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II. The first is the character of the ancient Character of comedy, which has no likeness to any thing in edy. nature. Its genius is so wild and strange, that it scarce admits a definition. In what class of comedy must we place it ? It appears to me a species of writing by itself. If we had Phrynicus, Plato, Eupolis, Critinus Ameipsias, and so many other celebrated rivals of Aristophanes, of whom all that we can find are a few fragments scattered in Plutarch, Athenias, and Suidas,we might compare them with our poet, settle the general scheme, observe the minuter differences, and form a complete notion of their comic stage. But for want of all this we can fix only on Aristophanes, and it is true that he may be in some measure sufficient to furnish a tolerable judgment of the old comedy; for if we believe him, and who can be better credited ? he was the most daring of all his brethren the poets, who practised the same kind of writing. Upon this supposition we may conclude, that the comedy of those days consisted in an allegory drawn out and continued ; an allegory never very regular, but often ingenious, and almost always carried beyond strict propriety, of satire keen and biling, but diversified, sprightly and unexpected ; so that the wound was given before it was perceived. Their points of satire were thunderbolts, and their wild figures, with their variety and quickness, had the effect of lightning. Their imitation was carried even to resemblance of persons, and their common entertainments, was a parody of rival poets joined, if I may so express it, with a parody of manners and habits.
But it would be tedious to draw out to the reader that which he will already have perceived better than myself.
I have no design to anticipate his reflections; and therefore shall only sketch the picture, which he must finish by himself; he will pursue the subject farther, and form to himself a view of the common and domestic life of the Athenians, of which this kind of comedy was a picture, with some aggravation of the features; he will bring within his view all the customs, manners, and vices, and the whole character of the people of Athens. By bringing all these together he will fix in his mind an indelible idea of a people in whom so many contrarieties were united, and who in a manner that can scarce be expressed, connected nobility with the cast of Athens, wisdom with madness, rage for novelty with a bigotry for antiquity, the politeness of a monarchy with the roughness of a republic, refinement with coarseness, independence with slavery, haughtiness with servile compliance, severity of manners with debauchery, a kind of irreligion with piety. We shall do this in reading ; as in travelling through different nations we make ourselves masters of their characters by combining their different appearances, and reflecting upon what we see. the movem. 111. The government of Athens makes a ment of the fine part of the ancient comedy. In most
*** states the mystery of government is confined within the walls of the cabinets; even in commonwealths, it does not pass but through five or six heads, who rule those that think themselves the rulers. Oras tory dares not touch it, and comedy still less. Cicero himself did not speak freely upon so nice a subject as the Roman commonwealth ; but the Athenian eloquence was informed of the whole secret, and searches the re
cesses of the human mind, to fetch it out and expose it to the people. Demosthenes, and his cotemporaries, speak with a freedom at which we are astonished, notwithstanding the notion we have of a popular government, yet at what time but this did comedy adventure to claim the same rights with civil eloquence ? The Italian comedy of the last age, all daring as it was, could for its boldness come into no competition with the ancient. It was limited to general satire, which was sometimes carried so far, that the malignity was overlooked in an attention to the wild exaggeration, the unexpected strokes, the pungent wit, and the malignity concealed under such wild flights as became the character of Harlequin. But though it so far resembled Aristophanes, our age is yet at a great distance from his, and the Italian comedy from his scenes. But with respect to the liberty of censuring the government, there can be no comparison made of one age or comedy with another. Aristophanes is the only writer of his kind, and is for that reason of the highest value. A powerful state set at the head of Greece, is the subject of his merriment, and that merriment is allowed by the state itself. This appears to us an inconsistency ; but it is true that it was the interest of the state to allow it, though not always without inconveniency. It was a restraint upon the ambition and tyranny of single men, a matter of great importance to a people so very jealous of their liberty. Cleon, Alcibiades, Lamachus, and many other generals and magistrates, were kept under by fear of the comic strokes of a poet so little cautious as Aristophanes. He was once indeed in danger of paying dear for his wit. He professed, as he tells us himself, to be of great use by his writings to the state ; and rated his merit so high as to complain that he was not rewarded. But, under pretence of this public spirit, he spared no part of the public conduct, neither was government, councils, revenues, popular assemblies, secret proceedings in judicature, choice of ministers, the government of the nobles, or that of the people spared.
The Acharnians, the Peace, and the Birds, are eternal monuments of the boldness of the poet, who was not afraid of censuring the government for the obstinate continuance of a ruinous war, for undertaking new ones, and feeding itself with wild imaginations, and running to destruction as it did for an idle point of honour. . ,
Nothing can be more reproachful to the Athenians than his play of the Knights, where he represents under an allegory that may be easily seen through, the nation of the Athenians as an old doating fellow tricked by a new man, such as Cleon and his companions, who were of the same stamp.
A single glance upon Lysistrata, and the Female Orators, must raise astonishment when the Athenian policy is set below the schemes of women, whom the author makes ridiculous for no other reason than to bring contempt upon their husbands, who held the helm of government.
The Wasps is written to expose the madness of people for lawsuits and litigations, and a multitude of iniquities are laid open.
It may easily be gathered, that notwithstanding the wise laws of Solon, which they still professed to follow, the government was falling into decay, for we are not to understand the jest of Aristophanes in the literal sense. It is plain that the corruption, though we should suppose it but half as much as we are told, was very great, for it ended in the destruction of Athens, which could scarce raise its head again, after it had been taken by Lysander. Though we consider Aristophanes as a comic writer who deals in exaggeration, and bring down his stories to their true standard, we still find that the fundamentals of their government fail in almost all the essential points. That the people were inveigled by men of ambition ; that all councils and decrees had their original in factious combinations ; that avarice and private interest animated all their policy to the hurt of the public ; that their revenues were ill managed, their allies improperly treated ; that their good citizens were sacrificed, and the bad put in places; that a mad eagerness for judicial litigation took up all their attention within, and that war was made without, not so much with wisdom and precaution, as with temerity and good luck ; that the love of novelty and fashion in the manner of managing the public affairs was a madness universally prevalent ; and that Melanthi us says in Plutarch, the republic of Athens was continued only by the perpetual discord of those that managed its affairs. This remedied the dishonour by preserving the equilibrium, and was kept always in action by eloquence and comedy.