's fall into a well from which he is rescued by Gorgias and Sostratos, the old man "retires" and relinquishes his farm to Gorgias, who gives his consent for Sostratos to marry Myrrhine; then Callipides, Sostratos's father, impressed by the poor but honest and ambitious Gorgias, gives him his daughter to marry.
The attitude of the ancients toward Menander is summed up in the famous remark of Aristophanes of Byzantium, the Alexandrian critic: "O Menander and life, which of you has imitated the other?" Modern critics are less unanimous in their praise of Menander. Some find his plots contrived, his characters mere types without depth, and his dialogue dull and insipid. An impartial assessment must consider the times in which Menander lived. His New Comedy is concerned with a small world of ordinary people and daily problems. The political climate of an Athens dominated by Macedonia precluded topical political satire. The vibrant democracy which nurtured the wit of Aristophanes had ended, and men turned inward, concentrating their creative energies on the problems of personal relationships and moral concerns.
Menander reflects this world in his quiet moralizing, gentle skepticism, and keen scrutiny of the human situation, not entirely unmixed with social criticism. In Menander's plays, goodness always conquers, and often even the villains have redeeming human qualities. Menander's speech is clear and simple; he employed the ordinary Attic dialect of his own time; his chief meter was the iambic trimeter.
The Dyskolos of Menander, edited by E. W. Handley (1965), is a text with an introduction and commentary. A text of the other fragments, with an English translation, is Menander: The Principal Fragments, translated by Francis G. Allinson for the Loeb Classical Library (1921; rev. ed., 1951). An excellent translation of the Dyskolos and other fragments is The Characters by Theophrastus; Plays and Fragments by Menander, translated by Philip Vellacott (1957). Accounts of Menander's life and works, including background material for Old, Middle, and New Comedy, are Gilbert Norwood, Greek Comedy (1931); Gilbert Murray, Aristophanes: A Study (1933); and T. B. L. Webster, Studies in Later Greek Comedy (1953; 2d ed., 1970). A more technical discussion of Menander's works is T. B. L. Webster, Studies in Menander (1950; 2d ed. 1960).