Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254–184 BCE), commonly known as Plautus, was a Roman playwright. His comedies are among the earliest surviving intact works in Latin literature. He is also one of the earliest pioneers of musical theater. The word Plautine is used to refer to Plautus's works or works similar to or influenced by his.
Little is known about Titus Maccius Plautus' early life. It is believed that he was born in Sarsina
(a city in Umbria
) around 254 BCE. According to Morris Marples, Plautus worked as a stage-carpenter or scene-shifter in his early years. It is from this work, perhaps, that his love of the theater originated. His acting talent was eventually discovered; and he adopted the names "Maccius" (a clownish stock-character in popular farces) and "Plautus" (a term meaning either "flat-footed" or "flat-eared," as the ears of a hound). Tradition holds that he made enough money to go into the nautical business, but that the venture collapsed. He is then said to have worked as a manual laborer and to have studied Greek drama—particularly the New Comedy
—in his leisure. His studies allowed him to produce his plays, which were released between c. 205 and 184 BCE. Plautus attained such a popularity that his name alone became a hallmark of theatrical success.
Plautus' comedies are mostly adapted from Greek models for a Roman audience, and are often based directly on the works of the Greek playwrights. He reworked the Greek texts to give them a flavour that would appeal to the local Roman audiences. They are among the earliest surving intact works in Latin literature. (Some might more properly be called "adaptations"). His works include Amphitruo, Asinaria, Aulularia, Bacchides, Captivi, Casina, Cistellaria, Curculio, Epidicus, Menaechmi, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus, Mostellaria, Persa, Poenulus, Pseudolus, Rudens, Stichus, Trinummus, Truculentus and Vidularia.
The historical context within which Plautus wrote can be seen, to some extent, in his comments on contemporary events and persons. Plautus was a popular comedic playwright while Roman theatre was still in its infancy and still largely undeveloped. At the same time, the Roman Republic
was expanding in power and influence.
Plautus and the gods of Roman society
Plautus is sometimes accused of teaching the public indifference and mockery of the gods. Any character in his plays could be compared to a god. Whether to honour a character or to mock him, these references were demeaning to the gods. These references to the gods include a character comparing a mortal woman to a god, or saying he would rather be loved by a woman than by the gods. Pyrgopolynices from Miles Gloriosus
(vs. 1265), in bragging about his long life, says he was born one day later than Jupiter. In Pseudolus,
Jupiter is compared to Ballio the pimp
. It is not uncommon, too, for a character to scorn the gods, as seen in Poenulus
However, when a character scorns a god, it is usually a character of low standing, such as a pimp. Plautus perhaps does this to demoralize the characters. Soldiers often bring ridicule among the gods. Young men, meant to represent the upper social class, often belittle the gods in their remarks. Parasites, pimps, and courtesans often praise the gods with scant ceremony. Tolliver argues that drama both reflects and foreshadows social change
. It is likely that there was already much skepticism
about the gods in Plautus’ era. Plautus did not make up or encourage irreverence to the gods, but reflected ideas of his time. The state controlled stage productions, and Plautus’ plays would have been banned, had they been too risqué.
, another Roman playwright of the late 3rd century BCE, wrote tragedies and even founded the fabula praetexta (history plays), in which he dramatized historical events. He is known to have fought in the First Punic War and his birth, therefore, is placed around 280 BCE. His first tragedy took place in 235 BCE. Plautus would have been living at the exact time as Naevius
, but began writing later. Naevius is most famous for having been imprisoned by the Metelli and the Scipiones—two powerful families of the late 3rd century. Naevius’ imprisonment and eventual exile, an example of state censorship, may have influenced Plautus’ choice of subject matter and manner.
The Second Punic War, The Macedonian War and their Influence on Plautus’ Plays
The Second Punic War
occurred from 218–202 BCE; its central event was Hannibal's invasion of Italy. M. Leigh has devoted an extensive chapter about Plautus and Hannibal
in his recent book, Comedy and the Rise of Rome
. He says that “the plays themselves contain occasional references to the fact that the state is at arms...” One good example is a piece of verse from the Miles Gloriosus,
the composition date of which is not clear but which is often placed in the last decade of the 3rd century BCE. A. F. West believes that this is inserted commentary on the Second Punic War. In his article “On a Patriotic Passage in the Miles Gloriosus
of Plautus”, he states that the war “engrossed the Romans more than all other public interests combined”. The passage seems intended to rile up the audience, beginning with hostis tibi adesse,
or “the foe is near at hand”.
At the time, the general Scipio Africanus wanted to confront Hannibal, a plan “strongly favored by the plebs”. Plautus apparently pushes for the plan to be approved by the senate, working his audience up with the thought of an enemy in close proximity and a call to outmaneuver him. Therefore, it is reasonable to say that Plautus, according to P.B. Harvey, was “willing to insert [into his plays] highly specific allusions comprehensible to the audience”. M. Leigh writes in his chapter on Plautus and Hannibal that “the Plautus who emerges from this investigation is one whose comedies persistently touch the rawest nerves in the audience for whom he writes”.
Later, coming of the heels of the conflict with Hannibal, Rome was preparing to embark on another military mission, this time in Greece. While they would eventually move on Philip V in the Second Macedonian War, there was considerable debate beforehand about the course Rome should take in this conflict. In the article “Bellum Philippicum: Some Roman and Greek Views Concerning the Causes of the Second Macedonian War”, E. J. Bickerman writes that “the causes of the fateful war … were vividly debated among both Greeks and Romans”. Under the guise of protecting allies, Bickerman tells us, Rome was actually looking to expand its power and control eastward now that the Second Punic War was ended. But starting this war would not be an easy task considering those recent struggles with Carthage—many Romans were too tired of conflict to think of embarking on another campaign. As W. M. Owens writes in his article “Plautus’ Stichus and the Political Crisis of 200 B.C.”, “There is evidence that antiwar feeling ran deep and persisted even after the war was approved. Owens contends that Plautus was attempting to match the complex mood of the Roman audience riding the victory of the Second Punic War but facing the beginning of a new conflict. For instance, the characters of the dutiful daughters and their father seem obsessed over the idea of officium, the duty one has to do what is right. Their speech is littered with words such as pietas and aequus, and they struggle to make their father fulfill his proper role. The stock parasite in this play, Gelasimus, has a patron-client relationship with this family and offers to do any job in order to make ends meet; Owens puts forward that Plautus is portraying the economic hardship many Roman citizens were experiencing due to the cost of war.
With the repetition of responsibility to the desperation of the lower class, Plautus establishes himself firmly on the side of the average Roman citizen. While he makes no specific reference to the possible war with Greece or the previous war (that might be too dangerous), he does seem to push the message that the government should take care of its own people before attempting any other military actions.
Plautus’ influences: Greek comedy, Menander, and Aristophanes
Greek Old Comedy
In order to understand the Greek New Comedy
and its similarities to Plautus, it is necessary to discuss, in juxtaposition with it, the idea of Greek Old Comedy and its evolution into New Comedy. The ancient Greek playwright that best embodies Old Comedy is Aristophanes
. Aristophanes, a playwright of 5th century Athens, wrote plays of political satire
such as The Wasps
, The Birds
and The Clouds
. Each of these plays and the others that Aristophanes wrote are known for their critical political and societal commentary. This is the main component of Old Comedy. It is extremely conscious of the world in which it functions and analyzes that world accordingly. Comedy and theater were the political commentary of the time – the public conscience.
In Aristophanes’ The Wasps
, the playwright’s commentary is unexpectedly blunt and forward. For example, he names his two main characters “Philocleon” and “Bdelycleon”, which mean “pro-Cleon” and “anti-Cleon”, respectively. Simply the names of the characters in this particular play of Aristophanes make a political statement. Cleon
was a major political figure of the time and through the actions of the characters about which he writes Aristophanes is able to freely criticize the actions of this prominent politician in public and through his comedy.
Greek New Comedy
Greek New Comedy differs greatly from those plays of Aristophanes. The most notable difference, according to Dana F. Sutton is that New Comedy, in comparison to Old Comedy, is “devoid of a serious political, social or intellectual content” and “could be performed in any number of social and political settings without risk of giving offense”. The risk-taking for which Aristophanes is known is noticeably lacking in the New Comedy plays of Menander. Instead, there is much more of a focus on the home and the family unit—something that the Romans, including Plautus, could easily understand and adopt for themselves later in history.
Father–son relationships in Greek New Comedy and Plautus
Unlike Aristophanes, Plautus avoided current politics
(in the narrow sense of the term) in his comedies.
One main theme of Greek New Comedy is the father–son relationship. For example, in Menander’s Dis Exapaton there is a focus on the betrayal between age groups and friends. The father-son relationship is very strong and the son remains loyal to the father. The relationship is always a focus, even if it’s not the focus of every action taken by the main characters. In Plautus, on the other hand, the focus is still on the relationship between father and son, but we see betrayal between the two men that wasn’t seen in Menander. There is a focus on the proper conduct between a father and son that, apparently, was so important to Roman society at the time of Plautus.
This becomes the main difference and, also, similarity between Menander and Plautus. They both address “situations that tend to develop in the bosom of the family.” Both authors, through their plays, reflect a patriarchal society in which the father-son relationship is essential to proper function and development of the household. It is no longer a political statement, as in Old Comedy, but a statement about household relations and proper behavior between a father and his son. But the attitudes on these relationships seem much different – a reflection of how the worlds of Menander and Plautus differed.
There are differences not just in how the father-son relationship is presented, but also in the way in which Menander and Plautus write their poetry. William S. Anderson discusses the believability of Menander versus the believability of Plautus and, in essence, says that Plautus’ plays are much less believable than those plays of Menander because they seem to be such a farce in comparison. He addresses them as a reflection of Menander with some of Plautus’ own contributions. Anderson claims that there is unevenness in the poetry of Plautus that results in “incredulity and refusal of sympathy of the audience.” This might be a reflection of an idea that the Romans were less sensitive to catering to the audience’s artistic sensibilities and more to their hunger for pure entertainment.
The poetry of Menander and Plautus is best juxtaposed in their prologues. Robert B. Lloyd makes the point that “albeit the two prologues introduce plays whose plots are of essentially different types, they are almost identical in form…” He goes on to address the specific style of Plautus that differs so greatly from Menander. He says that the “verbosity of the Plautine prologues has often been commented upon and generally excused by the necessity of the Roman playwright to win his audience.” However, in both Menander and Plautus, word play
is essential to their comedy. Plautus might seem more verbose, but where he lacks in physical comedy
he makes up for it with words, alliteration and paronomasia (punning).
Plautus is well known for his devotion to puns, especially when it comes to the names of his characters. In Miles Gloriosus, for instance, the female concubine’s name, Philocomasium, translates to “lover of a good party”—which is quite apt when we learn about the tricks and wild ways of this prostitute.
Plautus’ characters—many of which seem to crop up in quite a few of his plays—also came from Greek stock, though they too received some Plautine innovations. Indeed, since Plautus was adapting these plays it would be difficult not to have the same kinds of characters—roles such as slaves, concubines, soldiers, and old men. By working with the characters that were already there but injecting his own creativity, as J.C.B. Lowe wrote in his article “Aspects of Plautus’ Originality in the Asinaria”, “Plautus could substantially modify the characterization, and thus the whole emphasis of a play.”
The clever slave
One of the best examples of this method is the Plautine slave, a form that plays a major role in quite a few of Plautus’ works. The “clever slave” in particular is a very strong character; he not only provides exposition and humor, but also often drives the plot in Plautus’ plays. C. Stace argues that Plautus took the stock slave character from New Comedy in Greece and altered it for his own purposes. In New Comedy, he writes, “the slave is often not much more than a comedic turn, with the added purpose, perhaps, of exposition”. This shows that there was precedent for this slave archetype, and obviously some of its old role continues in Plautus (the expository monologues, for instance). However, because Plautus found humor in slaves tricking their masters or comparing themselves to great heroes, he took the character a step further and created something distinct.
Understanding of Greek By Plautus’ audience
Of the approximate 270 proper names in the surviving plays of Plautus, about 250 names are Greek. William M. Seaman proposes that these Greek names would have delivered a comic punch to the audience because of its basic understanding of the Greek language. This previous understanding of Greek language, Seaman suggests, comes from the “experience of Roman soldiers during the first and second Punic wars. Not only did men billeted in Greek areas have opportunity to learn sufficient Greek for the purpose of everyday conversation, but they were also able to see plays in the foreign tongue.” Having an audience with knowledge of the Greek language, whether limited or more expanded, allowed Plautus more freedom to use Greek references and words. Also, by using his many Greek references and showing that his plays were originally Greek, “It is possible that Plautus was in a way a teacher of Greek literature, myth, art and philosophy; so too was he teaching something of the nature of Greek words to people, who, like himself, had recently come into closer contact with that foreign tongue and all its riches.”
At the time of Plautus, Rome was expanding, and having much success in Greece. W.S. Anderson has commented that Plautus “is using and abusing Greek comedy to imply the superiority of Rome, in all its crude vitality, over the Greek world, which was now the political dependent of Rome, whose effete comic plots helped explain why the Greeks proved inadequate in the real world of the third and second centuries, in which the Romans exercised mastery".
Plautus: copycat or creative playwright?
Plautus was known for the use of Greek style in his plays. This has been a point of contention among modern scholars. One argument states that Plautus writes with originality and creativity—the other, that Plautus is a copycat of Greek New Comedy and that he makes no original contribution to playwriting. The reality lies in the middle of these two arguments.
A single reading of the Miles Gloriosus leaves the reader with the notion that the names, place, and play is Greek, but one must look beyond these superficial interpretations. W.S. Anderson would steer any reader away from the idea that Plautus’ plays are somehow not his own or at least only his interpretation. Anderson says that, “Plautus homogenizes all the plays as vehicles for his special exploitation. Against the spirit of the Greek original, he engineers events at the end... or alter[s] the situation to fit his expectations.” Anderson’s vehement reaction to the co-opting of Greek plays by Plautus seems to suggest that they are in no way like their originals were. It seems more likely that Plautus was just experimenting putting Roman ideas in Greek forms.
Greece and Rome, although always put into the same category, were different societies with different paradigms and ways-of-life. W. Geoffrey Arnott says that “we see that a set of formulae [used in the plays] concerned with characterization, motif, and situation has been applied to two dramatic situations which possess in themselves just as many difference as they do similarities.” It is important to compare the two authors and the remarkable similarities between them because it is essential in understanding Plautus. He writes about Greeks like a Greek. However, it is also important to note that Plautus and the writers of Greek New Comedy, such as Menander, were writing in two completely different contexts.
One idea that is important to recognize is that of contaminatio
, which refers to the mixing of elements of two or more source plays. Plautus, it seems, is quite open to this method of adaptation, and quite a few of his plots seem stitched together from different stories. One excellent example is his Bacchides
and its supposed Greek predecessor, Menander’s Dis Exapaton.
The original Greek title translates as “The Man Deceiving Twice”, yet the Plautine version has three tricks. V. Castellani commented that:
Plautus’ attack on the genre whose material he pirated was, as already stated, fourfold. He deconstructed many of the Greek plays’ finely constructed plots; he reduced some, exaggerated others of the nicely drawn characters of Menander and of Menander’s contemporaries and followers into caricatures; he substituted for or superimposed upon the elegant humor of his models his own more vigorous, more simply ridiculous foolery in action, in statement, even in language.
By exploring ideas about Roman loyalty, Greek deceit, and differences in ethnicity, “Plautus in a sense surpassed his model.” He was not content to rest solely on a loyal adaptation that, while amusing, was not new or engaging for Rome. Plautus took what he found but again made sure to expand, subtract, and modify. He seems to have followed the same path that Horace did, though Horace is much later, in that he is putting Roman ideas in Greek forms. He not only imitated the Greeks, but in fact distorted, cut up, and transformed the plays into something entirely Roman. In essence it is Greek theater colonized by Rome and its playwrights.
In Ancient Greece during the time of New Comedy, from which Plautus drew so much of his inspiration, there were permanent theaters that catered to the audience as well as the actor. The greatest playwrights of the day had quality facilities in which to present their work and, in a general sense, there was always enough public support to keep the theater running and successful. However, this was not the case in Rome during the time of the Republic, when Plautus wrote his plays. While there was public support for theater and people came to enjoy tragedy and comedy alike, there was also a notable lack of governmental support. No permanent theater existed in Rome till Pompey dedicated one in 55 BCE in the Campus Martius. The lack of a permanent space was a key factor in Roman theater and Plautine stagecraft.
This lack of permanent theaters in Rome until 55 BCE has puzzled contemporary scholars of Roman drama. In their introduction to the Miles Gloriosus, Hammond, Mack and Moskalew say that “the Romans were acquainted with the Greek stone theater, but, because they believed drama to be a demoralizing influence, they had a strong aversion to the erection of permanent theaters.” This worry rings true when considering the subject matter of Plautus’ plays. The unreal becomes reality on stage in his work. T. J. Moore notes that, “all distinction between the play, production, and ‘real life’ has been obliterated [Plautus’ play Curculio]”. A place where social norms were upended was inherently suspect. The aristocracy was afraid of the power of the theater. It was merely by their good graces and unlimited resources that a temporary stage would have been built during specific festivals.
The importance of the Ludi
Roman drama, specifically Plautine comedy, was acted out on stage during the ludi
or festival games. In his discussion of the importance of the ludi Megalenses
in early Roman theater, John Arthur Hanson says that this particular festival “provided more days for dramatic representations than any of the other regular festivals, and it is in connection with these ludi
that the most definite and secure literary evidence for the site of scenic games has come down to us”. Because the ludi
were religious in nature, it was appropriate for the Romans to set up this temporary stage close to the temple of the deity being celebrated. S.M. Goldberg notes that “ludi
were generally held within the precinct of the particular god being honored.”
T. J. Moore notes that “seating in the temporary theaters where Plautus’ plays were first performed was often insufficient for all those who wished to see the play, that the primary criterion for determining who was to stand and who could sit was social status”. This is not to say that the lower classes did not see the plays; but they probably had to stand while watching. Plays were performed in public, for the public, with the most prominent members of the society in the forefront.
The wooden stages on which Plautus's plays appeared were shallow and long with three openings in respect to the scene-house. The stages were significantly smaller than any Greek structure familiar to modern scholars. Because theater was not a priority during Plautus' time, the structures were built and dismantled within a day. Even more practically, they were dismantled quickly due to their potential as fire-hazards.
Geography of the stage
Often the geography of the stage and more importantly the play matched the geography of the city so that the audience would be well oriented to the locale of the play. Moore says that, “references to Roman locales must have been stunning for they are not merely references to things Roman, but the most blatant possible reminders that the production occurs in the city of Rome.” So, Plautus seems to have choreographed his plays somewhat true-to-life. To do this, he needed his characters to exit and enter to or from whatever area their social standing would befit.
Two scholars, V. J. Rosivach and N. E. Andrews, have made interesting observations about stagecraft in Plautus: V. J. Rosivach writes about identifying the side of the stage with both social status and geography. He says that, for example, “the house of the medicus lies offstage to the right. It would be in the forum or thereabouts that one would expect to find a medicus.” Moreover, he says that characters that oppose one another always have to exit in opposite directions. In a slightly different vein, N.E. Andrews discusses the spatial semantics of Plautus; he has observed that even the different spaces of the stage are thematically charged. He states:
Plautus’ Casina employs these conventional tragic correlations between
male/outside and female/inside, but then inverts them in order to establish an even more complex relationship among genre, gender and dramatic space. In the Casina, the struggle for control between men and women... is articulated by characters’ efforts to control stage movement into and out of the house.
Andrews makes note of the fact that power struggle in the Casina is evident in the verbal comings and goings. The words of action and the way that they are said are important to stagecraft. The words denoting direction or action such as abeo (“I go off”), transeo (“I go over”), fores crepuerunt (“the doors creak”), or intus (“inside”), which signal any character’s departure or entrance, are standard in the dialogue of Plautus’ plays. These verbs of motion or phrases can be taken as Plautine stage directions since no overt stage directions are apparent. Often, though, in these interchanges of characters, there occurs the need to move on to the next act. Plautus then might use what is known as a “cover monologue”. About this S.M. Goldberg notes that, “it marks the passage of time less by its length than by its direct and immediate address to the audience and by its switch from senarii in the dialogue to iambic septenarii. The resulting shift of mood distracts and distorts our sense of passing time.”
Relationship with the audience
The small stages had a significant effect on the stagecraft of ancient Roman theater. Because of this limited space, there was also limited movement. Greek theater allowed for grand gestures and extensive action to reach the audience members who were in the very back of the theater. However the Romans would have had to depend more on their voices than large physicality. There was not an orchestra available like there was for the Greeks and this is reflected in the notable lack of a chorus in Roman drama. The replacement character that acts as the chorus would in Greek drama is often called the “prologue.”
Goldberg says that, “these changes fostered a different relationship between actors and the space in which they performed and also between them and their audiences.” Actors were thrust into much closer audience interaction. Because of this, a certain acting style became required that is more familiar to modern audiences. Because they would have been in such close proximity to the actors, ancient Roman audiences would have wanted attention and direct acknowledgement form the actors.
Because there was no orchestra, there was no space separating the audience from the stage. The audience could stand directly in front of the elevated wooden platform. This gave them the opportunity to look at the actors from a much different perspective. They would have seen every detail of the actor and hear every word he said. The audience member would have wanted that actor to speak directly to them. It was a part of the thrill of the performance, as it is to this day.
Plautus’ range of characters was created through his use of various techniques, but probably the most important is his use of stock characters and situations in his various plays. He incorporates the same stock characters constantly, especially when the character type is amusing to the audience. As Walter Juniper wrote, “Everything, including artistic characterization and consistency of characterization, were sacrificed to humor, and character portrayal remained only where it was necessary for the success of the plot and humor to have a persona
who stayed in character, and where the persona
by his portrayal contributed to humor.”
For example, in Miles Gloriosus, the titular “braggart soldier” Pyrgopolynices only shows his vain and immodest side in the first act, while the parasite Artotrogus exaggerates Pyrgopolynices’ achievements, creating more and more ludicrous claims that Pyrgopolynices agrees to without question. These two are perfect examples of the stock characters of the pompous soldier and the desperate parasite that appeared in Plautine comedies. In disposing of highly complex individuals, Plautus was supplying his audience with what it wanted, since “the audience to whose tastes Plautus catered was not interested in the character play,” but instead wanted the broad and accessible humor offered by stock set-ups. The humor Plautus offered, such as “puns, word plays, distortions of meaning, or other forms of verbal humor he usually puts them in the mouths of characters belonging to the lower social ranks, to whose language and position these varieties of humorous technique are most suitable,” matched well with the stable of characters.
The Clever Slave
In his article "The Intriguing Slave in Greek Comedy," Philip Harsh gives evidence to show that the clever slave is not an invention of Plautus. While previous critics such as A. W. Gomme
believed that the slave was “[a] truly comic character, the devisor of ingenious schemes, the controller of events, the commanding officer of his young master and friends, is a creation of Latin comedy,” and that Greek dramatists such as Menander did not use slaves in such a way that Plautus later did, Harsh refutes these beliefs by giving concrete examples of instances where a clever slave appeared in Greek comedy. For instance, in the works of Athenaeus, Alciphron, and Lucian there are deceptions that involve the aid of a slave, and in Menander’s Dis Exapaton
there was an elaborate deception executed by a clever slave that Plautus mirrors in his Bacchides
. Evidence of clever slaves also appears in Menander’s Thalis
, and from the papyrus fragment of his Perinthia
. Harsh acknowledges that Gomme’s statement was probably made before the discovery of many of the papyri that we now have. While it was not necessarily a Roman invention, Plautus did develop his own style of depicting the clever slave. With larger, more active roles, more verbal exaggeration and exuberance, the slave was moved by Plautus further into the front of the action. Because of the inversion of order created by a devious or witty slave, this stock character was perfect for achieving a humorous response and the traits of the character worked well for driving the plot forward.
The Lusty Old Man
Another important Plautine stock character, discussed by K.C. Ryder, is the senex amator
. A senex amator is classified as an old man who contracts a passion for a young girl and who, in varying degrees, attempts to satisfy this passion. In Plautus these men are Demaenetus (Asinaria
), Philoxenus and Nicobulus (Bacchides
), Demipho (Cistellaria
), Lysidamus (Casina
), Demipho (Mercator
), and Antipho (Stichus
). Periplectomenos (Miles Gloriosus
) and Daemones (Rudens
) are regarded as senes lepidi
because they usually keep their feelings within a respectable limit. All of these characters have the same goal, to be with a younger woman, but all go about it in different ways, as Plautus could not be too redundant with his characters despite their already obvious similarities. What they have in common is the ridicule with which their attempts are viewed, the imagery that suggests that they are motivated largely by animal passion, the childish behavior, and the reversion to the love-language of their youth.
In examining the female role designations of Plautus's plays, Z.M. Packman found that they are not as stable as their male counterparts: a senex
will usually remain a senex
for the duration of the play but designations like matrona
, or uxor at
times seem interchangeable. Most free adult women, married or widowed, appear in scene headings as mulier
, simply translated as “woman”. But in Plautus’ Stichus
the two young women are referred to as sorores
, later mulieres
, and then matronae
, all of which have different meanings and connotations. Although there are these discrepancies, Packman tries to give a pattern to the female role designations of Plautus. Mulier
is typically given to a woman of citizen class and of marriageable age or who has already been married. Unmarried citizen-class girls, regardless of sexual experience, were designated virgo
was the term used for female household slaves, with Anus
reserved for the elderly household slaves. A young woman who is unwed due to social status is usually referred to as meretrix
or “courtesan.” A lena
, or adoptive mother, may be a woman who owns these girls.
Like Packman, George Duckworth uses the scene headings in the manuscripts to support his theory about unnamed Plautine characters. There are approximately 220 characters in the 20 plays of Plautus. Thirty are unnamed in both the scene headings and the text and there are about nine characters who are named in the ancient text but not in any modern one. This means that about 18% of the total number of characters in Plautus are nameless. Most of the very important characters have names while most of the unnamed characters are of less importance. However, there are some abnormalities—the main character in Casina
is not mentioned by name anywhere in the text. In other instances, Plautus will give a name to a character that only has a few words or lines. One explanation is that some of the names have been lost over the years; and for the most part, major characters do have names.
The language and style of Plautus
The language and style of Plautus is not easy or simple. He wrote in a colloquial style far from the codified form of Latin that is found in Ovid
. This colloquial style is the everyday speech that Plautus would’ve been familiar with, yet that means that most students of Latin are unfamiliar with it. Adding to the unfamiliarity of Plautine language is the inconsistency of the irregularities that occur in the texts. In one of his prolific word-studies, A.W. Hodgman noted that:
the statements that one meets with, that this or that form is "common," or "regular," in Plautus, are frequently misleading, or even incorrect, and are usually unsatisfying.... I have gained an increasing respect for the manuscript tradition, a growing belief that the irregularities are, after all, in a certain sense regular. The whole system of inflexion—and, I suspect, of syntax also and of versification—was less fixed and stable in Plautus’ time than it became later.
Plautine diction is distinctive in its use of archaic Latin forms. Some might find these difficult to understand. It is important to note, though, that Plautus did not set out to write a play in archaic Latin; the term archaic
merely comes from later perspective on the text. Most scholars seem to note that the plays' language is written in a colloquial, everyday speech. M. Hammond, A.H. Mack, and W. Moskalew have noted in their introduction to the text of the Miles Gloriosus
that Plautus was, “free from convention... [and that] he sought to reproduce the easy tone of daily speech rather than the formal regularity of oratory or poetry. Hence, many of the irregularities which have troubled scribes and scholars perhaps merely reflect the everyday usages of the careless and untrained tongues which Plautus heard about him.” Looking at the overall use of archaisms within Plautus, one will notice that they commonly occur in promises, agreements, threats, prologues, or speeches. Plautus uses archaic forms, though sometimes for metrical convenience, but more often for stylistic effect.
There are many manifestations of these archaic forms in the texts of Plautus’ plays, in fact too many to completely include them in this article. Here the most regular of irregularities, i.e., archaisms, will be delineated:
- the use of uncontracted forms of some verbs like malo
- the emendation of the final -e of singular imperatives
- the use of -o in some verb stems where it would normally be -e
- the use of the -ier ending for the present passive and deponent infinitive
- often the forms of sum are joined to the preceding word
- the deletion of the final -s and final -e when ne is added to a second singular verb
- the replacement of -u with -o in noun endings
- the use of qu instead of c, as in quom instead of cum
- the use of the -ai genitive singular ending
- the addition of a final -d onto personal pronouns in the accusative or ablative
- there is sometimes the addition of a final -pte, -te, or -met to pronouns
- the use of -is as the nominative plural ending.
These peculiarities are the most common in the plays of Plautus, and their notation should make initial readings a bit easier. Archaic word forms in Plautus reflect the way that his contemporaries interacted. Plautus’ use of colloquial dialogue aids in understanding, to a certain extent, how the Romans greeted each other. For example, there are certain formulaic greetings such as “hello” and “how are you?” that elicit a certain formulaic response such as a returning hello, or an indication of one's state of being. Quid agis here would mean, “How are you?” These archaic forms present the reader with a richer understanding of the Latin language.
Means of expression
There are certain ways in which Plautus expressed himself in his plays, and these individual means of expression give a certain flair to his style of writing. The means of expression are not always specific to the writer, i.e., idiosyncratic, yet they are characteristic of the writer. Two examples of these characteristic means of expression are the use of proverbs and the use of Greek language in the plays of Plautus.
Plautus employed the use of proverbs in many of his plays. Proverbs would address a certain genre such as law, religion, medicine, trades, crafts, and seafaring. Plautus’ proverbs and proverbial expressions number into the hundreds. They sometimes appear alone or interwoven within a speech. The most common appearance of proverbs in Plautus appears to be at the end of a soliloquy. Plautus does this for dramatic effect to emphasize a point.
Further interwoven into the plays of Plautus and just as common as the use of proverbs is the use of Greek within the texts of the plays. J. N. Hough suggests that Plautus’s use of Greek is for artistic purposes and not simply because a Latin phrase will not fit the meter. Greek words are used when describing foods, oils, perfumes, etc. This is similar to the use of French terms in the English language such as garcon or rendezvous. These words give the language a French flair just as Greek did to the Latin-speaking Romans. Slaves or characters of low standing speak much of the Greek. One possible explanation for this is that many Roman slaves were foreigners of Greek origin.
Plautus also used more technical means of expression in his plays. One tool that Plautus used for the expression of his servus callidus
stock character was alliteration. Alliteration is the repetition of sounds in a sentence or clause; those sounds usually come at the beginning of words. In the Miles Gloriosus,
the servus callidus
is Palaestrio. As he speaks with the character, Periplectomenus, he uses a significant amount of alliteration in order to assert his cleverness and, therefore, his authority. Plautus uses phrases such as “falsiloquom, falsicum, falsiiurium” (MG
l. 191). These words express the deep and respectable knowledge that Palaestrio has of the Latin language. Alliteration can also happen at the endings of words as well. For example, Palaestrio says, “ linguam, perfidiam, malitiam atque audaciam, confidentiam,
confirmitatem, fraudulentiam” (MG
ll. 188-9). Also used, as seen above, is the technique of
assonance, which is the repetition of similar sounding syllables.
There are various manifestations of word play in Plautus, but one instance in the Miles Gloriosus is Sceledre, scelus. This example is one of the punning of names in Plautus. Word play figures as an important technique in Plautus because it is fitting for certain characters, especially the clever slave. These poetic devices stand in the text in order to accentuate and emphasize whatever is being said in the text, and elevate the artistry of the language.
Further emphasizing and elevating the artistry of the language of the plays of Plautus is the use of meter, which simply put is the rhythm of the play. There seems to be great debate over whether Plautus found favor in strong word accent or verse ictus, stress. Plautus did not follow the meter of the Greek originals that he adapted for the Roman audience. Plautus used a great number of meters, but most frequently he used the trochaic septenarius. Iambic words, though common in Latin, are difficult to fit in this meter, and naturally occur at the end of verses. G.B. Conte has noted that Plautus favors the use of cantica
instead of Greek meters. This vacillation between meter and word stress highlights the fact that Latin literature was still in its infancy, and that there was not yet a standard way to write verse.
Vigor and immediacy
The servus callidus
functions as the exposition in many of Plautus' plays. According to C. Stace, "slaves in Plautus account for almost twice as much monologue as any other character... [and] this is a significant statistic; most of the monologues being, as they are, for purposes of humor, moralizing, or exposition of some kind, we can now begin to see the true nature of the slave's importance. Because humor, vulgarity, and "incongruity" are so much a part of the Plautine comedies, the slave becomes the essential tool to connect the audience to the joke
through his monologue and direct connection to
the audience. He is, then, not only a source for exposition and understanding, but connection—specifically, connection to the humor of the play, the playfulness of the play. The servus callidus
is a character that, as McCarthy says, "draws the complete attention of the audience, and, according to C. Stace, 'despite his lies and abuse, claims our complete sympathy.' He does this, according to some scholarship, using monologue, the imperative mood and alliteration—all of which are specific and effective linguistic tools in both writing and speaking.
The specific type of monologue (or soliloquy) in which a Plautine slave engages is the prologue.
As opposed to simple exposition, according to N.W. Slater, “these…prologues…have a far more important function than merely to provide information.” Another way in which the servus callidus
asserts his power over the play—specifically the other characters in the play—is through his use of the imperative mood
. This type of language is used, according to E. Segal, for “the forceful inversion, the reduction of the master to an abject position of supplication … the master-as-suppliant is thus an extremely important feature of the Plautine comic finale.” The imperative mood is therefore used in the complete role-reversal of the normal relationship between slave and master, and “those who enjoy authority and respect in the ordinary Roman world are unseated, ridiculed, while the lowliest members of society mount to their pedestals…the humble are in face exalted”.
The Influence of Plautus
Intellectual and academic critics have often judged Plautus's work as crude; yet his influence on later literature is impressive—especially on two literary giants, Shakespeare and Molière.
Playwrights throughout history have looked to Plautus for character, plot, humor, and other elements of comedy. His influence ranges from similarities in idea to full literal translations woven into plays. The playwright’s apparent familiarity with the absurdity of humanity and both the comedy and tragedy that stem from this absurdity have inspired succeeding playwrights centuries after his death. The most famous of these successors is Shakespeare—Plautus had a major influence on the Bard’s early comedies.
The Middle Ages and early Renaissance
Plautus was apparently read in the ninth century. His form was too complex to be fully understood, however, and, as indicated by the Terentius et delusor
, it was unknown at the time if Plautus was writing in prose or verse.
W. B. Sedgwick has provided a record of the Amphitruo, perennially one of Plautus’ most famous works. It was the most popular Plautine play in the Middle Ages, and publicly performed at the Renaissance; it was the first Plautine play to be translated into English.
The influence of Plautus's plays was felt in the early 1500s. Limited records suggest that the first known university production of Plautus in England was of Miles Gloriosus at Oxford in 1522-3. The magnum jornale of Queens College contains a reference to a comoedia Plauti in either 1522 or 1523. This fits directly with comments made in the poems of Leland about the date of the production. The next production of Miles Gloriosus that is known from limited records was given by the Westminster School in 1564. Other records also tell us about performances of the Menaechmi. From our knowledge, performances were given in the house of Cardinal Wolsey by boys of St. Paul’s School as early as 1527.
Plautus and Shakespeare
Shakespeare borrowed from Plautus as Plautus borrowed from his Greek models. C.L. Barber says that “Shakespeare feeds Elizabethan life into the mill of Roman farce, life realized with his distinctively generous creativity, very different from Plautus’ tough, narrow, resinous genius.”
The Plautine and Shakespearean plays that most parallel each other are, respectively, The Menaechmi and The Comedy of Errors. According to Marples, Shakespeare drew directly from Plautus “parallels in plot, in incident, and in character,” and was undeniably influenced by the classical playwright’s work. H. A. Watt stresses the importance of recognizing the fact that the “two plays were written under conditions entirely different and served audience as remote as the poles.”
The differences between The Menaechmi and The Comedy of Errors are clear. In The Menaechmi, Plautus uses only one set of twins—twin brothers. Shakespeare, on the other hand, uses two sets of twins, which, according to William Connolly, “dilutes the force of [Shakespeare’s] situations.” One suggestion is that Shakespeare got this idea from Plautus’ Amphitruo, in which both twin masters and twin slaves appear.
It can be noted that the doubling is a stock situation of Elizabethan comedy. On the fusion between Elizabethan and Plautine techniques, T. W. Baldwin writes, “…Errors does not have the miniature unity of Menaechmi, which is characteristic of classic structure for comedy.” Baldwin notes that Shakespeare covers a much greater area in the structure of the play than Plautus does. Shakespeare was writing for an audience whose minds weren’t restricted to house and home, but looked toward the greater world beyond and the role that they might play in that world.
Another difference between the audiences of Shakespeare and Plautus is that Shakespeare’s audience was Christian. At the end of Errors, the world of the play is returned to normal when a Christian abbess interferes with the feuding. Menaechmi, on the other hand, “is almost completely lacking in a supernatural dimension.” A character in Plautus’ play would never blame an inconvenient situation on witchcraft—something that is quite common in Shakespeare.
The relationship between a master and a clever servant is also a common element in Elizabethan comedy. Shakespeare often includes foils for his characters to have one set off the other. In Elizabethan romantic comedy, it is common for the plays to end with multiple marriages and couplings of pairs. This is something that is not seen in Plautine comedy. In the Comedy of Errors, Aegeon and Aemilia are separated, Antipholus and Adriana are at odds, and Antipholus and Luciana have not yet met. At the end, all the couples are happily together. By writing his comedies in a combination of Elizabethan and Plautine styles, Shakespeare helps to create his own brand of comedy, one that uses both styles.
Also, Shakespeare uses the same kind of opening monologue so common in Plautus’s plays. He even uses a “villain” in The Comedy of Errors of the same type as the one in Menaechmi, switching the character from a doctor to a teacher but keeping the character a shrewd, educated man. Watt also notes that some of these elements appear in many of his works, such as Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and had a deep impact on Shakespeare’s writing.
Later playwrights also borrowed Plautus's stock characters. One of the most important echoes of Plautus is the stock character of the parasite. Certainly the best example of this is Falstaff, Shakespeare's portly and cowardly knight. As J. W. Draper notes, the gluttonous Falstaff shares many characteristics with a parasite such as Artotrogus from Miles Gloriosus. Both characters seem fixated on food and where their next meal is coming from. But they also rely on flattery in order to gain these gifts, and both characters are willing to bury their patrons in empty praise. Of course, Draper notes that Falstaff is also something of a boastful military man, but notes, “Falstaff is so complex a character that he may well be, in effect, a combination of interlocking types.”
As well as appearing in Shakespearean comedy, the Plautine parasite appears in one of the first English comedies. In Ralph Roister Doister, the character of Matthew Merrygreeke follows in the tradition of both Plautine Parasite and Plautine slave, as he both searches and grovels for food and also attempts to achieve his master’s desires. Indeed, the play itself is often seen as borrowing heavily from or even being based on the Plautine comedy Miles Gloriosus.
H. W. Cole discusses the influence of Plautus and Terence on the Stonyhurst Pageants. The Stonyhurst Pageants are manuscripts of Old Testament plays that were probably composed after 1609 in Lancashire. Cole focuses on Plautus’ influence on the particular Pageant of Naaman. The playwright of this pageant breaks away from the traditional style of religious medieval drama and relies heavily on the works of Plautus. Overall, the playwright cross-references eighteen of the twenty surviving plays of Plautus and five of the six extant plays by Terence. It is clear that the author of the Stonyhurst Pageant of Naaman had a great knowledge of Plautus and was significantly influenced by this.
There is evidence of Plautine imitation in Edwardes’ Damon and Pythias and Heywood’s Silver Age as well as in Shakespeare's Errors. Heywood sometimes translated whole passages of Plautus. By being translated as well as imitated, Plautus was a major influence on comedy of the Elizabethan era.
In terms of plot, or perhaps more accurately plot device, Plautus served as a source of inspiration and also provided the possibility of adaptation for later playwrights. The many deceits that Plautus layered his plays with, giving the audience the feeling of a genre bordering on farce, appear in much of the comedy written by Shakespeare and Molière. For instance, the clever slave has important roles in both L’Avare and L’Etoudri, two plays by Molière, and in both drives the plot and creates the ruse just like Palaestrio in Miles Gloriosus. These similar characters set up the same kind of deceptions in which many of Plautus’ plays find their driving force, which is not a simple coincidence.
20th Century musicals based on Plautus include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Stephen Sondheim).
The British TV Sit-Com Up Pompeii uses situations and stock characters from Plautus's plays.
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