Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 390
The god Mercury opens Plautus's Amphitryon with a prologue of the play's background events. Amphitryon and his slave Sosia are returning to their native city of Thebes following a long period fighting a war abroad. While he was away, the god Jupiter, struck by the beauty of Amphitryon's wife, Alcmena,...
(The entire section contains 1467 words.)
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- Critical Essays
The god Mercury opens Plautus's Amphitryon with a prologue of the play's background events. Amphitryon and his slave Sosia are returning to their native city of Thebes following a long period fighting a war abroad. While he was away, the god Jupiter, struck by the beauty of Amphitryon's wife, Alcmena, decided he must have her. Summoning his divine powers, the god disguised himself as her absent husband and enjoyed her with impunity.
Aware that Amphitryon will soon return, Jupiter orders his son Mercury to delay his arrival so that the god might further prolong his idyll. Mirroring his father's action, Mercury takes on the appearance of Sosia. When the real Sosia encounters his own image in Mercury, the two fight, and the god beats him badly. The baffled slave makes haste to his master's ship to report this bizarre turn of events to a skeptical and angry Amphitryon.
Still in a sour mood, Amphitryon arrives with Sosia at his home the next morning, just after the departure of Jupiter. Alcmena is confused that her husband, who had seemingly just left, has returned so quickly. Although at first equally confused, Amphitryon soon realizes that his wife has been unfaithful and becomes much angrier. Alcmena's confusion only worsens, since she believes she has was never unfaithful to her husband. The couple engage in a fierce war of words until Alcmena, believing herself the wronged party, is on the verge of leaving her husband. Amphitryon heads for his ship to get support for his position from his fellow soldier Naucrates, who is also his wife's kinsman.
Aware of all, Jupiter realizes he needs to solve the problem he created. Again taking on the guise of Amphitryon, he tries to deflect Alcmena's anger, apologizing to her for his recent behavior and begging her not to leave him. At length, she agrees.
Meanwhile, failing to locate Naucrates, Amphitryon returns home, and after wrangling with Mercury, and fighting with a Jupiter still disguised as himself, he is struck by the god with lightning. He awakens to find that his wife has given birth to two children; one, fathered by Jupiter, is Hercules, and the other is the son of Amphitryon. He is deeply honored by this shared paternity and, realizing that he and his family are now under the protection of Jupiter, rejoices in the event.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1077
Amphitryon, a Theban, joins the army of Thebes to fight against the Teloboans. When he leaves for the wars, his wife Alcmena, daughter of Electryon, is pregnant. Nevertheless, in the absence of Amphitryon, Jupiter falls in love with Alcmena and decides that he must enjoy her favors. Disguising himself as Amphitryon, Jupiter appears to Alcmena as her husband, just returned from a battle with the Teloboans. Alcmena is unable to recognize the impostor and welcomes Jupiter as her husband. Because Jupiter wishes to enjoy Alcmena as long as possible, he has the sun, moon, and stars remain fixed, and so the night he spends with Alcmena is long enough for her to conceive and be ready to bring forth a child by Jupiter at the same time she gives birth to the child by her husband.
In the meantime Amphitryon’s ship returns to Thebes. It is still night, so Amphitryon’s slave, Sosia, fearfully walking the streets of the sleeping town, tries to console himself with the pleasantness of the news he is bringing to its citizens. He thinks how well his master, Amphitryon, handled the war with the Teloboans, how the enemy refused to arbitrate the dispute over lands, how the battle was joined, and how Amphitryon was awarded the golden cup of Pterela as a token of the valor displayed in the battle.
While Sosia soliloquizes, Mercury, disguised as Sosia, is listening to every word. Mercury assumes the disguise to aid his father, Jupiter, in the latter’s scheme to make love to Alcmena. As Sosia comes through the streets to Amphitryon’s house, Mercury, in the guise of Sosia, is guarding the house and the inmates against any disturbance. When Sosia sees Mercury he is afraid, but he goes up to the door and tries to enter. Mercury, as Sosia, tells him to be gone and beats him with his fists. When Sosia cries out that he is a slave named Sosia who belongs to the household, he receives another drubbing.
Sosia, confused, then asks the stranger who he is. Mercury replies that he is Sosia, a slave of the household. Looking closely, Sosia sees that the person in front of him is dressed and looks exactly like himself. When Sosia goes on to ask questions about the household, Mercury answers each one satisfactorily. Sosia asks about his own conduct during the battle; Mercury replies that he was drinking. Knowing that the answer is correct and sure that someone stole his identity, Sosia runs off to the ship, leaving Mercury to chuckle over the ruse that will prevent Amphitryon from spoiling Jupiter’s night with Alcmena.
Eventually Jupiter takes leave of Alcmena, after telling her that he must return to his army, lest the men become bitter because their leader absents himself while they cannot. When she grows sad at the thought of his departure, the god, to propitiate her, gives her the golden cup of Pterela that Amphitryon received as a token of merit in the war. As he leaves, Jupiter orders the night to move on in its regular course.
Amphitryon is furious when Sosia returns to the ship. He thinks that the slave must be mad or, at the very least, drunk, and he refuses to believe that anyone could have stolen the identity of Sosia, as the slave declares. Amphitryon, anxious to discover what is happening, sets out for his home immediately, taking Sosia with him. By the time the real Amphitryon and Sosia arrive at the house, Jupiter and Mercury were departed. Alcmena is surprised to see her husband return in so short a time. She fears that he is simply testing her fidelity.
Amphitryon, greeting his wife as a husband would after an absence of months, is unable to understand what Alcmena means when she rebukes him for leaving her a short time before on a pretext of returning to his army. When she tells Amphitryon that he spent the night with her, Amphitryon becomes suddenly and decidedly angry. Then she mentions the golden cup of Pterela, which she received from Jupiter during his visit in disguise. Amphitryon declares she cannot have the cup, for he has it under seal in his possession. When Amphitryon opens the chest in which he put the cup, however, it is missing; the gods stole it to give to Alcmena.
In spite of the evidence produced to show that it is he who was with his wife, Amphitryon is exceedingly angry and accuses his wife of losing her honor by breaking her marriage vows. Alcmena, entirely innocent of any such intent and still believing that her husband visited her earlier, is hurt and furious at the charges he makes. Amphitryon, wishing to be fair but wanting to get to the bottom of the matter, goes to get Alcmena’s kinsman, Naucrates, who was with him all night on board the ship. He also tells Alcmena that he will divorce her unless she can prove her innocence.
Alcmena is upset at the charges heaped upon her by Amphitryon and makes plans to leave the house. Jupiter, sorry for the trouble he caused, prepares to help her. He appears to Alcmena in disguise and softens somewhat her anger against Amphitryon. Speaking as Amphitryon, he apologizes for the charges made against Alcmena’s honesty and virtue.
Amphitryon is unable to find Naucrates and returns to his home. Warned by Mercury, Jupiter appears as Amphitryon, and a riotous scene, with both men seeming to be Amphitryon, follows, an argument broken off when word comes that Alcmena is about to give birth to a child. As Amphitryon prepares to leave, Jupiter strikes him unconscious with a thunderbolt. With Jupiter’s aid Alcmena painlessly gives birth to two sons, one by Amphitryon and the other by Jupiter. One child is so active that he can hardly be held on his cot to be bathed, and the waiting-women report that within a few minutes of his birth the baby strangled two large snakes that entered the room. The voice of Jupiter calls out to Alcmena and tells her that the lusty lad, Hercules, is his and the other child Amphitryon’s.
After the waiting-women leave, Jupiter himself appears to Amphitryon and tells the husband what happened. When he warns Amphitryon not to be harsh toward his wife for producing a child by a god, Amphitryon, faced with no other choice, promises to obey all that the god commands.