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The comedic works of both Aristophanes, a fifth-century ancient Greek playwright, and Charlie Chaplin, an actor of the early twentieth century, center around one character. Aristophanes' play Clouds, first produced in 423 B.C.E., concerns Strepsiades and his many debts; he plans to learn from Socrates the art of the Inferior Argument so that he may convince his creditors that he does not have to pay them anything after all. In his later play Birds, first produced in 414 B.C.E., the main character is Makemedo, a man so determined to get out of Athens that he convinces a collection of birds to defy the gods, establish themselves as the rulers over the earth, and build a brick city in the sky from which they can reign and where he can also live. In each of Chaplin's films The Immigrant (1917), The Count (1916), and Easy Street (1917), he acts as a kind of "tramp" who overcomes his low status in society and achieves what he wants, even if only for a short time. Strepsiades, Makemedo, and Chaplin all shamelessly pursue their desires with little regard for the rules and standards of society around them.
In his published lecture concerning Aristophanes' plays, Cedric H. Whitman discusses what he considers as the general template of all of Aristophanes' main characters: the comic hero. Whitman defines a comic hero as possessing great individualism, a good deal of poneros, meaning wickedness, and striking a balance of eiron and alazon, which translates into being a mixture of an ironical buffoon, who makes fun of himself for his own amusement, and an imposter, who disguises his true identity or feelings. He sees the comic hero as one who is extremely self-motivated and self-centered: "whatever is heroic is individualistic, and tends toward excess, or at least extremes. It asserts its self primarily . . ." Whitman also declares that poneros is necessary in the character of the comic hero, that this person is villainous, manipulative, and very convincing. The comic hero is shameless in expressing his desires, and he has no shame in pursuing them by any means necessary, whether such acts would be considered right or wrong. Whitman also recognizes the mixture of eiron--ironical buffoonery--and alazon--being an imposter--in the comic hero of Aristophanes' plays. "The mere buffoon, says Aristotle, makes fun for the sake of getting a laugh for others; the ironical man makes fun for his own amusement, which is more worthy of a free man.
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In Aristophanes' Birds, for example, Makemedo fits Whitman's definition quite well. Of course, Whitman also structured his definition partly on Makemedo himself. Nevertheless, Makemedo is extremely individualistic. The premise of the play, which is exposed in the prologue, rests on Makemedo's dissatisfaction with the hustle and bustle of Athens and his desire for a calmer, gentler place to live. As he begins to convince the birds to build their own city--where he also can live--it becomes clear that Makemedo has only his best interests at heart. He encourages the birds to even wage war on the gods so that in the end he will have a more relaxed place to live. By taking advantage of the birds' trust, Makemedo also blatantly shows his poneria. His eironeia is apparent in lines 65-67, where he makes light of the fact that he has lost control of his bladder due to fright: "I'm a Yellow-streaked Dribbler, a Libyan species. . . . Hey, if you don't believe me, take a look at my feet" (Birds 65-67). Later, in lines 477-492, he begins to tell the birds his fantastic story about their sovereignty, and his alazoneia shows itself. Overall, Makemedo fits Whitman's definition of a comic hero, point by point.
Strepsiades of Clouds, on the other hand, does not so easily fit the mold of Whitman's definition. Strepsiades does possess great individualism: he has no regard for the institutions he is a part of, going so far as to seriously pursue convincing his creditors that he doesn't need to pay off his debts. He is also manipulative, in that he wants to use the Inferior Argument for purposes it was never designed for. However, Strepsiades is too straightforward to show either eironeia or alazoneia. He does act as a buffoon but only because he can't help it; he lacks the ability to be an imposter--he tells Socrates that he can't get a good grasp on any concepts, just his phallus (Clouds 732-335). Since he only possesses half of the qualities that Whitman recognizes in the comic hero, Strepsiades should not be categorized as one of Whitman's comic heroes.
Though Whitman did define the comic hero with Aristophanes' main characters as templates, Charlie Chaplin's "tramp" character also fits Whitman's definition quite well. Chaplin's character is quite individualistic and acts totally for his own desires: he always pursues the girl he wants, and he usually somehow accumulates wealth in his films. He is also rather manipulative: he lies in The Count and steals in both The Immigrant and Easy Street. Chaplin shows a bit of eironeia in some of his actions, also. In Easy Street, as he tries to use the phone to call for police backup to help with the thug standing right next to him, he acts like the phone mouthpiece is a horn so that the thug won't catch on to what he's doing. He also presents a great deal of alazoneia--throughout The Count he acts as an imposter, pretending to be Count Broko. Despite being written over two thousand years apart, both Aristophanes' plays and Chaplin's films center around very similar comic heroes.
Cedric Whitman defines the comic hero as someone who possesses much individualism, poneros, eiron, and alazon. Aristophanes' Makemedo does harbor all these traits, though Strepsiades from Clouds does not quite match Whitman's description. Charlie Chaplin's character, though created centuries later, is incredibly similar to Whitman's definition of the comic hero from the Old Comedies by Aristophanes. Whitman's perspective on the comic hero transcends the Old Comedies and can serve as a helpful guide to use in deciding whether or not today's leading characters in comedy are comic heroes or not.
Aristophanes, translated by Peter Meineck. Birds. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998.
Aristophanes, translated by Peter Meineck. Clouds. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1998.
Whitman, Cedric H. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.