Amphitryo by Plautus (c.195 BC)

‘He’s a monster when he’s in love.’
(Mercury describing Jupiter, page 249)

Plautus’s one venture into myth and legend, this play is a comic take on the birth of Heracles, supposedly fathered by the king of the gods, Jupiter, on a mortal woman Alcmena.

The comedy derives from the fact that Jupiter impersonates Alcmena’s husband, Amphitryo, who is away serving as a general in the Theban army, and Jupiter’s fixer, Mercury, messenger of the gods, facilitates things by impersonating Amphitryo’s slave, Sosia. Double trouble!

Prologue

In the event this play feels a bit thin and forced. It opens with a very long prologue by Mercury in several parts and then morphs into Mercury hiding in the alley outside the house where Jupiter is taking his time swiving Alcmena. He is taking a great deal of time, because Jupiter has done a deal with Father Night himself to pause and prolong the night for as long as Jupiter requires.

Enter Sosia

Anyway, Mercury is portrayed as not much more than a sarcastic and aggressive slave. So when the real Sosia comes up the dark alley in front of his master’s house, telling the audience that his master, Amphitryo, is home victorious from the wars, is disembarking from their ship and has sent him ahead to notify his wife – Mercury confronts him, claiming to be the real Sosia.

When the real Sosia understandably disagrees, Mercury proceeds to give him a beating, so it’s pretty crude stuff. This squabble about who is the real Sosia could be elevated via critical theory into an investigation of notions of identity, but drags on too long (pages 234 to 246).

Misery of being a slave

Rather than be amused I began to feel genuinely sorry for the real Sosia, who is given some eloquent lines about the misery of being a slave:

It’s no fun being a rich man’s slave.
Work, work, work, from morning till night,
And night till morning. ‘Do this, go there, say that’ –
You can’t get a wink of sleep…
No, it’s no fun being a slave. And it’s not just the work,
But knowing you’re a slave, and nothing can alter that. (p.234)

And his back is striped by scars from whippings (p.245). Now I appreciate that these lines, like so many in the plays, are variations on stock sentiments which every single slave in every single play expresses at some point. Nonetheless, the prolonged physical and philosophical beating which Mercury administers to Sosia makes it somehow more real in this play than in the others. And when Mercury clarifies that his bullying and seeing off of Sosia is all so his father Jupiter can have another hour or so of shagging, it feels cheap and nasty. Maybe the audience found this funny, but it felt like the least funny of the four plays in this volume.

Mercury really dominates proceedings for, having a) delivered a long prologue and b) thumped and smacked Sosia into beating a retreat, he then c) explains to the audience that today is not only the day that Amphitryo is returning home but the day when Alcmena is giving birth – to Amphitryo’s son, but also to a twin fathered by Jupiter – the baby who will grow up to be Hercules (p.247).

Hang on. Doesn’t that mean that Jupiter asked Night to slow his course so that he could spend hours and hours having sex with a woman who is nine months pregnant!

Jupiter in the guise of Amphitryo emerges from Amphitryo’s house, with Alcmena crying and hugging and kissing him. She reproaches him for leaving her after one brief night; he, posing as her general husband, says he is needed back at the front, Mercury-as-cocky-slave-Sosia intervenes a couple of times with helpful phrases but Jupiter-as-Amphitryo threatens to beat him each time.

Enter the real Amphitryo

The real Amphitryo arrives. Sosia has told him all about the fake Sosia but Amphitryo not only refuses to believe it but threatens him with the typical hyper-violence everyone directs at slaves in these plays:

AMPHITRYO: I’ve a good mind to cut your damned tongue out.
SOSIA: Why not? I’m your property to do as you like with. (p.250)

This scene drags on for a while, as Sosia insists there are two of himself, one right here and the other one who’s inside the house. Amphitryo, not unreasonably, thinks Sosia must be made or drunk. Maybe the ancient audience would have been in stitches.

Here, as in the scene between the two Sosias, and throughout the play, a great deal is made of the same recurring joke, which is when either Mercury or Jupiter swear by themselves that this or that statement is true. Presumably this had the ancient audience rolling in the aisles.

Alcmena

Alcmena comes out of the house and, as you can imagine, there is all kind of confusion, for Amphitryo greets Alcmena for the first time, fresh home from the wars, and Alcmena is at first astonished that he’s returned so soon after bidding her a fond goodbye, and then mystifies Amphitryo by explaining that last night he showed up, had dinner, then went to bed with her… all of which, of course, the real Amphitryo very much did not do and vehemently denies. Each thinks the other is mad, or that they themselves are going mad, or dreaming.

There’s a little bit of stage business around a golden bowl which Alcmena says Amphitryo gave her last night. Amphitryo says, ‘Nonsense, it’s still in his bags which have only just been brought up from the harbour’. Alcmena gets a slave to fetch the bowl from the house and Amphitryo identifies it as indeed the one he took from his defeated enemy and when he and Sosia undo their luggage, lo and behold the bowl is gone! They both think it’s witchcraft or some kind of illusion, and Amphitryo ends up calling his wife a whore!

Finally Amphitro suggests he goes to fetch Alcmena’s cousin Naucrates who accompanied them back on the ship and will vouch for the fact that Amphitryo was with him, on board ship, last night. So he exits to go to the docks, while Sosia and Alcmena go into the house.

Re-enter Jupiter

Jupiter re-enters in time to hear Alcmena deliver a soliloquy lamenting how badly she’s been treated by Amphitryo – being called a whore and accused of infidelity!

Jupiter now steps forward in the guise of Amphitryo and tries to persuade her it was all a joke, a trick to find out how she would react to such accusations. Alcmena with dignity explains that she is not upset but she wants a divorce, he can have his things, and she will keep hers (p.268).

In a last ditch effort, Jupiter-as-Amphitryo swears by himself that he thinks Alcmena is innocent. Impressed by his oath she relents and they kiss and make up. He says he promised he would sacrifice to the gods upon his safe return and so asks her to go and prepare the altar. Meanwhile he sends Sosia to fetch the captain of the ship which the real Amphitryo has just arrived in (the captain being named Blepharo). Jupiter calls for Mercury to come disguised as Sosia and goes into the house to sacrifice to himself.

Enter Mercury

Mercury appears in a great hurry. His father Jupiter has tasked him with delaying Amphitryo any way he can think of. A few minutes later Amphitryo enters, hot and dusty and grumpy because he’s looked all over town and can’t find blasted Naucrates. He tries the front door of his own house only to find it locked and at that moment Mercury appears on the roof of the house, disguised as Sosia and pretending to be drunk.

Once again the same joke is played out at great length, which is that Mercury-as-Sosia denies that Amphitryo is Amphitryo by saying that his master i.e. Jupiter-as-Amphitryo, is inside with his mistress. Then Mercury-as-Sosia descends to ground level and comes out the front door to repeat it.

The real Amphitryo tries to contain his anger/confusion but then Alcmena comes out to join them because of all the noise. She is puzzled why he’s outside and not indoors at the family shrine making the sacrifices he promised to make and Amphitryo hasn’t a clue what she’s talking about.

At this point enters Captain Blepharo, tired from lumbering up from the docks. When he tells Amphitryo the latter invited him to lunch (Jupiter did) Amphitryo  is, of course, bewildered. But at this point the real Sosia hoves into view and, for the first time, we have a pair onstage at the same time, the real Sosia and Mercury-as-Sosia.

Mercury does some quick bluffing, telling everyone that they are identical twins and threatening Sosia to keep his mouth shut. But this potential topic is quickly skipped by as Amphitryo asks Captain Blepharo to adjudicate whether his wife has not been monstrously unfaithful to him and describes the whole sequence of events and what she told him.

Alcmena then gives her side of the story which is that Amphitryo came home last night, then left, then returned claiming to know nothing about last night, then stormed off, then returned claiming it was all a joke and he didn’t mean it and went into the house to pay sacrifice, then appeared on her doorstep claiming to know nothing and making the same accusations of infidelity. Who’s the mad one now?

Jupiter appears

At which point the plot reaches its climax as Jupiter-as-Amphitryo comes out of the house. Now there are two Amphitryos for everyone to see. Alcmena thinks she is going mad and going to faint. Amphitryo asks Blepharo to judge who is the real Amphitryo but Blepharo says, not likely, this is too mad for him and exits. Jupiter-as-Amphitryo sneaks back into the house leaving Amphitryo to make a florid speech swearing by all the gods that he will have justice and nothing will stop him from entering.

But as he steps to the threshold he is struck down by a bolt of lightning from heaven. Lolz.

Bromia

A new character, Bromia the nurse, comes running out the house saying she’s going mad, the house is topsy-turvy, there was a bang and crash and flash of light and then they heard the voice of mighty Jupiter saying ‘Fear not, help is at hand’ and next thing they all knew, Alcmena had given birth to her twin babies with no-one ready with water or towels etc.

Bromia spots Amphitryo lying on the threshold looking like a corpse, runs over, recognises him, rouses him, helps him to his feet. As he gathers his wits, Bromia tells him of his wife’s miraculous birth, and it softens Amphitryo’s heart towards her.

Then Bromia tells Amphitryo the famous legend about Hercules that, as an infant, two snakes came into the house and made for his cradle but he leapt out of it, grabbed them by the necks and kills them! Well, Bromia saw him do just that, only a few moments after being born!!

And at that moment they heard the voice of Jupiter admitting he had slept with Alcmena in disguise and that the strong babe is his son, the other, normal, one being Amphitryo’s.

Amphitryo says he is blessed to be honoured with a son alongside a son of the mighty god and at that moment Jupiter appears to Amphitryo in his full divinity. He explains that he slept with Alcmena and fathered the strong babe. He warns Amphitryo to forgive and be kind to Alcmena, she had no choice, she didn’t recognise and could not resist Jupiter’s power/seductions.

The play ends with quite a nice joke as Amphitryo asks the audience to applaud ‘for great Jove’s sake!’ (p.284)

Thoughts

You can see why Christianity, when it arrived, spread so unstoppably. The pagan gods were, at bottom, ludicrous.

This was the least successful of the four plays in this Penguin volume, for three reasons:

  1. the basic conceit is very contrived to me and very one dimensional
  2. it doesn’t really develop – you get the joke in the first few minutes and then it doesn’t change but carries on being the same monotone gag

Thirdly, the confusion and unhappiness and hurt of Alcmena aren’t really funny – at moments it is upsetting. She is being toyed with by the god, unfairly and cruelly. This is presumably why Mercury in his prologue referred to it as being a tragi-comedy, though I wonder if that’s the precise Latin term Plautus used, or Watling’s interpretation of it. Either way it gestures towards a sense of uneasiness which runs throughout the play.

When humans play tricks on each other it is, in a sense, a fair fight. When the gods play tricks on humans it is too one-sided to be truly comic. It comes close to being bullying and abusive.


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.

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