What Shakespeare Owes to Plautus

Last Friday I was walking through New York’s Central Park on my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when I passed the Delacorte Theater. There was a long line of people there and I inquired as to why they were standing there. They told me that the theater was giving out free tickets to Shakespeare in the Park which was putting on a performance of The Comedy of Errors this very night. I got in line and after about ten minutes I was in possession of two tickets, one for me and one for my niece, Janna, who was hosting me in New York. Janna and other New Yorkers assured me that, normally, people stand in line for hours for these free Shakespeare tickets and that chances of this sort or thing happening were next to nil. They joked that I should have bought a lottery ticket.
The performance was excellent. The costuming was not period but appeared to be mid 20th century. I usually prefer my Shakespeare in period costuming. I found the movie Coriolanus particularly jarring in modern costuming, but it seemed to work well enough in this particular play.
I have seen most of Shakespeare’s comedies at one time or another but I had never seen The Comedy of Errors. What struck me most about this play was its similarity to the works of the Roman comic playwright Titus Maccius Plautus, who wrote during the late third century and early second century B.C. Plautus was, in turn, influenced by Greek New Comedy playwrights, particularly Menander and Philemon, who wrote plays approximately a century before him. Little of Menander’s or Philemon’s work has survived, but quite a number of Plautus’ plays may have been available to Shakespeare.
The Plautus play I am most familiar with is Poenulus, or The Little Carthaginian (The Puny Punic?). Both The Comedy of Errors and Poenulus are set in Ancient Greece and the characters have Greek names, except for Hanno, the title character of Poenulus, who, of course, bears a Carthaginian name. The first striking similarity is the relationship of master and slave. In both the case of Agorastocles and his slave Milphio in Poenulus, and Antipholus of Syracuse and his slave Dromio in The Comedy of Errors, while both Agorastocles and Antipholus have obvious affection for their respective slaves, the slaves are made to suffer when the masters are in distress.
From Poenulus, translated by Paul Nixon:
Agorastocles: (pleadingly) Oh, Milphio, many’s the affair I’ve entrusted to you time and again when all looked dark and forlorn and counselless, and you, with your wisdom and cleverness and sagacity and shrewdness, have turned them into triumphs for me. And for all these kindnesses I own that I owe you your liberty, yes, and endless thanksgiving and thanks.
Milphio: (coldly) When an old phrase fits the occasion it’s well used. Why, all this blarney you’re giving me is nothing but pure piffle, as they say rien que belles balivemes. Now you blameybait me: Yesterday you wore out three ox-hides on my back and it didn’t bother you a bit!
Agorastocles: (on the verge of tears) I’m in love, Milphio, and if my love makes me do anything you ought to overlook it.
From The Comedy of Errors:
Antipholus of Syracuse: Because that I familiarly sometimes do use you as my fool and chat with you, your sauciness will jest upon my love and make common of my serious hours. When the sun shines let foolish gnats make sport, but creep in crannies when he hides his beams. If you will jest with me know my aspect, and fashion your demeanor to my looks or I will beat this method in your sconce!
Dromio of Syracuse: Sconce call you it? So you would an you use these blows long, I must get a sconce for my head and insconce it too; or else I shall seek my wit in my shoulders. But I pray sir, why am i beaten?
In Plautus’ time slavery was prevalent and his audience would have been attuned to relationships between master and slave, but few of Shakespeare’s audience were likely to have had direct experience with slavery, although some may have been aware of the revival of slavery in England’s overseas colonies, which was racist in character.
Another similarity between Poenulus and The Comedy of Errors is the use of the device of the reunification of long-lost kin. In The Comedy of Errors, Aegeon, the father of the twins Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus comes to Ephesus in search of the former, who is searching for his twin brother who was separated from him in infancy by a shipwreck. In Poenulus, the Carthaginian Hanno comes to Calydon in search of his two daughters who were kidnapped as small children in Carthage. In the case of Hanno, his nephew Agorastocles had also been kidnapped as a seven year old boy, and Hanno’s brother had died of grief.
Shakespeare set most of his comedies in Italy or Greece. Plautus, a Roman, set most of his in Greece. It would seem that both Shakespeare and Plautus believed that foreignness lends itself to comedy and that the audience is more likely to be amused by the foibles of foreigners than of the native born. In Plautus’s time Carthage was the great enemy of Rome and Plautus himself may have fought in some of the battles of the Second Punic War. There is some anti-Carthaginian bigotry displayed by Plautus’ characters; at one point one of them refers to Hanno as a “Gug,” an ethnic slur, and they make fun of his robes, which hang loose, in contrast to the Roman Tunic, but unlike Shakespeare’s Shylock, the Carthaginian Hanno is nowhere portrayed as a despicable character. He is, in fact admirable in his devotion to his family.
Einstein once said: “If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” Plautus may have been one of the giants on whose shoulders Shakespeare stood.

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