Plautus Essay - Critical Essays


New Comedy is characterized by a program filled with certain stock roles. First, there is the adulescens, or youth. He is fickle, he is incompetent, he is in love; his father is rich and away on business. The adulescens’ modern acme is P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. The senex, or old man, is befuddled, doddering, philandering, and irascible. He strikes terror in the heart of his son, the adulescens, and lives in terror of his wife, the matrona. The scortum, or courtesan, sometimes has a house of her own, and it is next door. Or she is owned by the leno, always a practical businessman. The money that the youth must pay to the leno comes from the danista, the moneylender, who will demand payment. The driving force is the essential character, servus callidus, the clever slave. He extemporizes intermediary solutions, finds ways for the youths, dupes the old men, and runs a gauntlet between them, for satisfying the young master means a whipping at the hands of the old one. The braggart soldier, miles gloriosus, rival for the hand of the maiden, is no match for him, even with an army. Virgo, the maiden, was kidnapped in early childhood but has kept with her always the tokens of her last day of freedom. These serve as the sufficient proofs of her identity: She is recognized as the freeborn daughter of a good family. This is the recognition scene, recognitio, which is New Comedy’s counterpart to the deus ex machina of tragedy in that it solves the insoluble and brings the play to its end. Where it is used, it makes the slave girl eligible to marry the adulescens.

Of the plays described below, the relative uniqueness of Amphitryon, a holdover from an earlier age of drama; Casina, with melded adulescens-senex and vicarious father-son rivalry; and The Twin Menaechmi, a comedy of mistaken identity, argues against the sameness of all Roman comedy, or at least of all Plautine comedy. Of these plays, The Haunted House most closely follows the type, with most of the stock characters appearing in their stock situations. A sustained metaphor from musical composition best answers the question of the perceived sameness, the question of Plautus’s originality with regard to his Greek sources, and the matter of Plautus’s place in the art of drama. When one thinks of Plautus’s originality, one should think of Johannes Brahms composing the Academic Festival Overture. He incorporated student songs into it, with the song “Gaudeamus Igitur” for climax. The audience knows that the song is old; that someone else wrote the melody; that the selection, orchestration, and the overture itself are Brahms. The matter of perceived sameness and the position of Plautus in the history of drama are both picked up in the inevitable question which the dilettante has ready for the contemporary composer, “You know what that reminds me of?” There are only eight notes in the scale. Plautus’s stock characters, senex, matrona, adulescens, virgo, scortum, danista, and miles gloriosus, are taken from life and resound all its centers and epicenters: family, love, power, money, and biological urges.


Though the above must serve as the dramatis personae and prologue for the twenty surviving plays, it would be misleading if from it one were to expect a sameness about them. Amphitryon, in fact, is not a New Comedy. Mercury, speaking the introduction, first calls it tragedy (the audience scowls), then comedy, then mixes them to call it tragicomedy. The title character of Amphitryon suggests divine ribaldry and mortal tragedy: He is the father of Heracles, or rather, the cuckolded husband whom Jupiter displaced for a night to sire the future hero and god. Its burlesque of myth and its adultery of a married woman make it unique in Roman comedy. It fulfills Mercury’s promise and is a sampling of the breadth in Plautus, who does not always write a simple variation of the boy-meets-girl story.

The Captives

There is a thrill of the newness of the whole art in Plautus. The Captives is a very human comedy with the triumph in the end, not of lust, but of family, in the loyalty of slave to master and the reuniting of father and son. The prologue warns—or boasts—of the difference from the expected: “It is not the same as the others: no indecent, unrepeatable lines, no pimps, no whores, not even a braggart soldier.”


Alone of the plays, Casina has a prologue that...

(The entire section is 1926 words.)