Themes

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 352

Terence is a Latin playwright who lived in Rome in the second century BC. His play, Phormio, shows the influence of Greek New Comedy. Its themes include duplicity and social status. The protagonist is Phormio, a cunning lawyer who exploits the rich to make money. Phormio befriends the slave of two young people who are cousins. One of the men, Phaedria, is in love with a harp player whom he cannot afford to marry. The other young man, Antipho, marries a girl with whom he is in love, but brings no dowry.

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When the boys' fathers, Demipho and Chremes, are away, the slave Geta enlists the help of Phormio, who adduces a law claiming that poor women are forced to marry their nearest relative, which Phormio claims Antipho is. The father, Demipho, contests this, and agrees to pay a sum of money to send the girl away. Phormio takes a cut of this money, and gives the rest to Phaedria to buy the harp player as is wife (especially as another man is threatening to purchase her).

It turns out that, while the claim of the relationship between Antipho's father and his wife was fabricated, it is true that she is Chremes's daughter from a previous marriage. Phormio threatens to tell his wife and uses his knowledge as leverage against having to return the money paid to him for the dismissal of the poor girl.

The character of a "trickster" is a strong archetype in the world of ancient theater. This figure was popularized by Plautus in such plays as the Miles Gloriosus. The influence of Greek New Comedy (distinguished from Old Comedy for its relative levity of plot) is seen in the focus on the family unit. The trickster is usualy the driving force of the plot, as he is able to pit various parties against one another to achieve his (usually self-serving) aims.

Social status is also important to Terence's plot; if the brothers had not been so concerned over the compromise of status resulting form Antipho's marriage to a poor woman, they would not have lost money to Phormio.

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