Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Amphitryon is a tragicomic play written by Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus. It is, essentially, a farce, as it covers a classic switch-up theme where the God Jupiter pretends to be the main protagonist, Amphitryon, so that he can sleep with his wife, Alcmena. Plautus wrote the play in Classical Latin, incorporating numerous epic, witty, and often tragic dialogues and monologues, which further accentuate the point that Amphitryon is as much of a comedy as it is a tragedy. Amphitryon is often compared to Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, as it is obvious where the famous Bard drew his inspiration and comedic influence from.
The plot revolves around a Theban general named Amphitryon who, along with his slave Sosia, is participating in the war between the Thebans and the Teloboans. While he is away, the almighty God Jupiter falls in love with his wife, thus pretending to be Amphitryon in order to sleep with Alcmena. Alcmena doesn’t realize that Jupiter is, in fact, not her husband and welcomes his advances. The play opens with a monologue by Mercury, Jupiter’s son, who explains the situation to the audience.
Meanwhile Amphitryon and his slave Sosia return to Thebes. Since he must protect his father’s lies and not disturb Jupiter’s and Alcmena’s night, Mercury, after carefully listening to Sosia’s war stories and his master’s achievements, transforms himself into Sosia and beats him when the slave tries to enter the household. The confused and beaten Sosia then returns to his master.
Not believing his slave’s ridiculous stolen identity story, Amphitryon decides to go to the household himself. Jupiter leaves right before he arrives, and Amphitryon doesn’t receive the warm welcome he expected. Instead, he is blinded by jealousy and rage when he realizes that his wife, now confused about his presence, has been unfaithful. The climax of the story is the fight between Alcmena and Amphitryon, as Alcmena decides to leave her husband. However, she is stopped by Jupiter who resolves the problem by admitting his deeds. Alcmena then goes into labor and gives birth to two twin boys—one the son of Amphitryon and the other the son of Jupiter; her son with Jupiter is Hercules, a powerful demigod. After hearing of this semi-shared paternity of a demigod, Amphitryon decides to forgive his wife and to forget the whole ordeal. The play ends with him going to his wife’s side and Jupiter returning to the Heavens.
Because of its obvious fantastic themes and legendary characters, Amphitryon is considered the only mythological play that Plautus has ever written. While it was praised for its light and entertaining narrative, it also gained some criticism, especially in the modern literary society, as some argue that it contains a bit of gender inequality. Many readers don’t necessarily approve of Amphitryon’s or Jupiter’s behavior towards Alcmena; however, they do point out that the societal norms and beliefs in these times weren’t as advanced as those of today.