in Space, Time, and the Imagination



Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination

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Plautus’s Menaechmi

From Chapter 6, “Plautus’s Menaechmi,” Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, pp.  83–95.


No more than one hundred fifty years after the production of The Birds and Lysistrata, Roman audiences were enjoying the full-blown comedy of Plautus. Born in a mountain village of Umbria about 250 B.C., Plautus was to die, in 184 B.C., the acknowledged master of classical comedy. In this greatest play, Menaechmi, the world found a comedic prototype that has survived without significant modification to our own day. It is one of the abiding characteristics of comedy that a good comedic idea can be repeated indefinitely without losing its freshness. Such has been the destiny of Menaechmi. In the late sixteenth century, Shakespeare himself, only recently arrived in London, chose to rework the plot of Menaechmi, scoring one of his first successes in Comedy of Errors. In our own century, Menaechmi has been recast as a musical in The Boys from Syracuse.

This long history of imitation is itself primary evidence that Menaechmi is true comedy while Lysistrata and The Birds are not. Nor should it be thought that it is the plot alone that has been imitated. The thematic idea of mistaken identity that provides the whole complication of Menaechmi has been used in a thousand guises throughout the history of comedy. The farcically exaggerated beatings have become a kind of comedy in themselves. And the parasite and henpecked husband character portraits of Menaechmi have provided stock comedic figures ever since.

In Menaechmi, then, we find primary evidence that the basic impulse of comedy has remained the same for more than two thousand years, evidence that man has always had within him the psychological capacity for the appreciation of comedy. If the Menaechmi plot seems timeworn, it is because we have seen it borrowed so often.

In Epidamnus lives a man named Menaechmus. He has not always been of Epidamnus; when he was seven years old a rich merchant found him wandering the streets of Tarentum and brought him home. At birth, Menaechmus had been one of a pair of twins (menaechmi means “the twins”). His father, Moschus, had taken him to Tarentum on a business trip, leaving the other twin with his mother. When the boy got lost, Moschus sickened and died. Back in Syracuse, the twins’ grandfather renamed the remaining twin for his lost brother.

Twenty years later, Menaechmus has been married off to a rich young woman with whom he leads an unhappy life. He has been having an affair with a courtesan, Erotium, (who lives across the street) and has been regularly stealing gifts he has given his wife to give his mistress. As the play opens, he is stealing a dress from his wife’s wardrobe and is accosted by Sponge, a parasitic “client.” Sponge wants to share his patron’s lunch. Because Menaechmus is in a good mood, he shows Sponge the dress and invites him to lunch at the courtesan’s house. Erotium, happy with the present, arranges to have lunch ready when Menaechmus and Sponge return from errands downtown.

After Menaechmus and Sponge leave, the other Menaechmus, of Syracuse, appears on the very same street with his slave, Messenio. They have been looking all over the known world for the lost brother. Now, in Epidamnus, they are nearly broke and suspicious of the townspeople. Erotium’s cook comes along with groceries and tells Menaechmus of Syracuse that lunch will be ready shortly. Soon, Erotium comes out and gives him the dress, asking him to take it out for alterations along with some expensive gold earrings that Menaechmus of Epidamnus had given her.

After lunch and amorous games with Erotium, the bewildered but happy Menaechmus of Syracuse goes off to pawn the dress and earrings, having sent Messenio on to find lodging. He doesn’t get far before Sponge accosts him. Having been separated from Menaechmus of Epidamnus during their errands downtown, Sponge is now in a bad mood, which gets worse when he finds that the Menaechmus before him has had lunch without waiting for his client. Sponge threatens to tell Menaechmus’s wife about Erotium and the stolen presents, a threat that convinces Menaechmus that everyone in Epidamnus is insane. While Sponge goes to tattle, Menaechmus walks off in disgust to find Messenio.

Just as Sponge reenters with Menaechmus of Epidamnus’s wife, now enraged, her unlucky spouse happens along. She lays into him about his mistress and the stolen gifts. Menaechmus pretends innocence, but Sponge keeps feeding the fire. Menaechmus is locked out of his house and decides he had better get the dress back from Erotium to mollify his wife. But when he asks Erotium for the dress, she gets fed up with what seems to her to be a joke. So Menaechmus is locked out of both houses.

As Menaechmus of Epidamnus wanders offstage, disconsolate, Menaechmus of Syracuse arrives back on the scene. His brother’s father-in-law soon accosts him. When Menaechmus responds that he knows neither his wife nor his father-in-law, the poor man can only assume that Menaechmus has gone insane. But when the father-in-law comes back with a doctor and two burly slaves, proposing to lock Menaechmus up, it is Menaechmus of Epidamnus they find. Menaechmus of Epidamnus is rescued from the woulf-be abductors by Messenio, who begs his supposed master to free him as a reward. Confused, Menaechmus gives Messenio whatever freedom he can.

A few minutes later, Messenio is being dragged back onstage by his real master, who is about to whip him rather than free him. Just as everything is jumbled almost beyond untangling, brother accidentally meets brother face-to-face in the street. After what seems to be unnecessary further confusion, they realize that they are twins, Messenio is freed for good, and the play ends with the two brothers planning to return to Syracuse together.

If in Lysistrata and The Birds the plot is too inchoate to be comedy, it would seem that Menaechmi is all plot and comedy only because of its plot. Indeed, following Aristotle’s idea of comedy and tragedy as single actions, most critics have presented Menaechmi in just such a plot-oriented fashion. The problem with such an account is that one has to decide arbitrarily which twin is the central character of the play. The impossibility of making this choice between evenly balanced roles only seems to tempt critics to more implausible conclusions—that the play is really about Sponge or even Messenio.

Since our own definition minimized the importance of both plot and character in favor of a patterned assertion of on-going life and its conditions and qualifications, we escape this otherwise standard critical embarrassment. Since this is the first comedy which we consider in great detail, let us start by articulating the literary assertion of Menaechmi. Thereafter, we can consider how the play is patterned to make that assertion.

Menaechmi’s comedic assertion is that people will survive the vicissitudes of chance through perseverance. This survival, however, is predicated on knowing how to limit one’s desires to what is readily available. There is also some suggestion, muted because not emphasized by heavy repetition, that survival requires that one move away from extremes. Perseverance, limitation of desires, and willingness to move away from extremes are, therefore, all qualifications on survival. The heavy presence of chance occurrence is a “condition” on the survival Menaechmi envisions.

Literary patterning coordinates all sorts of diversified elements toward implicatory effects. In Menaechmi, plot is the most noticeable aspect of patterning. However, the implications derivable from plot are bolstered by many other technical aspects of the patterning, including characterizations, tone, and symbol. We will consider all these interlocking elements of the total pattern, beginning with the most prominent.

The plot of Menaechmi is almost mathematically patterned in that it strives to create as many combinations of characters on stage as possible, each combination including one of the twins. This mathematics is even more apparent in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.

Also central to the plotting of Menaechmi is the accidental nature of events once Menaechmus of Syracuse arrives in Epidamnus. He just happens to come to the very street where his brother lives, Sponge just happens to come to dinner that day, people just happen to run into the wrong brother, and the two brothers just happen to find each other at the final curtain.

Ever since Aristotle, accident has been held in low critical esteem as a basis for literature. Everything in drama must be a necessary consequence, so the argument goes, of what has come before. Failure to provide adequate motivation and introduction of accidental, outside deus ex machina forces are seen as literary flaws. Similarly, failure to tie all plot elements up into a tidy bundle at the final curtain is seen as inadequate art.

In a proper context, such advice is good. In a play like Menaechmi with a message that the world moves largely by chance, such advice is obviously impossible to follow.  So Plautus ignores the advice. Later artists like Shakespeare, Molière, and Shaw ignore the advice to always provide proper motivation, to eliminate chance elements, and to have all plot elements tidily bundled by the end of the play. We can damn these practices as unprofessional in the world’s greatest comedians, or we can recognize the practices as part of the pattern of individual plays and attempt to find some implied meaning in the pattern. In Menaechmi, the accidents of plot are so extensive that it is hard to escape the conclusion that a major part of the assertion of the play is that ongoing life is constantly struggling against chance. Faith that life goes on, for Plautus, demands a faith that people can face up to chance and win.

 A third major aspect of the patterned plotting of Menaechmi is that, perhaps contrary to our explication, the play leads to a happy-ever-after ending for almost no one. Unless we limit our attention to Messenio and Menaechmus of Syracuse, it should be clear that all the other characters end the play unhappy or in a severely strained situation. In the virtual future beyond the final curtain, either Menaechmus’s wife or his mistress must be left behind, Sponge needs to find a new patron, and even Menaechmus of Epidamnus had better reform his act.

Given our theory, we need not worry that so many characters come to unpleasant ends. Comedy can instruct about ongoing life just as well by showing us negative examples of people who do not survive well or who do not possess the secret of ongoing life as by showing us positive examples, characters who do possess that secret. In Menaechmi, as in most comedy, we find some of each, blended in a single pattern whose implications are all the more inescapable because the implications are made both positively and negatively.

The Aristotelian way out of the “happy-ever-after” bind is, of course, to find one or two characters who are central and then to show that things do end happily for them. In Menaechmi this is impossible. First, the staging of the play is designed to give equal emphasis to both twins. (This is somewhat less true of Comedy of Errors.) Second, supposedly minor characters, particularly Sponge, are not treated in a subordinate way. Sponge is a psychologically interesting character, perhaps the most interesting in the play. He appears first on stage and has more speeches than the twins. In addition, the supposedly minor characters, Menaechmus’s wife and Erotium, are both as fully drawn psychologically as the man between them. Only the most critically biased mind can accept an argument that proposes central roles for the play and misses the fact that Menaechmi is carefully crafted not to allow one or two roles to predominate.

Incidentally, if we are tempted to assume that this evenhandedness is an artistic error, we should note that in Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare does even more to emphasize minor roles, making the wife considerably more sympathetic, inventing a sister for her, and introducing both a father and a mother for the twins. If Plautus is wrong to leave some loose ends to the plot—for example, we don’t know how Menaechmus of Epidamnus is going to handle the problem of wife and mistress in moving to Syracuse or how Sponge will get along without his erstwhile patron—it must be noted that Shakespeare leaves us up in the air about Adriana’s marriage to one Antipholus and Luciana’s relationship to the other.

Rather than thinking so many facets of Menaechmi to be errors in Plautus’s artistic judgment, let us accept these four basic elements of the Menaechmi plot—its precise mathematics, its dependence on accident, its less than happy ending, and its even balance of characters—and fit them into a consistent assertion about ongoing life.

The mathematical balance of the plot suggests that once things start to go wrong, they continue to go wrong in every possible way; that error compounds error; that people have to be repeatedly hit over the head to realize the obvious. (Menaechmus of Syracuse, after all, has searched all over the world for his brother and should have some suspicion of what is happening when he starts being mistaken for his brother.)

Such implications portend great threats to human survival. We all consider ourselves able to meet difficulties; can we hold up if things go from bad to worse? We know we can get ourselves into bad messes; it is worse to know that once those messes have been created, they can take on a life of their own. We believe we have brains to keep us out of trouble; it is disturbing to realize that our brains may overlook the obvious when trouble comes.

Second, we have the accidental nature of the plot. Some of the accidents are more accidental than others. Menaechmus of Syracuse arrives in his brother’s town by chance, but only in the sense that it has taken him a long time to get there. His perseverance has guaranteed that he will either eventually arrive in his brother’s town or die in the attempt. It is really perseverance rather than chance that guarantees that he will not get out of Epidamnus quickly but will instead stay on to run into all his brother’s friends. Plot and character combine to make a consistent implication: Persistence often creates situations which otherwise would seem accidental and allows otherwise impossible solutions.

This is not to deny true accidents in the plot: Sponge happening to come to dinner on that particular day, being separated from his master, meeting the wrong Menaechmus, and the like. In a sense, all unarranged meetings are accidents; This is the stuff of life. Similarly, it often happens that we end up doing the unplanned and leaving the planned undone. So we have a great need for the ability to ad lib until we can again plan a part of our lives. The pattern of accident in Menaechmi forces us to admire those qualities that allow people to survive in a world they only periodically control.

The accidental nature of the plot also reveals a basic character difference between the twins, and from that difference it is possible to draw additional inferences about the qualities that ensure survival. While physically identical, the twins lead very different lives. Menaechmus of Epidamnus has settled into a humdrum life. He has married, gotten involved in a business and in an extramarital romance. He is a man without a mission. Until his brother arrives, he goes from one accidental meeting to another with a minimum of trouble because he is not trying to accomplish anything. Far different is his brother, a man with a life-consuming mission. All his possessions have gone into finding his brother. He is seriously threatened by accident because he has a purpose that accident is always interrupting.

This character difference leads again to the conclusion that perseverance is necessary to living a purposeful life. But additionally, the contrast between the twins suggests that both are extremes, the one all purpose, the other all purposelessness. The resolution which envisions both going back to Syracuse allows both to start over in life. The virtual future suggests that both will move away from their extremes. Menaechmus of Syracuse has become a dull boy with his obsessive purpose and so has Menaechmus of Epidamnus with his purposelessness. Both have a chance to build healthy, balanced lives in Syracuse.

This implication of the need for balance is not stressed in the rest of the pattern of Menaechmi, and it is tempting to say, as a result, that it is not part of the pattern at all. The main interpretation of the play is not hurt by neglecting this facet of the play, but it is worth mentioning for two reasons: first, to the extent that such a message is implied, the implication rests heavily on the virtual future of the play. This is a common implicatory pattern in comedy, though criticism that does not even recognize the concept of a virtual future can hardly start to deal with such nuances. Second, the implication that life must be balanced is likely to seem much stronger to those trained in classical thought than to those who read the play without such a general background. From Aristotle to Cicero, balance in life is repeatedly stressed by the Greco-Roman philosophers as the key to successful living. On that basis, it is likely that the original audience felt the implication more than a modern audience would.

The third patterned aspect of plot, the failure of Menaechmi to have an unqualified happy-ever-after ending is also assertive. Long before modern dark comedy, Menaechmi, Comedy of Errors, Punch and Judy shows, and a host of other comedies pointed to the dark side of married life. In Menaechmi, the pattern makes us aware that Menaechmus of Epidamnus’s home life leaves much to be desired without emphasizing that fact or allowing us to empathize with either husband or wife. Through that withholding of sympathy, Plautus makes perhaps his major point of the play.

The central clue to this assertion comes when Menaechmus’s father-in-law steps out front to say in an aside that a good wife must now what she can and cannot expect from her husband. Plautus thinks women can reasonably expect far less than modern women do expect. Because Menaechmus’s wife expects too much, she is not to be pitied in her suffering. Her less-than-happy situation and unsettled future serve as an object lesson that life demands the good sense to know what not to expect. Menaechmus of Epidamnus also expects too much in stealing his own gifts from his wife and in freely admitting the theft to his parasite. He is punished for the defect. Menaechmus of Syracuse, contrastingly, knows what to expect. He initially asks sanity of the townspeople, but finding that he is not about to get what he has asked, he quickly settles for what is readily available, including the dress, jewels, and Erotium’s hospitality and sexual favors.

It may be that this is also the explanation of Sponge’s unhappy end. He has assumed that he can ask a great deal from his patron. His irascibility when he finds that his patron has not waited for him to attend the luncheon with Erotium seems out of keeping with his parasitic position, and this may have led to his downfall. If so, the implication is simply redundant. Like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, however, Sponge does not seem to be totally explainable within the patterning of the rest of the play, and it is hard to be emotionally convinced that he is really discomfited at the end of the play.

A final characteristic of plot is the even balance of characters. The lack of a central character asserts the social nature of human survival, but perhaps more importantly, it asserts that no character in the play is to be taken as having all the right answers. It is tempting to make Menaechmus of Syracuse the hero of the play and to make all his values survival values. But as we have already noticed, Menaechmus is somewhat unbalanced in his life-consuming perseverance While the perseverance is good, the radicalness of his commitment is something of a threat to survival. This point is emphasized when we see how close Menaechmus has come to using up his whole fortune and, symbolically, when the Epidamnians consider him mad. So Plautus writes a comedy without a hero, allowing no character with whom we can completely sympathize, thereby making the negative assertion that Menaechmus of Syracuse is not the perfect embodiment of all survival values.

 These major implications of plot are reinforced by all other technical elements of Menaechmi. In hack comedy, we would not expect much additional patterning. But in great comedies that make their way in the world with ease and grace over many centuries, we rightfully expect to find multi-dimensional patterning. In Menaechmi, plotted implication is reinforced by pattern in tone, character and visual symbol.

A moralizing tone and didactic characters are everywhere apparent in Menaechmi. Characters continually make asides not about what they intend to do but about what it is appropriate to do. Messenio gives advice about the conduct of good servants. Menaechmus’s father-in-law discusses conduct appropriate to a well-ordered marriage. Menaechmus of Syracuse explains how to handle insanity. Sponge tells us how parasites should act. Didacticism, like accident, is routinely condemned as a practice of inferior drama. But like accident, didacticism is a necessary part of the Plautine pattern. In Menaechmi, a particular kind of morality is seen as one of the bases of survival. It is not an absolute morality, but a knowledge of what will pass and what will not be allowed to pass in specific situations. In short, the didactic tone reinforces the implication that ongoing life depends on knowing what you can and what you cannot get. That is the ultimate justification of morality according to Plautus, and that is why ongoing life demands it.

The relationship between morality and comedy is worth its own separate essay. It is enough to say here that morality may or may not be part of the survival pattern of any particular comedy. Few Restoration comedies assert that any morality is basic to success and survival, and contrary to popular opinion, biblically-oriented comedy is not at all moralistic but is instead anti-moralistic, asserting with Isaiah that “All our righteousness (moral excellence) is as filthy rags.” But within our definitions of comedy, there is no theoretical bar to Plautus or any other playwright bringing in morality and didacticism as major aspects of patterning in order to assert that morality is necessary to human survival

The implicatory pattern of plot, character, and tone is rounded out by the visual symbolism of the play. This symbolism can best be understood as starting with a solution to a purely technical problem. In staging the play, the great technical challenge of Menaechmi is to leave the audience only as confused as Plautus desires. This can be a difficult assignment when look-alikes alternately appear on stage.

In an earlier play, Amphitryon, Plautus had two sets of twins and a similar technical problem that he solved somewhat too easily. Mercury comes onstage as prologue and announces that the play will revolve around his and Jupiter’s looking like a servant and Amphitryon, respectively. Somewhat later, Mercury takes a cluster of feathers and, putting them in his cap, adds,


To make it easier for you to tell us apart,

I’ll always have these little feathers in my hat, while

Father, under his hat, will have a little gold tassel, which Amphitryon won’t have.[i]


The problem with this solution is that an audience likes to think that it has some brains. It isn’t much fun to watch for the simple cues Mercury proposes, but it is fun to figure out for oneself how to keep lookalikes separate. If nothing else, more subtle clues keep the audience awake, and many playwrights would be glad just for that!

For Menaechmi, Plautus solves the problem in a more sophisticated manner. The key to identifying the two twins is the dress that Menaechmus of Epidamnus steals from his wife. Virtually throughout the play, the audience knows which Menaechmus has the dress and thus which Menaechmus is currently on stage. As a technical solution this is brilliant. The virtuoso actor who plays both roles can switch roles simply by leaving the dress backstage or by picking it up. (For the final recognition scene, of course, a double must play the second Menaechmus.)

But fine drama always does more than meet its technical problems; it incorporates its solutions to such problems into the greater pattern of the play. This is exactly what happens in Menaechmi. Our attention is constantly drawn to the dress because it distinguishes the two twins. But the dress is also a visual symbol for the whole moral dimension of the play and for the survival formula that Menaechmi proposes, “Take what you can and know what you can’t.”

The dress evidences the fact that Menaechmus of Epidamnus has not learned what he cannot take. He has played fast and loose with his wife, demanded more than any woman of spirit can be expected to give. He has deluded himself into thinking that he has stolen from someone else, whereas in fact, as he later admits, he has been stealing from himself.

For Menaechmus of Syracuse, the dress symbolizes his willingness to give up what he cannot get (sane reactions from the townspeople) for what he can (the dress, the earrings, lunch, sexual favors), There are numerous other effective visual symbols in the play. Sponge, for example, is to be played as a rotund figure. The fat which enwraps him is itself a symbol that as parasite he has found how to get what is available for the asking. Even without such additional symbols, however, it is clear that Plautus’s pattern is willing to repeat its basic assertion in the visual symbol of the dress. In rapid-fire farce like Menaechmi, it would be wrong for either Plautus or criticism to emphasized these additional patterning elements beyond plot. It is equally incorrect to assume that they do not exist within the pattern.

It should be clear then from a review of the last two chapters that the classical world knew of two very different types of literature, comedy itself and satire, which it confused and which have been repeatedly confused since. Aristophanes, it bears repeating, was not a comedian, not even a rudimentary one. Plautus, on the other hand, is a complete comedian who needs no apology even before the most modern comedic audience. Menaechmi is plot-centered comedy which has been honored by continual borrowing since its first performance. Like all great comedy, its import can easily be appropriated by every age. It deals with the forever-alluring faith that human beings will survive if only they act in certain ways, and it makes its assertion with many mutually validating technical elements, notably including plot, character, tone, and symbol.






[i] Six Plays of Plautus, edited and translated by Lionel Casson (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1963), p. 6.