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CRATINUS (c. 520-423 B.C.)

ATHENIAN comic poet Cratinus was the chief representative of the old, and founder of political, comedy. Hardly anything is known of his life, and only fragments of his works have been preserved. But a good idea of their character can be gained from the opinions of his contemporaries, especially Aristophanes. His comedies were chiefly distinguished by their direct and vigorous political satire, a marked exception being a burlesque dealing with the story of Odysseus in the cave of Polyphemus, probably written while a law was in force forbidding all political references on the stage. They were also remarkable for the absence of the parabasis and chorus. Persius calls the author "the bold," and even Pericles at the height of his power did not escape his vehement attacks, as in the Nemesis and Archilochi, the last-named a lament for the loss of the recently deceased Cimon, with whose conservative sentiments Cratinus was in sympathy. The Panoptae was a satire on the sophists and omniscient speculative philosophers of the day. Of his last comedy the plot has come down to us. It was occasioned by the sneers of Aristophanes and others, who declared that he was no better than a doting drunkard. Roused by the taunt, Cratinus put forth all his strength, and in 423 B.C. produced the Bottle, which gained the first prize over the Clouds of Aristophanes. In this comedy, good-humouredly making fun of his own weakness, Cratinus represents the comic muse as the faithful wife of his youth. His guilty fondness for a rival--the bottle--has aroused her jealousy. She demands a divorce from the archon; but her husband's love is not dead and he returns penitent to her side. In Grenfell and Hunt's Oxyrhynchus Papyri, iv. (1904), containing a further instalment of their edition of the Behnesa papyri discovered by them in 1896-1897, one of the greatest curiosities is a scrap of paper bearing the argument of a play by Cratinus--the Dionysalexandros (i.e. Dionysus in the part of Paris) aimed against Pericles; and the epitome reveals something of its wit and point. The style of Cratinus has been likened to that of Aeschylus; and Aristophanes, in the Knights, compares him to a rushing torrent. He appears to have been fond of lofty diction and bold figures, and was most successful in the lyrical parts of his dramas, his choruses being the popular festal songs of his day. According to the statement of a doubtful authority, which is not borne out by Aristotle, Cratinus increased the number of actors in comedy to three. He wrote 21 comedies and gained the prize nine times.

This article was originally published in Encyclopedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition. F.T.M. Cambridge: University Press, 1911.

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