Terence (Drama Criticism) - Essay

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)


Andria [The Girl from Andros] 166 b.c.

Hecyra [The Mother-in-Law] 165 b.c.

Heautontimorumenos [The Self-Tormentor] 163 b.c.

Eunuchus [The Eunuch] 161 b.c.

Phormio 161 b.c.

Adelphoe [The Brothers] 160 b.c.


The Comedies of Terence (translated by Sidney G. Ash-more, 2nd ed.) 1910

Terence. 2 vols, (translated by John Sargeaunt) 1912

The Complete Roman Drama, Volume II (translated by George E. Duckworth) 1962

Terence: Comedies (edited by Robert Graves; based on the translation by Lawrence Echard) 1963

Terence: The Comedies (translated by Betty Radice) 1965

The Comedies of Terence (translated by Frank O. Copley) 1967

The Complete Comedies of Terence (translated by Palmer Bovie, Constance Carrier, and Douglass Parker) 1974

Overviews And General Studies

(Drama Criticism)

Richard Levin (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Double Plots of Terence," in The Classical Journal, Vol. 62, No. 1, October, 1966, pp. 301-05.

[In the essay below, Levin focuses on the two-level plot structure tracing parallel love affairs that is characteristic of several of Terence's plays.]

Certainly one of the most striking features of Terence's plays is his use of a double-plot structure which combines the stories of two pairs of young lovers. Virtually all the commentators, from Donatus and Evanthius down to the present day, have dealt with this aspect of his dramaturgy, and virtually all of them have found that it contributes materially to his unquestioned artistic achievement. On the nature of that contribution, also, there appears to be quite substantial agreement, for while these discussions have been as various as the points of view which have been brought to bear upon the subject, the specific advantages claimed for the Terentian "duality-method" generally focus around two basic topics: the enrichment of the comic complication that results from the interaction of the two plots, and the illuminating contrasts that this provides between the parallel characters—the two adulescentes, the two senes, and sometimes others—of these plots. There is, however, yet another dimension to this dual structure which has been neglected in these studies, even though it seems to have figured significantly in Terence's conception of that structure, and in the influence it was to exert upon later drama.

This additional dimension becomes evident as soon as the comparison is extended beyond the individual characters in these two romantic stories to the nature of the two romances themselves. In the four comedies built upon the double-plot structure (this does not include the Andria, since Charinus' love for Philumena never leads to any action that might constitute a separate plot), the parallel love affairs have been clearly differentiated along the same lines: in each play one pair of lovers (Clinia and Antiphila in the Heautontimorumenos, Chaerea and Pamphila in the Eunuchus, Antipho and Phanium in the Phormio, Aeschinus and Pamphila in the Adelphoe) are eventually united in a legal and socially accepted marriage, while the other pair (Clitipho and Bacchis, Phaedria and Thais, Phaedria and Pamphila, Ctesipho and Bacchis respectively) only form an irregular sexual liaison. From this, moreover, there follows another important difference in the nature of the action appropriate to the two kinds of romance: in the "marriage-plot" the central problem is always the social status of the young woman, which seems to disqualify her as a wife, and the resolution therefore typically turns upon a cognitio revealing her true parentage; in the "liaison-plot," on the other hand, the problem is not the status of the woman (which never changes), but the ability of the young man to obtain or to keep possession of her, and this is resolved through some stratagem, usually involving money, initiated by him or his allies to that end. This does not mean, of course, that all four plots in each category are identical, for the pattern admits of considerable variation in detail from play to play, and there are even a few which do not exactly fit it in all respects; thus the marriage in the Adelphoe requires no cognitio, and the money to maintain the liaison in the Eunuchus is not acquired by the usual trickery. But, as a general formula, it does indicate a fundamental contrast between the combined plots which is developed so consistently in this group of plays that it surely must have been the result of Terence's conscious intention, either in his initial choice of Greek models or in the alterations he made in them.

A few modern critics have noted this pattern, without attaching much significance to it; but more often it has simply been ignored, especially by those who attempt to reduce all the products of New Comedy to a single archetypal scheme. Moses Hadas, for example [in his Roman Drama, 1965], asserts that in this genre the following story is "repeated with only minor changes from play to play":

a young man is in love with a girl owned by a white slaver who is about to dispose of her elsewhere; his cunning servant defrauds the young man's father of the necessary sum; the girl is discovered to be of good birth (having been kidnapped or exposed in infancy) and hence an eligible bride.

And Gilbert Norwood [in his Plautus and Terence, 1932] constructs a similar "composite photograph" of the plots of Plautus and Terence:

A young Athenian is in love with a charming but friendless girl who is the purchased slave of a leno … He wishes to purchase her and keep her as his mistress … Here intervenes his slave, loyal to his young master but otherwise conscienceless, who saves the situation by an elaborate ruse either to defraud the hero's father of the needed sum or to induce the slave-owner to part with the girl. When discovery of this deception arrives, all is put right by a sudden revelation that the heroine is really of Athenian birth (but kidnapped or lost in babyhood) and can therefore marry the hero.

And another such "conventional" plot, couched in Freudian terms, is presented by Northrop Frye [in his "The Argument of Comedy," English Institute Essays 1948]. All formulations of this type, it can be seen, conflate the two distinct kinds of romantic attachment and of dramatic action which Terence has managed to separate by his dual structure, and it is therefore not surprising to find that scholars operating from these reductive schemes will fail to appreciate this aspect of the structure, and may even criticize it unjustly, as when Norwood, for instance, complains of the Eunuchus that "the dualism would have been perfect had Thais been legally possible as a wife for Phaedria." But that would have meant a second marriage-plot for this play, with a second cognitio, which is just what Terence has always avoided.

One reason for avoiding such duplication seems obvious enough: Terence probably realized that two separate discoveries of long-lost daughters would have been too much for his audience to accept. The use of this same coincidental resolution for each plot would make them both much less "probable." Moreover, it would make them much less interesting, because of the predictable and boring repetition. The sense of fascinated excitement which Terence is able to engender depends in large measure upon the variation of situation and incident provided by his formula, since it brings together two very different kinds of comic action—one presided over by a benevolent Fate, where the principal errors and ironies result from an essential ignorance, shared by all the characters, which is innocent of human contrivance and which is finally dispelled in a happy, and equally uncontrived, revelation of the truth; and the other directed by a shrewd schemer who carefully arranges most of the confusion and invites us to enjoy the cleverness of his deceptions and the ridiculous discomfitures of his victims. In terms, then, of both credibility and variety, it is easy to see the advantages of the special formula adopted by Terence.

This may account for his formula on the level of the contrasted actions combined there, but we have still to consider the effect of the contrast between the two kinds of romance portrayed within these actions. It is not a simple matter, since it involves the emotional and moral coloring of those romances, and that is determined not by the real-life attitudes toward marital and extramarital love to be found in Terence's society in second-century Rome, nor in the fourth-century Athens of his models, but by a dramatic convention which has created an artificial exotic world of its own kept at some distance from the audience, the world of the palliata. Some of the nuances of feeling implied in this contrast, therefore, may well be irrecoverable. Because they are defined by the convention, Terence is able to assume these affective values instead of establishing them through his action, which is concerned not so much with the romantic affairs themselves as with the conflicts precipitated by them between the two young men and their fathers (or between the two fathers in the Adelphoe and, to a lesser extent, in the Heauton). There are very few scenes bringing the young lovers together (indeed, often the girl is never seen); their emotional relationship has usually been formed before the play opens and undergoes no real development, being treated in terms of the convention as a kind of donnée. And the attempts to describe the passion of the adulescens, either in his own words or indirectly through others, are seldom very helpful in distinguishing these two sorts of love. In the liaison-plot as in the marriage-plot this passion is called amor, of course, and in both he typically reacts to the threatened loss of his beloved with the same despairing thoughts of death or exile, and to their prospective union (or reunion) with the same rhapsodic delight.

Nevertheless, Terence seems to have taken some pains to provide his audience with an explicit statement of this crucial distinction. Thus in the Heauton Clitipho compares the haughtiness and avarice of the meretrix he loves to the virtuous modesty of the virgo loved by Clinia (223-7), and in a later scene Bacchis enlarges on this comparison from the woman's point of view (381-95); each young man in the Phormio contrasts his plight with his friend's, Phaedria arguing that Antipho is more fortunate in having married a respectable lady (162-72), and Antipho that Phaedria is better off since his problem was solved as soon as he paid the leno (820-27); and in the Adelphoe a number of persons point out the basic difference between Aeschinus' attachment to Pamphila, whom he had promised to marry, and his supposed infatuation with the slave-girl he bought for Clitipho (326-34, 469-77, 724-5). But it is through the action itself that the distinction emerges most clearly. In the marriage-plots of the Heauton, Phormio, and Adelphoe the young man has been living with a decent girl, though apparently of humble or foreign birth, whom he already regards as his wife, so that when the climactic discovery occurs it does not alter his attitude toward her, but simply allows their relationship to be regularized. The liaison-plots really involve two different kinds of love-object—in the Heauton and Eunuchus she is a free woman, a professional courtesan whose favors the youth has been enjoying for some time, while in the Phormio and Adelphoe she is a music-girl (citharistria or psaltria) who is owned by a slave-dealer and is at first unattainable—yet the liaisons themselves are akin in that they always require money (to maintain the courtesan or buy the girl) and are always transitory, the thought of marriage never crossing anyone's mind. There also seems to be a calculated effort to debase these affairs even further. In the first two dramas the young man is made to complain of his mistress' infidelity or cupidity, the usual stigmata of the meretrix, and his romantic posturings are severely qualified during the final episode by the ease with which he consents to share her in a ménage à trois, in the Heauton, or, in the Eunuchus, to abandon her completely. The other two denouements leave the youth in undisputed possession of the slave-girl, but the carnal basis of his affection is emphasized by his eagerness to rush her off to a drunken bedroom "party," and the closing lines here, too, serve to belittle their relationship, in the condescending permission he is given to take her home, as if she were a new toy or pet puppy that he would soon outgrow.

This would suggest that the contrast between the two kinds of romance in these plays has also been designed as a contrast in emotional tone—that the marriage-plot is meant to be more serious and more elevated (while still remaining, of course, within the bounds of comedy) than the plot with which it is combined. And the difference already noted between the two types of comic action should contribute to this same effect. The seriousness of the liaison-plot is deflated because that plot is resolved through the farcical trickery of a contest of wits and butts, just as the seriousness of the other plot is enhanced by the resolving role of a benign Fortune operating above (and often defeating) the plans of the human intriguers. The most crucial determinant of this difference in tone can be found, however, in the issues upon which each of these resolutions is made to turn. In the liaison-plot this issue—the goal of the scheming and the means of uniting the lovers—is typically money, as is pointed out, for instance, in the Phormio: hic simul argentum repperit, cura sese expedivit (823). This necessarily affects the audience's view of the action, reducing it to a kind of confidence game, and of the romance itself, which becomes a commercial transaction; but, more important, it makes everything less serious precisely because it is an external object, loss or gain of which does not really change the characters or their place in the world. In the marriage-plot, on the other hand, the basic issue is never money, but someone's identity. It is not a very profound conception of identity, to be sure, since it is defined in familial and social terms, but it is still much more elevated than money and much more internal, in that it does alter people's lives radically and permanently, the public acceptance of the marriage at the close of these plots being in fact the guarantee of this.

The kind of love depicted in each plot, then, and the kind of action dramatized there, seem to work together in establishing the two distinct emotional effects. Moreover, since the plots interact causally and are juxtaposed through a sequence of alternating episodes, these two effects will tend to reinforce each other by way of contrast, the presence of the more serious marriage-plot making the liaison-plot seem more farcical, and vice versa. Thus it would seem that Terence's duality-method develops a "foil" relationship, not only between parallel characters in the two plots, but also between the plots themselves—or, more strictly, develops the liaison-plot as a foil to the marriage-plot. For the latter action appears to be the more important in each of these dramas (although in some the difference in magnitude is not very great), so that there is a foil arrangement here in the most meaningful sense of that term—a devaluated back-ground fashioned to set off and enhance the superior values, both esthetic and moral, of a more significant centerpiece. This response is not so effectively realized as it might have been, one must admit, since the playwright seldom focuses on the love affairs as such, yet it does provide an artistic rationale for the specific pattern he utilized in all his double plots. (In fact, he may even be striving for this in his two single-plot comedies, both essentially of the "marriage" type, by suggesting a contrast between his chaste heroine and a courtesan—Chrysis, the supposed sister of Glycerium in the Anuria, and Bacchis, the supposed rival of Philumena in the Hecyra.)

It is instructive to find a very similar arrangement in some of the comedies of the Elizabethan period, where a more or less sentimentalized pair of lovers in the main plot is juxtaposed to a much less romantic and much more comic pair in a subplot. The source of these subplots is always traced back to certain episodes in the so-called "native" tradition of the Mystery cycle and Morality play, in which clownish characters, often servants, are shown trying to mimic the deeds of their "betters" in the major action. But there is no valid reason for excluding Terence as a possible source of this structure, especially since his influence upon other aspects of comic theory and practice in the Renaissance has been of such obvious importance. Of course, one must allow for the modification required by a different set of dramatic and social conventions; thus the main action in these comedies is not resolved by a classical cognitio but, usually, by some change in the characters' feelings for each other, and the subplot terminates in another wedding rather than in concubinage. Yet, given these necessary translations, the Terentian pattern can be discerned in the treatment of the subplot couple as foils for the more serious lovers of the main action; and the traits they are given for this purpose—earthiness, cynicism, cunning, and the like—often could have been derived from the intriguers of Terence's liaison-plots. Shakespeare was particularly fond of this arrangement, for almost all his romantic comedies contain "anti-romantic" subplots of this general type (Don Armado and Jaquenetta in Love's Labor's Lost, Bottom and Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Touchstone and Audrey in As You Like It, Sir Toby Belch and Maria in Twelfth Night, Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing), and many other examples could be cited in the works of his contemporaries. In fact, the fundamental scheme reappears in the nearest approach to an indigenous popular drama that our country has yet produced, the musical comedy, which has evolved a definite formula in terms of two parallel courtships contrasted along Terentian lines—a main action where a lyric soprano ingénue finds true love, and a sub-ordinate action where a much more jaded lady, in a husky contralto, settles for considerably less. The line of transmission from Rome to Broadway may be very long and tenuous, but the continued popularity of this same pair of love stories testifies to the effectiveness of the idea that Terence embodied in his double-plot dramas.

Walther Ludwig (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "The Originality of Terence and His Greek Models," in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1968, pp. 169-82.

[In the following essay, Ludwig attempts a balanced assessment of...

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The Girl From Andros

(Drama Criticism)

Terry McGarrity (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: "Thematic Unity in Terence's Andria," in Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 108, 1978, pp. 103-14.

[In the essay below, McGarrity examines the father-son relationship between Simo and Pamphilus in The Girl from Andros.]

Scholarship on the Andria has focused primarily on two additions by Terence: first, the freedman Sosia in the opening scene, and then the second young lover Charinus and his slave Byrria. The attention on these two alterations has been directed particularly toward a consideration of Menander's Greek original of the Andria. The...

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The Mother-In-Law

(Drama Criticism)

David Konstan (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Hecyra: Ironic Comedy," in Roman Comedy, Cornell, 1983, pp. 130-41.

[In the excerpt below, Konstan contends that The Mother-in-Law interrogates the traditional Roman values of amor and pietas (love and filial duty) and in the process "challenges and confounds their customary meanings. "]

The tension between father and son in new comedy was available … as a vehicle for representing issues of caste and class in ancient society. At a certain level, to be sure, these issues manifest themselves as moral conflicts, which we may interpret according to the traditional Roman...

(The entire section is 9051 words.)

The Self-Tormentor

(Drama Criticism)

A. J. Brothers (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: An introduction to Terence: The Self-Tormentor, edited and translated by A. J. Brothers, Aris & Phillips Ltd, 1988, pp. 1-26.

[In the excerpt below, Brothers provides an overview of The Self-Tormentor, discussing its relationship to its Greek source, its plot, and its characterization.]

It has long been part of scholarly practice to attempt to understand the relationship of the Roman comedies to their lost Greek originals, and to try to pinpoint the additions, omissions and alternations of the Roman dramatists and recover the original Greek form—to play, in fact, 'hunt the New Comedy' with...

(The entire section is 7419 words.)

The Eunuch

(Drama Criticism)

Douglass Parker (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Eunuch by Terence, translated by Douglass Parker, in The Complete Comedies of Terence: Modern Verse Translations, edited by Palmer Bovie, Rutgers University Press, 1974, pp. 147-52.

[In the essay below, Parker provides a survey of issues relating to The Eunuch, focusing especially on the influence of Plautus and Menander on Terence's work.]

Success dies hard. The Eunuch was Terence's most successful play during his lifetime, earning an immediate second production and a considerably increased royalty. It has yet to be forgiven this by critics who,...

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The Brothers

(Drama Criticism)

W. Ralph Johnson (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Micio and the Perils of Perfection," in California Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 1, 1968, pp. 171-86.

[In the following essay, Johnson delineates the defects in the character of Micio in The Brothers, flaws which prepare us for his fall at the play's conclusion.]

In the manner of fine comedy, the Adelphoe's initial snarl is extremely neat: irascible and rigid, Demea has allowed his brother, the affable and marvellously sane Micio, to adopt his elder son, Aeschinus; his young son, Ctesiphon, he keeps with him and rears with the strictness which alone, he feels, will ensure...

(The entire section is 10991 words.)

Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Amerasinghe, C. W. "The Part of the Slave in Terence's Drama." Greece and Rome XIX, No. 56 (June 1950): 62-72.

Contends that Terence continually rebelled against the dramatic convention of the wily slave and in so doing, sought "to liberate himself as an artist in such a way that he [could] make human action the significant result of character and situation rather than the mere sport of slaves."

Beare, W. 'Terence, an Original Dramatist in Rome." Hermathena, No. LXXI (May 1948): 64-82.

Analyzes Terence's adaptations of Greek plays in his comedies, concluding that it "is not Terence's borrowings...

(The entire section is 1033 words.)