SHAKESPEARE has set the influence of Roman drama at its highest in the words with which Polonius commends the players at Elsinore:
The best actors in the world either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individible, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy nor Plautus too light.
Here is the full range of drama (real and imaginary) as known to the Renaissance world, and it exists under the joint consulship, so to say, of Seneca and Plautus. In a sense the compliment is more than they deserve. It is by an accident of history that the playwrights of the Renaissance traced their ancestry back to Plautus, Terence, and Seneca, rather than to the Greek authors from whom the Romans derive. One might fairly say that, if the plays of Seneca are indeed the ancestors of Lear and Hamlet and Macbeth, it is in the same way that the pterodactyl is the ancestor of the bird— it is not the ancestry of genius, as in the sequence Homer-Virgil‐ Dante-Milton. As for Plautus and Terence, other factors were in their favour in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Boys had to learn Latin, and they like to act: there was room for the rollicking fun of Plautus and the pure Latin and refined sentiments of Terence. Hence the vogue for Latin plays, original or imitative, in the schools, universities, and courts of Europe. And when the Jesuits felt the need for something better attuned to the Christian ethos, the result was the Jesuit college drama, a true derivative of the Roman theatre. Habent sua fata libelli. If the Roman playwrights for so long commanded greater attention than perhaps their intrinsic merits allow, in modern times they have certainly had to make do with less. In the schoolroom, as in the . . .