Titus Maccius Plautus was esteemed by the Romans as their greatest dramatist, and still holds a high rank among the comic writers of the world. Twenty of his plays are extant, and though a few of them are incomplete, they have reached us, in the main, as they were written. The maturity which comedy attained in a single generation affords remarkable contrast to the slow process by which other literature was developed in Rome. This is probably due to the dramatic and musical medleys, which, in their allusions to current events and their spirit of banter, must have had a close affinity with the dialogue of Plautus, and also to the use of the Latin language as the organ of business among urban communities. More, however, was due to the genius and command of language possessed by the two oldest creators of Roman literature, Nævius and Plautus.
Nævius made literature the organ of the serious spirit and imperial ambition of the Roman aristocracy; Plautus appealed to the tastes and the temperament of the masses at a time when they cared only for enjoyment and were indifferent to political questions. The ascendancy of the aristocracy, after the second Punic was, was accompanied with the ascendency of Ennius in Roman literature, and if the genius of Plautus and Ennius could not work side by side it was better that the work of the younger poet, as representing the true spirit of the people, should prevail. The popularity of Plautus was greatest in his own time and in the generation that followed him; but his plays continued to be acted until the age of Cicero, by whom, as also by Varro, he was greatly admired. The first century of the empire had other literary tastes, but the archaic revival of the second century brought him again into favor, thus causing the preservation of his works throughout the middle ages and their revival at the Renaissance. That his original popularity was due to genuine gifts of humor and power in representing human life is shown from their reception by a world entirely different from that in which he himself played his part, as may be seen from its effect on Shakespeare and Molière, the two greatest dramatists of modern times.
Plautus was a native of Sarsina, in Umbria, born in the earlier half of the third century B.C., and died at a very advanced age in 184. His first occupation was connected with the Roman stage, probably as a scene-shifter, and at this he saved enough money to engage in foreign trade, in which he was unsuccessful. Returning to Rome in extreme poverty, he was glad to earn his livelihood as a mill hand, and it was then that he first began to write comedy, the earliest allusion to current events that we find in his writings being the imprisonment of Nævius in 207 B.C. Most of his extant plays belong to the last ten years of his life, and they were not published during his lifetime, but were left in possession of the players, to whom are due most of the prologues and many interpolations. The works of many contemporary dramatists were attributed to him, so that Varro, who accepts only 21 as undoubtedly genuine, and 19 others as doubtful, states that 130 comedies passed under his name. He was a rapid and productive author, and though concerning himself more with the immediate success of his works than with their literary merits, took a pride and pleasure in his art.
Plautus was a man of strong animal spirits and of large intercourse with the world, especially the trading and middle classes, for we find no traces of familiarity with the manners, tastes or ideas of the aristocracy. There is about his plays a flavor of the sea and a spirit of adventure, with the frequent use of Greek phrases and indications of his acquaintance with the sights and pleasures of the Greek cities on the Mediterranean. There are also allusions to works of art, to the subjects of Greek tragedy and Greek mythology, and he was always trying to enrich his Latin vocabulary with Greek words, which did not, however, maintain their place in the language.
Like all the Roman comedians, he borrowed his plots, incidents, scenes, characters and probably much of his dialogue from the authors of the new Attic comedy; but he treated his borrowed materials with much more freedom and originality than other dramatists. Of this we have evidence even in the titles of his plays, nearly all of which were in Latin, while those of Terence are in Greek. In his incidents there is remarkable breadth of range and variety of scene, with strong divergencies from conventional types, but it is on his dialogue and soliloquies that his individuality is chiefly stamped. Though all his personages are supposed to be Greek, living in Greek towns, they speak and act as if they were Romans living in the heart of Rome. Frequent mention is made of towns in Italy, of Streets and markets in Rome, of Roman magistrates, of the business of the law courts, the Senate and the comitia. Roman proverbs, expressions of courtesy and the like are extremely common, and, while avoiding politics, he often alludes to recent enactments and recent events in Roman history. He is by no means indifferent to social conditions, commenting on the growing estrangement between rich and poor as an element of danger to the State. Still, he does not write for that purpose, but simply from the desire to represent the passing humors of the day and amuse the people in their holiday mood.
The independence of Plautus is further shown by his puns and plays on words, by his alliterations, etc., which cannot be reproduced in translation, in metaphors taken from military operations, in business transactions and the trades of artisans, and especially in the terms of endearment and vituperation characteristic of Italian vivacity of temperament in modern as in ancient times. But in nothing does Plautus differ more decidedly from the originals which he followed than in the use of lyrical monologue, alternating with the ordinary dialogue, as do the choral odes in old Greek comedies. These may have been taken from passages in the old dramatic Saturæ, for in the reflection which they contain we recognize the earliest efforts of the Roman mind without any intermixture of Greek sentiment.
In Plautine comedy we have a valuable picture of Roman life and thought in the age in which he lived. The characters of his plays are the stock characters of new Attic comedy, but there is wonderful life and vigor, with considerable variety in the embodiments of the various types, showing that in reproducing Greek originals he thoroughly realized them and animated them with the strong human nature of which he himself possessed so large a share. There is considerable sameness in his plots, but even in these he is more varied than his contemporaries. In some of them love plays no part; in others only a subordinate one. He also varies his scenes, which are often laid in Italy, and not, as with Terence, always at Athens. More, even, than the Greek plays from which they are taken, the works of Plautus have served for modern adaptation. The Amphitryo, for instance, has been imitated by Molière and Dryden, and the Aulularia suggested to the former the subject of his Miser, while the principal motive in The Comedy of Errors is taken from the Menæchmi. Lessing considers the Captives the best constructed drama in existence, and with it may be classed the Rudens, as appealing to a higher and purer class of feelings and coming nearer serious poetry than any extant specimens of Latin comedy.
While the works of Plautus abound in good sense and good humor, with occasional touches of pathos and elevated sentiment, there is no trace of any serious purpose behind his comic scenes and characters. Judged by his epitaph, which has been attributed to himself, he presents a remarkable exception to the didactic and moralizing spirit characteristic of Roman literature. "After Plautus died, comedy mourns, the stage is deserted; then laughter, mirth and jest all wept in company." He has not the subtle and penetrating irony which we find in Terence, in Horace and Petronius, and still less can we attribute to him the bright fancies of a Juvenal or a Lucilius. But among all the ancient humorists, with the exception of Aristophanes, he was unequalled in the power of provoking instant and hearty mirth and laughter. He was too careless in the construction of his plots to become a finished artist, and hence the want of appreciation among the more cultured classes, but among the mass of his countrymen he was by far the most popular of Roman authors. He had a wonderful faculty for the dramatic expression of feeling, fancy and character by means of action, rhythm and language, while the vivacity of gesture, dialogue, declamation and recitative, in which the plays of Plautus never fail must have made them admirable vehicles for the actor's art. The lyrical passages occupy a large space in his comedies and in these he shows the highest of poetic qualities; but that in which he was preëminent above nearly all other Roman authors was in the vigor and exuberance of his language. No other writer gives us in the same degree the life and force of the Latin idiom undisguised by mannerisms of style. Among the masters of expression in which the prose and poetical literature of Rome abounds, none were more prodigally gifted than Plautus, and this was a natural accompaniment of the exuberant creativeness of his fancy, of the strong vitality and lively animal spirits which were the endowment of the race to which he belonged.
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