Plautus C. 254 B.C.–184 B.C.
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.
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.
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.
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.