Other Literary Forms

Plautus is remembered only for his plays.


Writing in the second century c.e., Aulus Gellius recorded that 130 plays of Plautus were in circulation, of which twenty-one were agreed on by all as genuine plays of Plautus, at least according to Marcus Terentius Varro, the most respected scholar of the first century b.c.e. It is this set of twenty-one that survives, though the twenty-first, the Vidularia (The Tale of a Travelling Bag), is only four pages of fragments. In addition to the twenty complete plays, fragmentary lines from thirty-two plays ascribed to Plautus survive in the form of quotations in other writers’ works.

Partly through merit and partly through fortune, Plautus stands as the fountainhead of comic drama. A central fact is that each play of Plautus is rendered from a Greek original; twice the prologue identifies which play of which Greek author Plautus is adapting or rendering. None of the Greek originals survives. In fact, until Menander’s Dyskolos (317 b.c.e.; The Bad-Tempered Man, 1921; also known as The Grouch) surfaced in a papyrus codex in the twentieth century, no Greek New Comedy survived at all. The work of Plautus—with the six similar plays of his countryman Terence—therefore represents an entire ancient genre and an unmatched source for modern drama. The contemporary critical wisdom is that the course of drama went from Euripidean tragicomedy to Greek New Comedy to Plautus to modern drama.

Old Comedy refers to Aristophanes, whose plots are mythic and fantastic; the humor is bisexual and flatulent and ad hominem. For New Comedy , perhaps “boy meets girl” is the most succinct description. This is Plautus’s uvre in the main: His plots involve mortals, not gods, and though the humor may still be “indecent,” it is human rather than...

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Further Reading:

McCarthy, Kathleen. Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. A look at the relation of slaves to their masters, with emphasis on the work of Plautus. Bibliography and index.

Moore, Timothy. The Theater of Plautus: Playing to the Audience. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. A study of Plautus that focuses on his endeavors to adapt works to suit his audience’s taste and culture. Bibliography and indexes.

Riehle, Wolfgang. Shakespeare, Plautus, and the Humanist Tradition. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 1990. A comparison of William Shakespeare and Plautus, examining Plautus’s influence on Shakespeare. Bibliography and index.

Segal, Erich. Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. A sprightly treatment of the social milieu that spawned Plautus’s comedies, with extensive notes, an index of passages quoted, and a general index.

Segal, Erich, ed. Oxford Readings in Menander, Plautus, and Terence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A collection of papers tracing the development of the “New Comedy.” Segal’s introduction draws connections between these Latin plays and modern comedy.

Slater, Niall W. Plautus in Performance: The Theater of the Mind. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 2000. This study focuses on the production of the plays of Plautus. Bibliography and index.

Sutton, Dana Ferrin. Ancient Comedy: The War of the Generations. New York: Twayne, 1993. An examination of early comedy that looks at Plautus, Aristophanes, Menander, and Terence.