Last Updated on October 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 589
Titus Maccius Plautus, most commonly known simply as Plautus, was a prolific Roman playwright who produced many famous satires still read today. His works are quintessentially Roman, as they were composed in fluid, lyrical verse formatted to be sung alongside musical accompaniment, contain numerous stock characters and narrative tropes, and rely on now-lost Greek stories revised for the Roman audience. The Menaechmi is arguably one of his most famous plays, and modern readers can see its influence on classic works such as Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors or Twelfth Night.
In The Menaechmi, a case of mistaken identity drives a humorous story about two brothers reuniting years after being separated. The actions of the brothers make it more difficult for the people in town to recognize that they are two different men, which drives the final climax of the play. The humor in the story lies in the mistaken identities, as the twins find themselves responsible for the other's misdoings. When the original Menaechnus's consort, wife, friend, and father-in-law see his twin, they are convinced that he is the man they know. The absurdity continues because of the gifted cloak the original Menaechnus took from his wife to give to Erotium. She, in turn, gave it to the second Menaechnus, who carried it to the street to sell it. As he attempts to do so, his twin's wife stops him, recognizes the cloak, and attempts to take it back. These extreme misunderstandings form the basis of the humor of the play.
Moreover, these ridiculous hijinks delve into the complex layers of Roman society, discussing what it was to serve as a consort, live as a slave, and navigate society as a woman. The Menaechmi are wealthy men who own slaves and have the finances to cavort about as they wish; those socially disadvantaged characters who are tied to them, such as the first Menaechmus’s wife and the second Menaechmus’s slave, have no such freedom. Their actions connect to the need to curry favor and stability. When Matrona, Menaechmus of Epidamnus’s wife, feels that her husband is unfaithful, she grows fearful of her position. As a woman, she is reliant on him to survive; Plautus lightheartedly presents her fears as those of an overbearing nagger when they were the fair feelings of a susceptible woman.
Messenio, a slave, is another character whose fortune is contingent on the favor of another. His master, Menaechmus of Syracuse, can treat him as he wishes; it is only because Messenio fulfills the role of the clever slave that he earns his freedom. Indeed, Plautus’s satires point to the fractures and complexities of Roman society, a subtle commentary disguised by the veil of absurd comedy and ridiculous circumstance.
Plautus, like many other Roman playwrights, employed a collection of stock characters—consistent character tropes that often appeared in Roman storytelling—to tell the tale. The Menaechmi is no different, as the narrative’s ultimate conclusion turns on the prudent actions of Messenio, the servus callidus or clever slave. By granting slaves narrative presence and indicating their agency and intelligence, Plautus spoke to the broader populace, engaging audiences that were often excluded from plays about kings and gods. The servus callidus made arts accessible and invited the masses into creative cultural works, and the bumbling nature of the traditionally powerful poked fun at conventional hierarchies of control. Thus, Plautus’s satires, including The Menaechmi, act as both entertainment and scathing commentary, employing recurring character tropes to undermine the powerful and empower the weak.