The Menaechmi can be counted as one of Plautus’s most enduring successes. As is often noted, there is a more-or-less direct line of descent from his story of separated twins, almost certainly taken from a Greek play, to William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (pr. c. 1592-1594, pb. 1623), a Renaissance farce of two sets of separated twins; to the twentieth century American Broadway musical The Boys from Syracuse (1938) by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The borrowing may not be over yet.
The history of this mistaken-identity plot goes back to the ancient Greeks and most probably to the source of many Latin plays, the Greek New Comedy. It was customary for the Roman playwrights to base their plays on the Greek originals. The plays of Plautus, however, like those of his contemporaries, reflect the Roman society of his day rather than depicting the lives of the ancient Greeks. The illusion of another time and place supplied by the Greek dress employed on the Roman stage merely enabled playwrights to poke fun at Roman ways under the guise of attacking the Greeks.
Since very few Greek originals have been recovered, it is not easy to evaluate Plautus’s originality. Moreover, it is also thought that Latin playwrights combined the Greek New Comedy with the earlier dramatic forms of Italy, which were farcical and included much song and dance. However much he owed to his sources, Plautus is appreciated for his ultimate products, which had a great influence on Western drama.
Three of the achievements that make his plays living theater are Plautus’s gift with the Latin language, his memorable characters, and his humor. His language, though certainly hard to appreciate in translation, is well regarded by Latin scholars for being both colloquial and wonderfully fluent: The idiomatic Latin is lively and vulgar, yet the metrics are supple. The vulgarity caused Plautus to fall into disfavor in certain periods, such as the Middle Ages in Europe. Since the rediscovery and reappreciation of all things classical during the Renaissance, Plautus has entertained all those who appreciate Latin.
Equally, in the theater, his gift for farcical situations and his use of song and dance have produced entertaining plays. Whether his plays have a social message remains a matter of debate. Plautus is held in low regard by some critics because his plays seem merely to be wildly amusing. Others, perhaps in response, have found some social commentary in the plays. A third group finds meaning in the social function of plays, whether or not the plays themselves hold any deep meaning.
The Menaechmi is in several respects illustrative of the best Plautine elements of comedy. It is generally admired for its exquisitely balanced and neat construction. Given the basic improbability of the situation, which is that the visiting brother who sets out to find his missing brother with the same name is being mistaken for someone else and yet does not understand his predicament, the swift pace of the play and Plautus’s lively language and songs and dance keep it entertaining for the audience.
Beyond its excellence as farce, The Menaechmi may be interpreted as a comic wish-fulfillment of its original Roman, mostly male, audiences. As the scholar Erich Segal notes, what Menaechmus Sosicles experiences is, though confusing, a male dream fulfilled: money, sex, and food for nothing. The confusion adds to the dreamlike, fantasy state. A comparison of the dietary restrictions of the times with the food described for the feasts in the play, Segal also notes, is another example of defying social conventions.
Although Plautus’s comedies, along with other Latin comedies,...
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have long and often been credited—or perhaps accused—with setting the example for the clichéd, romantic comedy with a happy ending,The Menaechmi shows the great range and variety to be found in his works. This range of tone indicates that Plautus is not responsible for the sentimentality of later playwrights. The clearest example of the antiromantic, unsentimental tone in this particular play is the cynical treatment of love. The married brother has a shrewish wife. Part of the plot complication is that he has a mistress to whom he gives what he steals from his wife. Menaechmus of Epidamnum is already bouncing back and forth between duty to a wife he does not love and pleasure with a courtesan when his brother further complicates his life. Furthermore, neither woman is portrayed in an attractive light. The wife is a nag and Erotium is greedy and grasping. The ending, in which the brothers go off with each other and leave everyone else behind, is somewhat startling to anyone used to a more conventional happy ending. The rightness of a traditional family at the end of a comedy is generally reinforced by having errors cleared up. In this play, the brothers decide that the situation is hopeless and simply leave.
On the other hand, some scholars would argue, this ending is also appropriate if one considers the social function of comedy. Comedy often endorses the overturning of too-rigid social customs and the momentary release of inhibitions. Plautus uses the common stock of comedies to win the approval of audiences seeking a momentary change in their ordinary lives.
That The Menaechmi survived so long is a testament to Plautus’s great skill in constructing a swiftly moving plot, amusing characters, and entertaining language. Whether he intends social commentary as well is a matter of interpretation. In using much of the local color of his day—the Roman references to places, customs, sayings—he leaves a stamp of his culture on a durable plot of mistaken identity.