BORN: 342 BCE, Athens, Greece
DIED: 292 BCE, Piraeus, Greece
Anger (321 BCE)
The Grouch (316 BCE)
The Arbitrants (c. 304 BCE)
Menander. Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Menander has been called the greatest representative of Greek New comedy, the era of drama that followed the Old Comedy (c. 435-405 BCE) and the Middle Comedy (c. 400-323 BCE) in ancient Greece. He was praised in his lifetime for his use of everyday speech and realistic depiction of Athenian middle-class life, the exemplification of a relatively new comic voice. Menander’s reworking of the stock characters and plots of Greek Middle comedy and his emphasis on love and social intrigue greatly influenced the development of romantic comedy, or the comedy of manners.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Uncertain Biography. There is limited biographical information about Menander, though some facts are certain. Menander the Athenian, son of Diopeithes and Hegestrate, from the deme Kephisia, was born in 342341 BCE and died in his early fifties. He wrote more than one hundred comedies in that time, beginning with a play called Anger in 321 BCE. The Grouch, his one play to survive virtually intact, won first prize at Athens in 316 BCE. By about 292-291 BCE, he was dead.
During his lifetime, Menander witnessed Macedon's conquest of Greece in 338 BCE Because Greeks were unable to unite politically, their territories were annexed by Philip II of Macedon. Philip’s son, Alexander the Great, succeeded him. It is certain that Menander lived through the reign of Alexander the Great (336-323 BCE). Through Alexander’s ambition for world empire and his admiration of Greek learning, Greek civilization was spread to all the lands conquered by Alexander. After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, his empire soon began to break up, a process Menander partially witnessed.
Other components of Menander’s traditional biography are more dubious. Some are at least credible: that his plays reflect the influence of the older dramatist Alexis (whom some call his uncle); that he studied with the philosopher Theophrastus, the successor to Aristotle (one of the greatest philosophers of the ancient world) as head of the Peripatos (the Peripatetic School); and that he had at least social connections with Demetrius of Phaleron, who headed an aristocratic (and pro-Macedonian) regime at Athens from 317 BCE to 307 BCE
The Legends Surrounding Menander’s Life. Other more colorful details probably reflect the ancient practice of manufacturing biography from an author's work. Thus, it is told that Menander was prone to romantic infatuations (as are the youths of his plays), that he loved the courtesan Glykera (a name appearing in several comedies), and that he was effeminate (his style is refined). There is also a set of revealing (if unhistorical) anecdotes about him and some entertaining works of fiction, such as the correspondence of Menander and Glykera composed by the sophist (professional philosopher) Alciphron in the third century BCE. Such material tells one rather more about how Menander was read by later generations than about the life he actually led. As with most ancient authors, the material for any meaningful biographical criticism is lacking.
Menander’s Literary Output. Although little is known about the history of Menander himself, much more is known about his works. Literary historians believe that Menander composed 100 to 108 plays, 96 of which have been identified by title. Performances of his comedies continued well into Roman imperial times, and consequently some of his works were preserved indirectly through adaptations by the Roman dramatists Plautus and Terence. While copies of Menandrean texts were made as late as the fifth and sixth centuries, scholars believe that most of them were lost sometime between the seventh and ninth centuries. For over one thousand years, Menander was known only through references to and quotations from his works in ancient texts.
In 1905, the French archaeologist G. Lefebvre found significant fragments of his plays on Egyptian papyri. This landmark discovery recovered one-half of The Arbitrants, about two-fifths each of The Shearing of Glycera and The Girl from Samos, and less than a single scene from two other plays. The Dour Man, discovered in 1957 in an Egyptian codex containing three of Menander’s dramas, was first published in 1959. The first and last plays in the codex, four-fifths of The Girl from Samos and five-eighths of The Shield, were damaged and not published until 1969. More fragments of Menander’s plays were discovered throughout the 1960s, including sections of The Sikyonion, The Man She Hated, and The Double Deceiver, and scholars project that more of his work may yet be found.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Menander's famous contemporaries include:
Qu Yuan (340 BCE-278 BCE): A patriotic Chinese poet active during the Warring States Period. His poems include ''The Lament.''
Epicurus (341 BCE-270 BCE): Greek philosopher who believed that the good life consisted of participating wholeheartedly in true friendships and enjoying excellent food. Two groups of quotes attributed to him are included in Principal Doctrines.
Alexander the Great (356 BCE-323 BCE): Macedonian king who conquered many lands from Greece to India.
Seleucus I Nicator (358 BCE-281 BCE): Having served under Alexander the Great, after the great leader's death, Seleucus I established the Seleucid Empire in the eastern portions of the lands Alexander conquered.
Bryaxis (c. 350 BCE-?): Greek sculptor commissioned by Artemisia II of Caria to work on a mausoleum dedicated to her brother's memory.
Works in Literary Context
Middle Comedy to New Comedy: Menander’s Focus on Realism. Because of the limited biographical information about Menander, a discussion of influences on him is also necessarily incomplete. However, he was probably trained in dramatic composition and studied philosophy, and such education affected his writings. Menander also drew on his knowledge of speech and habits of the middle-class life of Athens as well as greater Greek culture of his time period.
In the course of the fourth century—the process is already discernible in later plays of Aristophanes such as The Congresswomen (392 BCE) and Wealth (388 BCE)— comedy began moving from the raucous, exuberant, and often political style of what came to be called Old Comedy to a more sedate, bourgeois drama of family relationships and erotic entanglements. Style and form changed accordingly. Whereas fifth-century plays are deliberately fantastic and illogical, fourth-century plots are comparatively well made. Menander was at the forefront of this movement in drama.
Importance of Storytelling. Storytelling is in fact a key ingredient of Menandrean comedy and was facilitated by the development of a true act structure that developed the plot from exposition to climax to denouement in five sections punctuated by unscripted (and apparently unrelated) choral performances. Papyri regularly mark these breaks with the laconic note ‘‘choral song’’ interrupting the column of text. Menander shapes his action around these act breaks with a skill of which the practitioners of the well-made play would approve, and he invariably resolves his dramatic problems in satisfying, often unexpected ways.
Emphasis on Character. Though his happy endings are frequently the result of manipulation—lucky encounters, timely recognitions, and the like—the motivating force behind his plots comes from his carefully delineated and essentially realistic depictions of human character. Against a background of stock comic types such as cooks, doctors, and advisers full of familiar attitudes and even more familiar jokes, Menander develops serious and recognizable moral dilemmas for the parents and children, husbands and wives, and anxious careerists who are the focus of his interest. Their basically good intentions are nearly wrecked not by external circumstances, as they would have been in Middle Comedy, but by their own failure to recognize the limits of their knowledge and by the natural weaknesses of their own characters.
The tradition apparently supplied each figure with a recognizable mask and costume and a name appropriate to the dramatic role, but Menander turns the central figures of each play into individuals who make credible and often poignant responses to the challenges they face. The real sense of closure in a Menandrean play, therefore, comes not from the external manipulation of its plot, but from the internal process by which characters face the limits of their capabilities and deal honestly with the absurdity of their pretensions.
Menander’s Realism. From antiquity onward, Menander has been much praised for his realism: the unaffected naturalness of his language, the likeness of his characters to real people, the true portrait he gives of life in fourth-century Athens. Menander’s realism is not only the product of acute observation but of a refined art working in a traditional medium. His subjects, while less limited than one might believe after hearing Ovid’s assertion that ‘‘there is no play of Menander’s without love,’’ are chosen and treated with a regard for the conventions of civilized high comedy.
Menander excluded from his plays a whole range of grave events and permanent misfortunes (such as murder and distressing illness) to which real human beings are unfortunately prone. He also refrains from indulging in realistic detail purely for realistic detail’s sake; his plays are plays and not documentary records. One may judge his characters to be drawn with acute psychological insight, yet he is not, as a modern dramatist might be, concerned with exploring the inner depths of their personalities. His analysis of character is ethical rather than psychological, and it is striking in The Grouch where Knemon’s major speech of self-revelation leaves the old man’s emotions almost entirely to the audience’s imagination.
Legacy. Though some critics note the difficulty of assessing his influence in the absence of more knowledge of his writings, they agree that Menander represents the apex of ancient tradition of comedy. However, his emphasis on love and social intrigue are believed to have greatly influenced the development of romantic comedy, or the comedy of manners.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
In the play The Arbitrants, Menander describes the problems that arise because of the discovery of a foundling child. A foundling is a child whose parents have abandoned it—in film and literature, the child is often anonymously left on a rich stranger's doorstep in the hopes that the child will have a better life than the parents could have offered. The foundling has remained an important figure in literature and film to this day. Here are a few more examples of literature and films that feature foundlings:
Book of Exodus (date and author unknown). In this book of the Bible, the Pharaoh in Egypt has ordered the death of all newborn Hebrew children. Unwilling to watch her son die, Moses' mother puts him into a basket and places the basket in the Nile River. He is ultimately plucked from there by a member of the royal family and raised as royalty.
The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749), a novel by Henry Fielding. As the title of this novel indicates, the main character of this text is a foundling. Tom Jones's status as a foundling, in this case, causes serious social problems for him when he grows up, because he is unable to marry the girl he loves on account of the social conventions regarding the status of foundlings.
Meet the Robinsons (2007), an animated film directed by Steve Anderson. Left on the doorstep of an orphanage as an infant, Lewis spends his early, precocious years trying to invent gadgets that will help him figure out who his mother is and how to find her.
Works in Critical Context
During his lifetime, Menander was less successful than his contemporary playwrights, but after his death, ancient critics recognized his value and praised his work. The Roman critic Quintilian called him the leading dramatist of New Comedy, and the Greek biographer Plutarch preferred his style to that of Aristophanes. Since the rediscovery of fragments of his work in 1905 and of an entire play in 1957, interest in Menander’s role in the development of drama has grown.
The Girl from Samos. In the view of many commentators, The Girl from Samos is a pioneering work in New Comedy because of the author’s genuine compassion for his characters and his psychological insight into their moral dilemmas, which find expression in the greater realism of the play. With The Girl from Samos, critics also agree that Menander exploits the comic potential of the stock elements of New Comedy. Yet most have concluded that his greatest strength lies in his ability to operate within the confines of the New Comedy form while at the same time delving beneath the surface of its conventions in order to individualize character.
Some commentators have been most impressed by his poignant characterizations of Demeas and Moschion, which reveal their inner turmoil as they struggle to deal with the threats to their father-son relationship. By devoting great attention to the anguish of these characters in their respective monologues, these critics assert, Menander effectively shifts the focus of the play from the obstructed marriage of Moschion and Plangon to the estranged bond between Moschion and Demeas, thereby subordinating the conventional theme of romantic love.
Referring to the characterization of such relationships, Eric G. Turner wrote in his introduction to Menander: “The Girl from Samos; or, The In-Laws,’ ‘‘The relationships in this comedy ring true. It is indeed in the mutual relationships of characters in the enclosed world of each play that a just imitation of life can be claimed for Menander. The drama develops out of the interaction of the characters on each other.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Read Menander’s The Grouch and Aristophanes’ The Birds. Menander’s work has been described as more realistic in its portrayal of its characters than Aristophanes’ work. How do these plays support or contradict this assessment? In your response essay, cite examples from each play to support your argument.
2. Read The Arbitrants and watch the film Meet the Robinsons. These works come from vastly different cultures and times, but they each deal with foundling children. In a short essay, analyze the different ways these pieces describe the issues and problems associated with foundling children. Which gives you a clearer picture of the issues surrounding the life of a foundling?
3. Trying to create characters who appear realistic is a difficult task. Yet, critics have consistently applauded Menander’s realistic characters. Based on your readings of Menander, do you agree that his characters are realistic? What makes a character realistic on stage and in a book? Are there different literary tactics? Write a paper that summarizes your arguments.
4. Little is known for sure about the life of Menander. Instead, through the years, a number of stories regarding his life have arisen, but these stories seem mostly to be based on his plays. Creating a biography for ancient writers that is based on their work was once a common practice. Pick a writer, singer, or filmmaker whose work you are fairly familiar with. Then, write a short biography of his or her childhood based on this person’s novels, songs, or films. In order to understand the problems associated with writing this kind of biography, it is important that you use the Internet and the library to compare your biography with the person’s real biography. Also briefly describe the difference between the two biographies—yours and the published one.
Arnott, W. Geoffrey. Menander, Plautus, Terence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Frost, K. B. Exits and Entrances in Menander. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
Gassner, John. Masters of the Drama. Dover, 1988.
Goldberg, Sander M. The Making of Menander’s Comedy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.
Harsh, Philip Whaley. A Handbook of Classical Drama. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1963.
Henry, Madeleine Mary. Menander’s Courtesans and the Greek Comic Tradition. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1985.
Lever, Katherine. The Art of Greek Comedy. London: Methuen, 1956.
Post, L. A. From Homer to Menander: Forces in Greek Poetic Fiction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.
Sandbach, F. H. The Comic Theatre of Greece and Rome. London: Chatto & Windus, 1977.
________. Studies in Menander. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1950.
Turner, Eric G. Introduction to Menander: ‘‘The Girl from Samos; or, The In-Laws’’. London: Athlone, 1972.