Study Guide

Plautus

Plautus Biography

Biography (Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)

Life

Few details are known about Plautus’s (PLAWT-uhs) life. Of the approximately 130 comedies that he wrote for the Roman stage, only 21 survive. These plays, including Asinaria (The Comedy of Asses, 1774) and Miles gloriosus (The Braggart Warrior, 1767), belong to a genre called New Comedy, which focuses primarily on family problems, most commonly (but not exclusively) the love of a young man for a prostitute and the unsuccessful attempt of his father or her pimp to block their union.

Although Plautus’s comedies are based on Greek originals, he did not merely translate them into Latin. Instead, he adapted them by adding material from native Italian drama that would appeal to his Roman audience. The most conspicuous of these alterations is the development of stock characters such as the young lover, the pimp, the braggart soldier, and the tricky slave. Plautus also inserted songs with complex meters, which made his plays similar to modern musicals.

Influence

Plautus’s comedies were extremely popular in Rome and were revived hundreds of years after his death. Both Molière (L’Avare, pr. 1668; The Miser, 1672) and William Shakespeare (The Comedy of Errors, pr. c. 1592-1594) adapted them. Modern musical comedies and situation comedies display many of the same characteristics as Plautine comedy.

Further Reading:

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Plautus Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Roman playwright{$I[g]Roman Republic;Plautus} Plautus’s action-packed, middle-class comedies, built from a contrived structure of disguises, mistaken identities, and the obligatory revelatory scene, were sensationally popular in his time and influenced future comedic dramatists William Shakespeare, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Molière, and Jean Giraudoux.

Early Life

The sparse biographical details on Titus Maccius Plautus (PLAW-tuhs) are drawn from historians and writers such as Livy and Cicero. From his birthplace, Sarsina, a mountainous rural region of Italy, where the native tongue was Umbrian, Plautus escaped, joining a traveling group of players (probably as an actor). He learned the technical intricacies of the profession, acquired a mastery of Latin—and perhaps some Greek—and became the unequaled practitioner of his comedic craft.

In Rome, Plautus worked in the theater, lost money in trade, and eventually became a mill worker, writing in his leisure moments. No record remains of his life except the plays that he wrote, and even some of these claim authenticity only on the basis of ascription. Plautus became so popular that dramas by other writers were attributed to him in order to gain production and popular reception. In his time, it was enough merely that a play bore his name; a generation later, it was enough that the prologue to the play Menaechmi (The Twin Menaechmi, 1595) contain the words “I bring you Plautus”—words that remain in that prologue forever as guarantors of laughter.

Life’s Work

Although he may have written more than fifty plays, only twenty-one manuscripts of works attributable to Plautus survive, the oldest of these dating to the fourth or fifth century c.e. Only twenty of these are complete plays. In an age when records were shoddily kept, or not kept at all, and when aspiring contemporary playwrights did not hesitate to attach Plautus’s name to their plays, a large number of comedies were attributed to him.

In an attempt to clear up the chaos of authorship, Marcus Terentius Varro, a contemporary of Cicero, compiled three lists of plays: those given universal recognition as being written by Plautus, those identified by Varro as plays by Plautus, and those recognized as Plautus’s work by others but not by Varro. The first list, labeled by scholars the “Varronianae fabulae,” contains the twenty-one plays that succeeding generations of scholars have agreed on as belonging to Plautus. Other plays remain outside the canon.

The dates of Plautus’s plays are as speculative as are the details of his life. Only two of them—Pseudolus (191 b.c.e.; English translation, 1774) and Stichus (200 b.c.e.; English translation, 1774)—are attached to specific dates. About half the remainder are unidentified chronologically, and the rest are qualified with terms such as “probably early” or “late.” Like William Shakespeare nearly fifteen hundred years later, Plautus borrowed his plots and reworked Greek originals; some sources have been identified, but others remain unknown.

Among the most famous stock situations and character types associated with Plautine comedy are the vain soldier-braggart (miles gloriosus), which finds its most complex realization in Shakespeare’s Falstaff; the farcical chaos caused by mistaken identity, a chaos to which order is eventually restored; the servant who, wiser than his superiors, extricates them from a web of near-impossible entanglements, sometimes of the master’s making; and finally, a happy ending. The plays, whether serious— such as Amphitruo (Amphitryon, 1694)—or farcical—such as The Twin Menaechmi—are always comic in the Aristotelian definition of comedy as a play that begins in an unfortunate situation and ends fortunately.

Like the commercial playwright of modern times, Plautus wrote for a broad audience, basing his appeal on laughter and a good story, love and money forming an integral part of the story. Preceding his plays,...

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Plautus Biography (Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The life of Titus Maccius Plautus is known from three ancient notices, two chance remarks in the works of Cicero, and a paragraph in Gellius’s Noctes Atticae (c. 180 c.e.; Attic Nights, 1927). While contending that old age is pleasant if intellectually productive, Cicero observes “how pleased . . . Plautus must have been with the Truculentus, with the Pseudolus!” The passage shows how flimsy a construction the life of Plautus must be: The original production notice, the didascalia, has survived for the Pseudolus. This provides the firm date 191 b.c.e. From Cicero, one can infer that Plautus was old in 191 b.c.e. The traditional date for his birth, 254 b.c.e., is owing to nothing more and arbitrarily defines “old” as the age of sixty-three.

Several details of Plautus’s life come to light in Gellius’s Attic Nights:Varro and others relate that he wrote the Saturio and the Addictus, and a third one which I can’t remember, while working in a bakery turning a pushmill. The money he had saved working as a stage carpenter he had lost in business, and he came back to Rome looking for a living.

Supposing that Varro was correct, Plautus first made a living as a stage carpenter. In that period, he would have been working on the Latin plays of...

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Plautus Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Titus Maccius Plautus (PLAW-tuhs) was born about 254 b.c.e. in Sarsina, the capital of the Umbrian people of central Italy, only a dozen years after they came under the sway of Rome. Being a freeman, the ambitious Titus could leave home and go south along the Flaminian Way to Rome, which was still a city of thatch and timber. Because some of the Roman generals had become lovers of the theater in Syracuse, where they saw adaptations by a Greek slave, Andronicus, the Ludi Romani of 240 b.c.e. featured a Greek tragedy and a comedy. Temporary wooden platforms made the theater, and the audience brought their own chairs. (Rome’s first permanent theater was built by Pompey, in 55 b.c.e.) This rude drama attracted young Titus. History records that he worked “in operis artificium scenicorum,” which might mean that he was a stage carpenter, a minor actor, or even a flute player who entertained the spectators between the acts. It has been said that he was nicknamed Maccus after a dissolute character of the farces and that he himself, with characteristic humor, assumed the name Plautus (Flatfoot).{$S[A]Titus Maccius Plautus;Plautus}

Somehow he made money—and quickly lost it. Scholars speculate that he hired a ship to carry merchandise for sale in Greece; this circumstance would explain his knowledge of Greek and the poverty that drove him to grinding corn for a baker. About 206 b.c.e. he wrote two plays based on Greek originals. One, The Braggart Soldier (or The Braggart Warrior), was especially successful. With actors clamoring for more of his...

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