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In: English and Literature

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Rachael Millette

Watts Plautus
History 101

15 September 2011

The Roman playwright Titus Macchius Plautus was born in Umbria, an area of central Italy around 254 BC. He began his work in theater as a carpenter, before becoming an actor and eventually a writer. The Pot of Gold and Other Plays are formulaic comedies that provide Plautus’s audiences with undeveloped stock characters as well as clever, scheming focal characters that allow for the central themes of the plays to unfold into entertaining and witty performances for the Roman audiences.
Plautus recycled themes in several of his plays. He clearly appreciated a clever, scheming slave who possessed more cunning than his master. He used these sharp-witted slaves such as Pseudolus and Palaestrio as some of the most active and verbal characters despite the fact that the conflicts of the plays concerned their masters. It could be easily said that it is essential to the plotlines that these servants are able to outwit the characters of higher social status. Even over two thousand years ago when Plautus wrote his plays, mistaken identity and long-lost twins were established themes, albeit at this time they were not abused by two millennia of popular literature. For obvious comedic purposes, Plautus develops characters with remarkably slow problem-solving skills, such as Sosicles and Menaechmus in The Brothers Menaechmus. Sosicles has embarked on a quest to find his brother Menaechmus, and despite how peculiar he finds it that so many people in an unfamiliar city behave as if they know him, it never appears to cross his mind that these individuals may be mistaking him for the identical twin for which he is searching. A more abstract theme that seems to unify Plautus’s work is the undeniable force of karma, or the concept of “you get what you give”. Hegio, the father in Captivi is a fair, essentially good character that simply seeks to be reunited with his captive son. He has clear, unselfish priorities, so Fortune smiles on Hegio and returns both of his sons to him. The arrogance of Pyrgopolynices led him to kidnap Philocomasium, believing he was irresistible to all women. It would also be his exaggerated self-opinion that would allow him to be hoodwinked by the other characters at the end of the play. The “good slaves” such as Palaestrio in The Swaggering Soldier and Messenio in The Brothers Menaechmus, genuinely try to get their masters out of trouble are in turn granted their freedom. Characters such as Ballio and Pyrgopolynices can easily be caste as the antagonists, however Plautus does not make them appear evil or try to convince the audience to hate them. Obviously, the arrogance of Pyrgopolynices is exceedingly irritating, but it also serves as a source of comedic relief. Ballio represents the typical coldhearted, sleazy gangster, but he is accepted for what he is, and dealt appropriately by the other characters in the play. He is more of a nuisance, or an obstacle, than he is an actual villain. All of Plautus’s plays provide some insight into ancient Roman and Greek life. He writes of many practices that were common while he lived, such as prisoners of war serving as slaves and old bachelors marrying young girls. These concepts come across as foreign or even barbaric to an individual living in the modern western world. Plautus seems to mock Megadorus, the older gentlemen who seeks to marry the daughter of his neighbor, who coincidentally is in labor with his nephew’s child, but he does not display any radical views on marriages between such individuals. Keeping his audience entertained was probably what Plautus had in mind when he wrote these plays.
Shallow and amusing characters are used in all five of the assigned plays as comedic relief. The ever-present “table companion” is essentially the same in every one of the plays. They are constantly flattering, pleading and pestering their benefactors so that they can get a hot meal. Although they are not crucial characters, they often provide insight into the natures of those they serve and act as a diversion from the central plot.
Pyrgopolynices is another character lacking in depth that can be characterized by a single personality trait: his vanity. He claims to be a relation of Achilles and Venus, and that he has unprecedented military victories that are of course fabricated. The sarcastic and increasingly outrageous flattery that Pyrgopolynices receives from the other characters serves to keep him placated and the audience in good spirits. He is easily manipulated by the other characters because of how quickly he is willing to believe that he is the most divinely good looking and charming man alive.
Elderly men, often neighbors of main characters, make appearances in Plautus’s comedies. Periplectomenus, the older gentleman neighbor of Pyrgopolynices, is an example of how Plautus uses these characters as enzymes, if you will, to help the actions of the play move along. The scenes in which the conflicts are being resolved and discussed amongst the characters serve to entertain the audience. It is comical how slow some of the characters are to grasps concepts as blatant as identical twins. Plautus frequently has his characters donning costumes and masquerading as other people. Philocomasium parades as her own twin in order to conceal her love affair from her captors, and Philocrates exchanges identities with his slave Tyndarus so that he may be more likely to escape from Hegio’s possession and return home to his own family. These situations function primarily to entertain the audience.
The complicated affairs of young lovers are often used as the basis of Plautus’s plotlines. Issues like pregnancy, kidnapping and prostitution naturally complicate these romances, leaving slaves and friends to solve the problems of the love-struck characters. Plautus’s use of clever word play and formulaic comedic strategies made him a talented playwright and entertainer of ancient Rome as well as the modern world.

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