Ancient Greek Comedy: Definition & Plays

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

In this lesson, you can learn about Greek Comedy from the sixth century to the years just before Rome took over the region. From the brutal political work of Aristophanes to the origins of situation comedies, the Greeks had it all.

What was a Greek Comedy?

We think of comedy as anything from the Three Stooges to Jon Stewart, and the Greeks would have agreed with us. When the Greeks decided to have plays in honor of Dionysius, they made competitions for dramas, satyrs (in honor of the drunken satyr Silenus), and comedies. Comedies had a broad definition; they were any sort of a play that made people laugh. Greek comedies can usually be broken down into three distinct phases; these include Old Comedy, Middle Comedy, and New Comedy.

Old Comedy

Aristophanes was considered the master of the Old Comedy, and we have eleven complete plays from him. His work had weak plots, but there were two other layers to his plays. The first was pure and simple humor, focused on scatological and sexual jokes.

Aristophanes, Master of the Old Comedy

The other layer was personal and political. The few plays we have are filled with attacks on political and intellectual people from his time; he did caricatures of Socrates, Cleon, and Euripides. He mocked the Peloponnesian Wars that were going on when he wrote, along with the Athenian government that was fighting it. He didn't pull any punches, either, but because he laced his scenes with his simple humor, the comedies came across as fun and light. Imagine Larry, Moe, and Curly doing a political rant on the latest White House drama, and you have a good picture of Aristophanes' plays. We don't know for sure, but his peers were probably doing the same thing, just not as well. Examples of plays during this period include Aristophanes' The Clouds and The Acharnians.

Middle Comedy

Middle Comedy has been placed between the death of Aristophanes and the first plays of Menander. The style is considered a transition between the traditional and new comedy, but you can think of Middle Comedy as a simpler form of Old Comedy.

A Middle Comedy Actor
Middle Comedy

The chorus was a basic part of the play in Old Comedy, but it was unimportant by the time Aristophanes died and used less and less. There weren't any attacks on people, either. Instead, there were stock figures that always behaved in the same way. Think of a cranky cab driver, a proud baker, a perfectly precise banker, and a valley girl being put in play after play with other stereotype characters, and you have an idea about how Middle Comedy looked.

New Comedy

Menander was the genius of New Comedy, which started about 320 B.C.E. and ended in about 260 B.C.E. There were other playwrights, though, like Philemon and Diphilus, and we know from fragments that they wrote the same kinds of plays.

Menander, the master of New Comedy

Just like Middle Comedy, New Comedy didn't bother with politics or specific people nor did they use sexual humor or the chorus too much. Instead, the New Comedy playwrights liked to focus on the humor of everyday living. Their plays were usually set in Athens with everyday people as the main characters. The situation comedies that seem to be on your television every night are a good representation of that.

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