Month: July 2017

125. Characters by Theophrastus (371-287 BC)

125. Characters by Theophrastus (371-287 BC)

Plot:  A set of 30 brief character sketches (all bad) which may have been written as examples for characterizations in comic plays such as Old Cantankerous (#15 The Hostile Man, no doubt – see my post for 124. Dyskolos by Menander)

My copy is the older Penguin Classic (1967) translated by Philip Vellacott, also containing the surviving works of Menander.

My thoughts: Perhaps better known as the Father of Botany, Theophrastus not only took over from Aristotle as the head of his school, but also wrote extensively on just as wide a range of subjects. Not so much survives, and as I am not a great fan of the botanical sciences, I have restricted myself to this small serve in the literary vein.

I must confess disappointment that these sketches were not more amusing. Each trait (e.g. the flatterer, the boor, the talker, the skinflint, the offensive, the tiresome, etc.) is described and then examples of typical behaviour are listed. Plenty of scope for humour here but none of them raised even a smile for me. Better off reading Dickens and seeing them fleshed out.

This style was repeated  later by authors such as Ben Jonson and George Eliot  -let’s hope they do better.

Favourite lines/passages:  None.

Personal rating: Meh. 3/10

Kimmy’s rating:  Slept through.

Next : Still have Politics (#122) andThe Athenian Constitution (#123), both by Aristotle to get back to, then another slog through the Old Testament and the Books of Ezekiel and Daniel (#126), After that it will be a voyage to China to meet up with Mencius, and then a relaxing sea cruise in search of the Golden Fleece. The end of the Greeks is in sight.

 

124. Dyskolos (aka Old Cantankerous) by Menander, c.317 BC

124. Dyskolos (aka Old Cantankerous) by Menander, c.317 BC

Plot:  A rich Athenian youth falls in love at first sight with the daughter of the most bad-tempered man ever born.

My copy is the older Penguin Classic (1967) translated by Philip Vellacott, also containing The Characters by Theophrastus (to be read soon)

My thoughts:  I needed to get back to my classics reading today, but Aristotle looked too weighty for my poor brain. What was needed was a light comedy, so I stretched down my list to 317 BC   and surfaced with Menander’s Dyskolos.

It is believed Menander wrote over 100 plays in his time, but this is the only one that survives intact, and it was only discovered in 1955. There are fragments of his other plays in the same volume, but I didn’t feel inclined to start any knowing they were incomplete, and other readers have felt disappointed with them anyway.

Menander is the sole example of what has been called New Comedy, as distinct from Aristophanes and his contemporaries’ Old Comedy. Menander’s plays are peopled with everyday characters : slaves, farmers, servants; instead of famous politicians, philosophers and poets, and so deals with everyday scenarios instead of political commentary. The role of the Chorus has also been reduced to musical interludes between Scenes, and do not add to the story directly.

The play has been given many names : Dyskolos, Old Cantankerous, The Bad-Tempered Man, The Misanthrope, The Grouch, etc. and there is no doubt this character steals the show in every scene. Cnemon is a grouchy old farmer who refuses to talk to anyone except his daughter Myrrhine and the old slave woman Simice. Everyone else is chased off his land with blows and curses. Unfortunately for Cnemon, his land adjoins a shrine to Pan and this draws revelers to his front door, including Sostratos who falls for Myrrhine.

Favourite lines/passages:  Every scene with Cnemon is fun, especially at the end when he is carried off to join the festivities. Unfortunately no particular dialogue stands out but it was a fun little play after the scholarly studies of Plato and Aristotle.

Diversions and digressions:  Menander was a student of Theophrastus (see above) who was a student of Aristotle, who was a student of Plato, who was a student of Socrates …. its a small world is Ancient Athens.

Personal rating: Happy to give this a 6. Recommended. 

Also around that year:  Alexander the Great had taken control of the known world, Athens being engulfed in his empire early on under his father Philip II’s rule in 338 BC. Alexander dies of a fever in Babylon in 323 BC, and his empire is squabbled over by his generals.

The sanity in between:  Quite a bit of other reading, including my monthly dose of P. G. Wodehouse, Laughing Gas (a body-swap story involving an English Lord and a Hollywood child star), The Road to Oz  (5th in Baum’s Oz series) and Killing Floor, a thriller by Lee Child.

Next : Back to Aristotle and his Politics.