Roman Comedy Elaborated in the Works of Plautus and Terence

Roman Comedy borrowed heavily from its Greek counterpart, however, the Roman Comedians made substantial changes and created a poper Roman style of Comedy.

The two Roman playwrights who best illustrate the New Comedy that had developed somewhat at an earlier period in Greece (336-250) are Plautus and Terence. Although there are no surviving Greek originals of Plautus’ 20 plays, extensive fragments and two more or less complete works of Greek New Comedy do exist, permitting a comparison. Terence’s works, on the other hand, can all be traced to their Greek originals.

Greek Old Comedy:

Greek Old Comedy is best illustrated in the works of Aristophanes. It consisted of political and social satire with some literary travesty and also some burlesque. It is most notably marked by wit and fantasy, wherein serious theses were presented and argued along with the use of beautiful poetry to expound the ideas. New Comedy on the other hand focused more on character development and human relations. Error and mistaken identity seem to be the main tools used by the comedians to advance the plot of the story.

Plautus and New Comedy

Plautus, 254-189, is the earliest known of the Roman comedians. His works, 20 plays, all share common characteristics such as vigorous and rapid dialogue along with racy and exuberant wit. His style is also known for its alliteration, redundancy, puns and wordplays which make his works more difficult to translate than other of the Roman Dramatists. He seems to have been successful in translating Greek expressions and word plays than modern scholars of his Latin.

Plautus, however, wasn’t solely a copyist. He introduced an innovative method and practice in both style and meter. Although some of his plays are presented in an almost wholly iambic and trochaic verse, others, on the other hand, where given elaborate cantica, similar to modern opera. He would elaborate the meter to enlarge it of to vary it according to a shift in sense. It seems, at least in judging from the Greek fragments, that this introduction was solely due to Plautus.

Terence and New Comedy

Terence, 195-159, was never as popular as Plautus, which may be due to his background, brought over as a slave from Carthage. His seems to have been the opposite of Plautus in his style and presentations, preferring High Comedy to Plautus’ Low style. Also, unlike Plautus, his influences can be traced to their Greek originals, all from the famous Menander or his follower Apollodorus. In addition, in contrast to Plautus, his comedies used simple and unelaborated meters and verse.

Terence did, however, introduce many revolutionary techniques that make him a forerunner of contemporary theatre. His greatest contribution was the introduction of a sub or minor plot, usually a romantic one. He used the sub plot to make a universally happy ending but also to complicate the major plot. The end could only be achieved at through the completion of solution of the minor-plot.

Terence, in addition, eliminated the omniscient prologue and based his comedies on suspense and surprise. Prior to him, the prologue would identify the outline of the play so the audience would know everything, unlike the protagonists. He would also begin scenes in the middle of a line, a practice that had been abandoned by Plautus, and removed direct addresses to the audience. Through his practical theatrical approaches and innovations, Terence’s plays are the easiest of the New Comedy plays to present to a modern audience. They were also favoured in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance for their romantic sub-plots. See for example Shakespeare and Moliere.

The two extant Roman Comedians, although vastly different in style and approach, were able to preserve not only some of the great Greek masterpieces for later generations, but they also introduced new dimensions and practices, thereby marking Roman Comedy as different from its Greek counterpart.

Resources

  • Harsh, P., “introduction”, in An Anthology of Roman Drama, 1960, Rinehart Editions, pp.xiii-xxi
  • Harsh, P., A Handbook of Classical Drama, 1944, Stanford
  • Duckworth, G., The Nature of Roman Comedy: A Study in Popular Entertainment, 1952, Princeton

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