The reception of Aristophanes in Britain during the long-Nineteenth century

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis explores the reception of Aristophanes in Britain over the course of the long-nineteenth century. It identifies two major strands of Aristophanic reception. From the start of the long-nineteenth century, the British reception of Aristophanes was tied up in contemporary political debate, as historians such as William Mitford (Chapter 1), translators and commentators like Thomas Mitchell and John Hookham Frere (Chapter 2), and even the burlesque writer J.R. Planché (Chapter 4) activated Aristophanes in support of their own political positions. Each asserted Aristophanes’ relevance to contemporary political debates; each argued for Aristophanes to be read within the specific sphere of nineteenth-century Tory politics. But each writer’s conceptualisation of Aristophanes was as different as their political outlooks (though they were all Tories). The reception of Aristophanes in the works of the playwright and librettist W.S. Gilbert (Chapter 5) was more subterranean and less directly political, but demonstrates the continued propensity to contemporise Aristophanic satire (often for a broadly conservative purpose) well into the second half of the century. Within this strand, a notable outlier is Percy Shelley, whose Aristophanic drama Swellfoot the Tyrant (Chapter 3) activated Old Comedy to argue for a left-wing political revolution. 
The second strand of Aristophanic reception, developed around the middle of the nineteenth century, actively depoliticised Old Comedy and instead received it through an aesthetic lens (Chapter 6). John Addington Symonds valued Aristophanes for his poetry, and this appreciation was picked up by Oscar Wilde and Algernon Charles Swinburne. George Meredith, Robert Browning and Aubrey Beardsley meanwhile argued that Old Comedy was defined above all by its ugliness – but nevertheless articulated an aesthetic, not political, valuation of Old Comedy. It is notable that all these voices were connected, in varying degrees, to the Aesthetic Movement. The aesthetics of Aristophanes – with an emphasis on the beautiful and the archaeological – also lay behind school and university productions of Old Comedy during this period (Chapter 7). 
Both strands of nineteenth-century reception find synthesis in the final two chapters of this thesis. In Chapter 8, we return to political readings of Aristophanes through women’s receptions of the playwright, exploring how activists used his plays to argue for equal educational opportunities and the right to vote. In the last chapter, we examine Gilbert Murray and George Bernard Shaw’s receptions; they both saw the political and artistic potential of Aristophanes. 
This thesis proves the surprising extent to which Aristophanes was received, across a wide array of mediums, in Victorian Britain. It also demonstrates that, over the course of the long-nineteenth century, Aristophanic reception was always a process of speaking to contemporary issues, whether political or aesthetic. Aristophanes was never read passively; his politics and aesthetics were constantly being reinterpreted and reactivated in line with the receiver’s own position.
Date of Award1 May 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorEdith Hall (Supervisor) & Pavlos Avlamis (Supervisor)

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