(c. 342—292 bc) Greek dramatist

Show Summary Details

Quick Reference

(? 344/3–292/1 bc),

the leading writer of New Comedy (see comedy (greek), new), although in his own time less successful (with only eight victories) than Philemon. An Athenian of good family, he is said to have studied under Theophrastus, and to have been a friend of Demetrius of Phaleron. He wrote over 100 plays, many of which must have been intended for performance outside Athens. Nearly 100 titles are known, but some may be alternatives attached to plays restaged (as happened often) after Menander's death.

Menander's plays were lost in the 7th and 8th cents. ad as a result of Arab incursions and Byzantine neglect, but in modern times many papyri have been discovered, attesting great popularity in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. These include one virtually complete play, Dyskolos (‘Old Cantankerous’: victorious at the Lenaea in 316), and large enough portions of six others to permit some literary judgement. They include Epitrepontes (‘Arbitration’, a mature work half‐preserved intact and named after a brilliant scene), Perikeiromenē (‘Rape of the Locks’, nearly half of its clear plot surviving), Samia (‘Girl from Samos’, four‐fifths preserved), and Aspis (‘Shield’, first half).

Menander's plays are always set in contemporary Greece, often Athens or Attica, but although the characters are aware of events in the wider world, the plots focus on private domestic problems. They often include situations less common probably in real life than on the stage (e.g. foundling babies, raped or kidnapped daughters). There is always a love‐interest, but the range of situations is wide—a young man in love with a country girl or an experienced courtesan, an older man believing his mistress has been unfaithful, a husband doubting the paternity of his wife's new baby. Yet love is often only one ingredient in the drama; thus in Dyskolos, Sostratos' infatuation shares the limelight with his developing friendship with Gorgias, and Knemon's misanthropy.

Menander was a skilful constructor of plots, an imaginative deviser of situations, and a master of variety and suspense. He wrote for the theatre, highlighting the memorably emotive detail both in scenes of psychologically convincing dialogue and in long, vivid narrative speeches which sometimes recall the messengers of 5th‐cent. tragedy. Tragedy may also have influenced the use of divine prologues, either beginning the play or following an appetite‐whetting initial scene; they provided the audience with facts still unknown to the characters and enabled them to appreciate the irony of characters' ignorance.

Menander's plays were written in non‐realistic verse, yet his lines give an illusion of colloquial speech, while variations of rhythm subtly modulate tone, emotion and presentation of character.

The characters are firmly rooted in a comic tradition of two‐generation families, with important roles for slaves, courtesans, soldiers, parasites, and cooks. They are presented as credible individuals, and here two aspects of technique are significant. Menander often takes a type figure and either adds to it some unexpected touches or develops the expected traits in a new direction. Secondly, although almost every character speaks the same late Attic dialect, many of them are given individual turns of phrase that set them apart (e.g. in Dyskolos the cook Sikon's flamboyant metaphors and Knemon's simplistic exaggerations).


Subjects: Classical Studies.

Reference entries

See all related reference entries in Oxford Index »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content. subscribe or login to access all content.