Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Nina C. Coppolino (ed.), Change and Exchange in Plautus's Mercator. A special issue of New England Classical Journal, Volume 37.1, February 2010. Providence, RI: Classical Association of New England, 2010. Pp. 95. ISBN 07391188. $10.00 (pb).
Reviewed by John Henderson, King's College, Cambridge

This first special number of NECJ integrates panel papers from the CAMWS 2009 meeting in Minneapolis organized by Niall Slater, stiffened with a bonus piece commissioned from Toph Marshall. A two-page preface from the editor briskly lists the contributions. The essays then talk straight to major issues in this traditionally discarded play. Mercator emerges a teaching text, ready to roll.

1. First, the bumper entrée, 10% of the whole deal. For once, as he at once proclaims up front (vv. 3-8, 16-17), the principal boy brings it on, bumbling away for all he's worth (multiloquium, vv. 31-8) like lovers do. Slater underlines the special twin-track of adulescens amator setting us up with comic seedcorn for metatextual-mimetic 'trade-off' in the family business line: when grandad died, father swapped the farm for a merchantman; now in converting his son from chasing meretrices to homing in on merchandise, he sets him up to copy the example without waiting for dad to die, in a rebellion through compliance. Quayside, he lands the profits starring a meretrix for capitalized rake off: father scents a bargain, but we know when senex pater bids to buy a piece of the action, market forces apply by comic writ: in this enterprise zone, it's always the young man's tail.

2. Continuing his tracking of rhythmic mastery in Plautine dramascaping, Timothy Moore factors into the play's taut economy its parsimonious metrical exchange rate and strictly rationed use of song (at 5%, a third of the average). Where son starts -- stomps -- the music, Pa stops it, and so does Ma(trona) (v. 225 vs 335, 544 vs 588; 667 vs 830). Conventional ia. sept. are afforded the babe and tr. sept. host action sequences, but interlaced in pointedly modulated sequences. The two cantica are run by per syllable: the seruus currens times as nice and slowcoach in ia. oct., as metre underscores protracted banter delaying plot on from vv. 111-42 and into 143-81; at 335-63, moaning and yelping virtuoso bewilderment sings chagrin d'amour between bacchiac lows broken by trochaic highs.

3. What the caterer saw: Mira Seo roundly vindicates the crafting of Mercator's Greek-style hireling mageiros as emblematic instrument and symbol of marketplace values confused with and confusing familial affect-rates. No inert rewind of Philemon's original chef, minus big mouth, rolling pin, and all that jazz, rather, Plautus' bit part is splendidly free, as free-speaking outsider, to blow the gaffe, taking matrona on sight for meretrix -- to her, and her old man's, face (vv. 741-782).1 In Seo's powerpacked thematic-ideological exposition, this extra's scene ices Mercator's comic exploitation of exacerbated alienation inherent in the portfolio of the autotelic Roman paterfamilias: 'hyper-commodification' trades in mon(k)ey-making for the fun of no fun, as they pay to fast, and we -- don't.

4. Sharon James tracks the high-speed double-through-eleven-to-fifteen-fold pass-the-parcel-cum-butter-fingers plot that whirls round the babe and whirls the babe round. Plautus even gives her a poignant moment to tell how it feels to be on your own, little Ms. Expert Weaver, who still doesn't know 'whose am I?' (v. 528), or where she's bound, at the end. For Mercator stops dead before the wreckoning; the fantasy promises of buy-out and marriage she (says she) has swallowed stay thoroughly sidelined. But, get real, we must also have taken from her moment in the limelight the impossibility of fitting this hotty trained to use her fingers (and words) into any home: around men, this slave is a waist of time and money. James works wonders with Luce Irigaray's Women on the Market, to cash out this trafficking, plain and straight to the heart.

5. Getting Syrious, John Starks deals with Mercator's bowed, eighty-four years and kicking, maid of hard work, who gets to spread unknowing confusion around her anti-type the dainty sex-slave, before stopping the show at 817-28 with another extra's cameo moment before exiting. Her bid on behalf of the superannuated foreign orientalized female unfree Other to outlaw the male double standard will finally be outbid by the lads' curtain call to us to clap in favour of barring fogeys from playing around and banning dads from interfering with their .. comic capers. To register and amplify this stake in Mercator, Starks tramps right round New Comedy Greek and Roman and across Roman processing of their eastern expansion to unpack the strands of xenophobia attached to our surprise package of outspoken old-stager.

6. Toph Marshall tips us over to the hi-jacking of the action that ships focus over to the proxies next door. Here father gets to play fall guy as stand-in for the senior merchant by landing the babe ... straight in his wife's lap, while meantime son, the losing agent, nevertheless keeps merchant jr. around long enough to win through by fall of curtain. Marshall's opening bid, on behalf of the collection, is to fence the play's dreamwork that has so preoccupied its scholarship. Checking out the equivalences (over-insistently as I think) is less important than clarifying that the play means to deal in proposing terms of exchange throughout, and (as Marshall shows) that will mean both changing place and changing places, to take stock and share out the dividends. When this pair next door assume the part of seruus callidusagents One and Two, the protocols that govern their involvement come into play and 'the ethics of friendship' steal the show. The obligations invoked check out as daft, dangerous, and duplicitous (self-)deception in the shape of dad's blundering busybody shenanigans, but -- 'luckily', dialectically -- are offset by the son's straightman supportive dealings with his panicky mate's o.t.t. histrionics. Written for scholars, an 'Appendix' ('Role-doubling in Philemon's Emporos, and audience expectations', pp.74-8) continues Marshall's work in diagramming Plautine assignment of roles around the likely cast. The analysis balks at conjectural finales restoring the focus to the junior merchant and (?) the girl import; instead, his doubling with the father next door brackets the villains to the detriment of the former: 'an indiscriminate, shameful wastrel who exhibits no admirable qualities' (p.77).

7. Paratragic hamming to open the final Act (at v. 830) was remarked by Leo, as today's lover-boy heads out désolé to self-exile, only to be talked by his pal back to port in the nick of time. Making it from sea-storm to dry land, he turns -- they turn -- tables and screws on father. Tony Augoustakis presses Tenney Frank's suggestion of Pacuvius' Teucer as key intertext further, fastening on Mercator's detail that the boy was about to head off 'for Cyprus' (v. 933) as cue to the story of Teucer's foundation of a new Salamis on the island, and then arguing for a series of responsions. Plautus has his work cut out to assimilate lover-boy's case to the myth, as Frank's detection of another Hercules Furens coming out of his psychotic attack may remind us, but the notion that the boy just missed Pacuvius' mother of all literary tempest extravaganzas, but will trigger no less a cataclysm when he gets to shore, leads agreeably to Augoustakis's proposal that comic Rome here considers founding a new city with fresh laws in 'mold[ing] a proto-imperialist Roman agenda, fit for the emerging world power of a new urbs' (p.88).2

In short, here is quality instruction in realistic form. Mercator's playsphere projects a shopwindow loaded with goodies (and baddies), and it's open for business.3

1. Niall W. Slater, 'Opening negotiations: the work of the Prologue to Plautus's Mercator': 5-13

2. Timothy J. Moore, 'A musical merchant: the cantica of Mercator': 15-26

3. J. Mira Seo, 'What the cook knew: the cocus in Plautus' Mercator': 27-38

4. Sharon L. James, 'Trafficking Pasicompsa: a courtesan's travels and travails in Plautus' Mercator': 39-50

5. John H. Starks, Jr., 'servitus, sudor, sitis: Syra in Mercator and Syrian slave stereotyping in Plautus': 51-64

6. C. W. Marshall, 'Living next door to a Roman comedy: structure in Plautus' Mercator': 65-78

7. Antony Augoustakis, 'Mercator paratragoedans: Plautus rewrites Teucer's exile': 79-88


1.   Seo's versions are so convincingly funky she really must give translating comedy a shot.
2.   Tenney Frank, 'Two notes on Plautus: 1. Parody in Act V of Plautus' Mercator', The American Journal of Philology 53. 1932. 243-251); Augoustakis refers us on further to the play's junk angel Medea recently lionized by M. M. Bianco: 'Ut Medea Peliam concoxit ... item ego te faciam. La Medea in Plauto', in Gianna Petrone and Maurizio Massimo Bianco (eds.), 2006, 'La commedia di Plauto e la parodia: il lato comico dei paradigmi tragici' (Leuconoe : l'invenzione dei classici 9), Palermo: 53-79).
3.   Corrigenda: p.4: Telemon; p.33: 741-802: 741-88 is what we get; p.55: Syrus any sly slave (S. as a. s. s.); p.57: servitati (-uti), Paulo (paulo); p.72: never so busy (n. too b.); p.74: for the increasing desperation for Lysimachus (f. t i. d. of L.); p.79: a paratragoedic (a paratragedy); p.80: gets a hold of (g. h. o.); Oh Penates (O P.); p.82: born at about 220 (b. ab. 220); p.83: quoted by Cicero, because (remove comma); p.84: abandonned (-oned); after young girls, like P. (remove comma); n.18, and probably (a. which they p.); p.83: is comically treated (i. t. c.); out in the sea (o. at sea); p.86 comes out from his tragic trance (c. o. of. h. t. t.).

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