Plautus (ca. 254-ca. 184 B.C.) was a Roman writer. His theatrical genius, vitality, farcical humor, and control of the Latin language rank him as Rome's greatest comic playwright.
During the 3d century B.C., Roman writers began to imitate the forms and contents of Greek literature. Unlike the early poets, Plautus confined himself to one area: translation and adaptation of Greek New Comedy (ca. 336-ca. 250 B.C.).
Knowledge of the life of Plautus, whose full name was Titus Maccius Plautus, is scant. Random remarks by later Roman writers and others furnish the questionable details. From Cicero the date of Plautus's birth can be placed about 254 B.C. and his death about 184 B.C. Festus, scholar of the 2d century A.D., gives Plautus's birthplace as the small town of Sarsina in Umbria, Italy. From Aulus Gellius, a grammarian from the 2d century, comes the traditional and fascinating, if brief, account of Plautus's life in Rome.
Plautus earned money by working in the theater but promptly lost it in trade. He returned to Rome penniless and for a time supported himself by working as a laborer in a flour mill. During this period he wrote three plays (not extant). Scholars who accept this romantic career suggest that it may have been reported in Plautine prologues now lost.
That Plautus earned money by theatrical work is generally accepted and may mean that he was a stagehand, carpenter, playwright, or actor. His mastery of stagecraft and comic effect suggests long experience as an actor prior to writing plays. Most intriguing is precisely how Plautus, an Umbrian from rural Sarsina, managed to acquire both a knowledge of Greek and the superb control of Latin displayed in his dramas.
The total of Plautus's plays is probably close to 50. Twenty plays are extant more or less in their entirety: Amphitruo (Amphitryon), Asinaria (The Comedy of Asses), Aulularia (The Pot of Gold), Bacchides (The Two Bacchides), Captivi (The Captives), Casina (Casina), Cistellaria (The Casket), Curculio (Curculio), Epidicus (Epidicus), Menaechmi (The Twin Menaechmi), Mercator (The Merchant), Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Warrior), Mostellaria (The Haunted House), Persa (The Girl from Persia), Poenulus (The Carthaginian), Pseudolus (Pseudolus), Rudens (The Rope), Stichus (Stichus), Trinummus (The Three Penny Day), and Truculentus (Truculentus). Fewer than 100 lines survive from the Vidularia (The Traveling Bag).
All the plays are based on Greek originals, especially those by the 3d-and 2d-century B.C. comic playwrights Menander, Diphilus, and Philemon. Dates for the production of only two plays are known: Stichus (200 B.C.) and the Pseudolus (191 B.C.). Approximate dates for some plays are derived from reference to contemporary persons and events, amount of sung verses, and various criteria of style and technique. Modern chronological studies suggest the following relative datings—early period: Asinaria, Mercator, Miles Gloriosus (ca. 205 B.C.), Cistellaria (before 201 B.C.); middle period: Stichus (200 B.C.), Aulularia, Curculio; late period: Pseudolus (191 B.C.), Bacchides, Casina (185/184 B.C.).
The middle of the 1st century B.C. witnessed a revival of interest in Plautus and the restaging of many of his plays with consequent altering of original prologues. Some plays have no prologue; others have deferred prologues; and still others have authentic prologues or prologues based on those composed by Plautus. Often the prologue furnishes the audience with details necessary to understanding the opening of a complicated plot, or it may even explain in advance the outcome of the play with a consequent loss of suspense and surprise but a gain of irony. As a rule, the Plautine play presents one plot with one problem and one set of characters; these simple plots of Plautus allow comic digression and repetition. Humorous passages loosely connected with the plot and violation of dramatic illusion are clear evidence of Plautus's concern for entertaining his audience with a good laugh even at the expense of careful workmanship and finish.
Themes display considerable variety. There are plays of subdued comedy (Captivi), sentimental comedy (Cistellaria), romance (Rudens), mythological travesty (Amphitruo), and coarse farce (Asinaria). Mistaken identity and deception, either individually or jointly, give rise to the misunderstandings and complications on which the plays turn. Plautus appears to rely on earlier native Italian farces for the devices of trickery and impersonation.
Roman comedy for the most part paid careful attention to delineation of character but within a framework of types in which subtlety, complexity, and individuality were severely restricted. The Plautine cast of characters often includes the traditional figures: the young man (adulescens) hopelessly in love but lacking the courage and resourcefulness to achieve his desires; the aged parent (senex) who must be deceived and won over; the slave (servus) whose cunning and bustling create humor and intrigue; the young girl (virgo) of acknowledged free birth or to be rescued from shame; the courtesan (meretrix) who may be mercenary or noble; the hungry but shrewd parasite (parasitus); the despised slave dealer (leno); and the soldier (miles) whose boasting is equaled only by his stupidity.
But Plautus's originality and desire to entertain his audience have particularized many stock characters by exaggerated and imaginative portrayal. Characters especially suited to farce (Euclio and Pyrgopolynices) are among Plautus's most memorable creations of imagination and fantasy.
Command of Language and His Influence
Plautus captures the language of ordinary life, and to it he contributes novelty, vitality, and spontaneity. At a time when the Latin language was still quite fluid in inflection, syntax, and vocabulary, Plautine selection, combination, and invention set a high standard. Dialogue is rapid, racy, and filled with assonance, alliteration, and picturesque expressions. The vocabulary exploits and augments the available supply of terms of affection and abuse. Often tautology catches the carelessness or garrulity of ordinary speech. Plautus has no rival in ability to coin comic terms and names, for instance, Bumbomachides Clutomestoridysarchides, "Battlebomski Mighty-adviser-of-wretched-strategy."
The plays of Plautus enjoyed immediate success during his lifetime and were restaged and read by Romans after his death. The Middle Ages found his language difficult and his morality objectionable. During and after the Renaissance in Italy and other European countries, Plautine comedies were staged, translated, and imitated in vernacular compositions. Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533), called the true founder of the modern European stage, reproduced in an Italian setting, in his La cassaria and I suppositi, the form and spirit of Plautine models.
William Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors (1592) reflects the Menaechmi and the Amphitruo; and Ben Jonson's The Case is Altered (1597) blends the Aulularia and the Captivi. The esteem Plautus enjoyed among 16th-century dramatists is clear when Shakespeare has Polonius in Hamlet say, "Seneca cannot be too heavy nor Plautus too light."
Further Reading on Plautus
Paul Nixon, Plautus (5 vols., 1916-1938), provides both text and translation of Plautus's works; translations are also given in G. E. Duckworth, The Complete Roman Drama (2 vols., 1942). For excellent treatment of almost every aspect of Plautus see Duckworth's The Nature of Roman Comedy (1952). Critical studies are Gilbert Norwood, Plautus and Terence (1932), and Erich Segal, Roman Laughter: The Comedy of Plautus (1968). The Greek sources of Plautus's work are considered in Philippe E. Legrand, The New Greek Comedy (1917). Margaret Bieber, The History of the Greek and Roman Theatre (1939; 2d ed. 1961), includes discussion and illustrations of archeological remains. See also W. Beare, The Roman Stage (1950; 3d ed. 1965).