(342 - 292 B.C.)

    MENANDER, Greek poet and comic dramatist, was born in about 342 B.C. and died in about 292. An Athenian of prosperous family, he became a pupil of the philosopher Theophrastus, the successor of Aristotle. One of Menander's fellow pupils and friends was Demetrius of Phaleron, whose expulsion from the governorship of Athens in 307 brought Menander into danger of prosecution. Menander was said to have declined invitations to visit Macedonia and Egypt. He met his death by drowning while he was swimming at the Piraeus.
    Menander wrote over a hundred comedies. Following remarkable discoveries of papyri in recent years, there are now ten which we have substantial passages or fragments.
    The earliest of his plays, datable to 317 B.C., seems to be the Dyskolos (Bad Tempered Man or Curmudgeon), which has come down to us almost complete. In this comedy, the rich young Sostratus, out hunting, sees Myrrhine and falls in love with her but is warned off by her morose father Cnemon. At the suggestion of Daos, however, who is a slave of Cnemon's stepson and neighbour Gorgias, Sostratus pretends to be a poor farmer and goes to dig on Gorgias' land. Cnemon repels various visitors rudely but then falls into his own well and is so impressed when Gorgias goes to his rescue that he adopts him as his son. He also asks Gorgias to find a husband for Myrrhine: Gorgias puts forward the name of Sostratus, who in gratitude gives Gorgias his own rich sister in marriage. The ensuing celebrations are at first shunned by Cnemon, but finally, after much pestering, he is dragged onto the dance floor to join in the festivities.
    The Epitrepontes (Arbitrants), apparently a late play, written after 304, is likewise sufficiently well preserved for a reconstruction of its plot to be possible. An Athenian Charisios (Charming) has married Pamphile (Lovely), daughter of Smicrines (Small-minded). Only five months after the wedding, however, Charisios discovers, apparently from his slave Onesimus (Profitable), that Pamphile has given birth to a child, which he believes cannot be his. In distress, he vainly seeks consolation with a harp-girl Habrotonon. When two countrymen request Charisios to arbitrate a dispute over the possession of identity tokens found on an exposed child, Onesimus recognizes one of there objects as a ring of his master's. It comes to light that the baby is the child that had been borne by Pamphile and that the father is, after all, Charisios himself, who had seduced her at a festival before their marriage, neither knowing who the other was. Thus when Smicrines comes to insist that his daughter leave her husband, because of the quarrel that had arisen between them, he finds that all is well after all and that the couple are reconciled and happy.
    We also have about 450 lines of the approximately 1000 in the Perikeiromene (The Unkindest Cut). A poverty-stricken merchant, Pataecus, had exposed his twin infants, Moschion and Glycera. Moschion was later adopted by the rich Myrrhine, who then became the wife of Pataecus. In consequence, Pataecus adopted Moschion, not knowing that the youth was his own son. Glycera, brought up in poverty, had become the mistress of the soldier Polemo, but when Polemo catches her kissing Moschion (whom she now knows to be her brother, although he is unaware of this), he jealously cuts off the girl's hair (hence the title of the play), whereupon she flees to the house of Pataecus and Myrrhine. However, her birth tokens convince Pataecus that she is his daughter, and Moschion, eavesdropping, discovers that he himself is her brother. Polemo, who has planned to assault the house, repents and is forgiven by Glycera, and they prepare to get married to each other.
    A considerable part of the Samia (Woman from Samos) has survived. The lost beginning probably told the following story: Demeas, a rich bachelor, was unable by law to marry the Samian woman Chrysis, with whom he was living, because her parentage was unknown. At the same time, Demeas" beloved adopted son Moschion (who is the natural son of Chrysis) has fallen in love with Plangon, but the affair is a secret because Plangon cannot provide a dowry. While Demeas is away, Chrysis hs borne him a child, but the child has died (for some reason that we cannot reconstruct, Demeas had order that if she bore a baby it would have to be exposed). Plangon, too, has had a child by Moschion, which Chrysis now brings up. She tells Demeas on his return that Plangon's infant is a foundling she is anxious to keep. Demeas plans that Moschion should marry Plangon. The surviving portion of the manuscript begins with preparations for the wedding banquet. Now, however, Demeas suspects that Chrysis has seduced Moschion and drives her out of the house with her child, whom Demeas later suspects to be a premarital offspring of Moschion and Plangon. Subsequently Moschion, in despair, decides to go abroad as a soldier. Presumably, however, there is a happy ending; though it has not been preserved.
    Substantial portions of the Aspis (Shield) have also come to light. The plot depends on a feature of the Athenian law of inheritance: if an unmarried girl was left as heiress to an estate, her closest male relative was entitled to marry her -- indeed, if her inheritance was small, the law compelled him to marry her, or, if not, to subsidize her from his own property. In the Aspis, the slave Daos reports the death of his young master Cleostratus on military service; the avaricious Smicrines plans to take advantage of the law and marry the dead man's sister (who is rich). But, we learn from the Goddess Luck that Cleostratus is, in fact, still alive -- and about to return home. Meanwhile, the resourceful Daos seeks to deter Smicrines' marriage plans. At this juncture, in the fourth act, Cleostratus returns, but how the fifth and last act was worked out to the appropriate happy ending we cannot tell, since it is missing. However, the Aspis is of historical significance because of the character of Daos: for this is the only substantially surviving play to present the character of the helpful and cunning slave who is guide, philosopher, and friend -- a personage often encountered in the shorter fragments.
    The Hero -- apparently titled after a household deity, some famous ancestor -- has survived in only one fragment of any size. This is part of the prologue, which takes the form of a discussion between Daos, a slave of Laches, and another slave named Getas. Although the rest of the comedy is lost, the outline of its plot has survived: an unmarried girl of the name of Myrrhine, seduced by Laches, gave birth to twins, a boy and girl, and exposed them at birth. They were discovered by a farmer manager, Tibeius later dies, owing money to Laches, and in order to pay the debt off the boy whom Tibeius had adopted, Gorgias, goes with his sister Plangon to work on Laches' estate, not knowing (any more than Laches did) that they were both Laches' children. Daos falls in love with Plangon, his supposed fellow slave, and when a neighbour, Pheidias, seduces her, wants to take the responsibility upon himself. Finally, Laches recognizes his children from tokens left with them when they were exposed as infants; and Pheidias and Plangon duly marry.
    The staging of Georgos (Farmer) requires tow houses. In one lives a widow named Myrrhine; by her late husband, a poor man, she has a son, who is away working with a farmer called Cleaenetus (with whom Myrrhine had had a premarital affair long ago -- an affair that had left Cleaenetus with such a bad conscience he never married). In the second house on stage lives a rich man who has a son by his first marriage and a daughter, Hedeia, by his second. In the first extant scene of the play the rich man's son comes out of his father's house and addresses the audience in great distress. There are also five other surviving fragments, but they do not show clearly how the plot developed or was resolved.
    A recently discovered fragment is of a comedy called the Man [or Men] from Sicyon. This, as far as we can tell, is a different sort of comedy altogether, mainly consisting not so much of moralizing or social comment as a narrative. Parts of a prologue and of a long messenger's speech are extant. Stratophanes is a young soldier who has just come back to Athens from military service in Asia Minor. He believes his hometown to have been Sicyon (on the Gulf of Corinth); but the woman he supposes to be his mother lives in Athens. On arriving there, he sends his slave Pyrrhias ahead to give her advance information of his safe return. But Pyrrhias comes back to him with the news that his mother has died; and he brings her will and a letter and parcel containing tokens of identity) that she has left for Stratophanes. From these the young man learns that he is not the dead woman's son after all, and not a Sicyonian but an Athenian. Moreover, the girl he is in love with, Philumene, who had been captured by pirates in her infancy and sold in Asia Minor, fortunately turns out to be a freeborn Athenian as well, so that the legal objection that they had supposed to be a fatal obstacle to their marriage does not exist after all.
    We know of the Kolax (Flatterer) only from the Eunuchus of the Roman playwright Terence (c. 195/185 B.C. - 159 B.C.), which was partly based on it. MMenander's play evidently portrayed the arrogance, thickheadedness, and vulgarity of a Greek professional soldier, together with his habit of exaggerating his warlike exploits. In Terence's adaptation, a henchman of the soldier pronounces a monologue describing his own technique of flattery; and then the soldier arrives, and delivers a speech which illustrates his talent for boasting. A more sympathetic military figure is Thrasanides in the Misoumenos (The Hated One or The Man She Loved to Hate, a play written late in Menander's career). After the fortunes of war have brought him a young girl as a prisoner of war, Thrasonides falls passionately in love with her, but, when she shows distaste for him, chivalrously refrains from laying a hand on her and frees her without ransom when her father comes to claim her.
    A papyrus discovered in 1968 contains parts of Menander's Dis Exapation (A Double Deceit), which is evidently the original of a passage adapted by the Roman dramatist Plautus (c. 254/250 B.C. - 184 B.C.) in his Bacchides. In Menander's plot, Mnesilochus, while absent in Ephesus to collect a debt owing to his father, has fallen in love with a prostitute, Bacchis, who was about to be taken to Athens. He writes to his friend Pistoclerus in Athens, asking him to try and find the girl. Pistoclerus succeeds but himself falls under the spell of her twin sister, likewise known as Bacchis. Mnesilochus learns of this and mistakenly believes that Pistoclerus' affections have fallen on the sister whom he himself loves. The plot is concerned with the clearing up of this imbroglio.
    The plays of Menander's New Comedy seem to have had a fixed structure, comprising five acts, of which the first contained the exposition of the theme, the second and third its development, the fourth the principal climax, and the fifth the clearing up of outstanding situations and problems. The breaks between the acts were filled by choral interludes, presented by young revellers (komoi). (The text of these interludes has not been preserved; Menander may not ever have written them down).
    No scene of Menander's needs more than three speaking actors at a time. However, if the actors were in fact limited to three, major parts must, on occasion, have had to be shared between two of them: so that it is not inconceivable that there was sometimes a fourth. The scene is generally a town street, backed by two or three houses in which, by a conventional coincidence, some or all of the principal characters of the play have their homes. In some plays, however, one of the houses may be replaced by a temple and the street by a seaside path or country lane.
    These comedies are set in contemporary Greece, usually Athens or Attica. Although the characters show a certain awareness of the outside world, the plays are not concerned with the bloodlettings, famines, and political convulsions that characterized Athens in the fourth century B.C. In contrast to the Old Comedy of Aristophanes (but in pursuance of a shift in emphasis begun by the Middle Comedy of Antiphanes and Alexis), the New Comedy turned its attention to the private domestic problems of a relatively prosperous non-political dream world, and in particular to a certain range of situations that were now becoming an established theatrical tradition: foundling children and their recognition tokens, kidnapped daughters, clever scheming slaves, extramarital pregnancies, expensive entanglements with prostitutes, and the los of merchant ships carrying family fortunes.
    Ranging right across the whole of society, Menander's characters have moved a good distance from the more or less caricatured types of Middle Comedy; they assume the three-dimensional shapes of individual human beings. Although not portrayed in any psychological depth, they are depicted credibly enough and often stray quite sharply away from the types they might be expected to represent: nor is it always clear to the reader whether Menander intended them as serious or comic. They seemed very lifelike to the ancients, and their creator was praised by the scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium for representing life in such faithful terms: "O Menander and Life," he asked, "which of you imitated the other?"
    His plays always included a love interest, though it is not always the central theme. To deduce Menander's own views from those expressed by his characters would not be legitimate; yet his own personality does unmistakably emerge from his overall treatment. Although not primarily a serious social critic but a playwright who sets out to entertain, he appears to admire altruistic friendship and approves particularly of benevolence that cuts across the barriers of class and wealth. He feels a sense of duty and sympathy toward his fellow human beings, especially those whom fortune has worsted; and he sees the family as a protection against the jolts of an unkind world. These vicissitudes inspire him with a certain melancholy pessimism, and yet at the same time he feels a certain hope that things may change for the better.
    His view of the Gods, although somewhat difficult to assess owing to the incomplete survival of his works, seems to be fairly typical of educated Athenians of the time. That is to say, he does not believe very seriously in the principal Olympian divinities but on the whole prefers to speak more vaguely of "the divine power" or "the Gods." Yet he recognizes the existence of unseen forces and exploits their power with considerable dramatic skill, particularly through the deities and personifications (Chance, Ignorance, Pan, etc.) who speak his prologues.
    Menander was an ingenious constructor of plays, well acquainted with the techniques for creating surprise and variety. It is remarkable how his vivid details, short speeches, and passages of dialogue manage to serve a number of different purposes at one and the same time, how skilfully his characterization is coordinated with the development of his themes. The plots move along with pleasing continuity and flow, displaying a concern with symmetry and balance. Menander also makes effective use of devices that not only link one scene to the next but also conceal those elements -- such as threadbare plots and improbable coincidences -- that would otherwise have destroyed the iillusion of realism.
    Realism is also fostered by his handling of language. Menander employs as verse form the iambic trimeter (varied, in the early plays at least, by another meter, the rhythmical trochaic tetrameter), which although basically artificial and unrealistic, does provide a sort of semblance of the currently spoken tongue. And while his characters, of whatever personality or class, all normally speak the same dialect -- a largely colloquial though grammatical late Attic -- a considerable number of these men and women are also endowed with distinctive modes or habits of speech, which are presented with subtle variations of rhythm. Menander's smart, sententious sayings -- like "Those whom the Gods love die young" (in the Double Deceit) -- became famous. But the collections that were subsequently made of these epigrams give an exaggerated impression of their frequency, since Menander produced them only at special junctures in his plays in order to serve some specific dramatic purpose or make an ironical point.
    Naturally, he was influenced by his dramatic predecessors, although it is not easy to offer reliable generalizations about this. For one thing, the history of many of his stereotypes can easily be traced back to the Athenian Old Comedy of Aristophanes; indeed, if we can judge from the anonymous Life of the latter, Aristophanes' last play, the Kokalos (which is lost), prefigured numerous Menandrian features. Menander also owed a great deal to the tragedies of Euripides, whose Ion, for example, anticipated a whole series of New Comedy situations and whose Orestes provided a scene that Menander substantially recreated in his Man [or Men] from Sicyon. Moreover, Menander's general ideas of economical, highly organized plot structure may also be derived from Euripides. His friendship with two Peripatetics (Aristotelians), Theophrastus and Demetrius of Phaleron, has been cited by modern scholars as evidence of Aristotelian doctrines in his plays; however, if such ideas are present in them at all, which is doubtful, they are deeply interwoven into his own highly original fabric.
    In his own day Menander was a less successful writer than such fellow playwrights as Philemon (c. 368/60 - 267/63 B.C.), and he won only eight victories at dramatic festivals. After his death, however, he soon became famous, and by later agreement, voiced by Quintilian, he was regarded as the leading practitioner of the New Comedy. His plays ranked high among those selected for Latin adaptation by Plautus in the third century B.C. and Terence in the second. Through these Roman intermediaries he deeply affected the dramatists of later Europe, including Moliere in the seventeenth century  and Sheridan in the eighteenth. His direct influence, however, was eliminated by the disappearance of his plays during the seventh and eighth centuries A.D.,. and it is only in quite modern times that important papyrus discoveries are partially retrieving this position.

Some of the Many Works of Menander
  1. Anger
  2. Arbitrants (Epitrepontes)
  3. Bridesmaid
  4. Brothers (two plays)
  5. Brothers Who Love Each Other
  6. Carthaginian
  7. Changeling (or Rustic)
  8. Charioteer
  9. Copersmiths' Holiday
  10. Cousins
  11. Doorkeeper
  12. Double Deceit, A (Dis Exapation)
  13. Drunkenness
  14. Eunuch
  15. False Accuser
  16. False Heracles
  17. Farmer (Georgos)
  18. Fishermen
  19. Flatterer (Kolax)
  20. Flute Girl (or Robe-Bearer)
  21. Ghost (of which a summary has survived)
  22. Girl Twins
  23. Handkerchief
  24. Hated One, The or The Man She Loved to Hate (Misoumenos)
  25. Heiress
  26. Hero, The
  27. Hired Mourner
  28. Hirer of Mercenaries
  29. Hymnis
  30. Imbrians
  31. Man [or Men] from Sicyon
  32. Man of Ephesus
  33. Marriage-Broker
  34. Mistress
  35. Necklace
  36. Noise-Fearer
  37. Nurse
  38. Phanium
  39. Pilots
  40. Pitcher
  41. Possessed Women
  42. Priestess
  43. Promiser
  44. Ring
  45. Self-Tormentor
  46. Shield (Aspis)
  47. Shipowner
  48. Slave
  49. Sold
  50. Soldiers
  51. Stable-Boy
  52. Superstitious Man
  53. Thais
  54. Thrasyleon
  55. Treasure
  56. Trophonius
  57. Unkindest Cut, The (Perikeiromene)
  58. Widow
  59. Woman of Andros
  60. Woman of Boeotia
  61. Woman of Cnidus
  62. Woman of Leucas
  63. Woman of Olynthus
  64. Woman of Perinthus
  65. Woman of Samos (Samia)
  66. Woman-Hater
  67. Woman Possessed
  68. Woman Set on Fire
  69. Woman Slapped
  70. Women's Lunch
A considerable number of fragments have survived from plays that cannot be identified.

Return to Main Page