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...
(The entire section is 1035 words.)