Dramatic Irony and Metadrama as a Vehicle for Social Criticism in the Works of Aristophanes, Plautus, and Goethe

Goethe's Faust, although clearly an innovative and modern work, nonetheless derives much of its material, both thematic and structural, from ancient dramatic works. In particular the Greek Aristophanic and the Roman comedies of Plautus share many important similarities to Faust, most importantly in the field of dramatic irony and dramatic self-consciousness. Modeled as they were on Greek originals, the plays of Plautus often re-cast the ancient Greek theatrical conventions and themes -- caricatures, political commentary, prologues and epilogues, moral sermons -- in a slightly Romanized world. Goethe, too, seems to have picked up on many of these same themes, casting them at times within the boundaries of modern German society, and at other times giving them free reign in their rightful place, classical antiquity -- but always with a modern flavor.

One of the theatrical conventions which all three playwrights share is the concept of theatrical self-consciousness, which undergoes a progression in importance and in centrality to the dramatic events from the Aristophanic to the Goethean treatment. This self-awareness of the drama's own fictionality, which can take the form of metadrama, dramatic irony, or any other device by which the dramatic illusion is broken, seems with Aristophanes to be merely a comic trope, used to praise the comedy itself, whereas by Plautus it has become an accepted and plot-dependent 'humorous' escape from the reality of the play. Goethe, however, brings in a merging of these two uses of metadrama: the dramatic self-consciousness in Faust is for the most part plot-dependent, yet it is not truly central to the action, at least not in the same way as in Plautine comedies. Goethe does, however, apply metadrama in many of the same ways as both ancient comedians, using it at times to justify or validate his own efforts, to express criticism of the society and customs of his day, and to provide a welcome relief from the high tension produced by the events of the drama.

A major and unavoidable difference between the three is, of course, the classification into genre: Aristophanic and Plautine plays, although often infused with tragic elements, remain clearly within the normal boundaries of comedy, whereas Goethe's Faust is, with only minor argument, generally accepted as a tragedy. When we consider the end of the drama, of course, with its reunification of the masculine and the feminine, which obviously calls to mind the traditional marriage scene at the end of Greek comedies, we can perhaps allow a certain freedom from strict classification to influence the discussion. Still, certain notions of comic effect hold true in all three cases: Aristophanic characters, whose most brilliant comedy arises in their aside remarks and in the choral parabases, are relatively open with their remarks, and free to comment explicitly on social mores of the day. Plautine figures, on the other hand, due partially to the more limited freedom of the artist in Plautus' Roman world, are left to speak in psychological overtones, avoiding much direct criticism, yet enriching the deeper, darker comedy of the works. Goethe seems once again to effect a mixture of the two: his social criticism is clearly apparent, yet often masked by classical allusions and set in metadramatic scenes that call attention to both society's ills and to the more generalized evils of humanity.

Dramatic irony, when strictly defined, appears in fact very rarely in ancient comedy; instead, it becomes common in Shakespearean and other European comedies. The classic example is, of course, the hero who remarks to the audience, "I would die, rather than fail now" -- he means simply that he intends to succeed, but the audience reads this correctly as a foreshadowing of the hero's imminent death. In a broader sense, however, dramatic irony develops a meaning that allows its application to ancient comedy and to Faust. The dramas and novels of the German Romantic authors, for example, exhibit a form of dramatic irony that mirrors the "illusion-breaking" role so familiar to us. In the tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann, the narrator interrupts the story at frequent intervals to exert his creative presence, reminding the audience how unusual or outrageous the situations as he describes them must seem -- thus begging the question of whether or not the tale is true. A remarkably similar form of irony appears, then, in the works of Aristophanes, Plautus, and most especially Goethe, who surely exhibited a great influence on the narrative irony later used by Hoffmann.

Aristophanes is in particular an interesting case. Often during the course of his plays, the audience is directly addressed by the actors. This is of course true in the parabasis, where it becomes a defining element, and also in the prologue, where it is necessary in setting up the details of the story. However, aside remarks made to the audience continue to appear, sometimes in unexpected places -- in the middle of dramatic conflicts or battles, amidst arguments or vehement discussions, or in other scenes where the action seems to take a more serious turn. The asides then relieve the tension produced at these moments, and add to the humor and comic character of the plays.

The purpose of the Aristophanic asides, however, upon closer examination, does not seem to be a furthering of the comic situation; instead, the author uses the characters in his drama as mouthpieces through which he praises his own creation, the drama itself. Such is the case in this scene from The Birds, where --the Hoopoe is first introduced: the two men laugh openly at his plumage, calling attention to the strange costume he is wearing. The Hoopoe then defends himself, saying, "I'd have you know it's copied exactly from the description of me in the Tragedy of Tereus, by Sophocles." [1] By drawing on a reference to the famous dramatist, Aristophanes here attempts to authenticate and support his own production, at the same time calling attention to the transparent fictionality of the work. The same phenomenon occurs, significantly, in almost all of the other aside remarks to the audience: another prime example, in the parabasis, occurs when the characters try to bribe the judges of Athens by relating to them "the good things we shall give them all if they award the prize to us." [2] Once again, by an open admission of his dramatic self-consciousness, Aristophanes praises his own comedy, setting it above and beyond the scope of contemporary playwrights.

The asides in Plautus' comedies, however, take on a very different character from those of Aristophanes. Admittedly, the prologues, although often "delayed" in Plautus until the action is already underway, seem for the most part to play the same role as their Aristophanic counterparts: an explanation to the unknowing audience of what events are to be described in the play. But once the action of the drama is underway, when aside remarks are made by the actors, they are, with very few exceptions, never addressed directly to the audience. Instead, observations are simply stated aloud, to no-one in particular: this creates the illusion that the character is either talking to himself or to another character who is "in" on the joke. These asides are, no doubt, said for the benefit of the audience, but they are not as decisive, and do not call attention to the audience itself as a separate entity. Instead, the remarks are contained within the plot and events: they arise out of a specific situation, then indirectly call attention to the humor of the proceedings. Such is the case in The Swaggering Soldier (Miles Gloriosus), during the play-acting scene of Milphidippa, who confesses her love for Pyrgopolynices. In the midst of this scene, the following dialogue occurs:

 MILPHIDIPPA [to PYRGOPOLYNICES]: ...those handsome features, that noble figure, that fame for courage and daring deeds. Was ever a man more godlike-?
 PALAESTRIO [aside to her]: He's not a man, my dear; a vulture is more of a man than he is, I should say.
 PYRGOPOLYNICES [aside]: I'll play high and mighty, since she admires me so.
 PALAESTRIO: Look at him - strutting about like an idiot ... Well, sir? Won't you answer her? ... [3]

The almost bewildering array of aside remarks here shows clearly the character differences in Plautus: these asides, directed as they are at other figures in the drama, serve to let the audience in on the joke, but in a much subtler way than the Aristophanic conceits. Here, also, we see the importance of the plot for the dramatic irony of Plautus: these remarks are entirely dependent on the scene in which they are played, and serve for the characters as a humorous escape from the situation in which they stand.

It is also true that the asides of Plautus have a more outwardly "funny" effect: in most cases, they will bring forth a bellowing laugh from the reader, and in some cases, they even lean toward a slapstick-like effect. The scene in the prologue of The Swaggering Soldier, for example, where the audience is told to watch the movements of Palaestrio carefully, as he carries out his "dramatic" thinking role, is an illustration of this: [4] the descriptions by Periplectomenus here develop the feel of a cabaret or vaudeville director, introducing to the audience the members of his cast and showing off their talents as they perform their humorous tasks. This scene also calls to mind, of course, the "Prolog auf dem Theater" in Faust, in which various techniques for impressing the audience are discussed at length. Plautus, though, stands in contrast to Aristophanes, who might have written a scene similar to this in order to call attention to his own creations, and in contrast to Goethe, whose Prologue mirrors far more social and artistic criticism within the illusion-breaking terminology -- the only unveiling in the Plautine version regards the actors and their talents, and nothing is mentioned of the playwright or unfolding drama.

Goethe, though, ever the innovator, brings new elements to his use of dramatic irony in Faust: not only are his continual references to classical antiquity and to the Greek ideals a plot-dependent trope, but the implied comparison between Faust and typical Greek drama also serves to authenticate Goethe's own work. The "Prolog auf dem Theater" is the most obvious example of this use: by calling explicit attention to the peculiarities of the audience and to the necessity of adapting one's acting to the modern dramatic taste, Goethe is at once asserting his creative presence as playwright and authenticating his artistic production. At the same time, the derisive remarks about the audience's decadence are a form of social criticism. This not only calls attention to the fictionality of the entire work, but also includes the spectators in the action of the play -- a paradoxical yet obviously related form of the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt.

What does not occur very often in Faust, though, are true asides, and most particularly those comical remarks which would normally produce a laugh in the audience. There are also relatively few instances in which the audience is directly addressed by a character within the play -- unless of course one considers the soliloquies, such as Faust's opening monologue, to be a direct speech to the audience. Single comic lines do, of course, occur: Mephisto, it is true, has numerous lines full of comic potential. Frequently, however, the funniest (and yet most ironic) moments come in the serious replies of Faust to the jibes of Mephisto. Mephisto, it seems, is a character that can be played to great effect as either a grand demon, or as a mischievous imp: as such, the effect of his lines is far more dependent on the actor's delivery than was the case in the ancient works. The scene in which Mephisto taunts Faust for having been unable to poison himself, then, relies almost exclusively on intonation and delivery:

 Faust: O wär' ich vor des hohen Geistes Kraft
     Entzückt, entseelt dahingesunken!
 Mephisto: Und doch hat jemand einen braunen Saft
     In jener Nacht, nicht ausgetrunken.

This dependence on the role-playing of the actor brings with it, though, a type of illusion-breaking: the audience, especially when familiar with the play, is aware of the potential in these lines, and is concentrating directly on the speaking actor, rather than on the character of Mephisto. Thus the audience is made aware of its role as an independent observer, while at the same time being "in" on the joke -- just as in the Aristophanic self-conscious passages, where the inclusion of the audience as a character in the drama brings to light the fictionality of the whole scene.

Another way in which these playwrights remind the audience of its place and bring out the comic elements in the dramas comes with the addition of "metadramatic" scenes, where a play within a play is introduced. This does not, of course, always take the form of a "real" play -- in fact, Shakespeare's use of this tactic is far less complex and interwoven than in the ancient comedies. Disguises, play-acting, pretending, and even lying can take the role of metadrama here: in all forms, the characters of the drama, themselves actors, take on a part to play and become actors within the dramatic events. The purpose and effect of this should be clear: the audience is immediately reminded of the illusion that is being produced, and thus becomes conscious of the illusion to which they are a spectator.

The use of metadrama, although similar in all three playwrights, nonetheless brings entirely different consequences: Aristophanes seems once again to authenticate his work through means of illusion-breaking scenes, calling attention to his own artistic prowess. Plautus, though, calls far more attention to the events within his own plot line, and only surreptitiously remarks upon the reality beyond the stage. Goethe, then, incorporates both types of illusion-breaking: his metadrama is certainly plot-dependent, yet it is also an escape from the dramatic tension, and can even be used convincingly to produce social criticism, which the ancient dramatists tended to state more bluntly and openly -- through direct remarks rather than in disguise. Social criticism in Goethe is, in fact, accomplished in large part though metadrama; while the same may be said of Plautine comedies, Aristophanic social critique tends to pervade the entire drama, and is by no means restricted within the confines of dramatic irony.

As such, the function of metadrama in Old Comedy (Aristophanes) seems far less tied to the real action of the play, but instead to a need to substantiate and praise the playwright's own creation. By setting up instances in which a "play" of some kind is put on, the occasion then arises for the deviser of the situation to be praised and flattered. This inevitably leads, then, to the praise of Aristophanes himself, the master creator. The mock trial set up in The Wasps, for example, is a clear case of metadrama: Anticleon sets the stage for a trial at home, in order to cause the repentance of his father by tricking him into acquitting the accused. In the process of setting up the house for the trial, objects and requisite items are brought out from the house, shown to the audience as their purpose is carefully described, and then put into use. The pots, for example, are the urns into which votes are cast, and the pig-pen gate becomes the wooden bar of the court. This ingenious use of mundane items, which under pretense take on a life of their own, shows the audience the "resourcefulness" of Anticleon, and thus in turn reminds them of the creative spirit of the author of the whole scene, Aristophanes. The same is true in The Birds, when the two Athenians first arrive at the Hoopoe's tree and are attacked by the angry flock of birds: they defend themselves by picking up kitchen utensils to use as armour, and proceed to stage a fake military battle. Peisthetaerus' creativity in the matter is even called directly to attention: "Quite a military genius, aren't you? Talk about resourceful," Euelpides remarks to his companion and to the audience -- underlining clearly the resourcefulness of his creator as well. [6]

Plautine metadrama differs greatly, however, from its counterpart in Aristophanic comedy. Here, instead of subtle illusions and lies carried out within the larger whole, the disguises and fictions put on by Plautus' characters are immanently tied to the development of the plot. Occasionally they make up a large portion of the play's action, such as the role-playing scenes of The Swaggering Soldier, but wherever they appear, their function is clear: to move along the action of the play. In Casina, for instance, the disguising of the male servant for the female Casina is clearly plot-dependent; in fact, it could be said, this is the plot. Once again, the theatrical self-consciousness of Plautus relies less on the appraisal of his own works, and far more on plot-related themes. Indeed, the disguises and the metadramatic elements in Plautus are for the most part the funniest elements of the story, while in Aristophanic comedies they are merely a sidelight to the true humor of the commentary.

Despite their use as comic and/or humorous scenes in Plautus, however, the elements of metadrama in Plautine comedy almost always take on a rather sinister cast. Casina, for instance, has the famous disguising and then the discovery scene: while outwardly funny, there seems to be an undercurrent of darker thought here -- as if one never really knows with whom one is dealing, or even more metaphysically stated, as if one never really knows who one is. Even in The Swaggering Soldier, which is in general a much lighter comedy, there remain dark elements: the two-sidedness of Philocomasium betrays either the duplicity of women or the schizophrenic nature of mankind as a whole, and the attempted maiming of Pyrgopolynices at the end reveals the violent, dark nature of the desire for revenge.

In addition, the themes usually dealt with in Plautine metadrama clearly reveal the darker side of human behavior: instead of the Aristophanic treatment of social problems (the overzealous jurymen, the discontented Athenians), the Plautine character traits are far more deeply embedded in the personalities of the characters involved: the braggart soldier who is unable to deny himself pleasure and forces others to bend to his will, the lustful and practically incestuous husband, who would risk the wrath of his own wife to possess Casina -- these types reveal not the ills of society, but the ills of mankind and human nature.

In Goethe, too, the evils of mankind and of individual figures play a central role (the Emperor as a lazy and manipulative monarch, or even Faust, occasionally, as possessing human frailties), yet often the criticism of the society as a whole, which is inherent in almost all scenes, overpowers such an interpretation of the "common human experience." The metadrama in Faust, then, most often lays out Goethe's social criticism in a mastery of disguise, through its embedding in classical themes and in plot-related commentary. The best example of this is in the "Walpurgisnachtstraum": the play within a play where numerous characters come on stage, making fun of the contemporary ideas and figures of Goethe's Germany. Not only is there artistic criticism here, in which Nicolai, von Stolberg, and others are heartily derided, but philosophical and political figures are subjected to the abuse as well, so that in the end even Goethe himself, as the Weltkind, appears in the melée.

Also important is the metadrama that occurs throughout Part II of Faust, which is motivated in essence by the storyline: both Mephisto and Faust are continually taking on new roles, whether in disguise or as pretenses of classical figures (e.g. Plutus and Phorkyas). These scenes do of course call to attention the fictionality of the play in general, but they are far more important in terms of the dramatic tensions which they create: remarks from characters about their role-playing abilities. Helen's quote to Mephisto, for example, "Du fällst ganz aus der Rolle," [7] is also tied into the breaking of the dramatic illusion through its reference to the necessity of rhyme and rhythm in his speech -- it is thus a clear pointer to the audience, and to the characters within the action of the play as well, that the entire scene, even the act, is full of metadramatic irony.

Yet, as previously noted, the dramatic irony of Plautus and Goethe in both the metadrama and the aside remarks also differs from the Aristophanic version, in that the humorous remarks or references are usually addressed, not to the audience, but to the other characters within the drama, or, quite frequently, to no-one in particular at all. This may in itself seem normal, but once again it presents a darker view of the situation: instead of revealing to the audience their innermost thoughts, these figures express their thoughts only to themselves or each other, keeping the secret intact: a far more psychologically motivated humor is thus established. In tune with the sinister themes working beneath the overtly funny layer of Plautine comedy, then, the aside remarks, while adding to the surface layer of humor, in fact reveal the inner workings of the play: the contemplation of personal evils is seen in the remarks directed among the players of a Plautine drama, while an Aristophanic comedy, dealing more with societal ills, draws the audience as a member of society into the discussion by addressing them directly. Goethe, though, combines both of these aspects in his humor: there is an overtly comical tone to many of the aside remarks and social criticism in Faust, yet the ever-present critique of mankind's efforts darken this humor substantially. In addition, of course, the containment of these scenes within the events of the plot serves to keep the audience from becoming to directly involved, yet allows them to progress toward self-recognition and toward change.

As such, therefore, Plautine comedy is in some way the opponent of its own artistic order -- though it is outwardly funny and comic, the sinister, psychological workings of the drama suggest not comedy, but its antithesis, tragedy. The comedy of Aristophanes, on the other hand, does not seem to uphold this statement: the comedy itself is supported by humorous elements in the dramatic irony as well as by the authentication through the cross-dramatic references. In Goethe, though, the synthesis of both humorous commentary and dark underlying criticism leads to a sense of authentication, while simultaneously providing relief from the stark tragedy of the action. Surely this is also tied in with the classification of the drama as a tragedy rather than a comedy, despite its "happy" ending. It must of course be noted, though, that the difference in tone and color between the three playwrights does not necessarily imply a difference in quality, but only in the intentions and effects of the works produced. The effect of Goethe's blending of the ancient theatrical conventions, though, is undeniable: he not only authenticates his own production through metadramatic diversions, but incorporates a higher form of social commentary and criticism through the same scenes. Thus, Goethe's very negation by means of tearing down societal mores brings him authentication, as does his metadrama itself, successfully blending both Old Aristophanic and New Plautine comedic structure.


(1)  Aristophanes, The Birds, p. 159. [return to text]
(2)  Aristophanes, The Birds, p. 191. [return to text]
(3)  Plautus, The Swaggering Soldier, p. 194. [return to text]
(4)  Plautus, The Swaggering Soldier, p. 160. [return to text]
(5)  Goethe, Faust, Part I, ll. 1577-80. [return to text]
(6)  Aristophanes, The Birds, p. 167. [return to text]
(7)  Goethe, Faust, Act III, l. 9048. [return to text]

Works Consulted:

Aristophanes. The Wasps, The Poet and the Women, The Frogs, trans. David Barrett. London: Penguin Books, 1964.
Aristophanes. The Knights, Peace, The Birds, The Assemblywomen, Wealth, trans. David Barrett and Alan H. Sommerstein. London: Penguin Books, 1978.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Faust: Der Tragödie erster und zweiter Teil, ed. Erich Trunz. Munich: C.H. Beck Verlag, 1986.
Plautus. The Pot of Gold and Other Plays, trans. E.F. Watling. London: Penguin Books, 1965.

Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1993 for German 177 at Pomona College.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "Aristophanes, Plautus, and Goethe: Irony and Social Criticism." Website Article. 5 May 1993. <>.