Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 964

Between the death of Aristophanes, the first Greek master of comedy, and the Roman Plautus, who has been described as the most successful comic poet in the ancient world, the Greek Menander created the New Comedy. Only one complete play by Menander is now extant, but most Roman comedies are known, from fragments and various accounts, to be imitations of Greek models. Only twenty of the approximately one hundred plays written by Plautus—who is also the first known professional playwright—remain.

Plautus was the first Latin author whose work has survived; he was very popular in Rome. His plays greatly influenced the comedies of William Shakespeare and Molière, and, as recently as the 1960’s, an adaptation combining three of his plays, including Pseudolus (which literally means “the trickster”), achieved considerable success as a Broadway musical titled A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (pr., pb. 1962), which was in turn adapted as a motion picture (1966).

Whereas some of Shakespeare’s comedies have been described as being serious, dark, or even problem plays, the comedies of Plautus are almost always festive and playful. Performed at planting or harvest festivals, the plays offered Roman audiences an opportunity to free themselves temporarily from the confines of their society, which demanded strict adherence to law, filial obedience—fathers could legally execute their children—and pursuit of financial gain. Roman morality has been described as puritanical, and the institution of slavery was vital to Roman civilization. What the comedies offered was an inversion of these cultural values: The slave becomes master over his master, the son over his father, youth over age. In the comic world of Plautus, money and morality merely get in the way, and those who are committed to either are usually the villains.

Actually, the term “villain” is a bit severe to describe any of the characters in a play like Pseudolus. The pimp (in Latin, leno) Ballio is more a rascal than a villain. He is a blocking character—that is, he prevents the good characters, the slave Pseudolus and his master’s son, Calidorus, from having a good time. “Having a good time” in this case means arranging for Calidorus to gain possession of his girlfriend, Phoenicium, before Ballio can sell her to a Macedonian officer with the nearly unpronounceable name of Polymachaeroplagides. (Roman audiences would probably have laughed over such awkward Greek names; this one roughly translates as “many swords at the side.”) The officer himself never appears onstage, but his orderly, Harpax (the name means “snatcher” or “thief”), is there to be outwitted, along with nearly everyone else, by the clever Pseudolus.

To turn the world familiar to his Roman audience upside down, Plautus sets the play in Athens, although perhaps any city in Greece would have sufficed, given the Roman prejudice against Greeks. Far from being the homeland of rational thinking or of Platonic idealism, the stage in Athens is a place of frivolity and license. The fact that Greek slaves often served as tutors and that knowledge of Greek was prized among Roman aristocrats did not prevent Greeks from being the objects of ridicule. Whereas, however, Calidorus performs as a typically inept adolescent in love and out of money, and Ballio is greedy, irascible, and heartless, Pseudolus is presented as clever, witty, and loyal. Perhaps in this characterization Plautus is paying some tribute to the Greek mind.

The plot is simple and conventional, which is what the audience would have expected. Sincere romantic love would have been out of place, and it is appropriate that Calidorus’s boyish passion for Phoenicium is conventionally erotic. His role as a spendthrift and, therefore, penniless son and his father Simo’s role as a well-to-do and unsympathetic parent are conventional, as is the role of Ballio, the unlikable pimp who first appears onstage lashing his slaves. Similarly, the clever Pseudolus is conventionally likable. What makes the play work is the way Pseudolus outwits Ballio and at the same time manages to trick Simo into funding the adventure. Through a friend of Calidorus, Pseudolus acquires the services of Simia (the name means “monkey”), who masquerades as Harpax and proves equally clever when it comes to duping Ballio. Plautus also sets up a subplot involving a cook hired by Ballio for his birthday banquet; Plautus does not develop that plot, but the cook has some good moments in the play.

The range of comic characters and the thematic triumphs of slave over master, youth over age, and love (of a sort) over profit account for much of the appeal of this comedy. Some of the clever wordplay also translates well, as in an early scene when Calidorus and Pseudolus call Ballio such names as “scoundrel” and “slime” only to hear him placidly agree with them. Throughout the play, Pseudolus likes to refer to his schemes in military terms because he sees himself leading his legions against Ballio and taking on Simo. Above all, the satisfaction granted to the audience in this play is that of watching an unpleasant person being outsmarted.

Pseudolus appears toward the end of the play highly intoxicated and in a mood to celebrate, and it is in keeping with the tone of the play that Simo cannot resist being proud of his slave’s wily triumph, even though he himself has been shown up. Part of Pseudolus’s victory lies in the fact that he is so brazen as to tell Simo from the first to be on the watch for him. Plautus thus asserts a kind of comic justice. In the spirit of inverted values and of distorted historical probabilities, Pseudolus insists that Simo join him in his drunken carouse. He then turns to those in the audience and invites them to the next performance.

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