Explain Plautus's The Pot of Gold with reference to the context.

To explain Plautus's The Pot of Gold with reference to its historical context, one can examine the gender relations that existed in Plautus' day, which are reflected in the play's text.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Plautus' is a world of slavery and servitude; a patriarchal world in which men are the undisputed leaders of society and the family, and whose wives, daughters, and sisters are expected to obey them at all times.

Gender relations in Plautus' day are illustrated by the treatment of the...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

Plautus' is a world of slavery and servitude; a patriarchal world in which men are the undisputed leaders of society and the family, and whose wives, daughters, and sisters are expected to obey them at all times.

Gender relations in Plautus' day are illustrated by the treatment of the unseen Phaedria, Euclio's daughter. Euclio treats Phaedria like an object, as little more than a piece of property that forms part of a tawdry business arrangement. In keeping with prevailing conventions, Phaedria has no say in the matter; she's expected to do what her father tells her to do, and that's that.

It's notable in this regard that Phaedria never actually appears on stage. Her absence from the action serves to highlight the invisibility of women in Plautus's day, how they were routinely confined to the home while the men in their lives went out into the world to conduct important business, even if that business concerned women themselves.

As we can gather, opportunities for women in ancient Greece and Rome outside the confines of the home were extraordinarily limited. Any influence that they exercised tended to take place behind the scenes. Euclio's handmaid Staphyla provides us with an example of this. Conforming to the stock character of the clever servant, she's obviously much more compassionate, empathetic, and intelligent than her master. Even so, when all's said and done, Staphyla is still just a servant and is subject to ill-treatment and abuse from Euclio, highlighting once again the general condition of women in ancient society.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Three important, interrelated facets of the historical era in which Plautus wrote are social hierarchy, slavery, and gender. In addition, the Roman affinity for Greek culture is clearly evident. Plautus probably wrote about 130 plays, although only some 30 survive today. He probably lived from 255 BCE to 184 BCE. While he put a distinctive slant on his works, the basic plots and character types are drawn directly from Greek theater. The Pot of Gold is adapted from the Greek playwright Menander’s Dyskolos.

In its political and social organization, Rome drew heavily on Greece, especially in the concept of democracy. Direct popular participation did not mean, however, that everyone was equal. In Roman social hierarchy, property owners ranked high, and slaves and women were in lower statuses. Nevertheless, there were opportunities to change one’s status. In The Pot of Gold, we see the wealthy Euclio trying to achieve a good match for his daughter. Marriage to a well-to-do husband was one of the few ways that women could elevate their position. In contrast, we are also presented with the idea of marriage for love, exemplified by Lyconides and Phaedria. Slavery as an institution discriminated against foreigners, who might have been captured in battle. The status of slave was not necessarily permanent; enslaved people could purchase their own freedom. This desire motivates Strobilus to obtain the hidden gold.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are several elements of the context of the play that can help readers understand the plot.

First, it should be noted that Aulularia (“The Pot of Gold”) was Plautus' Latin adaptation of a Greek original that no longer is extant. The setting and context of the play are of Greek New Comedy in the Hellenistic period, albeit seen through Roman eyes.

Two important elements of social context are slavery and patriarchy. Household slaves are prominent in the play and the plot shows anxieties of the master class in their awareness of how much slaves know their secrets.

Another major feature of the play is arranged marriages. Women cannot choose their husbands. Instead, fathers determine their choice of husband and even if a couple wished to marry, the suitor must convince the father to grant permission. A woman's virginity is also considered important in her eligibility for marriage and dowries are a standard element of marriage arrangements. Although Greek men in their mid-thirties typically did marry women in their late teens, the society tended to mock very elderly men seeking to marry young girls.

The happy resolution creates a socially acceptable marriage between a relatively young man and the woman with whom he will have a child. The miser is punished for his selfishness and the dowry is awarded as deserved.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Plautus in this play picks up a number of themes that are of particular interest in his life and times. Firstly, there is the stock character of the miser, shown in Euclio, who is a figure who is ridiculed through his miserly nature. Then, in Megadorus, there is the bachelor who dreams of marrying a much younger, nubile virgin. Finally, there is also the time-honoured inclusion of servants showing themselves to be more intelligent than their masters. In all of these aspects, Plautus was writing this play in his context and creating a hilarious comedy as a result. It is interesting to note, though, that Plautus is much more gentle in terms of his presentation of Euclio than other playwrights were in their presentation of the stock character of the miser. Euclio on the one hand is shown to be so obsessed with his love of the pot of gold that even when Lyconides tries to confess that he had his wicked way with Euclio's daughter, Euclio automatically assumes he is confessing to stealing the gold:

Oh, oh,my God! What villainy am I hearing of?

However, at the end of the play, when he is able to give his gold to his daughter and son-in-law, he is shown to return to normal. Euclio, Plautus shows to the audience, is only as miserly as he is because of his experience of want and poverty, and is allowed to be restored to normal by the end of the play. The context Plautus was writing in then was a context that already had a tradition of literary stock figures and conventions. Plautus masterfully uses them for his own purposes to create a hilarious comedy in this play. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team