Rome: Theatre: The Menaechmi

Titus Maccius Plautus

c.254-184 BC

Sometime around 254 B.C., in the tiny mountain village of Sarsina high in the Apennines of Umbria, ancient Rome's best-known playwright was born--Titus Maccius Plautus. Born "Plautus" or "splay-foot", he apparently managed to escape his backwoods village at a young age--perhaps by joining one of the itinerant theatrical troupes which commonly traveled from village to village performing short boisterous farces.

We know, however, that at some point the young Plautus gave up his acting career to become a Roman soldier, and this is probably when he was exposed to the delights of the Greek stage, specifically Greek New Comedy and the plays of Menander. Sometime later, he tried his hand as a merchant, but rashly trusted his wares to the sea and at the age of 45, he found himself penniless and reduced to a wandering miller, trudging through the streets with a hand-mill, grinding corn for householders.

Meanwhile, translations of Greek New Comedy had come into vogue and Plautus--who remembered the comedies of Menander from his days as a soldier in Southern Italy--decided to try his hand at writing for the stage. His earliest plays, Addictus and Saturio, were written while he still made a living with his hand-mill. Soon, however, his comedies began to suit the public taste and Plautus was able to retire his hand-mill and devote himself to writing full-time.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Plautus plays were no mere translation of Menander. He adapted the rough and tumble colloquy of the environments he knew best--the military camp and the marketplace--wild and boisterous like the Roman farces he may have performed in as a young man.

In those days, plays were never performed alone. They were presented at public celebrations and had to compete with chariot races, horse races, boxing matches, circuses, etc ... Since a close translation of a play by the refined Menander would hold little interest for a rowdy Roman crowd, Plautus quickly parted company with the Greek original. He generally took only the outline of the plot, the characters, and selected segments of dialogue--then stepped out on his own. His objective was to entertain. At all costs, he kept the pot of action boiling, the stream of gags and puns and cheap slapstick flowing. Anything to make the audience laugh and keep them from peeking in on the boxing match nextdoor! To this end, Plautus often included scenes in song and dance. Unfortunately, the musical accompaniments to his plays have now been lost.

In all, Plautus composed approximately 130 pieces--21 of which have survived to this day. He was eventually granted citizenship and given permission to assume three names like a true-born Roman. The name he chose for himself was Titus Maccius ("clown") Plautus.

He continued to some extent the social satire of Aristophanes. His Miles Gloriosus refers to the imprisonment of the poet Naevius for satirizing the aristocracy. His Cistellaria alludes to the conflict with Carthage. Epidicius and Aulularia refer to the repeal of the puritanic Oppian Laws. And Captivi and Bacchides mention the wars in Greece and Magnesia. For the most part, however, he preferred the style of the more recent Greek writers like Menander. Along with his younger Roman counterpart, Terence, Plautus kept Greek New Comedy alive for later generations of theatregoers.


The Legacy of Plautus

Plautus' works have been adapted by many later playwrights. His Amphitryo was the basis for Giraudoux's Amphitryon 38. Menaechmi or The Menaechmus Twins inspired, among others, Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and Rodgers' and Hart's The Boys from Syracuse. The Pot of Gold became Moliere's The Miser. And Pseudolus, Casina and several other plays were combined in Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.


The Reputation of Plautus

By the Romans themselves various judgements have been passed on Plautus. Varro says if the Muses were to speak Latin they would borrow his language. Quintilian and Aulus Gellius speak of him with the highest praise; but Horace, whose judgement should have great weight, is not so favorable, as this criticism shows: "But our forefathers were taken with the jokes and numbers of Plautus, and admired them with too much indulgence, not to call it stupidity, if it be true that either you or I can distinguish a genteel from a clownish expression, and have ears fine enough to judge of the harmony and beauty of versification." It appears that Horace was not alone in this opinion, and that the court of Augustus had no greater liking than he, either for the versification or the pleasantries of Plautus.

As to his verses, it is certain that he was far from being exact. Nor is it less certain that he has flat, low and often extravagant pleasantries, but at the same time he has such as are fine and delicate. Cicero, for this reason, who was no bad judge of what the ancients called urbanity, proposes him as a model for raillery. The faults of Plautus, therefore, do not mar his excellence as a poet; they are very happily atoned for by many fine qualities, inasmuch that, in the judgment of some critics, he disputes the prize even with Terence himself.


Biographies of Plautus

Plautus, Terence, and Cicero




Summary of The Menaechmi

MOSCHUS, a merchant of Syracuse, had twin sons who were like as two peas. When the boys were seven years old, Moschus took one of them, Menaechmus, with him on a business trip to Tarentum. There the boy became separated from his father and lost in the crowd. He was found later and adopted by a wealthy merchant of Epidamnus. In this city he grew to manhood and married a rich wife.

Meanwhile, so great was the grief of parents and grandparents for the lost boy that the remaining twin whose name was Sosicles was renamed Menaechmus. When the latter reached young manhood he set out with his slave, Messenio, to cover the known world in search of his twin. At the opening of the action, Menaechmus Sosicles and Messenio have just arrived at Epidamnus after six years of wandering.

Just prior to their appearance on the street where Menaechmus of Epidamnus lives, the latter has as usual been quarreling with his wife. To spite her he has stolen a rich mantle of hers to give to the courtesan, Erotium. He requests this lady to prepare a feast for himself and his Parasite, Peniculus, while they go to the market place to transact some business.

When she sees Menaechmus Sosicles, Erotium insists that he come in and eat the feast she has prepared. When he leaves she gives him the mantle along with a gold bracelet and requests that he have them repaired. Meanwhile, the wife of Menaechmus of Epidamnus discovers the loss of the mantle and makes such a scene that her husband attempts to recover the mantle from Erotium. That lady believes that her patron is trying to put something over on her and retires into her house in a rage leaving Menaechmus dinnerless without.

About this time the wife spies the visiting Menaechmus with her mantle and starts berating him loudly. When he disclaims all knowledge of her she calls her father and some servants to take him in custody, believing he has gone suddenly mad. This impression increases when, with the help of Messenio, Menaechmus spiritly resists.

Finally the twin brothers are brought face to face but it never seems to occur to Menaechmus Sosicles that here is the twin he has been seeking. It is left for Messenio to unravel the tangle and thus win the gift of freedom. The comedy closes with plans for an auction of all the property of Menaechmus of Epidamnus, including his wife, that he may return with his brother to Syracuse.


A Monologue from The Menaechmi

MENAECHMUS: If you weren't mean, if you weren't stupid, if you weren't a violent virago, what you see displeases your husband would be displeasing to you, too. Now mark my words, if you act like this toward me after today, you shall hie yourself home to your father as a divorcee. Why, whenever I want to go out, you catch hold of me, call me back, cross-question me as to where I'm going, what I'm doing, what business I have in hand, what I'm after, what I've got, what I did when I was out. I've married a custom-house officer, judging from the way everything--all I've done and am doing--must be declared. I've pampered you too much; now then, I'll state my future policy. Inasmuch as I keep you well provided with maids, food, woollen cloth, jewelry, coverlets, purple dresses, and you lack for nothing, you will look out for trouble if you're wise, and cease spying on your husband. [in a lower tone as his wife goes back inside] And furthermore, that you may not watch me for nothing, I'll reward your diligence by taking a wench to dinner and inviting myself out somewhere. Hurrah! By Jove, at last my lecture has driven her away! [looks around] Where are your married gallants? Why don't they all hurry up with gifts and congratulations for my valiant fight? [showing a woman's mantle worn underneath his cloak] This mantle I just now stole from my wife inside there, and [gleefully] it's going to a wench. This is the way to do--to cheat a cunning jailer in such clever style! I have taken booty from the enemy without loss to my allies! Purchase this play!




Complete latin text of The Menaechmi