Variation on a theme
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Classical rhetoric originated as the science of the ways of reworking a predecessor's text. The original aim of the four fundamental operations of rhetoric, and the hundreds of figured of speech, was to build a set of tools of variation from a pre-existing text.
Variations on a theme are also found in music. Musician John Zorn is a master of the variation on a theme.
According to Caecilius of Calacte (Porphyry in Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica), Menander was guilty of plagiarism, his The Superstitious Man being taken from The Augur of Antiphanes. But reworkings of this sort were commonplace, and the charge is a foolish one. Menander on his turn found many Roman imitators. The Eunuchus, Andria (comedy), Heauton Timorumenos and Adelphi of Terence (called by Caesar "dimidiatus Menander") were avowedly taken from Menander, but some of them appear to be adaptations and combinations of more than one play. Thus in the Andria were combined Menander's The Woman from Andros and The Woman from Perinthos, in the Eunuchus, The Eunuch and The Flatterer, while the Adelphi was compiled partly from Menander and partly from Diphilus. The Bacchides and Stichus of Plautus were probably based upon Menander's The Double Deceiver and Philadelphoi, The Brotherly-Loving Men.
Contaminatio in Plautus
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.” (Owens 1994, p. 404.) 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.
William Shakespeare from Plautus
Shakespeare borrowed from Plautus as Plautus borrowed from his Greek models.
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.”
An example is William Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, in which key plot elements are taken from two Roman comedies of Plautus. From Menaechmi comes the main premise of mistaken identity between identical twins with the same name, plus some of the stock characters such as the comic courtesan. In Menaechmi one of the twins is from Epidamnus; Shakespeare changes this to Ephesus and includes many allusions to St Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians. From Amphitruo he borrows the twin servants with the same name, plus the scene in Act 3 where a husband is shut out of his house while his wife mistakenly dines with a look-alike. The frame story of Egeon and Emilia derives from Apollonius of Tyre, also a source for Twelfth Night and Pericles, Prince of Tyre.
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.
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.
- Variation (music)
- Variation (ballet)
- Standing on the shoulders of giants
- the well known ancient controversy between Eupolis and Aristophanes, with accusations of plagiarism