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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Roman reviews

Menaechmi (The Brothers Menaechmus) by Plautus (c.200 BC)

Prologue

The prologue explains that there were once two little boys, identical twin sons of a merchant of Syracuse, named Menaechmus and Sosicles. One day the father took little Menaechmus on a business trip to Tarentum but while walking through a carnival together they got separated. A trader from Epidamnus found the little boy and took him home with him. The father fell sick with grief and died. His father i.e. the boys’ grandfather, back in Syracuse, renamed Sosicles Menaechmus (the name of the lost boy, who he had always preferred).

So we have now got identical twins both named Menaechmus, one living with his grandfather, one growing up far away in Epidamnus.

(Incidentally, you can see how the title The Brothers Menaechmus is a pastiche of Elizabethan or olde worlde word order. In modern English it would simply be The Menaechmus Brothers or, if this was a brat pack movie, The Menaechmus Boys.)

The years passed and the boys grew to manhood in their separate cities. Back in Epidamnus, Menaechmus reached manhood and the trader gave him a wife and dowry and, when the trader died, Menaechmus inherited his large estate, where he now lives. Anyway, that’s the back story, and now the play begins.

The plot

Enter Peniculus

Enter Peniculus, a prime example of the stock character, the parasitus. The editor and translator of this edition, E.F. Watling, has previously explained that the best way to understand this character type is as a kind of dinner companion for hire – educated men who go from patron to patron ingratiating themselves, trying to get invitations to dinner where they amuse with their witty conversation (the other characters call him a ‘table companion’).

As a result the parasitus is associated with comic speeches about food and Peniculus is no exception, entering to make a speech on the comic premise that, if you wanted to lock people up, to make them secure, you’d do better to give them stunning feasts each day rather than put them in chains. Who would willingly run off and lose the chance of a daily feast?

Thus Peniculus explains that he is Menaechmus’s ‘bond slave’ but willingly reports for duty at his villa for love of the amazing spreads.

Menaechmus the adulterer

Peniculus arrives just as young Menaechmus emerges from his villa, yelling back through the open door at his wife (a very characteristic position for a Plautus character). This opening speech establishes that he is not a noble character but a bad tempered adulterer. He accuses his wife of asking endless questions about his movements and spying on him. In the next breath he justifies her suspicions by revealing that he’s going to meet his mistress, Erotium, tonight and – in a comic manoeuvre – has smuggled out of the house his wife’s dresses by wearing it under his toga.

It’s at this point that Peniculus comes forward, they greet each other, shake hands and Menaechmus shows off to Peniculus his cunning little prank i.e. displays himself wearing the gown.

Menaechmus’ mistress, Erotium

Scared of Menaechmus’s wife, they move shiftily over to the house next door (as in so many of the plays, the set consists of two neighbouring houses) because, lo and behold, right next door is the house of Menaechmus’s mistress, Erotium. He knocks on the door, she comes out he declares his eternal love for her and gives her his wife’s gown, then declares they’re going to have a party at her place, Menaechmus, Peniculus and her, so can she get her cook to start cooking. And with that Menaechmus declares his off to town and exists, followed by his lackey Peniculus.

Erotium calls out her cook, Cylindrus, gives him three pounds and bids him go to the market to buy grub for lunch. When he hears one of them is Menaechmus’s table companion’ he complains that people like him can do the work of of eight men, but off he goes anyway, grumbling.

Quite obviously Menaechmus having a mistress is not designed to make any highfalutin’ moral or ethical points but to maximise the amount of confusion to be caused by the comic conceit of the identical twins: I predict not only his wife but his mistress will be thrown into turmoil by the arrival of the twin.

Enter Sosicles and Messenio

And sure enough enter Sosicles, or that was his original name until his brother was abducted and his grandfather renamed him Menaechmus. He’s just arrived by ship accompanied by his slave Messenio and a group (number unspecified) of slaves carrying his baggage.

Messenio is the grumpy sort of slave and complains to his master, and thus informs the audience, that Sosicles has been traipsing round the entire Mediterranean searching for his brother, calling in at the Danube, Spain, Massilia, Illyria, all over the Adriatic, the Greek colonies and the entire coast of Italy (p.111).

Messenio goes on to explain that the inhabitants of the place they’ve arrived at, Epidamnus, have a bad reputation.

Obviously they’ve arrived in front of Menaechmus’s villa while Messenio makes a long speech about how they haven’t a hope in hell of finding Menaechmus, he must be long dead. At which point Erotium’s cook, Cylindrus, arrives back from the market. When he sees Sosicles he of course thinks he is Menaechmus, the guest for the planned lunch party, waiting outside his mistress’s house. And so into the first of many comic misidentifications and misunderstandings.

Misunderstanding 1 Sosicles and Cylindrus

Cylindrus, of course, thinks Sosicles is Menaechmus arrived for lunch and engages him in casual conversation. Sosicles, of course, is completely bewildered at being addressed familiarly by a strange slave, and when he assumes he (Sosicles) lives next door, with his wife, Sosicles thinks he must be mad and gives him money to buy a sacrifice to make at the shrine of the god of lunatics. Of course, Cylindrus thinks Sosicles is mad – with Sosicles’ slave Messenio chipping in from the sidelines.

Misunderstanding 2 Sosicles and Erotium

Cylindrus goes in the house and is replaced by Erotium who appears and, of course, calls Sosicles ‘darling’ and carries on a normal conversation with him (p.115), reminding him that he a) brought her a gown of his wife’s b) asked her to prepare lunch for him and his table companion (p.116). Obviously, Sosicles thinks she is mad, though is puzzled how she knows his name.

N.B: It’s important to remember that the twins both have the same name. Menaechmus was always the name of the boy who was abducted, the other one, Sosicles, was renamed Menaechmus by his grandfather. So they both have the same name. When I refer to Sosicles in this summary it is to clarify who is who, but he isn’t referred to as Sosicles in the play.

All these confusions give Messenio the opportunity to say he warned his boss about Epidamnus – looks like the reputation is true, it really is full of lunatics.

After conferring with his slave Sosicles takes the decision that he’s going to play along with this pretty woman. If she wants to give him a free lunch and witter on about his non-existent wife, then, sure, he’ll play nice. So he apologises to Erotium for being confused and she, now mollified, invites him into her house. Messenion warns him to watch himself but Sosicles reckons he’s on to a good thing, a free lunch and then maybe some afternoon delight.

Misunderstanding 3 Sosicles and Peniculus

The table companion Peniculus has been at some public meeting all morning and arrives in a bad mood to spy Sosicles emerging from Erotium’s house, obviously drunk, with a laurel wreath at a rakish angle on his head and calling back to Erotium that he promises to take the gown (the one Menaechmus gave her that morning) to a dressmaker’s in town to have it adjusted.

When Peniculus steps forward to castigate Sosicles for starting (and finishing) lunch without telling him, Sosicles, naturally enough, says he’s no idea who he is or what he’s talking about. As in every one of these encounters, they each think the other must be mad. Peniculus vows revenge, swearing he’ll tell Menaechmus’s wife all about his affair.

Misunderstanding 4 Sosicles and the maid

Erotium’s maid pops out of her house and asks Sosicles one more favour. Can he please take these gold bracelets, the ones he stole from his wife and gave to Erotium, to a goldsmith and have some gold added and reshaped. Sosicles is no longer bewildered, he is master of the situation and milking it for all he’s got, so he willingly accepts gold bracelets.

Then the maid takes things a bit further by asking if he can get her some pretty little gold earrings, please. Then next time he pops over she’s be everso nice to him (flutter eyelashes). Sosicles says, Sure, where’s the gold? But when the maid says she doesn’t have any, she was hoping he’d buy her some as a gift he loses interest and, realising it, the maid goes back into Erotium’s house.

At which point Peniculus emerges from Menaechmus’s house with the latter’s wife. He has told her everything. She is furious and asks herself how much longer she has to put up with this insulting behaviour? They spot Menaechmus coming and hide.

Misunderstanding 5 Menaechmus and wife

Sosicles had exited the stage in one direction. Now from the opposite direction enters the real, or original, Menaechmus. He delivers a page long soliloquy about what a pain it is being patron to a number of clients; he’s wasted his whole morning sorting out litigation around a client of his, an obvious crook, but in a patron-client society that’s what you have to do. He laments not having got away earlier for lunch although hopes the gift of the gown he stole from his wife will placate her. His wife is hiding behind a bush and hears him say this!

She steps out and accuses him of being a slimeball, egged on by the irate table companion Peniculus (‘That’s the way to talk to him’). Menaechmus desperately back pedals, disclaiming any knowledge of a mistress or stolen gown. This goes on for some time with Menaechmus until the furious wife finally says he’s not getting back into their house till he returns the gown, and goes into the house slamming the door!

Misunderstanding 6 Menaechmus and Erotium

Oh well, if his wife’s locked him out at least Erotium will give him a warm welcome. She’s pleased to see him back so soon but, of course, when he asks for the gown she is confused: she gave it to him not half an hour ago. His insistence that she give it back infuriates her and she slams the door in his face. Oops. Now he’s locked out of both women’s houses. He says he’ll go back into town looking for a friend to cheer him up.

Misunderstanding 7 Sosicles returns

Menaechmus’s wife looks out the door and sees Sosicles return with the famous gown. She thinks he’s come to make up with her. But when she confronts him, Sosicles is, of course, completely non-plussed and denies any knowledge of her. At which point, understandably, she reverts to her former fury. When she tells him that an hour ago he promised to find the gown and give it back to her he has no idea what she’s on about. All Sosicles knows is he spent a nice time with Erotium who gave him a gown to be altered. Who’s this madwoman ranting at him?

She’s so furious she sends a servant to fetch her aged father. He’ll sort out her faithless husband! When he arrives he tells his daughter off for being a scold and keeping such a tight watch on her husband i.e. he takes Menaechmus’s side. But then…

Misunderstanding 8 Sosicles and the father

Then the father actually confronts Sosicles, thinking he’s Menaechmus and, like everyone else, thinks the latter must have gone mad when he denies all knowledge of him. In fact it occurs to Sosicles that if people keep accusing him of being mad, maybe there’s some advantage to actually behaving mad, so he starts ‘gaping and flinging himself about’ (p.133) and starts to rant and rave and claiming to hear the gods’ instructions telling him to beat this ‘bitch’ and the ‘old goat’ i.e. wife and father.

Terrified, she runs back inside the house leaving her father to grapple with Sosicles who pretends to be hearing instructions from Apollo himself telling him to run the old man over with a (non-existent) chariot and horses. They grapple till Sosicles falls to the floor. The father thinks he’s had a stroke so says he’d better hurry and fetch a doctor. Once he’s gone Sosicles gets up, dusts himself off, declares everyone here is mad, and decides he’d better get back to his boat while the coast is clear.

Misunderstanding 9 Father, doctor and Menaechmus

The father returns, out of breath, with a doctor who is just asking the symptoms of the patient when the real Menaechmus enters. Obviously he knows nothing of the encounter which just ended in which his identical twin feigned madness and fell to the floor. So he hasn’t a clue what the father is describing and the doctor is quizzing him about and answers all the latter’s impertinent questions rudely (‘Jupiter and all the gods blast you and your silly questions’, p.137). But he quickly becomes so angry, and answers so sarcastically, that he does himself appear mad, just like his twin had. So the doctor suggests Menaechmus is brought over to his house so he can supervise his treatment (hellebore seems to be the recommended drug). They exit to go and get some strong slaves to grab, bind and take Menaechmus away.

They both exit leaving Menaechmus alone. He sits down and a) wonders what on earth has possessed these two to accuse him of being mad and b) what the devil is going to happen now he’s locked out by both his wife and mistress.

Misunderstanding 10 Menaechmus and Messenio

Messenio is Sosicles’s slave. Last time he saw his master he told him to see the slaves and baggage settled at an inn, which he’s achieved. Now he re-enters and goes up to Erotium’s door because that’s the last time he saw his master, going in to have lunch with Erotium. But before he can knock on her door, he witnesses the father returning with four strong slaves. And then sees them set on Menaechmus, with a view to binding him and carrying him away.

Menaechmus calls for help and Messenio comes to his rescue and there’s quite a fight with our pair finally getting the better of the foursome who run away. Now, of course, Messenio not only expects Menaechmus to recognise him but asks for a big reward: will he set him free?

(I commented in my review of Captivi how almost all the plays include a slave who performs adroit services for his master and promptly asks to be freed, wondering if this was a reality of Roman life or just a hilarious staple of stage comedy.)

Menaechmus, of course, has now idea who Messenio is and thought he was a good samaritan coming to his aid. He tells him to his face he’s no idea who he is but, by all means, go free. Messenio takes this as meaning he has been liberated and cries tears of joy. He says he’ll go and get the purse of money, baggage and slaves from the inn and rushes off. Menaechmus refuses to be fazed by this but has no idea what he’s talking about.

He knocks on Erotium’s door with a view to trying to get the famous gown back and give it to his wife, completely unaware that Sosicles went off with it some time ago.

Misunderstanding 11

On the way to the inn Messenio has bumped into his real master, Sosicles. Now they enter arguing. Sosicles of course knows nothing about Messenio rescuing him from the four slaves and giving him his liberty. Oh no he bloody well didn’t, says Sosicles.

The catastrophe

In classical literary theory, the catastrophe is:

the final resolution in a poem or narrative plot, which unravels the intrigue and brings the piece to a close. (Wikipedia)

It’s at this moment, just as Sosicles is telling his slave Messenio he has no idea what he’s talking about, that Menaechmus walks out Erotium’s front door and comes face to face with his identical twin, Sosicles. The comedy is dramatised by being seen through the eyes of a third party, Messenio.

The two brothers are slow to recognise each other but it is Messenio’s comic intervention, claiming to be the slave of each in turn and getting them muddled up, which is played for a few more laughs.

In fact it is Messenio who takes Sosicles aside and points out that this other fellow may well be his long lost twin brother. He suggests they ask him a few more questions and Sosicles readily agrees. The play then mutates into a kind of courtroom drama with Messenio playing the role of interrogating counsel as he asks Menaechmus a series of questions which confirm that he is indeed the little boy from Syracuse who lost his father in a crowd, was kidnapped and adopted by a stranger who raised him here in Epidamnus.

At each answer Sosicles cries out in wonder with Messenio impatiently telling him to wait his turn to question the witness. Presumably a) the conceit of being a courtoom was meant to be funny as was b) the idea of a slave like Messenio impersonating a magistrate.

There’s still a smidgeon of doubt at which point Menaechmus asks Sosicles what their mother’s name was. Sosicles replies Teuximarcha. All doubts are removed, they both realise they are each other’s twin brother and embrace in tears.

The resolution

If you remember, Sosicles has been on a vast 6-year-long odyssey round the Mediterranean looking for his long-lost brother. Now that quest is at an end. Menaechmus resolves to accompany him back to the family home in Syracuse. He says he’ll quickly sell up all his property here then they can depart. Oh and Menaechmus asks Sosicles to give Messenio his freedom, as a favour to him, seeing as how he stoutly defended him in the battle of the four slaves.

1. It is very striking that the catastrophe did not involve either of the women, Menaechmus’s wife or mistress. Surely there was a world of comic potential, not to mention some kind of reconciliation with his wife, waiting to take place here. But it simply doesn’t happen. As if the women really are just pawns in the plot, who can be dispensed with as soon as they’re not needed; as if the only reconciliation which counts is male, among men, between the brothers, and to some extent Messenio.

2. The very last passage of the play is when Messenio cheekily asks the brothers if he can be their auctioneer, they say yes, and this gives Plautus the opportunity to show the cheeky slave impersonating an auctioneer, using his patter to quickly describe the contents and effects of Menaechmus’s house – everything must be sold off, including his wife (‘should there be any purchaser’) – before quickly bringing the play to an end with the traditional request for the audience’s applause.

Roman slavery

As in most of the other plays the thing which catches my attention most is the ubiquitous condition of slavery, of ordinary, everyday, commonplace slavery which everyone took for granted. Messenio is given a speech in which he describes how he’s made a conscious decision to be a good slave, which he defines as one who attends to his master’s welfare, plans his business and organises his affairs as effectively in his absence as in his presence. OK. Then goes on describe what life has in store for slaves who are worthless, idle or dishonest, namely:

floggings, chains, the treadmill, sweating, starving, freezing stiff. (p.138)

Is this an accurate description? It brings home the way a master would be friendly with, spend most of his life with, joke, laugh, cry, share his ups and downs with a person who he also order to do everything for him, run errands, fetch and carry, serve and please and who, if he (all the slaves in these plays are men) upsets, irritates his master or falls short, can be submitted to a staggering range of physical punishment and abuse.

And, as in so many of the plays, the top thing on Messenio’s mind was winning his freedom. As soon as he’s helped Menaechmus fight off the four slaves, he asks for his freedom. Is this what it was like? Did slaves think all the time of how to get free, and pester their masters for requests to be freed? Did they ever make such requests? Was there a recognised time or occasion which might merit it? Were there social conventions and forms of words?

Interestingly, Messenio says that, if he is freed, his one-time master becomes his patron. Is that how it worked. Was ‘freedom’ the exchange from one recognised form of hierarchical relationship for another? Did a freed slave remain within the orbit and indeed the service of his master/patron, only with freedom of action?

Messenio, after he thinks Menaechmus has freed him, hurries to say he still wants to take his orders and go home with him and carry on living with him. Was this meant to be funny because it indicated what a poor notion of freedom Messenio had? Or was it a commonplace situation, that freed slaves continued to live in their former master’s houses but on new terms? How was that managed by everyone concerned, not least the other slaves who remained in their unfree condition?


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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