Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754
When the Roman writers adapted Greek comedies, as Plautus almost certainly did in the case of this play, they eliminated the chorus completely, thereby making the action continuous. They also made song and dance an integral part of the play, much like contemporary musical comedies. Tradition says that Plautus learned stagecraft early in life, put his earnings into trade, went bankrupt, had to work in a flour mill, and there began writing his comedies, of which more than a hundred were attributed to him. Twenty have survived, and from these readers can see that Plautus was very experienced in stage technique. He knew the value of timing, of comic repetition, of puns, of double entendre, of idiomatic speech, and of varying his poetic meters. His humor was suggestive rather than lewd. He was a master at simply being funny. In reading his plays it is essential to visualize the action as taking place on the stage in front of a backdrop of a house or two. Imagination is necessary to re-create the humor of Plautus. Otherwise, his jokes seem stale, particularly in translation. His plays were performed outdoors at public festivals in a carnival atmosphere, and they had to compete with other entertainments. The audiences were restive, unsophisticated, and straitlaced in that period of Roman history. Under such conditions a dramatist had to be continuously interesting, and a comic dramatist had to be amusing at all costs. Plautus knew his audience thoroughly. He took the threadbare formulas of Greek New Comedy and inspirited them with his own vivacity.
Amphitryon is the only extant Roman comedy to treat Greek mythology. The story derives from a myth in which Zeus (Jupiter) lengthened a night into seventy-two hours and, disguised as Amphitryon, made love to Amphitryon’s wife Alcmena. The supreme god did this in order to engender the great hero Herakles (Hercules). In this play, however, the effect is to make Jupiter appear as an insatiably lecherous and a troublemaking bully who would do anything to satisfy his whims. He and Mercury are rogues playing a rather nasty practical joke on three decent people. It is a joke that gets out of hand and threatens to become tragic when Amphitryon intends to divorce Alcmena for adultery. However, Jupiter unravels the mystery, restoring an equilibrium, when he has enough amusement at their expense. Thus the play blends two of Plautus’s favorite plots—the comedy of mistaken identity and the comedy of deliberate deception.
The structure is surprisingly well done for Plautus, who usually took few pains to construct a sound plot. He makes excellent use of dramatic irony in the confusions of the human characters balanced against the knowledge of the divine characters, which the audience shares. The audience is given an Olympian viewpoint from which to witness the befuddlement of human beings as they encounter their exact duplicates and are bettered at every turn. Much of the humor lies in the way Plautus exposes the discrepancy between perplexed humans and clear-sighted, interfering immortals. It is very funny when Sosia comes to doubt his own identity, having been displaced in his household by another Sosia who is identical in every respect. He thinks he has somehow twinned himself. The joke is still good later when Amphitryon and Jupiter ask Blepharo the pilot to decide who is the real Amphitryon. The theme of twins, the doppelgänger, is carried through right to the end, when Alcmena gives birth to twins, one of human and the other of divine origin.
The play becomes serious, however, when Alcmena is accused of adultery because she finds no difference between Amphitryon and Jupiter playing Amphitryon. Her husband comes to seem like an utter lunatic vacillating wildly between tenderness and incomprehensible jealousy. She genuinely loves Amphitryon and is deeply hurt by his accusations. Plautus gives a sympathetic portrayal of her as the duped wife. Amphitryon, although he loves Alcmena, seems like a proud, hot-tempered stuffed shirt who deserves, to an extent, his humiliation at Jupiter’s hands. Plautus lifts both of these characters above the farcical level to reveal two people tricked and thwarted by the gods. Their love endures these buffetings.
Amphitryon had a great influence on modern drama throughout the Western world, and there are numerous translations, adaptations, and imitations. Such great dramatists as John Dryden, in England, and Molière, in France, made use of its theme and structure. A production of the story as adapted by Jean Giraudoux was successful as a stage play under the title Amphitryon 38 (1929).