Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The trickster theme: As the title of the play indicates, the central character is the trickster slave Pseudolus, who has the wits to outsmart his so-called betters, people with far more power and privilege. The play upends notions of class. It shows Pseudolus as superior to the evil Ballio, and Pseudolus earns his master, Simo's, admiration at the play's end. The play suggests that having to survive by one's wit sharpens the intellect, while too much privilege dulls a person. We can't forget either, the slave and prostitute Phoenicium, who shows her wits and agency in a strong persuasive letter appealing for help against Ballio.

Greed is evil: The play shows that Ballio's greed is evil and dehumanizing. Phoenicium might be a full human being, but Ballio sees her as nothing but a commodity to be bought and sold. He beats his slaves but in the end, through his haughtiness and greed, is beaten by a slave.

Good can triumph over evil: This is a classic underdog play, a comedy in which individuals with all the cards stacked against them are able to triumph over evil. Love wins the day, and the good-hearted Pseudolus is well rewarded for his services. The slaves shouldn't have been able to win, but they did, and the play ends on a joyful note.

The artist as trickster and the power of imagination: Pseudolus openly compares himself to a poet, having to create reality out of thin air to bring off what seems an impossible task in wresting Phoenicium from Ballio's grasp. It is Pseudolus's imagination, wits, and resourcefulness—characteristics of the playwright as well as the player—that wins the day.

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