Although The Self-Tormentor, based on an earlier play by Menander, takes its primary force from its intricate plot, it is, like several of Terence’s comedies, in some sense a problem play. The problem is whether undeviating strictness or affectionate tolerance is the best mode of rearing children. Menedemus begins by finding the apparent excesses of his son intolerable. Since his uncompromising reaction results in the loss of his son, his is clearly not the way Terence would recommend. Neither, however, is the old man’s swing to the opposite extreme after his son leaves home. The implicit moral is that a flexible moderation between strictness and tolerance is best in rearing a son.
In the prologue to The Self-Tormentor, Terence explains that he turned the single plot of his source, a play by the Greek dramatist Menander, into a double one. The Self-Tormentor is certainly complicated. Admittedly, the comic effect depends on confusing the audience almost as much as the characters, but there should be an underlying sense that the playwright remains in control. This may not be the case with The Self-Tormentor, which is difficult to follow.
The play also has structural weaknesses. For example, in most Roman comedies, the plans formulated by the clever slave dominate the action, but here, Syrus’s schemes are not really productive. Terence seems to shift direction in the last part of the play, when he depends upon Sostrata, not Syrus, to bring about a restoration of order. If, as seems clear, the play was popular with Roman audiences, the reason must be its interesting characters, recognizable conflicts, and universal themes.
Terence’s double plot operates through the skillful pairing of characters. There are two fathers, Menedemus, the title character, who believes that he has failed as a parent, and Chremes, who has complete faith in his own wisdom. Chremes must, in the tradition of comedy, be brought to self-knowledge, and Menedemus, who already recognizes his error, must be reunited with his son.
The two pairs of lovers are also contrasted. Clinia and Antiphila are both virtuous, idealistic, and capable of devotion. Only in birth and wealth are they unequal. That problem, in a comedy, is easily solved. Using a stock plot device, Terence arranges to have the young woman of good character but inferior station be recognized as the child of respectable parents. The only difference here is that this conventional recognition occurs in the middle of...
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