The Roman Stage: A Short History of Latin Drama in the Time of the Republic

By W. Beare | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VIII
PLAUTUS: TREATMENT OF HIS ORIGINALS

LIKE MOST if not all of the other Latin dramatists, Plautus was not so much an original playwright as one who adapted Greek drama to Roman taste. We have no convincing evidence that he invented a single plot or character, or introduced into his originals any alterations which show constructive power. Scarcely one scene among several hundred can with certainty be ascribed to his independent authorship. His originality shows itself firstly in the fact that he limited himself to a single field, the translation of Greek New Comedy, secondly in his choice of plays for adaptation, thirdly in his intuitive perception both of what public taste required and of the limitations under which he must work; but above all in his command of language and metre, of jest and metaphor, of rhetoric and repartee.

In limiting himself to one field of drama he set an example which was followed by nearly all subsequent dramatists. Both in width of interests and in power of innovation he was inferior to his contemporaries Naevius and Ennius; he confined himself to comedy, not through lack of command of the tragic style (witness the noble rhetoric of his Captiui) but, presumably, because comedy was the field in which he thought he could win greatest success. If his work was governed by practical considerations ( Horace accuses him of being entirely mercenary), he seems at least to have taken some pride in his achievement; he tells us that he prided himself in his Epidicus, and Cicero makes Cato assert that Plautus admired his Pseudolus and his Truculentus.1 These favourite plays have certain qualities in common -- a complicated plot, p lenty of trickery, some remarkable turns of fortune, vigorous dialogue, metrical variety, heartiness, cynicism -- quali ties which are, indeed, common to most of his plays, and which, when combined, produce a result different from the extant work of any other

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1
A remark which (at least) tells us something of Cicero's tastes.

-53-

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