Stephen Halliwell

OUP (World’s Classics, 2016) p/b 298pp £8.99 (ISBN 9780192824097)

This is the second volume of a new verse translation, containing the three plays whose main target is ‘cultural’ (theatre, philosophical enquiry) rather than political: Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs. The first in the series, containing Birds, Lysistrata, Assembly-Women and Wealth, was published in 1997 (World’s Classics series 1998). It is to be hoped that vol. 3, with the remaining four plays of Aristophanes, will soon be on the way.

It would be hard to find a better companion to Aristophanes, for classicists but perhaps especially for the general reader. The 86-page introduction covers everything one needs to know in general, including A.’s career in its historical context, how Old Comedy worked and fitted into Dionysiac festivities, a full discussion of the style, content and structure of the plays (including A.’s unique combination of satire and serious purpose), how they were performed, the problems of translation and assigning stage directions, and how perceptions of A. have changed in succeeding centuries, evolving into a much greater appreciation of his quality in recent times.

In addition, each play has its own introductory essay; there are also a select bibliography, a historical timeline, notes explaining the references and jokes (where we can explain them) an Index of Names with what we know about them, and an appendix with accounts and translations of the main surviving fragments from A.’s many lost plays. All of this, taken with the translations, should give even the most obstinately non-classical reader a wide understanding of this in many ways difficult poet.

Best of all, H. makes clear how complex and ingenious a writer A. is, and demolishes the myths that grew up around him in the past (such as ‘crusty old-timer always wanting to having a go at the new-fangled’). H. shows that you cannot pigeonhole A. into such stereotypes: his art is much more complex and multi-faceted. Indeed, reading these plays, you get the impression that while Socrates and (especially) Euripides were repeated butts for his humour, yet he respected them, and it was rather the misuse others made of them that he objected to; he is not vicious about them personally in the way he could be with his political targets.

The translations are in clear, modern colloquial English and obviously designed with an eye to stage performance, for which they would work well. H.’s introductory explanation on translation explains clearly the reasons for his choices. He is alive to the importance of the changing rhythms in the plays and has (wisely, I think) chosen appropriate English verse forms instead of, like many past translators, taking refuge in prose. Best of all, he has managed to maintain a line-by-line correspondence with the Greek, which I’m sure was no easy task, but is a boon for anyone who wants to follow the original with its help. He has ‘tried to provide…versions which approximate as closely to the original texture of Aristophanic poetry, and to the proclivities of Aristophanic humour, as is compatible with reasonable fluency in modern English’. For speech, he has used iambic pentameters, for the longer choral recitatives (the parabasis etc.) eight-stress lines (trochaic or iambic). These seem to reflect the spirit of the original well.

The choral lyrics are a much harder problem, not least because we have little idea what the musical rhythms sounded like. H. has chosen ‘a fluid free-verse technique…translation of the lyrics calls for maximum pliancy…readers in turn need to stretch their imaginations and seek some sense of what must have been contributed by the lost music and choreography’. One can sympathise with the difficulty, and usually it works, but this is the one aspect where perhaps H. has occasionally missed a trick. There are some passages where even the untutored eye can see differences in rhythm which are clearly contributing to the meaning: the most obvious example is the croaking chorus in Frogs, where the difference between Dionysos and the frogs is clearly pointed up by differences in their rhythm; H. seems to me to lose this.

Then there is the question of the obscenity and scatology, which were such an integral part of the Old Comedy tradition. H. tackles this head-on, pulling no punches, including in his stage directions (e.g. how the actors were dressed). He is surely right to do so, for two main reasons. First, fidelity to the text; much of A.’s comic force lies in the juxtaposition of the high-flown with the vulgar, and if you cut out the latter you miss the whole point. Secondly, however we may regret it, the terms used are common currency and almost certainly familiar these days to most schoolchildren; it is long since students were compelled to read bowdlerised texts. No doubt some judicious editing might be needed if these scripts were to be performed, depending on the context, but the male-only locker-room slang, which it essentially is, seems almost tame compared with what we have become used to in much of our media.


Altogether a fine effort, to be recommended for all classes of reader.


Colin McDonald


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