Nonsense and Meaning in Ancient Greek Comedy

Nonsense and Meaning in Ancient Greek Comedy

Stephen E. Kidd

Language: English

Pages: 213

ISBN: 1107050154

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

This book examines the concept of 'nonsense' in ancient Greek thought and uses it to explore the comedies of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE. If 'nonsense' (phluaria, lēros) is a type of language felt to be unworthy of interpretation, it can help to define certain aspects of comedy that have proved difficult to grasp. Not least is the recurrent perception that although the comic genre can be meaningful (i.e. contain political opinions, moral sentiments and aesthetic tastes), some of it is just 'foolery' or 'fun'. But what exactly is this 'foolery', this part of comedy which allegedly lies beyond the scope of serious interpretation? The answer is to be found in the concept of 'nonsense': by examining the ways in which comedy does not mean, the genre's relationship to serious meaning (whether it be political, aesthetic, or moral) can be viewed in a clearer light.













character offers a joke or punchline, often enough they receive in response some form of the accusation “you’re speaking nonsense!” Nor is it only verbal jokes which are accused of being nonsense on stage, but also other comic gags of a more physical nature. Consider the following scene from Frogs. Charon is ordering Dionysus to adopt his position at the oars, but, instead, Dionysus engages in typical comic foolery (198–203): Χα. κάθιζ’ ἐπὶ κώπην. εἴ τις ἔτι πλεῖ, σπευδέτω. οὗτος, τί ποιεῖς; Δι.

same fact: that dramatic motion must be maintained, and therefore certain jokes must be overlooked and swiftly passed over. The observation that comedy has a certain forward motion or dramatic rhythm that must be maintained is not a particularly new one: Kenneth Dover (and later, David Bain) noticed something similar years ago, and argued that often enough in comedy, jokes are ignored.42 As Dover and Bain describe it, many jokes cannot easily be reabsorbed into regular dialogue (i.e., they would

the diagnosis “this is play.” But before this argument can be fully articulated, a thorough investigation is needed regarding this interpretive process of “not taking seriously” and why nonsense might arise when doing so. The word “serious” notoriously haunts comic scholarship. Some scholars rise to the challenge of its definition with dictionary in hand, others retreat, believing the word to be of little value after all.4 Silk, for example, provides a fine overview of the different meanings of

example. In Pherecrates’ Cheiron (quoted in Ps.-Plutarch’s On Music), Music appears on stage and complains to Justice about the violent treatment she has received from contemporary poets. Among these abusive innovators is Cinesias, about whom she claims the following (fr. 155 KA, 8–12): Κινησίας δέ <μ’> ὁ κατάρατος Ἀττικός ἐξαρμονίους καμπὰς ποιῶν ἐν ταῖς στροφαῖς ἀπολώλεκέ μ’ οὕτως, ὥστε τῆς ποιήσεως τῶν διθυράμβων, καθάπερ ἐν ταῖς ἀσπίσιν, ἀριστέρ’ αὐτοῦ φαίνεται τὰ δεξιά. Accursed Attican

very sensible answer at all. If it can be accepted that the quality of jokes is not ascending (as one might expect of capping) but devolving into pure verbal soundplay, nevertheless, one might expect that it is still possible to analyze the scene in terms of set-up and punchline. The Hoopoe’s information that the present bird is called “gobbler” sets up the punchline about Cleonymus; this in turn is a set-up for the following punchline about losing his crest, which then leads to the next two

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