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A Dissertation Upon The Greek Comedy, Translated From Brumoy
by [?]

That which is commonly known by the term jocular and comick, is nothing but a turn of expression, an airy phantom, that must be caught at a particular point. As we lose this point, we lose the jocularity, and find nothing but dulness in its place. A lucky sally, which has filled a company with laughter, will have no effect in print, because it is shown single, and separate from the circumstance which gave it force. Many satirical jests, found in ancient books, have had the same fate; their spirit has evaporated by time, and have left nothing to us but insipidity. None but the most biting passages have preserved their points unblunted.

But, besides this objection, which extends universally to all translations of Aristophanes, and many allusions, of which time has deprived us, there are loose expressions thrown out to the populace, to raise laughter from corrupt passions, which are unworthy of the curiosity of decent readers, and which ought to rest eternally in proper obscurity. Not every thing, in this infancy of comedy, was excellent, at least, it would not appear excellent at this distance of time, in comparison of compositions of the same kind which lie before our eyes; and this is reason enough to save me the trouble of translating, and the reader that of perusing. As for that small number of writers, who delight in those delicacies, they give themselves very little trouble about translations, except it be to find fault with them; and the majority of people of wit like comedies that may give them pleasure, without much trouble of attention, and are not much disposed to find beauties in that which requires long deductions to find it beautiful. If Helen had not appeared beautiful to the Greeks and Trojans, but by force of argument, we had never been told of the Trojan war.

On the other side, Aristophanes is an author more considerable than one would imagine. The history of Greece could not pass over him, when it comes to touch upon the people of Athens; this, alone, might procure him respect, even when he was not considered as a comick poet. But, when his writings are taken into view, we find him the only author from whom may be drawn a just idea of the comedy of his age; and, farther, we find, in his pieces, that he often makes attacks upon the tragick writers, particularly upon the three chief, whose valuable remains we have had under examination; and, what is yet worse, fell sometimes upon the state, and upon the gods themselves.


These considerations have determined me to follow, in my representation of this writer, the same method which I have taken in several tragick pieces, which is, that of giving an exact analysis, as far as the matter would allow, from which I deduce four important systems. First, upon the nature of the comedy of that age, without omitting that of Menander[4]. Secondly, upon the vices and government of the Athenians. Thirdly, upon the notion we ought to entertain of Aristophanes, with respect to Eschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Fourthly, upon the jest which he makes upon the gods. These things will not be treated in order, as a regular discourse seems to require, but will arise sometimes separately, sometimes together, from the view of each particular comedy, and from the reflections which this free manner of writing will allow. I shall conclude with a short view of the whole, and so finish my design.


I shall not repeat here what Madame Dacier, and so many others before her, have collected of all that can be known relating to the history of comedy. Its beginnings are as obscure as those of tragedy, and there is an appearance that we take these two words in a more extensive meaning: they had both the same original; that is, they began among the festivals of the vintage, and were not distinguished from one another, but by a burlesque or serious chorus, which made all the soul, and all the body. But, if we give these words a stricter sense, according to the notion which has since been formed, comedy was produced after tragedy, and was, in many respects, a sequel and imitation of the works of Eschylus. It is, in reality, nothing more than an action set before the sight, by the same artifice of representation. Nothing is different but the object, which is merely ridicule. This original of true comedy will be easily admitted, if we take the word of Horace, who must have known, better than us, the true dates of dramatick works. This poet supports the system, which I have endeavoured to establish in the second discourse[5], so strongly, as to amount to demonstrative proof.