Comic playwright, author of fabulae palliatae (see fabula) between c.205 and 184 bc; plays by Plautus are the earliest Latin works to have survived complete. Varro drew up a list of 21 plays which were generally agreed to be by Plautus, and doubtless they are the 21 transmitted in our manuscripts.
The plays are nearly all either known or assumed to be adaptations of (Greek) New Comedy, with plots portraying love affairs, confusion of identity and misunderstandings. Plautus adapted his models with considerable freedom and wrote plays that are in several respects different from anything we know of New Comedy. The musical element is much increased. The roles of stock characters such as the parasite seem to have been much expanded. Consistency of characterization and plot development are sacrificed for the sake of an immediate effect. The humour resides less in the irony of the situation than in jokes and puns. There are ‘metatheatrical’ references to the audience and to the progress of the play, or explicit reminders that the play is set in Greece. Above all, there is a constant display of verbal fireworks, with alliteration, wordplays, unexpected personifications, and riddling expressions (e.g. Mercator (‘The Businessman’) 361, ‘My father's a fly: you can't keep anything secret from him, he's always buzzing around’). Both the style of humour and the presentation of stock characters may well have been influenced by the Atellana, but the verbal brilliance is Plautus' own.
The Greek originals have not survived, but a tattered papyrus contains the lines on which Bacchidēs (‘The Bacchis Sisters’) 494–561 are based (from Menander's ‘Double Deceiver’), for the first time enabling us to study Plautus' techniques of adaptation at first hand, and confirming the freedom of his approach. Plautus has preserved the basic plot and sequence of scenes, but he has cut two scenes altogether and has contrived to avoid a pause in the action where there was an act‐break in the original. The tormented monologue of a young man in love has had some jokes added to it. Passages spoken without musical accompaniment in the original Greek are turned into accompanied passages in longer lines. The play is still set in Athens, and the characters have Greek‐sounding names; but Plautus has changed most of them, esp. that of the scheming slave who dominates the action, called Syrus (The Syrian) in Menander's play; Plautus calls him Chrysalus (Goldfinger) and adds some colour elsewhere in the play by punning on this name. Chrysalus even boasts of his superiority to slaves called Syrus.
The plots show considerable variety, ranging from the character study of Aululāria (‘The Pot of Gold’) (the source of Molière's L'Avare) to the transvestite romp of Casina, from the comedy of mistaken identity in Amphitruo and Menaechmi (both used by Shakespeare in The Comedy of Errors) to the more movingly ironic recognition comedy of Captīvī (‘The Prisoners’, unusual in having no love interest). Trinummus (‘The Three‐Pound Coin’) is full of high‐minded moralizing; Truculentus shows the triumph of an utterly amoral and manipulative prostitute. In several plays it is the authority‐figure, the male head of the household, who comes off worst. Some plays glorify the roguish slave, generally for outwitting the father. These plays have been seen as providing a holiday release from the tensions of daily life, and their Greek setting must have helped: a world in which young men compete with mercenary soldiers for a long‐term relationship with a prostitute was probably quite alien to Plautus' first audiences, a fantasy world in which such aberrations as the domination of citizens by slaves could safely be contemplated as part of the entertainment.
Subjects: Classical Studies.