How does Plautus use self-reflexive humor in Pseudolus? In other words, how does he get laughs by reminding his audience that they are watching a play?

Expert Answers

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

Plautus engages in self-reflexive humor in several ways. Some of his techniques stay within the bounds of the play, but others extend further to the concept of drama itself. By encouraging the audience to go along with him in both regards, Plautus highlights the humor of the situation, as if...

See
This Answer Now

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

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Plautus engages in self-reflexive humor in several ways. Some of his techniques stay within the bounds of the play, but others extend further to the concept of drama itself. By encouraging the audience to go along with him in both regards, Plautus highlights the humor of the situation, as if to say "You are all watching a play. You are all participating in allowing me, as the playwright, to fool you." In the latter regard, the audience empathizes with the characters of the comedy, who are often fooled.

In Pseudolus's first monologue, before the action starts, he compares himself to the playwright, or poet, and tells the audience outright that the whole thing is a fabrication:

...like a poet, when he has taken his tablets, he searches for that which is nowhere in the world. Still he finds it. He makes that which is a lie similar to the truth. Now I will become a poet.

Another self-conscious aspect is the difference between scripted and improvisational aspects of the play. In addition to reminding the audience that they are watching a play, Plautus winks at the fixed character of the script itself. In what might seem a very modern approach to performance, he insinuates that the audience is participating in making the play. The actors will be improvising, he makes the audience think, partly in response to what the audience is doing, seizing upon the opportunity of the moment to add a joke. This might well have occurred, in fact, depending on the players' recognition of a particular Roman notable in the audience.

While most of the other characters generally play their roles as scripted with occasional improvisation, the Pseudolus character is given a huge amount of leeway. He is the only one who directly addresses the audience, and he does so frequently.

It’s my suspicion that you now suspect that I am promising these great deeds so as to entice you while I act out this play. You suspect that I may not do what I said I would. I will not budge, and I still know for sure that I still have no clue how I might do this, except it is just going to happen.

By constantly reminding them of his ambivalent role and his limited ability to affect the action, he increases their awareness of the humor of the play's situation.

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

Plautus uses two framing devices at the beginning and the end of his work to remind his viewers that they are watching a play. In the two existing lines of his prologue, Plautus warns his theater-goers that his play is long and that now is the moment when they should get up and walk around:

Tis better for your loins to be stretched, and for you to arise. A long play of Plautus is coming upon the stage

At the end of the play, Simo asks the main character, trickster slave Pseudolus, if they should invite the audience to join them in drinking. Pseudolus says no, but asks viewers to applaud instead and invites them to the next play, showing that the characters in the play know they are performing.

Plautus makes another connection with the audience when he has a slave boy address the viewers directly, worrying about how he will get the money demanded by his owner, Ballio. But most importantly, Pseudolus himself knows he is acting in a play. He addresses the audience directly and draws viewers to his side, for example, by saying

Now will I adroitly batter down this Ballio, the common foe of me and all of you 

This may not be "laugh out loud" funny to modern audiences, but this was an early Roman drama and the addresses to the audience add a light-hearted, comic touch.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team