Terence’s literary activity displayed itself wholly in the production of palliatae , plays that are fundamentally Greek and are representations of Greek habits, morals, and customs. The name palliatae comes from the pallium, a Greek cloak worn by the actor. It is clear that Terence deliberately tried not to break the Greek illusion. The characters must have seemed distinctly foreign to the Roman audience to such an extent that sometimes it appears that the only truly Latin element in his plays is the language. He based all of his plays on the Greek New Comedy; his favorite model was Menander , on whose plays four of Terence’s are based (Andria, The Self-Tormentor, The Eunuch, and The Brothers). The remaining two (Phormio and The Mother-in-Law) are based on originals by the later writer Apollodorus.
Terence’s use of the Greek plays led to an accusation of contamnatio (contamination). Normally, the use of a Greek original meant the closest possible adherence to it. Terence, contrary to the artistic usage of the time, used parts and materials drawn from more than one Greek model in the construction of a play. Terence countered the charge in the prologues of several plays, most notably in Andria. It is now generally accepted that the charge was malicious and inspired by the jealousy of his enemies.
All six of Terence’s plays tend to be conservative and more staid than those of Plautus . The scene is always “a street in Athens”; the characters are the standard old man, young man, courtesan, and slave; the chief variation is the more frequent introduction of the elderly married lady, and of the young couple already married when the play begins. The parasite, when he appears in Phormio and The Eunuch, has been elevated from the status of buffoon to that of an intelligent man-about-town; similarly the pimp, when he appears in Phormio and The Brothers, is much more the businessman than the scoundrel. The plays show almost no clowning and no slapstick whatever. Nearest to rowdy foolishness are the scenes in The Eunuch in which a braggart soldier, in the company of his parasite and an “army” consisting of two or three ragged numbskulls, lays siege to the house of a prostitute. The plays are nearly perfect in form; every scene is functional and serves to forward the action of the plot or to provide necessary elaboration on some character trait. There are no wasted scenes, introduced merely for comic diversion; indeed, there is hardly a wasted word. There are no immoral scenes, no drunken revels, few remarks that even smack of impropriety, let alone of obscenity, and no violence at all. Action on stage is quiet and rarely undignified. That the plays move smoothly, gracefully, and rapidly is a tribute to the skill with which they were put together; for all their quietness, they never lose the fast action that is the essence of Terence’s comedy.
Terence’s plays move on a higher moral level than Plautus’s. In every one of the six, there is a “recognition” of one sort or another; in every one, except for The Mother-in-Law in which the characters are already married when the story begins, the hero and heroine properly end by becoming husband and wife. In Andria, The Self-Tormentor, and Phormio, a long-lost daughter is found and recognized. In The Eunuch, the girl turns out to be the sister of a proper Athenian citizen. In The Mother-in-Law and The Brothers, the girls had been foolish enough to go out on the streets at night in the course of a wildly sexual festival and had been raped by unknown young men. In The Mother-in-Law, the young man in question has subsequently married the girl he raped, without realizing who she was. His self-righteous anxiety on discovering that she was already pregnant, presumably by some man other than himself, causes the complications that Terence sets out to solve. In The Brothers, the young man has acknowledged his act and has promised to marry the girl, even though she is poor and of a lower class. The suspicion on the part of the girl’s mother that the young man is about to renege on his promise forms one of the problems that this intricate play tries to solve.
In all of his plays, Terence is a thoroughly gentle and tactful poet, never overly forceful or blatant. Still, through all of his plays runs a persistent note of social criticism, directed particularly at the position of slaves and of women in Greek and Roman society. There is not a single slave or female character who is not decent, honorable, resourceful, and intelligent. This is certainly not the result of inadvertence, nor can it be brushed aside as simple sentimentality. It is rather Terence’s way of arraigning ancient society for the heartless indifference that it commonly demonstrated toward its slave population and for the hypocritical and specious reasoning with which it handled prostitutes. Terence, perhaps because he himself had been a slave, shows sympathy toward them, and this gains for him respect for his understanding and courage. Terence’s plays, as documents of human nature, are not much better than Plautus’s, but where Plautus saw in other people chiefly an opportunity for creating an amusing situation, Terence viewed humanity with affection and regard.
The critical consensus has been that The Brothers is Terence’s masterpiece. First, it is a serious comedy because it deals with the theme of education and...
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