Miles gloriosus, or The Braggart Soldier, provided the prototype of the vainglorious, cowardly soldier for many characters in later drama, not the least of whom is William Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Pyrgopolinices’ character, however, is not worked out with nearly the depth that Falstaff’s is. Plautus tends in this play to fail to integrate character development with plot development: The action is frequently brought to a full stop while discussions take place that have little function other than to give the audience a notion of what the characters are like. Nevertheless, the action is ingeniously contrived. Even though the trickery seems in excess of that required by the situation, the tone of the play is sufficiently light to prevent the audience from feeling any strong desire for verisimilitude.
The Braggart Soldier is one of Plautus’s most successful and rollicking comedies. He adapted the play from a Greek original, and possibly he combined two different sources. This is probably an early work by Plautus, judging by the lack of variety in the meter and by the reference to Naevius, the poet and dramatist. The comedy was most likely very popular when it was first presented, because repeat performances were given.
In staging it must have resembled the American musical comedy, with song and dance used to enliven the dramatic action. Masks and Greek costumes may have been employed. The backdrop consisted of two adjoining houses, one belonging to Pyrgopolinices and the other to Periplecomenus. The play itself is rich in buffoonery, parody, punning, comic names, and verbal ingenuity. The action is lively, and the characters—stock types of farce—exhibit great energy in playing out their predestined roles. There is a unity of time as well as of place, since the action occurs in less than a day. Moreover, despite what many critics say, there is a unity of dramatic movement, not to mention suspense, in the way the play is constructed. The overall effect is one of exuberance carried to its utmost limits.
When Plautus wrote his plays during the early Roman Republic, Roman morality was still quite strict, and his audiences must have been titillated by the spectacle of lecherous generals, courtesans, rascally servants, and indolent lovers, all of whom were Greek. The Romans would never have allowed such characters to appear as Romans at that period, but the fact that they were Greeks must have added largely to their enjoyment. The theater, particularly the comic theater, has often served as a liberating force, a kind of psychic safety valve, by exposing private daydreams on the stage.
The Braggart Soldier is a comedy of deception with a highly intricate plot. Superficially it has two distinct sections: the duping of Sceledrus into thinking Philocomasium is two different women, and the duping of Pyrgopolinices into voluntarily releasing Philocomasium and Palaestrio. Both schemes are closely related, and the one follows from the other.
The opening scene, in which the vain, supremely boastful, and lewd captain appears with his toady, makes it clear that Pyrgopolinices is going to be the butt of the intrigue. Then the slave Palaestrio, in his prologue, explains he is going to play a trick on the slave Sceledrus in order to make Philocomasium’s meetings with Pleusicles safer. Since Sceledrus has already seen the lovers together, the scheme becomes a matter of necessity. It takes a lot of elaborate guile to prove to the stupid, pigheaded Sceledrus that Philocomasium is two people. Even though he is intimidated by Palaestrio and Periplecomenus, he is never truly convinced of it. He says he is leaving until the trouble blows over, but in fact...
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he sticks around and gets drunk, which poses a threat to the later scheme to trick Pyrgopolinices.
Having subdued Sceledrus into temporary silence, Palaestrio has to invent a plan for freeing himself and Philocomasium from the intolerable Pyrgopolinices. If his first deception fails, any new one would be impossible. The connection between the two schemes is further strengthened when Palaestrio incorporates the idea for the first (Philocomasium being twins) into the second. However, the crux of the new plan occurs to him in a supposedly irrelevant scene where old Periplecomenus pontificates on the joys of bachelorhood: Why not give Periplecomenus a fake wife infatuated with Pyrgopolinices?
The characters involved talk over this plan extensively, but the audience does not know how it will work until Philocomasium and Palaestrio are almost freed, which maintains suspense. Suspense is also maintained tactically when the audience learns that Sceledrus is getting drunk, when Palaestrio and Milphidippa nearly burst out laughing in Pyrgopolinices’ face, when Philocomasium and Pleusicles almost begin making love before Pyrgopolinices’ eyes, and when Palaestrio dangerously delays his escape in saying good-bye to Pyrgopolinices. All these things give excitement to the intrigue, making the audience forget how improbable it really is.
However, it is not enough to swindle Pyrgopolinices of his courtesan and his slave woman—he must be put in a position where retaliation becomes impossible. To do that he must be completely humiliated and deflated. Hence, the scheme by which he is enticed into Periplecomenus’s house to rape the phony wife makes it possible for Periplecomenus to drag him in his underwear out into the street to be beaten and threatened with castration, the punishment for adultery. The threat is enough to get the desired result from the lascivious Pyrgopolinices, securing the safety of Palaestrio and Philocomasium. At the end Pyrgopolinices is left standing on the stage in his underwear, vanity collapsed, asking the audience to applaud. This conclusion is unique among comedies of deception in the way merry practical joking leads up to such a brutal, shaming finish.
This complex story revolves around a few simple elements of character—the colossal vanity and lust of Pyrgopolinices, the desire of Philocomasium to be free and reunited with her lover, and Palaestrio’s ingenuity in securing their mutual freedom. In keeping with the martial nature of Pyrgopolinices’ profession, the strategy against him is spoken of in military terms. Pyrgopolinices is one of a long line of cowardly, conceited, boastful, lecherous soldiers in the theater. Palaestrio, the wily slave, is the forerunner of the artful servant from Renaissance theater to the present.