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 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.

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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...

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