The Rope is one of Plautus’s longer plays. Some scholars think that it is also his finest play. In some respects, it is not a typical play. For one thing, the setting, on the African seacoast, is distinctly exotic compared with the typical urban settings of much Roman comedy. In general tone, the play is more poetic than the Plautine comedies, which tend to be raucous. The emotions are serious in this play, with an ending that reintegrates all the characters, even the villainous pimp. The storm and the shipwreck and the final universal forgiveness evoke the atmosphere of romance found in plays such as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611, pb. 1623).
In other ways, The Rope has some elements typical of Plautus’s work. As the prologue reminds the audience, the play is based on a Greek play by Diphilus, who named the town Cyrene. This is a reminder to any audience of the standard practice of Plautus’s times: The Roman playwrights translated the Greek originals, creating a category called comoediae palliatae, or comedies in Greek dress. The translation is from Greek to Latin and includes changes in the details of locales and customs. This must have enabled the Roman dramatists to enjoy at least two advantages: They could amuse their audiences with the essential comic tool of incongruity achieved with anachronisms, and, if their satire and jokes gave offense, they could always claim they were poking fun at the Greeks, not at their Roman audiences.
Greek New Comedy, the most influential comedic formula in Western literature, has survived for thousands of years and continues to appeal to audiences primarily through its transmission in the works of Latin playwrights, including Plautus. Certain aspects of The Rope are typical of this traditional comedy: the kidnapped child, the tokens of high birth, the villain, the thwarting of young love, the recognition scene, and the reuniting of families.
Plautus is known for creating memorably clever servants who engineer much of the comic action. In this respect, the servants in The Rope are typical, for Trachalio and Gripus provide most of the comedy. It is not unusual for memorable characterizations and speeches, such as Gripus’s daydream of power and wealth or the dialogue of the fishermen, to have little to do with the action; however, they can distinguish a play.
A distinctive aspect of The Rope, in keeping with its air of romance and fantasy, is...
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