Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 923

Of the two major Roman comic playwrights (the other was Plautus), Terence has always been considered the more thoughtful. Like Menander, the Greek writer whose works he imitated, Terence used the genre not simply to amuse his audience but also to explore human psychology and moral issues. Because some characters...

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Of the two major Roman comic playwrights (the other was Plautus), Terence has always been considered the more thoughtful. Like Menander, the Greek writer whose works he imitated, Terence used the genre not simply to amuse his audience but also to explore human psychology and moral issues. Because some characters and scenes seem to have been introduced into The Eunuch merely for their farcical value, however, it has been suggested that Terence may have written this play primarily to please his audience. The Eunuch is often called Terence’s most Plautine work; certainly it is his most lighthearted. Nevertheless, there is evidence that even in The Eunuch, Terence meant to touch on a serious theme.

As is typical of a play by Terence, The Eunuch has a double plot. The first story involves the love of Phaedria for Thais, and the second story involves Chaerea’s desire for Pamphila. In The Eunuch, however, Terence also adds an underplot to his play. His source for the characters of Thraso and Gnatho has not been determined, but they could have been drawn from an ample supply of stereotypes available to Roman dramatists. The boastful soldier appears often in Roman comedy, as does the parasite, who makes his living by flattering wealthy dupes. The important question is why Terence introduced these characters into the play; some critics argue that their presence is gratuitous. Gnatho’s description of his activities is, in itself, uproarious. Thraso is a variation of the stereotype he represents. As a soldier who, though stupid, is not brave, and, though boastful, is proud not of his military exploits but of his wit, Thraso adds color and humor to the play. His siege of Thais’s house is one of the most humorous scenes in The Eunuch. Nevertheless, neither that scene nor the characters of Thraso and Gnatho can be considered essential to the two primary plotlines. Thraso does not need to be as fully developed a character as he is, nor does he need to be as involved in the action as he is.

It may be that even in this atypical play, Terence wished to challenge the comfortable assumptions of his audience. This argument is supported by the fact that the frequent derogatory comments about courtesans are contradicted by the actions of the courtesan-protagonist. Thais wishes to return Pamphila to her family because she wants to win the respect of the Roman nobility; however, she is also motivated by unselfish love. In fact, except for Thais’s conscientious maid, Pythias, Thais is the least motivated by self-interest. At the end of the play, when Laches takes Thais under his protection and permits Phaedria to retain her as his mistress, Laches is more than just a perceptive father or even a wise elder citizen; he is also acting as an agent of poetic justice and as a spokesperson for the playwright.

None of the male characters in The Eunuch can be compared to its courtesan protagonist in terms of generosity, integrity, and courage. Like Thais, Gnatho must be self-sufficient. Unlike her, however, he is willing to be dishonest and self-centered in order to survive. The slave Parmeno is drawn more sympathetically, since, unlike the scheming slave in most Roman comedies, Parmeno does try to draw a moral line. He is shocked when Chaerea acts upon his idle comment about masquerading as a eunuch. More important, however, he fears that he will be blamed for Chaerea’s misconduct. Terence holds Parmeno responsible, at least to some degree, for Chaerea’s misconduct; Terence’s feelings are evident in the punishment that he allows Pythias to mete out to Parmeno. It can also be argued that the fictional castration is meant to symbolize the punishment that Chaerea deserves.

In the first scene of The Eunuch, Parmeno defines love, which constitutes the subject of the play; its theme is self-interest. Love, Parmeno says, is a madness, subject to no rules, and once people are overtaken by love, their best hope is to pay as small a price as possible. Phaedria is willing to stay away from Thais for two days, not because he cares about her feelings, but because he hopes that, by obeying her now, he will have her favors in the future.

The love Chaerea professes for Pamphila is another example of self-interest. Not only does he deceive an innocent, but he also rapes her. The reason that Terence never brings Pamphila onstage, even to show her reinstated with her family and betrothed to Chaerea, may be that he thinks it best not to dispel the comic mood.

Another example of self-interest is represented by Thraso and Chremes. During the siege, both are concerned about themselves. While Thais courageously defends her home, Chremes cowers beside her, and Thraso hides behind his small army of servants. The siege scene may have been added in order to expose two more male characters.

If Terence means The Eunuch to be taken seriously, however, it is difficult to explain why Phaedria makes the accommodation he does at the end of the play. Though his love may be selfish, it seems to motivate everything he does. He wants to eliminate his rival and to have his mistress to himself. For financial reasons, however, he is willing to share her with Thraso. Either Terence has decided to end his play with a cynical comment on human nature, or he is primarily concerned with entertaining his audience. It is hardly surprising that critics continue to debate Terence’s intentions in The Eunuch.

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