We all have bad sides to our characters and one of mine is that I like puns – I don’t mean witty puns or clever word play but weak and tortured puns. There was a bit in the paper today about the Chinese government outlawing puns probably not a bad idea. This got me thinking whether the Greeks ever indulged in such a debased pleasure and I came across this bit from Plutarch “a comparison of Menander and Aristophanes” which survives only in a summary. My translation does not translate the puns. Plutarch would agree with the Chinese it seems.
In general terms, Plutarch much prefers Menander and in particular he adds this: “Vulgarity in language and theatricality and commonness are characteristic of Aristophanes but not at all of Menander. And the man who is uneducated and ordinary, the sort of men Aristophanes is speaking to, is captivated, but the educated man finds it annoying. I am speaking of the use of antithesis and like endings and puns. Now Menander uses these in appropriate language and not very often, thinking that they deserve great care, but Aristophanes uses them often and inappropriately and frigidly. He is praised” says Plutarch “for the following
He drenched the treasurers, who were not treasurers (tamias) but Lamias (Lamia is a monster)
He blows North winds (Kaikias) or informers (sykophantias)
He punches (stomachs) in the gut and stomach
By laughter (gelotos) I will get to Gela
What shall I do to you, you vile thing, as I have been become an ostracised (or broken into pieces) pot.
He does us wild evils, who grew up among the wild beans.
The moths have eaten my crest (lophon-not sure of this one possibly a reference to hare (lagon) in a precious line)
Bring me the gorgon-faced circle of my shield
Bring me the cheese-backed circle of my pizza.
And lots of others like this.”
… ὠς μὲν κοινῶς καὶ καθόλου εἰπεῖν πολλῷ προκρίνει τὸν Μένανδρον, ὡς δ᾽ ἐπὶ μέρους καὶ ταῦτα προστίθησι ‘τὸ φορτικόν’ φησὶν ‘ἐν λόγοις καὶ θυμελικὸν καὶ βάναυσον ὥς ἐστιν Ἀριστοφάνει, Μενάνδρῳ δ᾽ οὐδαμῶς. καὶ γὰρ ὁ μὲν ἀπαίδευτος καὶ ἰδιώτης, οἷς ἐκεῖνος λέγει, ἁλίσκεται ὁ δὲ πεπαιδευμένος δυσχερανεῖ: λέγω δὲ τὰ ἀντίθετα καὶ ὁμοιόπτωτα καὶ παρωνυμίας. τούτοις γὰρ ὁ μὲν μετὰ τοῦ προσήκοντος λόγου καὶ ὀλιγάκις χρῆται ἐπιμελείας αὐτὰ ἀξιῶν, ὁ δὲ καὶ πολλάκις καὶ οὐκ εὐκαίρως καὶ ψυχρῶς: ἐπαινεῖται γάρ’ φησὶν ‘ ὅτι τοὺς ταμίας ἐβάπτισεν, οὐχὶ ταμίας ἀλλὰ Λαμίας ὄντας: καὶ
οὗτος ἤτοι καικίας ἢ συκοφαντίας πνεῖ
γάστριζε καὶ τοῖς ἐντέροις καὶ τοῖς κόλοις
ὑπὸ τοῦ γέλωτος εἰς Γέλαν ἀφίξομαι
τί δῆτα σοι δράσω, κακόδαιμον, ἀμφορεὺς ἑξοστρακισθείς;
ἄγρια γὰρ ἡμᾶς, ὦ γυναῖκες, δρᾷ κακά,
ἅτ᾽ ἐν ἀγρίοισι τοῖς λαχάνοις αὐτὸς τραφείς
ἀλλ᾽ ἦ τριχόβρωτες τὸν λόφον μου κατέφαγον
φέρε δεῦρο γοργόνωτον ἀσπίδος κύκλον.
κἀμοὶ πλακοῦντος τυρόνωτον δὸς κύκλον
καὶ πολλὰ τοιαῦτα.