Plautus (Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism) - Essay


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Plautus C. 254 B.C.–184 B.C.

Roman dramatist.

Plautus is considered to be one of ancient Rome's most popular and successful comic playwrights. For nearly a century after his death, more than 130 plays were attributed to Plautus; it has been speculated that many of these plays were the work of lesser dramatists who used Plautus's name to bolster attendance. Scholars have since determined that Plautus penned at least twenty-one comedies, of which twenty are complete and comprise the largest existing collection of classical dramatic literature. The plots of Plautus's plays are Romanized versions of earlier Greek models written by Menander, Philemon, Diphlus, and Alexis. Described as New Comedy, Plautus's plays, like those of his Greek predecessors, focus on the personal relationships of ordinary people and the opposition to such relationships posed by financial, social, or parental obstacles.

Biographical Information

Little is known about Plautus's life. Born to poor parents in the village of Sarsina in Umbria, Plautus is believed to have traveled to Rome at an early age to work in the theater. He may have worked as a laborer or merchant before or concurrent with the writing of his early comedies, although this has been disputed by modern scholars. It has also been speculated that Plautus lost the profits from his younger years in an unsuccessful shipping venture, after which he turned—or, perhaps, returned—to writing plays as his sole source of income.

Major Works

Although Plautus has been faulted by some critics for the similarity of plot in his plays, others have argued that the plays differ significantly from one another while making use of similar elements and thematic devices. For example, a number of Plautus's plays rely on mistaken identity to create humor and conflict. Rudens has been identified as the Plautine play that most approaches the spirit of romantic comedy. It features mistaken identities and recognition, a shipwreck, and

a rare, on stage dalliance between lovers. The story of Poenulus is that of an old Carthaginian seeking his long-lost daughters, whose mistaken identities are eventually revealed. Epidicus complicates a basic plot—a young man in love needs money to win a woman—with a series of mistaken identities. The plot of Menaechmi is concerned with the mistaken identities of identical twins with the same name who are unaware of the other's presence. Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors is an elaboration of this Plautine plot.

It has been noted by some critics that Plautus's plots do not tend to guide love along the path to marriage. In several plays, while love does lead to marriage, Plautus manages to direct the audience's primary interest to other dimensions of the play, de-emphasizing the value of marital love. In other plays, the prospect of marriage becomes either impossible or is simply irrelevant. While a happy marriage is featured at the end of Aulularia, the misfortunes of a miser take center stage. In Cistellaria, the love plot is upstaged by the activities of other characters; in Curculio the love plot is presented from the outset as ridiculous. Truculentus focuses on the exploits of a courtesan to achieve material success at the expense and ruin of her would-be lovers. Like Truculentus, several other plays, including Persa, Pseudolus, and Bacchides subvert such traditional values such as the social relevancy of marriage. Bacchides centers on the difficulties encountered in the pursuit of love by two young men as well as two courtesans, the sisters Bacchides, who are willing to do anything for money. At one point in the play, the sisters seduce the fathers of the two young men. Several of Plautus's plays include the stock character of the senex amator, or the lecherous old man who falls for a young girl. In at least three plays—Asinaria, Casina, and Mercater—this character and his motivation serve as a primary focus of the play. Other works which include an appearance by this stock character include Bacchides (the two seduced fathers); Cistellaria, in which the senex amator interprets everything spoken by the object of his desire as an expression of love until he discovers that she is the woman who is corrupting his son; and Stichus, in which an old man relates to his sons-in-law the story of a friend whose own sons-in-law provided him with a female "companion." The old man leaves the scene wrongly believing that his sons-in-law will do the same for him.

Critical Reception

While Plautus's work was immensely popular among his audiences, he has long been taken to task by scholars. The Roman poet and satirist Horace (65 B.C.-8 B.C.) chastized Plautus for valuing the financial success of his plays over adherence to rules of dramatic construction. One of the most heavily debated issues surrounding Plautus's work is the question of originality. It has always been known, thanks to original Latin texts, that Plautus and such Roman dramatists as Terence (185 B.C.-159 B.C.) wrote plays that were adaptations of earlier Greek works. In the nineteenth century, questions arose primarily among German Romantic scholars regarding the extent of Plautus's adaptation of Greek models. These critics allowed that Plautus inserted Roman allusions and Latin puns into his playsand debated whether Plautus's Romanization of Greek texts included borrowing the structure of the Greek originals. These critics were reluctant to credit Plautus with much skill or creativity and often suggested, when confronted with great divergence between Plautus's plays and Greek models, that Plautus must have combined several Greek plays into one.

Many twentieth-century critics, while acknowledging Plautus's indebtedness to the Greeks, have defended his originality, approaching his texts from several different avenues. Roland Kent examines the divergences of Plautus's plays from what he maintains is believed to be the "typical" Plautine plot. Kent shows that none of the plays contain all the elements of this so-called typical plot and that even those that contain many typical elements are remarkably different from one another. Furthermore, Kent also groups the works according to the roles of the heroines within the plays and the plays' outcomes, further emphasizing the individuality of Plautus's plays. Erich Segal (1968) highlights the uniquely and thoroughly Roman flavor of Plautus's plays, demonstrating how connected they are to the concept of the Roman holiday. During Roman holidays, Segal explains, the rules and social conventions of everyday life were not only ignored but flamboyantly broken. Segal goes on to argue that this holiday mentality is reflected in Plautus's plays, in which the rules of the Forum are contrasted with holiday festivity and freedom from those rules, making the comedies uniquely appealing to Roman audiences. K. C. Ryder (1984) takes another approach in asserting Plautus's originality by analyzing the stock character of the senex amator in Plautus's plays. Ryder maintains that despite Plautus's frequent use of this character, the senex amator is portrayed differently in each work. This variety, Ryder urges, suggests a higher level of "subtlety of approach and execution than [Plautus] is usually credited with." Other critics have looked to specific aspects of particular plays to argue in favor of Plautus's originality. J. C. B. Lowe (1992), for example, compares Plautus's Asinaria with its Greek model. Lowe examines specific inconsistencies in the plot and the appearance of the character Philaenium in order to demonstrate the possibility of Plautine innovations. Similarly, William M. Owens (1994) analyzes a specific event in Bacchides, a play heavily concerned with deception. While the Greek model for the play (Menander's Dis Exapaton) contains two incidents of deception, Bacchides contains three deceptions. It was believed by earlier critics that this aspect of the play was introduced by Plautus through the process of contaminatio (the use of another, unidentified play as a source). Owens demonstrates the possibility that this third deception is Plautine in origin and is used to depict the antithesis between Roman trust, or fides, and Greek deception. Despite varying degrees of confidence in Plautus's originality, critics agree that the characters and plot situations popularized by Plautus have influenced and inspired countless works throughout the world of drama.

*Principal Works

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Amphitruo [Amphitryon] c. 186 B.C.

Asinaria [Comedy of Asses]

Aulularia [Pot of Gold]

Bacchides [Two Bacchides]

Captivi [Captives]


Cistellaria [The Casket Comedy] c. 201 B.C.

Curculio [The Weevil]


Menaechmi [Twin Menaechmi]

Mercator [Merchant]

Miles Gloriosus [Braggart Warrior] c. 211 B.C.

Mostellaria [Haunted House]

Persa [Persian]

Poenulus [Carthaginian]

Pseudolus 191 B.C.

Rudens [Rope]

Stichus 200 B.C.

Trinummus [Three Bob Day]

Truculentus [Truculent Man]


*As the dates of most of Plautus' plays are unknown, his works are listed here in alphabetical order. Dates are provided when they are known or conjectured.

†This work survives only in a fragment of about 100 lines.

Principal English Translations

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Plautus, 5 vols., translated by P. Nixon [complete works] 1916-38

Roman Drama, 2 vols., edited by G. E. Duckworth [complete works] 1942

The Rope and Other Plays, translated by E. F. Watling [Amphitryon, Mostellaria, Rudens, Trinummus] 1964

The Pot of Gold and Other Plays, translated by E. F. Watling [Aulularia, Captivi, Menaechmi, Miles Gloriosus, Pseudolus] 1965

Roman Drama, translated by F. O. Copley and Moses Hadas, [Menaechmi, Mostellaria, Rudens] 1965

Plautus; Three Comedies, translated by Erich Segal [Menaechmi, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria] 1969

Plautus: The Darker Comedies, translated by James Tatum [Bacchides, Casina, Truculentus] 1983

Roland G. Kent (essay date 1923)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Roland G. Kent, "Variety and Monotony in Plautine Plots, in Philological Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 3, July, 1923, pp. 164-72.

[In the following essay, Kent outlines what is often said to be the "typical" Plautine plot and identifies the ways in which Plautus's plays vary from this stereotype.]

The amusing comedies of Plautus, despite their great influence on the comedy of later times,1 have suffered diminished favor with the readers of Latin, to some extent, perhaps, because they are regarded as a low form of literature,2 even apart from the indecencies of language and of situation in which certain of the plays abound, but even more, I...

(The entire section is 4291 words.)

Philip Whaley Harsh (essay date 1944)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: "Plautus," in A Handbook of Classical Drama, Stanford University Press, 1944, pp. 333-74.

[In the following excerpt, Harsh offers an overview of Plautus's major plays, commenting on the source materials, plots, and the influence of the plays on later works.]

The twenty extant plays of Plautus constitute an astonishingly varied collection of good, bad, and indifferent comedies. Even the worst, however, usually have one or more effective scenes, and most of the indifferent ones doubtless were successful in his theater. For modern dramatists, good and bad alike have served as a continually plundered storehouse of interesting comic characters and amusing...

(The entire section is 15297 words.)

John Arthur Hanson (essay date 1965)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: John Arthur Hanson, "The Glorious Military," in Roman Drama, Basic Books, Inc., 1965, pp. 51-86.

[In the following essay, Hanson studies Plautus 's use and development of the stock character the miles gloriosus, or braggart soldier, maintaining that this character was used by Plautus as a commentary on Roman military ideals of his time. Hanson goes on to survey the appearance of this character in the works of later dramatists, including William Shakespeare.]

A stock character is a scholar's delight. He may be traced backward and forward in time, across national boundaries from writer to writer, engendering Quellenforschungen and appreciations of our debt...

(The entire section is 12585 words.)

Erich Segal (essay date 1968)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Erich Segal, in Roman Laughter, Harvard University Press, 1968, 229 p.

[In the following excerpts from his book-length study of Plautus's comedies, Segal sketches Plautus's career as a professional playwright popular with Roman audiences and explores the relationship between Plautine Roman comedy and the Roman holiday mentality.]


Of all the Greek and Roman playwrights, Titus Maccius Plautus is the least admired and the most imitated. "Serious" scholars find him insignificant, while serious writers find him indispensable. He deserves our careful attention, not merely because his twenty complete comedies constitute the...

(The entire section is 15394 words.)

James Tatum (essay date 1983)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: James Tatum, in an introduction to Plautus: The Darker Comedies, translated by James Tatum, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983, pp. 1-13.

[In the following excerpt, Tatum explains that three of Plautus's comedies—Bacchides, Casina, and Truculentus—are less familiar today than his others because of their unconvential use of the family and love. Tatum briefly discusses the more cynical aspects of each play and comments on the problems related to the translation and production of these plays.]

The Playwright and His World

Our knowledge of the literary history of Greece and Rome often depends on little...

(The entire section is 3866 words.)

K. C. Ryder (essay date 1984)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: K. C. Ryder, "The Senex Amator in Plautus," in Greece & Rome, Vol. XXXI, No. 2, October, 1984, pp. 181-89.

[In the following essay, Ryder discusses Plautus's use of the stock character the senex amator, asserting that Plautus's handling of the lecherous old man who falls for a young girl differs in each of the six plays in which the character appears.]

Of the twenty-nine senes in the Plautine corpus, seven may legitimately be called senex amator—that is, an old man who for some reason contracts a passion for a young girl and who, in varying degrees, attempts to satisfy this passion. They are Demaenetus (Asinaria),...

(The entire section is 3531 words.)

J. C. B. Lowe (essay date 1992)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: J. C. B. Lowe, "Aspects of Plautus' Originality in the Asinaria," in Classical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1, 1992, pp. 152-75.

[In the following essay, Lowe compares Plautus's Asinaria to its Greek model Onagos and identifies several aspects of Plautus's comedy which are perhaps Plautine innovations rather than further derivations from Greek materials.]


The problem of Plautus' originality

That the palliatae of Plautus and Terence, besides purporting to depict Greek life, were in general adaptations of Greek plays has always been known. Statements in the prologues of the...

(The entire section is 15115 words.)

William S. Anderson (essay date 1993)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: Willam S. Anderson, in Barbarian Play: Plautus ' Roman Comedy, University of Toronto Press, 1993, 179 p.

[In the following two chapters from his book-length analysis of Plautus's work, Anderson first examines the way in which Plautus subverts the conventional love plot in order to transform Greek romantic comedy into Roman comedy. Next, Anderson traces the development of the concept of "heroic badness "the immoral tendencies shared by humanity and acted on by Plautus's "heroic rogues "throughout Plautus's comedies.]

Plautus' Plotting: The Lover Upstaged

When classical scholars began to develop an interest in New...

(The entire section is 19568 words.)

William M. Owens (essay date 1994)

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

SOURCE: William M. Owens, "The Third Deception in Bacchides" in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 115, Fall, 1994, pp. 381–407.

[In the following essay, Owens compares Plautus's Bacchides to the Greek play on which it was based (Menander's Dis Exapaton) and demonstrates that several aspects of the play's plot and themes are Plautine in origin.]

Chrysalus is one of Plautus' most clever slaves. In the course of Bacchides he deceives his master three times. But the model for Bacchides was Menander's Dis Exapaton, "The Man Deceiving Twice," whose title implies only two deceptions. This difference in arithmetic was the seed of a...

(The entire section is 10331 words.)

Further Reading

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Bruster, Douglas. "Comedy and Control: Shakespeare and the Plautine Poeta." Comparative Drama 24, No. 3 (Fall 1990): 217–31.

Argues that a character common in Shakespeare's works—the "controlling playwright figure"—is a derivation of Plautus's poeta, or clever slave.

Forehand, Walter E. "Irony in Plautus' Amphitruo." American Journal of Philology XCII, No. 4 (October 1971): 633–51.

Analyzes Amphitruo in terms of ironies of language and plot and comments on "the implications of these ironies for our view of the play as a whole."


(The entire section is 413 words.)