These comedies are regarded as the first period in ancient Greek comedy and are examples of satire that poke fun at and point out the flaws in public people and policies. Eleven plays by Aristophanes survive today, each of which serves as an example of this drama genre. The period of Old Comedy came to a close with the defeat of Athens during the Peloponnesian War.
Explore Old Comedy
Old Comedy Definition
Old Comedy is a genre of Greek drama that was popular in the 5th century B.C. and beyond. These performances were upbeat and energetic and contained amusing satires of public people and events. Often, they included various elements that readers may not initially associate with plays.
Old Comedy famously inspired writers like:
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
- Ben Johnson
- Miguel de Cervantes
- Jonathan Swift
Elements of Old Comedy
Below are a few of the many elements that readers can expect to find in Old Comedy
- High-spirited dances and songs
- Political criticism
- Sexual innuendo
- Commentary on literature and philosophy
- Satire aimed at public figures
- Satire aimed at well-known events
- Make use of a six-part structure
- Chorus dressed as animals
- Actors wore interesting, often grotesque masks
Structure of Old Comedy Plays
As the Old Comedy play form evolved, it eventually settled on a structure that contained six parts. These were:
- An introduction
- Parados or the moment when the chorus entered the stage
- Contest (also known as an agon)
- Parabasis (during which the chorus addressed the audience)
- A series of amusing scenes inspirited by the information in the introduction and the chorus’ insults.
- A finale (usually a banquet or a wedding).
Old Comedy Authors
Aristophanes was not the only Greek playwright who engaged with this genre. Other Old Comedy authors include:
Examples of Old Comedy in Literature
The Clouds by Aristophanes
The Clouds is a comedy written by the most famous Old Comedy author—Aristophanes. In Greek, the title is spelled as: “Νεφέλαι” or “Nephelai.” It is focused on the intellectual ideology of Athens and satire-based comedy. Specifically, it mentions Socrates, a fact that at the time did not sit too well with the public. The play begins with Strepsiades speaking these lines:
Damn! Lord Zeus, how this night drags on and on!
It’s endless. Won’t daylight ever come?
I heard a cock crowing a while ago,
but my slaves kept snoring. In the old days,
they wouldn’t have dared. Oh, damn and blast this war—
so many problems. Now I’m not allowed
to punish my own slaves. And then there’s him—
Today, the play is considered one of the finest examples of Old Comedy in ancient Greek history. The play focuses primarily on a battle of ideas—the New vs. the Old. Famously, Plato commented on The Clouds citing it as an example of slander and part of the reason that Socrates was later condemned to death.
The Knights by Aristophanes
The Knights is another great example of Old Comedy drama in Greek literature. It was the author’s fourth play and is another satire on Athenian life and politics. The play won the poet first prize at the Lenaia festival in 424 BC. Here are the first lines as spoken by Demosthenes:
All right, that’s it, that’s just too much to take!
I’ve had it! Th at bastard interloper!
That miserable Paphlagonian!
I wish the gods would obliterate him—
him and his schemes! Since that awful day
he came into this house, because of him
we slaves keep getting beaten all the time.
Scholars have noted that this play stands apart from some of Aristophanes others in that it only has a few characters.
There are three broad periods of ancient comedy. They are: Old Comedy, Middle Comedy, and New Comedy. The first of these is mostly marked by Aristophanes’ contributions to developing satire.
In Greek comedy, Aristotle wrote that it represents people as worse than they are in real life. It exaggerates people’s negative features for the purpose of entertainment. Tragedy, however, shows them “better” than they are in reality.
Old Comedy plays were divided into six parts. They were: an introduction, a parados or the moment when the chorus entered the stage, a contest (also known as an agon), a parabasis (during which the chorus addressed the audience), and a series of amusing scenes inspirited by the information in the introduction and the chorus’ insults, and a finale (usually a banquet or a wedding).
Related Literary Terms
- Alazon: one of the three traditional characters in Greek comedy. They have an inflated sense of worth and often boast.
- Alexandrianism: the work and beliefs of Greek poets during the Hellenistic age, lasting from 323 to 31 BCE.
- Anacreontic: metered verses in the style of the Greek poet Anacreon. His poetry often dealt with themes of love and wine.
- Muse: a source of inspiration for the writer. This could be someone they know or a direct reference to the traditional Greek muses.
- Sapphics: refers to poems written in the style of Sappho, a classical Greek poet.
- Strophe: refers to a group of verses within a poem that forms a unit and the first part of the ode in Greek tragedies.