Plautus (Drama Criticism)
Plautus c. 254 B.C-184 B. C.
(Full name Titus Maccius Plautus.)
Plautus was one of ancient Rome's most popular playwrights. Of the roughly one hundred and thirty comedies attributed to him in antiquity, twenty-one survive, one of which is a fragment. Plautus derived the plots for his plays from Greek originals by such playwrights as Menander, Diphilus, Philemon, and Alexis, adapting them to the tastes and interests of his Roman audience. Plautus' plays, like their models, are characterized as New Comedy, which is generally concerned with exploring the personal relationships of ordinary men and women, their fears, loves, and financial preoccupations.
Very little is known of Plautus's life. He was born into a poor family—some scholars suggest they were slaves—in the village of Sarsina in Umbria. As a youth he traveled to Rome, finding employment as a craftsman in the theater. Tradition holds that during his youth Plautus endured the hardships of poverty and suffered a variety of setbacks, such as the loss of money in a business enterprise. He was therefore compelled to work in a mill to earn a living. Sometime in the middle of his life Plautus turned to adapting Greek plays and eventually became the most successful Roman playwright of his time.
The New Comedy of Plautus is generally characterized by complex plot structures—typically involving love affairs or intrigues—elaborately delineated characters, and scenes filled with topical allusions, ingenious trickery, and reversals of expectations. Furthermore, the comedies of Plautus are suffused with jokes, puns, surprises of all sorts, elaborate songs and vibrant action. Of Plautus's twenty-one comedies, several have been particularly influential. Menaechmi (Twin Menaechmi), about the twin sons of a Syracusan merchant, one of whom was abducted, became the source of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors. Amphitruo (Amphitryon), which is concerned with mistaken identities, later formed the basis of comedies by Molière, John Dryden, and Jean Giradoux. The title character of Miles Gloriosas (Braggart Warrior) became an important stock figure in Elizabethan comedy, especially in plays by Ben Jonson. Other notable plays by Plautus include Aulularia (Pot of Gold), which concerns a miserly old man obsessed with a buried pot of gold; and Mostellaria (Haunted House), which deals with the imaginative trickery of a slave, Tranio, in the service of his master.
In his lifetime Plautus achieved great acclaim and renown. An astute and shrewd observer of his times, he tailored his comedies to a theater and an audience which he understood intimately. Scholars note that these conditions permitted the numerous changes Plautus introduced into his adaptations of Greek originals. Among the Plautine innovations critics have identified are characters who directly address the audience, the prominence of the Cunning Slave as a central figure, an emphasis on bawdy or cynical jokes, and a marked increase in the amount of song and musical accompaniment. Critics have also pointed to the energetic farce, rapid pace, and lively dialogue as factors in the immense popularity of Plautus' plays. After his death, the comedies of Plautus became classics. His most popular works were revived throughout antiquity and into modern times. They have frequently been translated and have served as models and inspirations for countless comedies throughout the world.
Amphitruo [Amphitryon] c. 186 B. C.
Asinaria [Comedy of Asses]
Aulularia [Pot of Gold]
Bacchides [Two Bacchides]
Menaechmi [Twin Menaechmi]
Miles Gloriosas [Braggart Warrior] c. 211 B. C.
Mostellaria [Haunted House]
Pseudolus 191 B. C.
Stichus 200 B. C.
Trinummus [Three Bob Day]
* As the dates of many of Plautus' plays are unknown, the works in this list are presented in alphabetical order. Dates are provided when they are known or conjectured.
† This work survives only in a fragment of about 100 lines.
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Overviews And General Studies
Philip Whaley Harsh (essay date 1944)
SOURCE: "Plautus," in A Handbook of Classical Drama, Stanford University Press, 1944, pp. 333-74.
[In the following excerpt, Harsh provides a survey of Plautus's major plays.]
The twenty extant plays of Plautus constitute an astonishingly varied collection of good, bad, and indifferent comedies. Even the worst, however, usually have one or more effective scenes, and most of the indifferent ones doubtless were successful in his theater. For modern dramatists, good and bad alike have served as a continually plundered storehouse of interesting comic characters and amusing situations. The structure of the Amphitryon, for instance, is not well proportioned, to say the least; but the play's situation is so infallibly amusing that it has attracted innumerable adapters. Nor have imitators been frightened away from the Twin Menaechmi merely because its basic situation is fantastically improbable. The Braggart Warrior is very poorly constructed, but its title character remains eternally popular. The widely adapted Pot of Gold, however, calls for no apology on any score, for it is a master-piece. These four plays, the most influential ones, well illustrate the variety of Plautus' work.
It is obviously difficult to determine the personal contributions of a dramatist all of whose...
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David Konstan (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "Plot and Theme in Plautus' Asinaria," in The Classical Journal, Vol. 73, No. 3, February-March, 1978, pp. 215-21.
[Here, Konstan examines the theme of materialism and its corrosive effect on morality in the Asinaria.]
Four-fifths the way through the play, the plot of Plautus' Asinaria takes a sudden and surprising turn. Briefly, what happens is this. Argyrippus, the young lover in the comedy, is madly infatuated with a meretrix, a harlot, whose name is Philaenium. Unfortunately, there is also a rival called Diabolus, who plans to hire the girl exclusively for himself for an entire year. To forestall him, Argyrippus has to produce the sum of twenty minae before Diabolus can, and thereby preempt the contract. He himself is destitute. At the beginning of the drama we discover that his father, Demaenetus, has learned all about the affair and the role of Libanus, a household slave, in abetting it. Libanus is in a state of great anxiety, since he expects to be sent to the mills, but Demaenetus is at pains to calm him down. "Listen to me," he says. "Why should I want to do a thing like that? Why should I threaten you just because you kept me in ignorance? And really, why should I get angry with my son, the way other fathers do?" (46-50). Demaenetus has, of course, answered his own question.
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David Konstan (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "Aulularia: City-State and Individual," in Roman Comedy, Cornell, 1983, pp. 33-46.
[In the essay below, Konstan discusses "the theme of avarice and the romantic theme" in the Aulularia.]
In the characteristic story-type of new comedy, a young man's passionate infatuation with a girl who is ineligible for marriage is fulfilled in a respectable way through a turn in the plot—a recognition scene, for example—which reveals the maiden's citizen status. It is discovered, then, that the wayward passion had all along aspired to a permissible object, and the original tension turns out to be illusory. In plays of this type, the prohibited passion drives outward beyond the limits of the community. Love fastens in its willful way upon a stranger, and thereby threatens to violate the exclusiveness by which the community is defined. But a special class of stories, relatively rare in new comedy, looks not so much to urges that push across the boundary as to figures who withdraw into isolation from their fellow citizens. These are the tales of the misanthrope and the misogynist, the miser and the prude. Their challenge to the community manifests itself as a secession, rather than as the pursuit of a forbidden relationship. Characters of this sort bear a certain affinity to the stern fathers who are typically the obstacle to love. By his...
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Dana F. Sutton (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: "Plautus and the Nature of Roman Comedy," in Ancient Comedy: The War of the Generations, Twayne Publishers, 1993, pp. 55-108.
[In the excerpt below, Sutton offers two differing interpretive approaches to the Mostellaria: psychological and social.]
Mostellaria (The Haunted House) is based on the play Phasma (The Ghost) by the New Comedy poet Philemon. It begins with an acrimonious scene between two slaves, Grumio and Tranio, belonging to a master named Theopropides. Grumio is a slave from his rural estates, while Tranio works in his city home. Grumio is highly indignant because in the master's absence Tranio has been squandering his goods. Worse yet, he has been corrupting their master's son Philolaches, egging him on in his career of riotous living: drunk all the time, feasting, supporting parasites, buying slave girls their freedom, in general carrying on with his cronies like so many Greeks (22 and 64). He predicts dire consequences for Tranio, enumerating some of the punishments that await him, such as being dragged off to the country and placed on a labor gang, or even crucifixion. Tranio responds to this grumpy onslaught with sang-froid. All this drinking, loving, and whoring is his own affair. He is risking his own neck, not Grumio's. Come to think of it, Grumio, you reek of...
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OVERVIEWS AND GENERAL STUDIES
Anderson, William S. Barbarian Play: Plautus' Roman Comedy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993, 184 p.
Investigates "the special genius of Plautus," which, Anderson claims, rivalled that of his Greek predecessors.
Arnott, W. Geoffrey. "Plautus and Terence." In his Menander, Plautus, Terence, pp. 28-62. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.
Provides a bibliography of Plautus' works in Latin and in English translation; a survey of Plautus' career; and a consideration of his adaptation of Greek plays.
Bruster, Douglas. "Comedy and Control: Shakespeare and the Plautine Poeta." Comparative Drama 24, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 217-31.
Contends that the "controlling playwright figure," a character common to many of Shakespeare's works, is ultimately derived from Plautus' cunning slave, or poeta.
Dorey, T. A., and Dudley, Donald R. Roman Drama. New York: Basic Books, 1965, 229 p.
Contains three essays relating to Plautus: "Plautus and His Audience," by Walter R. Chambers; 'The Glorious Military," by John Arthur Hanson; and 'The Amphitryo Theme," by C. D. N. Costa.
Hall, F. W. "Repetitions and Obsessions in Plautus." Classical Quarterly XX (January 1926): 20-6.
Explores the significance of Plautus' "constantly...
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