Pseudolus by Plautus (191 BC)

‘She was mine to do as I liked with.’
(Ballio the pimp about Calidorus’s lady love, the slave-courtesan Phoenicium, page 230)

Of the 20 or so plays by Plautus which have survived from antiquity, this is the longest. We have the precise date of production, 191 BC. As so often it is set in the street in front of two houses and the lead figure is a canny slave. Yet the real star of the show turns out to be Ballio, the wretched pimp.

Setup

Calidorus is the stock young man. He is in love with Phoenicium, who is a slave-prostitute ‘singing girl’ who belongs to the wretched pimp, Ballio. The play opens with Calidorus showing his father’s chief slave and loyal servant, Pseudolus, a letter he’s just received from Phoenicium telling Calidorus that she’s been sold by her master to a Macedonian officer who just has to complete the payment of 2,000 drachmas and will take her away forever tomorrow. After some banter, Pseudolus promises to devise some way of getting her back or else he’ll pay Calidorus 2,000 drachmas. They hide to one side as Ballio appears.

The plot

Enter Ballio

In one of the two houses onstage lives Ballio, the pimp. It’s his birthday today. He enters brandishing a whip and terrifying his male slaves. He calls them lazy good-for-nothings and whips at least one of them. Then he gives them all chores to do as he’s planning to hold a feast to impress some VIPs.

The slaves go off about their chores, then Ballio calls out his female slaves, presumably his ‘courtesans’ i.e. sex workers, among whom is Calidorus’s true love, Phoenicium. Ballio shouts at the women slaves that today he will set one of them free, but the criterion will be, which one can get her lover to bring him, Ballio, the most extravagant birthday presents. Otherwise what’s the point of keeping such a harem of greedy lazy slaves?

Ballio goes through each of his ‘girls’ by name, pointing out the sectors of the market they specialise, namely the corn merchants (Hedylium), the butchers (Aeschrodora), the olive oil men (Xystilis) and finally Phoenicium, who he characterises as a gentleman’s pet, always promising to bring him the fee for her freedom but never actually delivering it (p.224).

Ballio dismisses the women, while in their hiding place Calidorus and Pseudolus bicker about what to do. Ballio is just setting off for town with his boy when Pseudolus calls out to him. After some banter in which it becomes clear the Ballio knows and dislikes our boys, Pseudolus takes command of the conversation and says Calidorus is sorry for not having come up with the cash to buy Phoenicium. Ballio has no sympathy: he should borrow it from a friend or steal it from his father. After Calidorus has stopped being scandalised, Pseudolus takes the lead again and promises Ballio he’ll come up with the money somehow within three days.

Ballio teases Calidorus by telling him Phoenicium is not for sale…at which point Calidorus rejoices and says Ballio is a second Jupiter and he needs to send Pseudolus to buy a lamb whose giblets they can sacrifice to this wonderful fellow. But, Ballio continues, Phoenicium is not for sale because she’s already been sold (p.230).

In a comic passage Pseudolus and Calidorus stand either side of Ballio and call him every abusive term they can come up with, but it is water in a sieve, he doesn’t care: he happily admits he killed his own parents to avoid having to pay for their care, he is a worm and it doesn’t bother him. And in that spirit he tells them that the Macedonian officer has only put down 1,500 of the 2,000 drachmas he’s contracted to pay for Phoenicium. If the boys can being him, Ballio, the full 2,000 today, maybe he’ll change his mind. And with an evil grin he sets off for the market.

Pseudolus soliloquy 1

Pseudolus then explains to Calidorus that he has a cunning plan, but he needs Calidorus to provide a friend, an intelligent, reliable friend to play a role in his plan. So Calidorus exists to find one.

Pseudolus is left onstage to admit to the audience that he doesn’t have the slightest idea or plan he just wanted to get rid of Calidorus. Much more likely is that he might be able to wangle the 2,000 drachmas out of his master Simo, who just at this moment happens along with his neighbour Callipho.

Simo

Simo tells the audience his son Calidorus is the talk of the town, everyone knows he’s desperate to buy his courtesan girlfriend but doesn’t have the money. Callipho says he shouldn’t be so hard on his son after all he was a tearaway and libertine in his own youth. They both spot Pseudolus listening to them and approach and say hello.

A feature of this play is it is quite slow moving. This is because the characters spend quite a lot of time in extended conversation: first Calidorus and Pseudolus with Ballio, now Pseudolus with Simo and Callipho – extended pleasantries and banter. Basically Simo tells Pseudolus he knows all about his son’s plight and is well aware that Pseudolus is planning to extract 2,000 drachmas out of him, but assures him it won’t work. Pseudolus declares that, on the contrary, he will get it out of him, which both Simo and Callipho consider a cheeky threat.

CALLIPHO: ‘Ye gods! The man’s a living marvel – if he can be as good as his word.’

Not only that, Pseudolus assures the two sceptical old men that before the day is through he will have won not one but two victories: he is going to extract the 2,000 drachmas from Simo and he is going to remove the girl from Ballio’s grasp! Pseudolus says, if he manages in the former, will his master give him the money and his freedom? Reluctantly, Simo agrees.

Callipho finds all this very amusing and when Pseudolus announces he needs him for his plans, happily agrees to cancel his planned trip to the country to do so. What’s more, he cheerfully tells Pseudolus that if Simo refuses to give him the money he, Callipho, will. All very relaxed and amused. Callipho goes into his house, Simo goes off into town.

Pseudolus soliloquy 2

Pseudolus not only speaks directly to the audience, he breaks the conceptual fourth wall by talking about the play itself, saying he currently has no idea how he’s going to pull it all off but what’s a play without surprises, so he begs our indulgence while he goes for a think and, meantime, there will be a musical interlude.

Musical interlude with a flute player

Pseudolus re-enters and fools around making a speech in the grand style describing how he will mount a siege and storm the house of his enemy i.e. Ballio. He’s in mod flow when he spies someone coming, and hides.

Enter Harpax

Harpax is a soldier, the representative of the Macedonian officer who’s put a down payment on Phoenicium. He talks out loud as he tries to figure out which of these houses is Ballio’s which gives Pseudolus the opportunity to step forward and pretend to be Ballio’s steward, Syrus. Harpax says he’s come with a purse of the outstanding sum, 500 drachmas, plus a sealed letter and the personal token of his master, the Macedonian officer, as agreed with Ballio. Pseudolus says his ‘master’ Ballio is out right now, and tries to persuade him to give him the purse but Harpax isn’t that dumb. He does, on the other hand, give him the sealed letter to give to Ballio, before announcing he’s going back to his inn to have lunch and a nap and for Pseudolus to send a message to him when Ballio returns. And so he exits.

Pseudolus soliloquy 3

Pseudolus tells us this is the lucky break he needed and launches into extended philosophising about the best laid plans and Lady Luck and so on, when he spies young Calidorus returning with a friend.

Enter Calidorus and Charinus

Pseudolus likes putting on funny voices and so adopts a tone of royal grandiloquence to greet his master. But he quickly comes to have a low opinion of the friend, Charinus, who is nettled by his disrespect. Nonetheless he shows Calidorus the letter and token.

Pseudolus says he will need a man. A slave? suggests Charinus. Yes. Well Charinus just happens to know a slave his master has freshly sent from their country estate to here, in Athens, named Simia. Perfect. And is he a slippery eel and trickster? Yes. And might Charinus happen to have a soldier’s cloak at his house? Yes. Pseudolus has gained new respect for Charinus, he’s a veritable charitable institution.

The plan? They’ll dress up this newly arrived slave as a a soldier, give him the letter and token and 500 drachmas and he will pretend to the Macedonian’s man and secure Phoenicium from the pimp. Pseudolus tells the chaps to go and prepare him.

Pseudolus soliloquy 4

Two enjoyable features of the play:

  1. Pseudolus amusingly uses military metaphors to describe how he is laying sieges and strategems to take Ballio’s fortress by storm.
  2. Pseudolus in a very post-modern way keeps referring to the play he’s actually in. So when Calidorus and Charinus ask him how he got the better of Harpax, he simply replies that the audience has seen everything so there’s no point repeating it (p.245)

He also leaves the stage.

Ballio’s slave boy

A touching soliloquy from Ballio’s slave boy describing how being an ugly boy in a whorehouse is a miserable fate. Ballio threatened everyone with the whip if they couldn’t come up with fine presents for him, but he hasn’t got anything.

Ballio returns with a cook

Ballio has hired a cook and assistants for his feast. It is typical of this play that there’s quite a long passage of dialogue devoted entirely to fleshing out his character, in which Ballio insults the cook for being an evil looking wretch and the cook cannily defends himself by saying he is always last to be hired because is more expensive and better quality than the ruck.

As with the role of the ‘table companion’ in Menaechmi, this gives a vivid sense of the forum as the place where people went to be hired for jobs for the day.

Anyway, Ballio orders his ‘ugly boy’ to keep a sharp watch on the cook and his assistants to make sure he doesn’t pinch anything. When they’ve all gone into his house, Ballio gives a little soliloquy in which he explains that he bumped into Calidorus’s father in the market and the latter warned him that Pseudolus has got a cunning plan to wangle Phoenicium off him. So he’s going to tell all his slaves to be on the lookout for the tricky Pseudolus.

Pseudolus and Simia

Enter Pseudolus with Simia, the smooth, handsome young slave Charinus promised. He is dressed up in a soldier’s outfit and very pleased with himself, super confident of his ability to ‘fake and fiddle’, rather to Pseudolus’s irritation. Pseudolus keeps asking if he remembers what he is so say and Simia crossly says yes yes yes.

As with all the other scenes and exchanges in this play, the two pages of Pseudolus fussing over Simia and the latter getting increasingly irritated, are not really necessary to the plot, but add colour and depth.

Ballio comes out his front door, still fussing about the cook he’s hired and Simia steps boldly forward, pretending to be the soldier Harpax finding his way. Pseudolus stays in hiding, wincing at more or less every one of Simia’s cocky remarks. But, to cut a long story, short, Simia hands over the letter and token and succeeds in persuading Ballio that he is the emissary of the Macedonian officer. Ballio reads the letter (which is quite rude about him), Simia hands over the money, Ballio says, Right, come and get her, and they go into his house.

Pseudolus steps out of hiding. All is going well but his nerves are wracking, any number of things could still go wrong: his master might turn up, the real Harpax might turn up, or Simia might go over to the enemy for a cash reward!

In the event the door opens and Simia and Phoenicium emerge and are waved off by Ballio who goes back into his house. Pseudolus hurries to join them and says, Quick, quick, while the coast is clear! and so they make off. Worth noting that the military metaphors deployed by Pseudolus are echoed by Simia who is, of course, dressed as a soldier. The entire thing has a comic thread of military pastiche running through it.

PSEUDOLUS: ‘Forward march! For victory and the cup of triumph!’

Enter Simo

Simo is Calidorus’s father and the subject of the bet with Pseudolus. He now enters with a view to checking with Ballio how things are going. He says hello, they talk and Ballio is so confident that the deal has gone  his way he hustles Simo into making a bet with him: Ballio promises to give Simo 2,000 drachmas (and a girl thrown in) if Calidorus gets possession of the girl today. Simo has nothing to lose so he shakes on the bet.

When Simo asks what this Harpax was like, Ballio, like Pseudolus, breaks the illusion of reality by saying Harpax used the usual type of gags used in this kind of comedy, and was used the stock terms given to pimps in comedies. Part of the enjoyment is the way the comic characters know they are in a play, readily admit it and play up to it.

Anyway, Ballio assures him on his life that Pseudolus won’t be able to pull one of his tricks, it’s too late, he has handed over the girl to the Macedonian officer’s man, who was bearing his letter and token, there’s absolutely no way anything can go wrong.

Enter Harpax

Oops. At which point the real Macedonian emissary, Harpax, arrives. He gives a little speech about how the good servant is always thinking of his master’s best interests, even if he’s not physically there, giving orders. This is interesting because it’s almost identical to the speech on the same subject given by Messenio in Menaechmi – the point being it’s obviously a stock sentiment given to the Good Slave in this kind of play.

Anyway, he waited at the inn for the fellow claiming to be Ballio’s steward (in reality Pseudolus) to come and get him, but he never showed up so here he is, taking the initiative in carrying out his master’s orders.

So comic misunderstanding. At first Ballio sees a stranger approaching and tells Simo here’s business for his whorehouse. He’ll take his money and be glad. But then Harpax declares his is the emissary of the Macedonian and has the money for the girl. At which point, instead of realising he’s been diddled, Ballio chats aside to Simo and declares that this must be a fake soldier put up to it by that rascal Pseudolus – well, he won’t fool old Ballio!

Ballio and Simo proceed to take the mickey out of Harpax, grabbing his cloak and hat and sword, and saying his officer must have rescued him from prison and insinuating that he’s gay and generally ragging him under the assumption that he’s a fake. But, inevitably, they begin to falter as Harpax sticks to his story and goes on to say he gave his master’s letter and token to a slave from this very house, one Syrus. Then Ballio asks Harpax for a description of this ‘Syrus’ and Harpax describes Pseudolus to a t. It’s interesting to learn what Pseudolus is meant to look like:

HARPAX: Ginger hair, fat belly, thick legs, dark skin, big head, sharp eyes, red face and very large feet. (p.263)

With horror Harpax realises what’s happened. Pseudolus has had him after all. It was the earlier Harpax who was fake, this is the real one. Not only that but Harpax now insists on having his 2,000 drachmas back and Simo chips in, insisting on Ballio coughing up the 2,000 drachmas he confidently bet him 5 minutes earlier.

Ballio realises he is lost. Harpax insists on marching him off to the bank to collect his 2,000 drachmas. Ballio just has time for an aside to the audience, bleakly saying ‘birthday’? This is more like his death day!

Simo soliloquises

Left alone onstage Simo tells us he’s going to spring a surprise on Pseudolus, but not the kind of one you usually get in comedies like this, a surprise of whips and chains. No, he is full of admiration at the canny trick Pseudolus has pulled off, putting Odysseus’s trick which won the war at Troy in the shade. No, he’s going to get the 2,000 drachmas he wagered him and have it read to hand over next time they meet.

Drunk Pseudolus

And rather than any more dramatic encounters or revelations or dialogue, the play ends with Pseudolus staggering onstage, plastered, and drunkenly telling the audience what a fabulous feast they’re having inside. Calidorus has gotten married to Phoenicium, everyone’s drinking and singing at the wedding feast – and Pseudolus does a drunken little dance onstage.

Anyway, drunk though he is, he’s come to see his old master i.e. Simo, and now knocks on his door. Simo opens the door prepared to be gracious but Pseudolus, very drunk, embraces him and burps in his face. When Simo hands him the big sack of silver coins he owes him, Pseudolus at first plans to drag Simo through the streets, as in a victory triumph, humiliating him. But Simo gets down on his knees and begs not to be humiliated and so Pseudolus, in a lazy drunken way, says: Of course, not, can’t have that can we? And instead makes it clear he’s inviting the old ‘master’ to the wedding feast of his son.

At which point they stop and ask themselves, as they always do in Plautus’s plays – what about the audience, are you going to invite them? And, as usual, one of them points out there are far too many to invite to a little house, so the next best thing – would they kindly applaud?

Thoughts

Not at all ‘boy meets girl’ comedy, is it? ‘Clever slave outwits pimp’ doesn’t have quite the same ring, but that’s what this is.

Not only is it not a ‘boy meets girl’ story but the girl in question – I wanted to write ‘doesn’t even appear’ but she does appear, and she does at least have a name, unlike the ‘wife’ and ‘father’ in Menaechmi who remain unnamed cyphers. But it’s the briefest of appearances, walking once across the stage as she’s taken away by Simia-posing-as-Harpax.

I’ve pointed out that most of the characters in Plautus plays are pawns in the machinations of the plot, but it’s hard to deny that the female characters are very often the pawniest of the pawns.


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Pot of Gold and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1965.

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