Mostellaria (The Ghost Story) by Plautus (c.210 BC)

The plot

We are in Athens in front of the house of Theoproprides, a Greek merchant, and his neighbour Simo. Theoproprides has a son, Philolaches, who is in love with a courtesan Philematium (who has an elderly woman attendant, Scapha). Philolaches recently bought Philematium her freedom for 3,000 drachmas which he borrowed off a moneylender for the purpose. He also has a best friend, Callidamates, who has a girlfriend of his own, Delphium.

The play opens with a rough country slave up from the family’s farm, Grumio, giving us a bit of backstory – telling us that the master, Theoproprides, has been away for three years and during that time the family’s servus callidus (clever slave) Tranio has been living high on the hog and corrupting the master’s son, Philolaches.

This is confirmed in a scene where we see Philolaches eavesdropping on his pretty courtesan and her maid chatting, and even more so then when his friend Callidamates turns up, drunk off his face and continually falling over or falling asleep, only propped up by his irritated girlfriend.

Tranio had gone off to the harbour to buy fish, but now he rushes on the disastrous news traditional in this sort of plot – after a three years’ absence, during which they’ve eaten him out of house and home, the master has returned!!

From this point onwards the play turns into one sustained improvisation by the clever slave Tranio, designed to prevent the old master, Theoproprides, from discovering the truth that his debauched son has been eating and drinking away the family fortune.

Improvising in a mad hurry, Tranio tells Philolaches et al to go inside the house, lock the door and be silent.

This is so that, when Theoproprides arrives a few moments later, Tranio can tell him a cock and bull story that the house is haunted by a ghost, the ghost of a man cruelly murdered by the previous owner. He claims that eight months earlier Philolaches saw a vision of the ghost in a dream and so the entire family packed up and locked up and left. So it would be terrible bad luck for Theoproprides to even touch the doorknob.

While Tranio is developing this whopping fib, a shabby moneylender comes along demanding back the 3,000 drachmas he loaned Philolaches. This is the money the latter used to buy the freedom of  his courtesan girlfriend, Philematium. Including interest it now amounts to 4,400 drachmas, a very large sum.

Tranio desperately ad libs, telling Theoproprides that the money the moneylender is talking about was given to Philolaches to use it as a deposit on a house. Now his father approves of this because it indicates his son plans to become a man of property, going into business. So, he asks Tranio, where is this new house? Tranio falls back on the desperate expedient of saying it’s the house next door.

Having dug this hole, Tranio has to corner the owner of the next door house, Simo, as he emerges from his house planning to go for a nice stroll. He buttonholes him and talks him into letting Theoproprides have a tour of his house. Why? Well, he explains that the master is back and that he and the dissolute son are for the high jump but…er…er…the master is thinking of extending his house and would like to see how Simo’s done his house up? Would that be OK? Simo takes a while to be talked round, but then reluctantly agrees.

So Theoproprides is shown round Simo’s house under the impression that the house has been sold to his son, while Simo is under the impression he’s doing him a favour and showing him his improvements and extensions – all the while Tranio is on tenterhooks lest either of them give his scam away.

The tour goes off without too much of a hitch and Theoproprides is persuaded that his son has made a wise investment. So Tranio now offers to go to Theoproprides’s and fetch the young master (the one who is, in reality, hiding silently inside the locked-up house). So he exits.

So the ghost scam and the buying a house scam are working alright when a new complication arises. Along comes the slave of Philolaches’s very drunk friend, Callidamates, in fact two of them, a refined one and a coarse brutish one (echoing Theoproprides’s two slaves Tranio and Grumio).

These two slaves start banging on the door of Theoproprides’s house and when the latter, undirected and unconstrained by Tranio’s presence, asks them what the devil they’re doing, they swiftly give the entire game away. They say they’ve come to collect their young master, that he’s continually at this house where there have been wild parties every day for the past three years while the young master drinks his father’s wealth away, that Philolaches spent 3,000 drachmas on buying the freedom of a slave girl, that he’s never put down a deposit for the house next door, and that the leader of his revels is the disreputable slave Tranio.

Well, you can imagine how Theoproprides takes this series of hammer blows, physically recoiling from this devastating news!

At this moment Simo, the neighbour re-enters and Theoproprides asks whether it’s true that his son has put down a deposit on his house. First he’s heard of it, Simo replies, thus confirming that everything Tranio has said has been an outrageous pack of lies.

In the denouement Tranio reappears to tell the audience that he’s just slipped round the back of Theoproprides’s house, unlocked it and let the son, lover and the others get away. But when he tried to recruit them to his tricks they refused. So Tranio shares with the audience that’s he’s pretty hacked off by this disloyalty. After all the hard work he’s put in to save them! So he reckons the time has come to be straight with Theoproprides and throw himself on his master’s mercy.

In fact Tranio has returned to the stage just in time to overhear Theoproprides telling Simo he now knows the complete truth, and asking Simo to borrow some slaves and some whips which he’s going to use to chastise Tranio!

In a comic piece of business Tranio sidles to the front of the stage to where an altar has stood throughout the play. He is taking pre-emptive sanctuary from punishment for a slave who clung to any altar of the gods was inviolable.

Theoproprides spots him and asks him to come away from the altar but Tranio very nicely and politely refuses. At which point Theoproprides reveals that he knows everything (but, as the audience knows, Tranio already knows that Theoproprides knows) and threatens him with torture, crucifixion, fire and faggots!

At which point the play ends very simply when Philolaches’ friend Callidamates enters, now sobered up, and apologises to Theoproprides on behalf of his friend/Theoproprides’ son, and generously offers that he, Callidamates, will pay Theoproprides the 4,000 drachmas his son has spent. Please forgive him.

And when Theoproprides persists in his wish to gorily punish Tranio, Callidamates begs him to forgive him too. ‘Oh…alright,’ Theoproprides grudgingly agrees. And that’s the end, with a dinky little epilogue addressed to the audience.

Spectators, there our story ends.
Give us your hands, and be our friends.

Trickster strategy

Tranio has a neat speech about the strategy of the trickster slave in these kind of plays:

Well, if I’m going to be sold in my own shop [i.e. be let down by his colleagues in trickery] the best thing I can do is to do what most other people do when they find themselves in a dangerous and complicated situation – make everything a bit more complicated and never give things a chance to settle down!

Surely a lot of the pleasure of this kind of plot, from Plautus to the city comedies of Ben Jonson, is enjoying the sheer energy and inventiveness of the trickster servant. Very often they whip up such a fantasia of interlocking scams that there’s a kind of peak moment when they hug themselves with sheer glee at how clever they are – and the same happens here when Tranio declares:

TRANIO: Alexander the Great and Agathocles, so I’ve heard tell, were the two top champion wonder workers of the world. Why shouldn’t I be the third – aren’t I a famous and wonderful worker? (p.63)

By Hercules!

A small detail but I’m struck by the way that all the character swear oaths by Hercules, and how Tranio at one point calls himself the Hercules of tricksters. No other gods and no other legendary figures are referred to at all. Hercules dominates the field. It’s true of his other plays, too, and then, of course, Plautus wrote an entire play about Hercules. So what was it about Hercules?

When Tranio in a brief outburst begs Hercules for help, a footnote to the 1912 translation by Henry Thomas Riley reads: “Hercules having slain so many monsters, was naturally regarded as a Deity likely to give aid in extreme danger.”

To the remark, ‘He’s the Hercules of money-spenders’, Riley notes: “It was the custom with many to devote to Hercules the tenth part of their possessions. Consequently, the revenues belonging to the Temples of this Deity would be especially large.”

Fair enough, but it doesn’t explain the plethora of other invocations of the legendary demigod.

(Hercules is also the only deity invoked in Plutarch’s Life of Marius:

When [Jugurtha] had been thrust down naked into the dungeon pit, in utter bewilderment and with a grin on his lips he said: “Hercules! How cold this Roman bath is!” (Marius 12)

In Sallust’s Jugurthine War Hercules is said to have led an army in Spain (18) and also to have founded the Numidian city of Capsa (89). Hercules’ ubiquitous presence around the Mediterranean is a recurring them in Richard Miles’s history of Carthage.)

Crucifixion and torture, fire and faggots

Theoproprides to Tranio: ‘I’ll see you’re taken off to the cross; that’s all you deserve.’ (p.82)

Tranio is subjected to threats of a whole series of dire physical punishments, and from the play as a whole radiates a strong sense of the physical abuse and punishment slaves were vulnerable to. In Mary Beard’s book about ancient Rome she says that the ease with which they could be physically abused was the real defining aspect of slaves, hence the expression whipping boy. That’s true with a vengeance here.

In the early scene Philolaches eavesdrops on his mistress being lectured by her old serving woman, and every time the latter says something against his interests Philolaches soliloquises that he will:

  • make her starve and thirst and freeze to death
  • scratch her eyes out
  • choke her with a quinsy

I suppose this can be considered comic hyperbole, but it’s worth noting that the comic style of these Roman plays (and presumably their Greek originals) included extreme physical abuse.

This is even more true of Tranio who worries on every other page about the physical punishment he’s going to incur and when his scams are uncovered. In his speech announcing that he’s spotted Theoproprides at the Piraeus, he says the game’s up and he’s going to be punished. Presumably the following is spoken directly to the audience:

Anybody ready to be crucified in my place today? Where are all the punch-takers, chain-rattlers – or the chaps who are ready to rush the enemy’s trenches for threepence? Anybody used to having his hide perforated with a dozen spears at once? I’m offering a talent to anyone prepared to jump onto a cross, provided he has his legs and arms double-nailed first. (p.42)

Then, at the climax of the play, Theoproprides threatens Tranio with a whole array of punishments – to be whipped, crucified, hanged, beaten with a cudgel and burned alive, and Simo joins in:

Simo: ‘In that case, the cord will be stretched for you; thence to the place where iron fetters clink; after that, straight to the cross.’

Although played for laughs, this is quite a litany of hair-raising physical abuse and gives the ‘comedy’ a very dark or complicated flavour.


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Rope and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1964.

Roman reviews

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