Information about the life of Plautus survives primarily in the writings of other Latin writers, which suggests the impact of his theatrical success even on his contemporaries. His critical reputation remained high after his death. It is likely that the reason he was credited with more than one hundred plays is because his name was such a guarantee of popular success. How many plays he actually wrote remains a mystery; it is commonly agreed that twenty plays and a fragment of another are his. As a group, they represent the Plautine contribution to New Comedy, the most influential comedic formula to survive to this day. His earthiness was frowned upon at certain stages of Western history, such as the Middle Ages, when the more decorous works of his younger contemporary, Terence, were favored. During the Renaissance, in the rebirth of all things classical, Plautus came into his own again, however, and he inspired many of the greatest English dramatists, including William Shakespeare.
The Latin comedy of Plautus’s time was based on the new Greek Comedy, whose best-known practitioner was the Greek dramatist Menander. Comoediae palliatae was the name given to the category of Roman plays based on Greek originals. Most of these have not survived, so what is known about Plautus’s originality and contribution is sometimes a matter of conjecture. By the number of Roman references in his plays, however, it is clear that Plautus did not simply translate his Greek sources. A man who had to live by his words, he was evidently adept at writing what would please his Roman audiences. Still, the illusion that he was writing about another time and place was useful when he poked fun at Roman values.
The Captives has an unusual position among Plautus’s works. It appears to have a highly moral tone and is almost tragic in some aspects. The prologue and epilogue seem intended to assure audiences that this play is different from the others, without the usual comic stereotypes.
Critics have pointed out that the play does toy with some traditional comic features, and they have identified several reversals. It is common in both Greek and Roman plays of the New Comedy, for example, to have a climactic recognition scene, when, for example, the children who have been lost or thought dead are revealed to their parents. At times, this section of the plot unravels the knotty problems that have prevented a young man from marrying the young woman he loves. The young woman is frequently of a lower class, perhaps a slave, and unfit for the young man of a higher class until something happens to change that gap in social position. The young man, with the help of his clever servant, may manage to find the money to free the woman, or the woman may be revealed to have been of high birth or to have been stolen away from her family as an infant.
The Captives has these plot elements, but with a twist. The servant helping his master is actually a peer; the character who turns out to be of higher birth is not the young female character but the male servant. The love that is demonstrated in the play is not between a young man and young woman, but between two men.
Some critics have argued that Tyndarus’s great love and sacrifice for his master shows the remnants of a more obviously homoerotic Greek original. If so, this change would be an excellent example of what Plautus could allow himself through the expediency of pretending that the setting was Greek. Yet Erich Segal has...
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noted that the surviving examples of New Comedy seldom refer to homosexuality; moreover, a Roman audience steeped in the usual love plot could very well have welcomed this new twist to an old plot.
One feature of The Captives that is typical of Plautus is the character of Ergasilus. According to some scholars, Plautus tends to favor the underdog in his plays and is most successful in his portrayal of clever slaves. The parasite figure is not intrinsic to the plot, and the play has been criticized for such a superfluous role. Without Ergasilus, however, the play could barely be amusing. As is typical of a parasite, he moans about his stomach, setting up a nice comic counterpoint to the more serious themes of the play. The emphasis on Ergasilus’s down-to-earth physicality is typical of comedy, which traditionally focuses on what is necessary for survival and shows less concern for how that survival is achieved.
The Captives is not considered the most perfectly constructed of Plautus’s plays. The parasite is an intrusion on a logical plot, and there are other inconsistencies that have caused some critics to call the play a failure. One eighteenth century critic, however, called it the most beautiful play ever to come to the stage. It has also been one of the popular choices for study, because its high-minded themes of loyalty and sacrifice seem more suitable in an educational context than Plautus’s more ribald plays. The Captives also exhibits some of the features that have made Plautus endure, among them comic, entertaining features of plot and language. As Segal has pointed out, Plautus’s irrepressible high spirits may have seeped into the title itself: In the original, it is ambiguous, meaning “take prisoner” or “take in,” leaving the audience to wonder just how far the joking goes.