Aristophanes (Frere 1909)/Knights

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For other English-language translations of this work, see Knights (Aristophanes).






The following translation not being calculated for general circulation, it is not likely that it should fall into the hands of any reader whose knowledge of antiquity would not enable him to dispense with the fatigue of perusing a prefatory history. Such prefaces are already before the public, accompanying the translations of Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Walsh, and will be found satisfactory to those who may be desirous of preliminary information.

It may not, however, be altogether superfluous to prefix a brief summary of preceding circumstances. We have already seen that the Poet, in his comedy of The Babylonians, had made an attack upon the leading demagogues and peculators of his time. In return for this aggression, Cleon (as described in The Acharnians),

"Had dragged him to the Senate House,
And trodden him down and bellowed over him,
And mauled him till he scarce escaped alive."

The Poet, however, recovered himself, and in the Parabasis of the same play had defied and insulted the demagogue in the most unsparing terms. In the course, however, of the following summer, Cleon, by a singular concurrence of circumstances, had been raised to the highest pitch of favour and popularity. A body of 400 Spartans having been cut off, and blockaded in an island of the Bay of Pylos, now Navarino, this disaster, in which many of the first families of Sparta were involved, induced that republic to sue for peace; which Cleon, who considered his power and influence as dependent on the continuance of the war, was determined to oppose. Insisting, therefore, that the blockaded troops could be considered in no other light than as actual prisoners, he finally pledged himself, with a given additional force, to reduce the Spartans to surrender within a limited time; this he had the good fortune and dexterity to effect, and to secure the whole credit of the result for himself; having in virtue of his appointment superseded the blockading general, Demosthenes; while at the same time he secured the benefit of his experience and ability by retaining him as a colleague. The reader, if he has the work at hand, will do well to refer to Mr. Mitford's History, c. xv. sec. x., for a detailed account of this most singular incident, strikingly illustrative of the distinct character of the two rival republics. It was then, immediately after this event, when his adversary's power and popularity were at their height, that the Poet, undeterred by these apparent disadvantages, produced this memorable and extraordinary drama.

For those readers to whom any further introduction may be necessary, a list of the Dramatis Personæ, with some accompanying explanations, will perhaps be sufficient.


Demus.—A personification of the Athenian people, the John Bull of Athens, a testy, selfish, suspicious old man, a tyrant to his slaves, with the exception of one (a new acquisition), the Paphlagonian—Cleon, by whom he is cajoled and governed.

Nicias and Demosthenes.—The two most fortunate and able generals of the republic, of very opposite characters; the one cautious and superstitious in the extreme; the other a blunt, hearty, resolute, jolly fellow, a very decided lover of good wine. These two, the servants of the public, are naturally introduced as the slaves of Demus. After complaining of the ill-treatment to which they are subject in consequence of their master's partiality to his newly-purchased slave the Paphlagonian, they determine to supplant him, which they effect in conformity to the directions of a secret Oracle, in which they find it predicted that the Tanner (i.e., Cleon the Paphlagonian) shall be superseded by a person of meaner occupation and lower character.

Cleon.—The Tanner (as he is called from his property consisting in a leather manufactory), or the Paphlagonian (a nickname applied in ridicule of his mode of speaking from the word paphlazo, to foam), has been already described. He is represented as a fawning obsequious slave, insolent and arrogant to all except his master, the terror of his fellow-servants.

A Sausage-seller, whose name Agoracritus, "so called from the Agora where I got my living," is not declared till towards the conclusion of the play, is the person announced by the Oracle, as ordained by fate, to baffle the Paphlagonian, and to supersede him in the favour of his master. His breeding and education are described as having been similar to that of the younger Mr. Weller, in that admirable and most unvulgar exhibition of vulgar life, The Pickwick Papers. Finally, after a long struggle, his undaunted vulgarity of superior dexterity are crowned with deserved success. He supplants the Paphlagonian, and is installed in the supreme direction of the old gentleman's affairs.


It appears that the Poet must have been subjected to some particular disadvantages and embarrassments in the production of this play. We have seen that, in the preceding comedy of The Acharnians, Lamachus, a rising military character, had been personated on the stage, and had been addressed by name, without disguise or equivocation, throughout the whole of that play. This is no longer the case in the play now before us; Nicias, Demosthenes, and Cleon himself, are in no instance addressed by name. It should seem, therefore, that some enactment must have taken place, restraining the license of comedy in this particular; and here a distinction is to be observed between the choral parts and the dramatic dialogue; for in this very play Cleon is most unsparingly abused by name in the choral songs. The fact seems to have been that the licentious privilege of the "Sacred Chorus" consecrated by immemorial usage, and connected with the rites of Bacchus, could not be abridged by mere human authority; while the dramatic dialogue (originally derived, in all probability, from scenes in dumb show, which had been introduced to relieve the monotony of the Chorus) was regarded as mere recent invention destitute of any divine sanction, and liable to be modified and restrained by the power of the state.

With respect to Nicias and Demosthenes, the Poet could have found no difficulty in evading the new law. The masks worn by the actors presenting a caricature-likeness of each of them, would be sufficient to identify them; and it could not be supposed that either of them would be offended at being brought forward in burlesque, when the Poet's intention was evidently friendly towards them both; the whole drift of his comedy being directed against their main antagonist and rival. For the caricature in which they themselves were represented, was in no respect calculated to make them unpopular; on the contrary, the blunt heartiness and good fellowship of the one, and the timid scrupulous piety of the other, were qualities which in different ways recommended them respectively to the favour and good-will of their fellow-citizens, and which were accordingly exhibited and impressed upon the attention of the audience, through the only medium which was consistent with the essential character of the ancient comedy.

But among the audience themselves there would undoubtedly be some gainsayers, who if they were not silenced at the first outset, might have interrupted the attention of others—"This is too bad," they might have said; "the Poet will get himself into a scrape. Here is a manifest infraction of the new law." In order to obviate this, the Poet in the first scene, before the proper subject of his comedy is developed, but at the precise point when his individual characters, Nicias and Demosthenes, were sufficiently marked and identified, submits the question to a theatrical vote, appealing to the audience for their sanction and approbation of the course which he had adopted. This appeal, marked as it is with a character of caution and timidity, is, with a humorous propriety, assigned to the part of Nicias; with Cleon, however, the case was different, and there was a difficulty which it required all the courage and ability of the Poet to surmount—no actor dared to expose himself to the resentment of the Demagogue by personating him upon the stage, and among the artists who worked for the theatre, fearful of being considered as accomplices of the Poet in his evasion of the new law, no one could be found who would venture to produce the representation of his countenance in a theatrical mask. The Poet, therefore, undertook the part himself, and for want of a mask disguised his own features, according to the rude method of primitive comedy, by smearing them with the lees of wine. It is worthy of remark that in his effort to surmount this difficulty he has contrived to identify the Demagogue from the first moment of his appearance, concentrating his essential character and his known peculiarities in a speech of five lines—his habitual boisterous oath and a slangish use of the dual.

In order to occupy the vacant space which has been left by the printer, the translator is tempted, for once, to insert a justificatory comment. The speech of Nicias as given below is extended to three lines; in the original consists of a line and a half, which might be more accurately and concisely translated thus:

"Yes let him perish in the worst way possible,
With all his lies, for a first-rate Paphlagonian."

But there would be one main defect in this accurate translation, namely, that it would not express the intention of the author, nor the effect produced by the actor in repeating the original; for if we consider it in this view we find that, short as it is, it contains three distinct breaks; one at the end of the second word, another at the end of the third, and a third at the end of the line. These momentary pauses are characteristic of timid resentment, expressing itself by fits and starts,—a character which, to the English reader perusing a printed text, could not be rendered obvious without employing a compass of words much larger than the original.

Again we see that the courage and anger of Nicias, even with the help of the beating which he has just received, are barely sufficient to enable him to follow the example of Demosthenes; even in wrath and pain he is contented to "say Ditto" to what his comrade had said before. The Poet's intention, in this respect, is made more distinctly palpable to the English reader by the first line of the translated speech.

And thus much may serve for a commentary on a passage of three lines and as sample of others, which if they were not wearisome and egotistical might be extended to every page of this and the preceding play.

[After a noise of lashes and screams from behind the scenes, Demosthenes comes out, and is followed by Nicias the supposed victim of flagellation (both in the dress of slaves). Demosthenes breaks out in great wrath; while Nicias remains exhibiting various contortions of pain for the amusement of the audience.

Dem. Out! out alas! what a scandal! what a shame!
May Jove in his utter wrath crush and confound
That rascally new-bought Paphlagonian slave!
For from the very first day that he came—
Brought here for a plague and a mischief amongst us all,—
We're beaten and abused continually. 5

Nic. (whimpering in a broken voice).
I say so too, with all my heart I do,
A rascal, with his slanders and lies!
A rascally Paphlagonian! so he is!

Dem. (roughly and good-humouredly).
How are you, my poor soul?