Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 333

In The Eunuch, Terence explores the theme of love's madness. Phaedria trembles with desire for the courtesan, Thais. Nevertheless, he acknowledges she treats him badly, for example, by barring him from her home. He realizes he is caught in the topsy-turvy world of love, where he, irrationally, endures abuse to be near the beloved. Likewise, Chaerea, Phaedria's brother, experiences love's madness when he sees and falls in love with Pamphila, a lovely sixteen year old. In a gender bending move, Chaerea, Phaedria's brother, enters Thais's household disguised as eunuch to get access to Pamphila, who is being given to Thais as a servant. What lengths, the play asks, are permissible for love? In this comic world, the boundaries appear elastic.

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Through Chaerea, the play also explores the theme of rape. Is rape a manifestation of love, as Chaerea insists to the angry Thais? Modern audiences would say no, but Chaerea insists love's madness was beyond his control. Does his lovesickness alleviate Chaerea of responsibility for what he has done? Further, does rape of a virgin like Pamphila constitute a "marriage?" Chaerea does end up agreeing to marry Pamphila, but this brings up a disturbing theme in the ancient world: from the myth of the deception and rape of the Sabine women used to establish the dynasties of ancient Rome, rape has been an accepted way of establishing a family, a pattern repeated in Terence.

Pamphila's rape also brings to the fore the theme of women and power. Chaerea dismisses Thais's anger when she finds out he has raped Pamphila, reasoning there is nothing she can do about it. He's right, and Thais ends up forgiving him—but what choice does she have? In the end, powerful men can do what they want, and less powerful women have to accept what they can get: for the young Pamphila, it's a marriage to her rapist, which at least elevates her status, and for Thais, it's the fate of being "shared" between Phaedria and a solider.

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Critical Essays