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A New and Complete Translation

Essay 90

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 11 March 1768 [90.1]

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 In answer to how it aspires to this, Aristotle says it has been demonstrated clearly by comedy:[90.2] ἐπὶ μὲν οὖν τῆς κωμῳδίας ἤδη τοῦτο δῆλον γέγονεν: συστήσαντες γὰρ τὸν μῦθον διὰ τῶν εἰκότων οὕτω τὰ τυχόντα ὀνόματα ἐπιτιθέασι, καὶ οὐχ ὥσπερ οἱ ἰαμβοποιοὶ περὶ τῶν καθ᾽ ἕκαστον ποιοῦσιν.[90.3] I must also quote the translations of this by Dacier and Curtius. Dacier says: “C’est ce qui est déja rendu sensible dans las comedie, car les Poëtes comiques, aprés avoir dressé leur sujet sur la vraisemblance, imposent aprés cela à leurs personnages tels noms qu’il leur plaît, & n’imitent pas les Poëtes satyriques, qui ne s’attachent qu’aux chose particulieres.”[90.4] And Curtius: “In the comedy this has long been visible. For when the writers of comedy conceived the plot of the story according to probability, they attributed arbitrary names to the characters and did not have something particular in mind like the iambic poets did.”[90.5] What do we find in these translations that corresponds to what concerns Aristotle most? Both have him saying only that the comic writers did not do the same as the iambic (that is, satiric) poets in keeping to the individual, but rather tended to the universal with their characters, to whom they gave arbitrary names: “tels noms qu’il leur plaît.”[90.6] Granted, now, that τὰ τυχόντα ὀνόματα could mean such names, where have both translators left the οὕτω?[90.7] Did this οὕτω mean absolutely nothing to them? And yet it says everything here: for according to this οὕτω the comic writers did not only give arbitrary names to their characters, but they gave them these arbitrary names “so”: οὕτω. And how so? So, that they aimed at universality with these very names: οὗ στοχάζεται ἡ ποίησις ὀνόματα ἐπιτιθεμένη.[90.8] And how did that happen? Find me one word about it in the commentaries by Dacier and Curtius!

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Without any further beating about the bush, it happened like this. Comedy gave names to its characters that expressed the essence of these characters by means of their grammatical derivation and composition, or some other meaning. In short, it gave them telling names, names one needed only to hear in order to know instantly what kind of person it was who bore the name. I will quote a passage from Donatus on this here:[90.9]Nomina personarum,” he says with regard to the first line of the first act of The Brothers, “in comoediis duntaxat, habere debent rationem & etymologiam. Etenim absurdum est, comicum aperte argumentum confingere: vel nomen personae incongruum dare vel officium quod sit a nomine diversum. [*] [90.10] Hinc servus fidelis Parmeno: infidelis vel Syrus vel Geta; miles Thraso vel Polemon: juvenis Pamphilus: matrona Myrrhina, & puer ab odore Storax: vel a ludo & a gesticulatione Circus: & item similia. In quibus summum Poetae visium est, si quid et contrario repugnans contrarium diversumque protulerit, nisi per ἀντιφρασιν nomen imposuerit joculariter, ut Misargyrides in Plauto diciter trapezita.[90.11] Anyone who wishes to be convinced of this through further examples need only look at the names in Plautus and Terence. Because their plays have all been taken from the Greek, the names of their characters are also of Greek origin and always refer, etymologically, to the social status, way of thinking, or some other thing that these characters could have in common with many others, even if we cannot still always specify such etymologies with clarity and certainty.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 I am not going to dwell on such a well-known matter; but I do wonder how Aristotle’s interpreters could have failed to remember it, when Aristotle so undeniably points it out. For what can be more true, more clear, than what the philosopher says of the consideration poetry has for universality in issuing names? What can be more undeniable, than that ἐπὶ μὲν τῆς κωμῳδίας ἤδη τοῦτο δῆλον γέγονεν;[90.12] that this consideration has apparently long been demonstrated, especially in comedy? From its first origins, that is, as soon as the iambic poets rose from the particular to the universal, as soon as instructive comedy grew out of libelous satire, they tried to indicate universality through the names themselves. The boastful cowardly soldier was not named for this or that leader from this or that clan; he was called Pyrgopolinices, Captain Battering-ram.[90.13] The miserable parasite who was eager to please him was not named after some poor fellow in the city; he was called Artotrogus, Crumbcarrier.[90.14] The youth who plunged his father into debt through his expenditures, particularly on horses, was not named for the son of this or that upright citizen; he was called Pheidippides, Squire Sparesteed.[90.15]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 It could be objected that such signifying names might only have been an invention of Greek New Comedy, whose poets were strictly forbidden to make use of real names, and that Aristotle did not know these New Comedies and therefore could not have taken them into consideration for his rules.[90.16] Hurd claims this latter,[†] [90.17] but this is just as false as the claim that the older Greek comedies only made use of real names. Even in those plays whose primary, sole purpose was to make a certain well-known person ridiculous and hated, nearly all the names except for that of this one real person were made up, and made up in such a way as to correspond with their social standing and character.


6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 [*]This could easily be misunderstood. That is, if one wanted to understand it as if Donatus also held “comicum aperte argumentum confingere” [“to openly invent a comedic plot”] to be absurd. Of course, that is not at all Donatus’s meaning. Rather, he intends to say that, because the comic writer manifestly invents his subject, it would be absurd if he nonetheless attributed unsuitable names to his characters, or occupations that conflicted with their names. For certainly, since the subject is completely the poet’s, it is wholly and singularly up to him what kind of names he gives his characters, or what kind of social standing or occupation he wants to connect with these names. Therefore, perhaps Donatus ought not to have expressed himself so ambivalently, and by changing a single syllable this hindrance is avoided. Namely, it should either read: “Absurdum est, comicum aperte argumentum confingentem vel nomen personae” etc; or even “aperte argumentum confingere & nomen personae” etc.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 [†] Hurd, in his “Dissertation on the Provinces of the Drama”: “From the account of comedy, here given, it may appear, that the idea of this drama is much enlarged beyond what it was in Aristotle’s time; who defines it to be, an imitation of light and trivial actions, provoking ridicule. His notion was taken from the state and practice of the Athenian stage; that is from the old or middle comedy, which answer to this description. The great revolution, which the introduction of the new comedy made in the drama, did not happen till afterwards” [Hurd, “Dissertation” 201]. But Hurd merely assumes this so that his explanation of comedy does not appear to conflict with Aristotle’s so directly. Aristotle did indeed live to see the New Comedy and he recalls it specifically in the Nicomachean Ethics, where he deals with decent and indecent jokes (Bk. IV, ch. 14). ἴδοι δ᾽ ἄν τις καὶ ἐκ τῶν κωμῳδιῶν τῶν παλαιῶν καὶ τῶν καινῶν: τοῖς μὲν γὰρ ἦν γελοῖον ἡ αἰσχρολογία, τοῖς δὲ μᾶλλον ἡ ὑπόνοια. [“The difference may be seen by comparing the old and the new comedies; the earlier dramatists found their fun in obscenity, the moderns prefer innuendo, which marks a great advance in decorum” Tr. by H. Rackham, Nicomachean Ethics 4.8.6.] One could, of course, say that we are to understand Middle here for New, for since there were no New Comedies yet, the Middle ones must have been called new. One could add that Aristotle died in the same Olympiad in which Menander premiered his first play; in fact, it was the year before (Eusebius in Chronico ad Olymp. CXIV. 4). But one would be wrong to reckon the beginning of New Comedy from Menander; Menander was the first writer of this epoch in terms of poetic merit, but not in terms of time. Philemon, who also belongs to that era, wrote much earlier, and the transition from the Middle to New Comedy was so imperceptible that Aristotle cannot possibly have lacked for examples of it. Aristophanes himself had already provided such an example; his Cocalos was so constituted that Philemon could appropriate it with few changes. It says in the Life of Aristophanes: Κωκαλον ἐν ψ ἐισαγει φθοραν καὶ ἀναγνωρισμὸν καὶ τἀλλα πάντα ά ἐζηλώσε Μένανδρος.” Thus since Aristophanes provided examples of all the various modifications of comedy, Aristotle could also build his definition of comedy on all of them. That is what he did, and comedy did not develop further to a point beyond which this explanation became too narrow. If Hurd had only understood this correctly, he would not have found it necessary to take refuge in Aristotle’s supposed lack of experience in order to remove all conflict between his own ideas of comedy (which were of course in and of themselves correct) and Aristotle’s.

  • 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0
  • [90.1] Actually published Easter (March) 1769.
  • [90.2] Lessing continues his discussion of Aristotle’s views on dramatic character in Poetics (Part IX). Lessing’s analysis of Aristotle was triggered by Diderot’s statement, in [83], that tragic characters are individualized and comic characters are types. At the end of [89], Lessing explores the statement that dramatic poetry aspires to the universal, and questions how this aspiration might relate to the names of dramatic characters.
  • [90.3] “In Comedy this is already apparent: for here the poet first constructs the plot on the lines of probability, and then inserts characteristic names – unlike the lampooners who write about particular individuals.” Tr. S. H. Butcher in Aristotle, Poetics (Part IX).
  • [90.4] “This point is already rendered apparent in comedy, because comic poets, having arranged their subject according to verisimilitude, afterward impose on their characters whatever names they please, and do not imitate satiric poets, who are attached only to the particular.” See Aristotle and André Dacier, La poëtique d’Aristote [The Poetics of Aristotle] 126.
  • [90.5] See Curtius, Aristoteles Dichtkunst [Aristotle’s Poetics] 20.
  • [90.6] tels noms qu’il leur plaît: “whatever names they please.”
  • [90.7] τὰ τυχόντα ὀνόματα: “randomly occurring names”; οὕτω: “thus” or “so.”
  • [90.8] οὗ στοχάζεται ἡ ποίησις ὀνόματα ἐπιτιθεμένη: “it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.” Tr. S. H. Butcher in Aristotle, Poetics (Part IX).
  • [90.9] This passage comes from Donatus’s commentary on Terence’s comedy The Brothers; see Donatus, Publii Terentii, Carthaginensis Afri, Comoediae 244. Lessing extensively discusses the play in essays [70] – [73].
  • [90.10] “The names of the characters, in comedies at any rate, must be chosen intentionally and in such a way that we can figure out what they mean. Indeed, it is absurd to openly invent a comedic plot: by either giving an unfitting name to a character or by giving a character a role that is different from its name.” In Lessing’s footnote: “Absurdum est . . .” (“It is absurd to openly provide a comedic plot that invents an unfitting name for a character”); “aperte argumentum . . .” (“to plainly invent a comedic plot and give an unfitting name to a character”).
  • [90.11] “Hence we have a faithful slave named Parmeno [“stand fast”]; an unfaithful slave named either Syrus [Syrian] or Geta [Goth]; a soldier named Thraso [“bold”] or Polemon [“warrior”]; a youth named Pamphilus [“beloved by all”]; a matron named Myrrhina [“myrtle”]; and a boy named Storax [a fragrant bush] because of his smell, or Circus [a circular racing track], because of his sport and gestures; and more of the same. In this lies the greatest error of the poet, if he uses some name that is antithetical and opposite, that fights against itself, unless he has assigned the name as a joke due to its antiphrasis, like the moneylender in Plautus called Misargyrides [“money-hater’s son”].” Misargyrides: character in Plautus’s comedy Mostellaria.
  • [90.12] ἐπὶ μὲν τῆς κωμῳδίας ἤδη τοῦτο δῆλον γέγονεν: “In Comedy this is already apparent”; see note 3 above.
  • [90.13] Pyrgopolinices: title character of Plautus’s play Miles Gloriosus [The Braggard Soldier], whose name in fact means “the much-conquering tower”; see Plautus, Miles Gloriosus 69.
  • [90.14] Artotrogus: the parasite (sycophant) in Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus, whose name means “bread-eater”; see Plautus, Miles Gloriosus 69.
  • [90.15] Pheidippides (“sparing a horse”): character from Aristophanes’ comedy The Clouds (423 BCE).
  • [90.16] New Comedies: ancient Athenian comedy has traditionally been divided into Old, Middle and New; contemporary scholars have indicated the ways in which these categories are unsatisfactory, and occasionally misleading, although they continue to be used (see Olson 1–32). Aristophanes (c. 450–c. 388 BCE) is representative of Old Comedy, which combined political, artistic, and philosophical criticism with savage personal attacks and scatological humor. Antiphanes (c. 408–c. 330 BCE) is representative of Middle Comedy, which is considered a transitional genre; it had less political commentary and fewer personal attacks, and also saw the emergence of stock characters. Menander (c. 342–c. 292 BCE) is representative of New Comedy, which gently satirized domestic life, and eschewed politics and obscenity. As Lessing states in his footnote, Aristotle died around the time that Menander’s first play was produced, but he would have seen other early examples of New Comedy.
  • [90.17] Richard Hurd (1720–1808): English bishop and scholar; authored moral works and literary criticism, as well as multiple editions of Horace’s works. Hurd published Horace’s Ars Poetica (De Arte Poetica) [Art of Poetry] in 1749, with English commentary and notes. His subsequent editions of Horace added additional works, also supplemented by his own commentary; to each printing (1751, 1753, 1757, and 1766) Hurd added a new critical dissertation (culminating with four dissertations in the edition of 1766). Lessing owned the two-volume second edition, Q. Horatii Flacci Epistolae ad Pisones et Augustum [Q. Horace Flaccus’s Letters to Pisones and Augustus] (1766); in his footnote, he quotes (in English) from the second dissertation (“Dissertation on the Provinces of the Drama”). Lessing’s quotation from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is actually from Chapter 8 of Book IV (rather than Chapter 14). Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260-c. 337): Greek historian and early Christian bishop, whose world history, or Chronographia, contains a list of Olympic victors (used by the Greeks as a dating system). Philemon (c. 368–c. 264 BCE): playwright of Athenian New Comedy; a rival of Menander. Cocalos: one of Aristophanes’ final works (not extant). Life of Aristophanes: Lessing quotes from an anonymous text (XXVII Koster) in the collection of Byzantine treatises known as the Prolegomena on Comedy. “Κωκαλον ἐν ψ ἐισαγει φθοραν καὶ ἀναγνωρισμὸν καὶ τἀλλα πάντα ά ἐζηλώσε Μένανδρος”: Jeffrey Henderson’s translation reads “Cocalus, in which he introduced rape and recognition and all the other elements that Menander emulated” (Aristophanes, Fragments 8–9).
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