The Pot of Gold

by Plautus
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757

The Pot of Gold is an example of Plautus’s dramaturgy at its best. The plot has two strands of action: Euclio’s frantic attempts to keep his pot of gold safe from thieves and Phaedria’s offers of marriage on the very day she gives birth to Lyconides’ illegitimate baby. The two lines of action are skillfully interwoven, the dramatic pace is swift and purposeful, and each scene arises from the last with no digressions. This farce also exhibits Plautus’s verbal exuberance—his punning, his comic alliteration, his idiomatic language, his metrical variety, and his keen sense of timing—to good effect. Few playwrights of that era knew how to handle a joke with such deftness. Merely reading Plautus’s plays—especially in translation—can be tiresome, however. It is necessary to visualize the action taking place on a stage to get some idea of Plautus’s ability.

Plautine drama was quite similar to nineteenth and twentieth century musical comedy in that it used song and dance as part of the action, it was best presented by actors with considerable theatrical experience, and the plays were based on adapted works. Plautus borrowed heavily from the Greek writers of the New Comedy, and it is often conjectured that The Pot of Gold was taken from a play by Menander, although it is impossible to determine which one. The miser has been a stock figure of farce almost from the genre’s inception.

The text of The Pot of Gold is no longer complete, as the conclusion is missing. On the basis of the two “Arguments” summarizing the plot—verses that preface the play, added by later Roman editors—the ending can, however, be reconstructed.

The main interest of this play lies in the character of Euclio. Three generations of poverty, hard toil, and thrift have had their effects on his personality. Euclio is so miserly that the neighbor’s servants make jokes about his stinginess, and when he uncovers a pot of gold in his house, his only thought is to keep it from being stolen. The gold acts as a curse for him. It makes him suspicious of every kind word, every good deed, and every person entering or leaving his house. He even suspects that the cooks are using a rooster to locate his gold. He acts like a madman in his apprehension, distractedly dashing in and out of his home. The gold is a burden that cuts him off from everyone. He does not realize that his daughter is pregnant, learning of the pregnancy only after she has given birth. Such a person invites the very thing that he or she fears.

Ironically, in trying to find the safest hiding place of all, Euclio unwittingly gives himself away and the gold is stolen—an event that only increases his frenzy. In the best scene in the play, when Lyconides tries to tell him that he drunkenly made love to Phaedria, Euclio is so preoccupied with the theft that he thinks Lyconides is confessing to having taken the gold. Even when he learns of Phaedria’s pregnancy and the birth of her child, these are minor concerns to him. Clearly, something dramatic must take place to induce the change of heart in Euclio that causes him to realize that his daughter could use the gold as a dowry. What happens to transform Euclio is part of the play’s missing conclusion.

The subplot in which Phaedria is at last married off to a man who loves her seems perfunctory, but it ties in nicely with Euclio’s obsession. Megadorus is elderly, rich, innocent of Phaedria’s condition, and willing to take her without a dowry. He sends his cooks to prepare the wedding feast at Euclio’s house, which prompts Euclio to remove the gold. After it is stolen, Lyconides becomes the instrument by which it is returned, which establishes him as the successful suitor. Presumably, Megadorus withdrew his offer of marriage when he learned that Phaedria was not a virgin. From the beginning of the play, one knows that Megadorus is simply the playwright’s means of getting Lyconides to propose.

Like most Plautine comedies, this play had considerable influence on European drama. Seventeenth century versions of Plautus’s play include works by Ben Jonson, Molière, and Thomas Shadwell. Henry Fielding’s The Miser (pr., pb. 1733) was also based in part on the Plautine comedy. Certainly the finest re-creation of Euclio was Molière’s Harpagon in L’Avare (pr. 1668; The Miser, 1672).

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