The Menaechmus Brothers, also called The Menaechmi or The Twin Menaechmi, is a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus. It is concerned with twin brothers from the city of Syracuse who were separated in childhood. The comedy derives from the mishaps that later result when they are mistaken for each other when they both turn up in the same place. As he did in most of his comedies, Plautus uses Greek settings and characters (some of which he borrowed from Greek drama) but also builds the humor by including references to Roman society of his era, the third to second centuries BCE.
In addition to the play’s popularity in its own time, it has centuries-long influence in other theatrical traditions. Most notably, William Shakespeare used it as the basis for The Comedy of Errors. It was further adapted into a twentieth-century Broadway musical, The Boys from Syracuse.
The backstory is that while one boy is visiting another city with their father, he wanders off and cannot be found. The parents think the vanished boy has died, but he was really adopted by another family in the city of Epidamnum. The parents rename the “living” son with the “dead” son’s name, Menaechmus; now, both boys have the same name.
The play takes place after the boys have grown to young adulthood. The action begins when the Syracuse-based twin, Menaechmus Sosicles, can no longer believe that his brother is dead and sets off to learn the truth. The audience soon learns that the other brother, Menaechmus of Epidamnum, is unhappily married and unfaithful; his life is complicated by the competing demands of his wife and mistress. When the second Menaechmus arrives, he is repeatedly mistaken for his brother, and his professions of ignorance are interpreted as lies. As expected, considerable effort is required to sort out all the confusion, and the brothers are finally reunited.
Broad farce consisting of physical comedy is one standard feature of Plautus’s work, and this play is no exception. He also adroitly manipulates Latin, with puns and other word-play, which unfortunately often suffers in translation.
The play’s popularity may also have been enhanced by Plautus’s originality, especially in his unconventional approach to plot. He did not utilize a traditional happy ending with all the loose ends tied up, such as Menaechmus resuming a monogamous marriage. Instead, the brothers decide to band together and depart, leaving the others behind.