The Pot of Gold and Other Plays is a selection of the plays of Titus Maccius Plautus (best known simply as Plautus), a Roman playwright of the Old Latin period (pre-75 B.C.). The plays include:
- The Pot of Gold (Aulularia; c. 195 B.C.)
- The Prisoners (Captivi)
- The Brothers Menaechmus (Menaechmi)
- The Swaggering Soldier (Miles Gloriosus; after 200 B.C.)
- Pseudolus (191 B.C.)
I must admit I wasn't wildly into Plautus (which is unfortunate as I have another book of his plays to read) so rather than dedicate a post to each play I thought, as with Terence, I'd do a brief summary of my thoughts on each play within just the one post.
The Pot of Gold
The Pot of Gold opens with a prologue spoken by Lar Familiaris, a Household God, who describes how the grandfather of the present owner of the house Lar inhabits (Euclio) hid a pot of gold , burying it "under the hearth of the central hall". Lar's job was to keep it safe. When the old man died rather than leaving it to his son he kept the money secret, claiming "he would rather leave his own son a pauper than let him know about this secret hoard". However, early into the play Lar decides to allow Euclio to find the gold, but when he does, rather than spending it wisely he continues to hoard it suspiciously. As this pans out, his daughter Phaedria becomes pregnant by a young man called Lyconides, and the two decide to marry. However Euclio promises Phaedria to Euclio's elderly bachelor neighbour Megadorus (who is the uncle of Lyconides) on account that Megadorus did not ask for a dowry.
When Euclio buries the gold in a nearby wood for safe keeping, Lyconides' servant slave sees him and later steals it. Lyconides confronts him, and here the text breaks off, however there is a surviving outline as to how the play would end, and E. F. Watling has constructed the final scene, so we're not left hanging!
It's a fun play on the corruption of wealth. Euclio becomes an intensely selfish man, more concerned with his pot of gold than the happiness of his own daughter. His new-found wealth does not bring him the respect he feels he deserves; in fact, quite the opposite. This play went on to influence Molière's L'Avare (The Miser, 1668) which I'm hoping to get a hold of soon.
The Prisoners is the tale of Philocrates and his slave Tyndarus, both from Elis in Greece, who were captured during war are are held as slaves in Aetolia in the house of Hegio. Hegio, however, plans to trade one of them in return for his son Philipolemus (Hegio had previously lost another son many years before). So, Philocrates and Tyndarus switch: Philocrates, pretending to be Tyndarus, is sent in exchange for Philipolemus whilst Tyndarus (as Philocrates) remains. Meanwhile, Aristophontes, a friend of Philocrates, is also imprisoned along with Tyndarus Things begin to come together on the arrival of Ergasilus and his slave Stalagmus when it is eventually revealed where Philipolemus is, and also the other son who went missing all those years ago.
It's a strange play, but quite sweet in a way: it has quite a moral message, as suggested in the prologue:
About one thing more, though, I should like to offer a word or two of suggestion. It will undeniably be to your profit to pay attention to this play. It is not composed in the hackneyed style, is quite unlike other plays; nor does it contain filthy lines that one must not repeat. In this comedy you will meet no perjured pimp, or unprincipled courtesan, or braggart captain. Let not my statement that the Aetolians and Eleans are at war alarm you: engagements will take place off the stage yonder.
Philocrates and Tyndarus selflessly take a risk for each other, and the main themes of the play are not only on loyalty and friendship, war, freedom, and slavery, but on behaving kindly to one's fellow man.
The Brothers Menaechmus
The Menaechmi is a play that heavily influenced Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors. It's about twins: Menaechmus and Sosicles, the sons of Moschus. One day when the boys are young Menaechmus is kidnapped, and Moschus dies of heartbreak. Moschus' father is left with Sosicles, and he changes his name to Menaechmus: Menaechmus of Syracuse. The original Menaechmus is now Menaechmus of Epidamnus.
When the boys reach adulthood Menaechmus of Syracuse goes in search of his brother. He arrives in Epidamnus and, to put it very simply, there is a great deal of confusion and uproar involving prostitutes, wives, doctors, and no doubt others I've forgotten about. To be blunt, this type of humour simply hasn't survived. I appreciate it in terms of it being a sort of prototype, but after that it's a struggle. 'Vaguely entertaining' is about as kind as I can be about it, and to be fair to it it is interesting to see where Shakespeare got his idea from.
The Swaggering Soldier
Here Plautus writes the story of Pyrgopolynices, the swaggering soldier who makes much of his exploits at war, all backed by his sycophantic sidekick Artotrogus. Much is made of his superhuman strength and devastating charm until his slave Palaestrio reveals all to Periplecomenus, the soldier's neighbour. We learn that Palaetrio was previously the slave of Pleusicles, who was in love with a young woman called Philocomasium. Pyrgopolynices stole her away and when Palaetrio tried to warn his master so was he, and by coincidence was sold to Pyrgopolynices. Palaestrio, however, has managed to write to Pleusicles and tell him of their fate.
When Pleusicles arrives he stays with Periplecomenus, who has made a hole in the wall so that Periplecomenus may communicate with Philocomasium. After much planning and trickery the soldier, as the audience will have no doubt predicted, gets his glorious comeuppance.
The Swaggering Soldier is a great character, and is another example of the influence of Plautus on Shakespeare: Ancient Pistol, who appears in Henry IV Part II, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry V, is of the same ilk: full of boasts and little else.
The final play of the collection is Pseudolus, which was first shown in 191 B.C. during the Megalesian Festival, a celebration of the Greek goddess Rhea. It begins with the shortest prologue I've seen so far from ancient plays:
If anyone wants to stand up and stretch his legs, now is the time to do it. The next item on the programme is a play by Plautus - and a long one.
Long it is. We first meet Calidorus, son of Simo, and Pseudolus, slave to Simo, and they are discussing a letter which reveals that Phoenicium, a prostitute with whom Calidorus is in love, has been sold by her pimp Ballio (who mistreats his slaves) to Polymachaeroplagides. In order to save her she must be bought, but neither Calidoris or Pseudolus have the cash. So Pseudolous concocts a plan.
As Ballio prepares for his birthday celebrations, he instructs his prostitutes to go out and find various men from whom Ballio can do a deal with regarding food items. Calidorus and Pseudolus try and talk to him, learning that he has sold Phoenicium for 2000 drachmae. They try to persuade him not to, then when that fails verbally attack him, but he is unmoved, and simply says if they can come up with the money before the the 500 drachmae that is still unpaid they can have Phoenicium.
Later Pseudolus overhears a conversation between Simo and his friend Callipho regarding Calidorus' situation. Callipho tries to get Simo to at least be sympathetic at his son's plight but Simo refuses. When he confronts Pseudolus of possible underhand tricks Pseudolus promises that, somehow, he will get the money out of the disbelieving Simo. Callipho, moved by Calidorus' love for Phoenicium, promises to help financially if the plan is unsuccessful. With the help of Simia, another slave, and much trickery, he is eventually successful.
It's an odd experience, reading these plays of Plautus. I can't say I enjoyed them but I admired them for how they've survived and influence they have had, particularly on the early modern writers. They are very similar to Terence's plays: the clever slaves, the trickery, and social boundaries, and in fact they remind me very much indeed of P. G. Wodehouse's 'Jeeves' stories.
Next week I'm hoping to finish my Plautus collection with The Rope and Other Plays: The Ghost, The Rope, A Three-Dollar Day, and Amphitro.