The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Emma Bridges
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
The majority of the ancient sources I spend most of my time with at the moment aren’t particularly comforting, and in fact they often make me feel quite sad – I’m currently working on a project which examines the experiences of soldiers’ wives in ancient Greek myth, and the representations of these women in epic poetry and tragic drama can be particularly harrowing. But in a different genre altogether, I’ve always really loved reading the comedies of Aristophanes (in fact I’m a bit surprised that no-one else in this series has mentioned them yet!)
When did you first come across Aristophanes?
My first encounter with the classical world was via A level Classical Civilisation in the 1990s, where we read Frogs and Thesmophoriazusae (‘The Women at the Thesmophoria festival’) in English translation. Recently I went to the King’s College London Greek Play (it’s the last theatre production I saw before lockdown) which was a brilliant mashup of Frogs and Euripides’ Bacchae, and it reminded me of what it is that I love about Aristophanes.
Can you tell me a bit about Aristophanes and his context?
Aristophanes was writing his plays for performance at the theatre festivals in Athens between the 420s and 380s BCE. Eleven of his plays survive in full, but he seems to have written many more than this; of the rest we have titles or fragments. They’re a pretty raucous mix of every imaginable comic technique, from cutting-edge political satire and caricatures of well-known figures to downright silliness – puns and visual humour along with plenty of toilet jokes and sexual innuendo. Usually they have absurd plots – Frogs, for example, features the god of drama, Dionysus, making a trip to the underworld to bring back to Athens one of two dead tragic poets, Aeschylus or Euripides, to ‘save the city’ during a time of political turmoil.
What is it about Aristophanes that appeals to you most?
Some people think that as soon as you start to analyse something which is intended to be humorous it stops being funny. That may be true to some extent, but I think you can learn a lot about a society from finding out what makes its people laugh. I love the fact that we can read Aristophanes and see what kinds of running jokes there were in Athens at particular points in the fifth century BCE – from seeing which politicians were in or out of favour, to the kind of mockery to which Aristophanes subjects the tragic poets Euripides and Aeschylus in Frogs. Also, productions like the King’s College Greek Play show that, even after two and a half millennia, these ancient plays can still be hilarious for a modern audience.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Things I really love include: family time with my husband and our two children; long walks with our Labrador Izzy; yoga (great for switching off when my mind’s too full); working my way through the never-ending stack of fiction books by my bed; long chats with friends, ideally over tea (brewed strong, with just a dash of milk) or G&T (with ice and a slice of lime).
Emma Bridges is Public Engagement Fellow in Classics at the Institute of Classical Studies in London. She helps researchers to find creative and interesting ways of sharing their work in Classics with wider publics. She’s also a researcher herself; her next book, Warriors’ Wives: Ancient Greek Myth and Modern Experience, compares the depictions of soldiers’ wives in Homeric epic and Athenian tragedy with the experiences of contemporary ‘military spouses’. It will be published by Oxford University Press in 2021.
You can find Emma on Twitter @emmabridges.
One thought on “Comfort Classics: Emma Bridges”
Yes I enjoy the rude humour of Aristophanes too, it’s a very Carry On type, innuendo-laden type of humour, and there’s also lots of curious pieces of evidence about social attitudes that it’s hard to know how much to take at face value; for instance the portrayal of Socrates in the Clouds seems an obvious caricature yet in the Apology by Plato, Socrates, in defending himself against the charge of perverting the youth and not respecting the gods, speaks of this portrayal as being partly to blame for the charge, so how much Athenian audiences were influenced by such performances we can’t be sure about. There’s also the attitudes in the Acharnians and the Lysistrata about a dissatisfaction with the war against Sparta and a corresponding wish to make peace; what was the audience’s point of view watching these? All we can say is that their comedic context makes us wary about taking any attitude at face value yet Aristophanes’ plays are often used as evidence of social mores etc.