The Self-Tormentor

by Terence

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Critical Evaluation

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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 the action rather than at the end.

Unlike Clinia and Antiphila, Clitipho and Bacchis have no intention of marrying each other. As Bacchis admits to Antiphila, she is essentially a businesswoman, who uses her beauty and her charm in order to attain financial security. Clitipho will remain her lover only as long as he can pay. Besotted as he is, Clitipho understands the temporary nature of their relationship. At the end of the play, he does not object to being married off to an appropriate woman, as long as she is someone he likes.

Although each father quarrels with his son, it is ironic how much the sons resemble their fathers. Menedemus and Clinia are both men of principle. Clinia leaves home because he will not abandon the woman he loves, and Menedemus punishes himself because he knows that he violated his own standards of right and wrong. Similarly, Clitipho and Chremes are both less than honest. Clitipho deceives his father, and Chremes misleads his friend and neighbor. Both father and son are also impressed with their own cleverness. Neither of them realizes that one who is willing to lie to others may himself be...

(This entire section contains 1034 words.)

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deceived. Neither Chremes nor Clitipho is an evil person. Throughout the play, Chremes believes that he is acting in the best interests of Menedemus, and though he is anxious to keep his mistress nearby, Clitipho is also motivated by his desire to help his friend Clinia.

Though the young men are very different in some ways, they are alike in one important quality. Both of them love their fathers and will do almost anything to heal a breach with them. One reason for Clinia’s return is surely his desire to make up matters with his father. As for Clitipho, when he is disinherited, he may regret being deprived of money and property, but he is devastated by the horrible suspicion that if Chremes could so easily reject him, it may be that he is not his father. The pain of losing a mistress is nothing, he realizes, when compared to the anguish he would suffer if he loses Chremes as a father.

Most analyses of The Self-Tormentor emphasize the theme of father-son relationships. However, unlike most other Roman comedies, this play has a strong but not shrewish female character, whose relationships with her husband and her offspring are of crucial importance. While she remains offstage during the first half of The Self-Tormentor, undoubtedly quite busy entertaining the three guests who are foisted upon her, when Sostrata finally enters, she takes charge of the play. She knows how to manipulate Chremes. First, with abject apologies, she admits her disobedience. When her girl child was born, she says, she failed to kill her, as Chremes ordered, and now their daughter reappears in the person of Antiphila. Then Sostrata stands submissive while Chremes first scolds her, then excuses her, since as a woman she cannot help being ignorant and excessively emotional. Then, as Sostrata expects, Chremes changes his mind. It would be nice, he thinks, to have a daughter. Sostrata gets her way. Sostrata is again a pivotal figure in the final scene of the play, first pleading with Chremes to take back their son, then speaking for Clitipho, who seems to have some foolish notion of arguing with his father. On her son’s behalf, Sostrata agrees to a marriage; on her husband’s behalf, she approves of the woman he likes.

In other ways, then, The Self-Tormentor more than makes up for its flaws. Within the context of the always difficult father-son relationships, Terence finds a way to warn against pride and hardheadedness, rashness and debauchery. His audiences may even have left the theater with some increased respect for matrons such as Sostrata.