Last Updated November 3, 2023.
The Importance of Family
Family—first lost, then reunited—is the narrative focal point of The Menaechmi. Though the story meanders, often lingering in the comical elements of the characters’ ridiculous interactions, it always returns to the central fracture point of two brothers, separated as children. Though the boys were raised in different cities by different people, their love proves an unbreakable bond; for the second Menaechmus, named for his twin and raised on stories of his lost brother, their reunion is worth a lifetime of travel and struggle. It is worth a slim purse and poor lodgings. Family, in his view, is more important than the creature comforts of his home in Syracuse, and he intends to pursue the fraternal pull across the world if necessary. Even after his wise slave counsels him about the prudence of his actions and the likelihood of their success, he forges ahead, unburdened by doubt or fear.
For the original Menaechmus who, after a lifetime away from home, has forgotten his birth family, the draw of family ties might not seem as strong as they are for his brother. However, when the identity of his brother is revealed, he immediately sells his possessions—including his wife—abandons his life in Epidamnus, and sets sale with his brother to Syracuse, happy to return home to a family he does not even remember. The play drives home the ingrained love that family ties inspire, even through hardship and struggle. As the two brothers sail home, reunited at last, the efforts of their life seem to return to a single strand, bonded by blood.
The Benefits of Loyalty
In Roman plays, loyalty is the highest virtue. Whether a character remains true to their word often foreshadows the conclusion of their story; the more loyal a character, the more likely they are to end the play happily and fulfilled. For Plautus’s The Menaechmi, the pattern is no different.
Messenio, Menaechmus of Syracuse's slave, fulfills the stock character role of the servus callidus or clever slave. As such, he is characterized as wise and immensely loyal, often to his detriment; the clever slave often leads the protagonist to his happy ending and, as a result, is rewarded for his efforts. Indeed, Messenio’s keen eye for detail and wise counsel results in the brothers’ reunion and earns him his freedom. His willingness to set aside his desires and follow his master in his voyage across the world lead him to a happy ending, one granted by his virtuous way of life.
The Menaechmi, too, earn their happiness. Their voyage home together is the product of a lifetime of searching and longing finally come to fruition, and the efforts of Menaechmus of Syracuse have directly informed his success. Family loyalty and adherence to such deep-rooted ties have led him around the world and into poverty, but they have also led him to his brother.
Throughout the play, things are not what they seem. Neither brother seems to fit into his expected role, and their actions lead to several conflicts and confusion. Some conflicts are of the brothers' own making, such as when the first Menaechmus cheats on his wife and takes her cloak. However, some are merely the product of circumstance. Their confusing, shared appearance cannot be helped, and their cluelessness in certain situations is not their fault.
This comical confusion belies another, more insidious, confusion: that of social hierarchy and the roles they demand. If the brothers are not as they seem, neither are their slaves. Messenio is a clever, loyal man, but he is a slave. Yet it is his actions that lead the play to its happy end. His master is somewhat bumbling and struggles to understand the world as it is. This upended hierarchy draws upon the central theme of deceptive reality; not only does the brothers’ mistaken identity prove that the world is not always as it first appears, but so too does Messenio’s unpredictable agency.