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Chapter 1 elucidates Bacchides’ interface between communicative media, arguing that it exemplifies how modes of correspondence work in the Plautine universe, and investigates the kinetic force of communication by proxy within the plot. It also considers the textual ruse devised by Chrysalus, with special attention to the dictation-cum-scheming scene at Bacch. 714-60. This onstage portrayal of epistolary composition is an unicum both amongst the Plautine letter plays and across classical literature in that it provides a rare glimpse of letter writing in action. The scene of writing is also rich with metatheatrical and metapoetic imagery, illustrating a main premise of this book, viz. that writing in Plautus is a source of creativity and comic power inside the play that reflects the playwright’s poetic enterprise outside of it.
Chapter 3 launches with Pseudolus’ opening scene which revolves around a letter. I explore Phoenicium’s epistle to discern how it determines Pseudolus’ comic course as well as audience expectations about what lies ahead, and consider what a letter composed by a meretrix reveals about literacy and the symbolism of writing on the Plautine stage. Next is the play’s protracted indeterminacy, which flies in the face of its textual exposition. Why is Pseudolus uncertain about how to proceed when he himself recites the letter that so clearly sets out the comic plot? The answer lies in this comedy’s claim to dramatic innovation. Pseudolus tells us that its epistolary interception is new to the comic stage, a nova res which inspires in the schemer a novum consilium that neither he nor we expect. But the play repeatedly undercuts its own novelty, a paradox reified in the element around which its innovation revolves – the stolen letter. I perform a close analysis of the false delivery scene in which this text is put into action, reading for its epistolarity but also laying bare the internal replication it effects and the resultant mise-en-abyme.
Chapter 4 is oriented around a letter-making signet ring whose imprint makes Curculio’s forged text “real.” Its agency, however, is not confined to epistolary deception, and this chapter unpacks the anulus’ potent theatrical agency by elucidating its operation in excess of human design. I shift my focus in exploring the metatheatrical portrait generated by Curculio’s epistolary motif. Whereas Chapters 1 through 3 consider the common ability of letters and scripts to evoke absent people, here I look at the power of these media to conjure up faraway places. Both epistles and dramatic texts bring “here” to “there” (or vice versa), a capacity enacted in Curculio’s composition of a letter at Epidaurus which encapsulates his encounter in Caria and flaunted in the choragus’ tour that blurs the line between theatrical and experiential space. Finally, this chapter returns to questions of innovation and artistic dependence. Curculio’s missive invites us to reflect on the impossibility of originality for the author on the outside when an author on the inside makes the play by recomposing yet another author’s text. A coda considers the play’s seal as related to the literary sphragis.
Chapter 5 looks at the failed epistolary exchanges in Epidicus and Trinummus. When these plays’ letters are sabotaged by the complicated workings of epistolary time, the plots inscribed within disappear, making them the apparent opposite of the embedded texts explored in earlier chapters. Rather than mise-en-abymes that reflect back upon the comedy a copy of itself, the letters in Epidicus and Trinummus represent dramatic alternatives to the present performance whose rejection is reified via the epistolary motif. Neither play, then, is strictly a letter play. But by the textual eschewal which diverts each comedy’s plot onto a different (or seemingly different) course, both Epidicus and Trinummus demonstrate the metatheatrical and metapoetic valences of the letters in Plautus.
Chapter 2 begins by examining the correspondence between lovers Toxilus and Lemniselenis, using it to further investigate the metatheatrical dynamics of written correspondence on the Plautine stage and to consider the love letter qua category of epistolary writing. Next, it considers the ruse enacted via forgery. Relying on the same letter-as-script and letter-as-scheme metaphor active in Bacchides, Persa establishes an association between writing and belief to meditate on the nature of theatrical illusion. This chapter continues, then, to unpack the synergy between performance and text in Plautus but it focuses on the other end of the epistolary and dramatic processes via analysis of Persa’s onstage reading scene, which generates a simultaneously theatrical and anti-theatrical vision of an actor reading his lines on stage. Finally, I concentrate on Persa’s deception which replicates the content of the larger play it inhabits, delving deeper into the mechanics of mise-en-abymes to show how Plautus employs embedded text and internal dramaturgy to address the problem of creative originality, prompting us to question whose play we are watching.
In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night Act ii, scene v, chambermaid Maria plays an epistolary trick on her fellow servant. She forges a text to make the pompous steward Malvolio believe that his fantasy of rising above his station and marrying their mistress Olivia has become reality.1 The dupe is imagining just this as he comes into the garden where the deceptive document, which will literally spell out his daydream, has been planted. Maria and her accomplices, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Fabian, watch from a hiding place and comment as the spectacle unfolds. It all begins the moment Malvolio picks up the text and reads the address written on its exterior (ii.v.69–80)
Six Plautine prologues1 and six Terentian prologues are our earliest unequivocal proof of original titulature in ancient drama.2 The twelve titles these provide are also the only securely author-sanctioned titles we have for the entire republican period until Cicero.3 While any authorial title is revelatory, the titles of Roman comedies are especially so; we have just seen that the title of a translation can convey information about its relationship to the source text. Juxtaposed with “Thesauros”, “Trinummus” gave us a key to understanding not only how the playwright conceptualizes his own play but also how he has reconceptualized a Greek play.4 Plautus’ titular changes, then, are meaningful and we should be paying more attention – not least because the poet does not always give his translation a new name: of ten comedies in the corpus whose originals we know for sure,5 only six have new titles.6 What is the difference between plays with changed names and those whose Greek names have just been translated into Latin? Are the former more Plautine than the latter? Is Mercator closer to Emporos than Stichus is to Adelphoi?
The letters in Plautus are potent tools for making and thinking about Plautine comedy inside Plautine comedy. Emilia Barbiero demonstrates that Plautus' embedded letters reify the internal performance and evince its theatricality by means of the epistolary medium's script-like ability to precipitate presence in absence. These missives thus serve as emblems of the dramatic script, and in their onstage composition and recitation they cast a portrait of the plays' textual origins into the plays themselves. But by virtue of their inscription with a premise which is identical to that of the comedies they inhabit, the Plautine letters also reproduce the relationship between the playwright's Greek models and his Latin translations: the mirror effect created by a dramatic text inscribed, read and realized within a dramatic text whose plot it also duplicates generates a mise-en-abyme which ultimately serves to contemplate problems of novelty and literary ownership that beset Plautus' literary endeavor.
The Plautine corpus contains five letter-plays, comedies in which epistles are composed, delivered and/or read onstage and figure as a major element of the plot. These embedded missives, both stolen and forged ex nihilo, are variously employed by the personae to enact deception and engender duplicitous maneuvering of epistolary conventions, as well as sophisticated jokes about literacy and the dynamics of the medium. The Bacchides features the most elaborate manifestation of this motif. A servus called Chrysalus schemes to facilitate the love affair between his erus minor, Mnesilochus, and the young man's beloved Bacchis. Bacchis resides at Athens with her sister, another hetaera likewise called Bacchis, whose name and affair with the Bacchides’ second adulescens, Pistoclerus, precipitate a misapprehension that causes the play to reset. Under the mistaken impression that Pistoclerus is in love with his own Bacchis, Mnesilochus returns the money Chrysalus has successfully filched from his father, Nicobulus, informing on the tricky slave and undoing his progress. Once the mistake is clarified, Mnesilochus prevails upon Chrysalus to invent a new ruse for getting the girl. The schemer uses epistles to do it all over again. His second round of tricks consists of a two-pronged stratagem in which he forges and delivers a pair of letters to Nicobulus allegedly from Mnesilochus. The missives serve to pilfer not one but two sums of gold from the old man, permitting Chrysalus and his younger master to both purchase Bacchis’ freedom from her contract with the miles and have some fun.
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