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...
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