From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
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.
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. It 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,” (J.N. Hough, “The Reverse Comic Foil in Plautus.” ) 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, Hypobolimaios, 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, mulier, 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. Ancilla 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 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 lacks this 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.
The British TV Sit-Com Up Pompeii uses situations and stock characters from Plautus's plays.
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