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Titus Macchius Plautus wrote plays in Ancient Rome. Many people just call him Plautus. He was probably born in Sarsina (a city in Romagna) around 254 BC. His comedies are among the earliest works of Latin literature that has not been lost. He is also one of the earliest writers of musical theater.
Little is known about Plautus' early life. When Plautus was young, he built stages for plays. He also helped change the scenes. This might be when he started to love the theatre. People noticed that he was a talented actor. He called himself "Macchius" (a clownish character in popular farces), and "Plautus" (a term meaning "flat-footed"). Tradition also says that after some time, he made enough money to start working in the shipping business. He started something, but he was not successful. He then is said to have worked as someone who worked with his hands. He learned about Greek drama – particularly the New Comedy of Menander – in his free time. His studies led to his plays being shown. The plays were first shown between c. 205 BC and 184 BC. Plautus' comedies are mostly adaptations of Greek plays for Roman people. They are usually based on the works of the Greek playwrights.
Plautus and the Gods of Roman Society
H. M. Tolliver talks about the state gods of Rome and what their importance was in the Theatre of Plautus. These gods were an important part of the Romans' lives in Plautus’ time - people were supposed to worship them. Tolliver tells us that the gods were not exactly like the gods worshipped today. They were worshipped but also stood as a national symbol. State religion also served as a political tool. If the gods supported a bad leader, the people should too.
Plautus is sometimes accused of teaching the public indifference and mockery of the gods. Any character in his plays could be compared to a god. Whether to honour a character or to mock him, these references were demeaning to the gods. These references to the gods include a character comparing a mortal woman to a god, or saying he would rather be loved by a woman than by the gods. Pyrgopolynices from Miles Gloriosus (vs. 1265), in bragging about his long life, says he was born one day later than Jupiter. In Pseudolus, Jupiter is compared to Ballio the pimp. It is not uncommon, either, for a character to scorn the gods. This can be seen in Poenulus and Rudens.
Usually the only characters that scorn a god are those of low standing, like a pimp. Plautus perhaps does this to further demoralize the characters. Soldiers often bring ridicule among the gods. Young men, meant to represent the upper social class, often make fun of the gods in their remarks. Parasites, pimps, and courtesans often praise the gods with little ceremony. Tolliver argues that drama both reflects and foreshadows social change. It is likely that there was already much skepticism about the gods in Plautus’ time. Plautus did not make up or encourage irreverence to the gods, but used the ideas of his time. The state controlled stage productions, and Plautus’ plays would have been banned, had they been too risky.
Gnaeus Naevius was another Roman playwright of the late third century BC. He wrote tragedies and even founded the fabula praetexta (history plays), in which he dramatized historical events. He fought in the First Punic War and his birth, therefore, is placed around the year 280 B.C.E. His first tragedy took place in 235 B.C.E. Plautus would have been living at the exact time as Naevius, but began writing later. Naevius is most famous for having been imprisoned by the Metelli and the Scipiones – two powerful families of the late third century. Naevius’ imprisonment and eventual exile is a case of state censorship. This fear of censorship may have influenced Plautus’ choice of what he wrote about and how he wrote about it.
While hundreds of plays have been attributed to Plautus' name, the canon consists of 20 surviving plays. To be able to use a more diverse set of characters, he developed what is called a stock character. He sometimes used typical situations where these characters could be used as well. He always used the same kinds of stock characters, especially if he could amuse the audience. As Walter Juniper wrote, “Everything, including artistic characterization and consistency of characterization, were sacrificed to humor, and character portrayal remained only where it was necessary for the success of the plot and humor to have a persona who stayed in character, and where the persona by his portrayal contributed to humor.”
For example, in Miles Gloriosus, the titular “braggart soldier” Pyrgopolynices only shows his vain and immodest side in the first act, while the parasite Artotrogus exaggerates Pyrgopolynices’ achievements. Artotrogus creates more and more ludicrous claims that Pyrgopolynices agrees to without question. These two are perfect examples of the stock characters of the pompous soldier and the desperate parasite that appeared in Plautine comedies.
In this way, Plautus could greatly simplify complex characters and give the audience what it wanted. “The audience to whose tastes Plautus catered was not interested in the character play,” instead it wanted humor that was easy to understand by many people. Stock setups offered such humor. Plautus used puns, he played with words, or he gave the words another meaning. Usually, the humorous characters in Plautine plays are of low social standing. This helps the comedy overall, because lower-class characters were often taken less seriously, and had to be less careful what they said.
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- (Some might more properly be called "adaptations"
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