Monday, November 29, 2010


Version at BMCR home site

Alison Sharrock, Reading Roman Comedy: Poetics and Playfulness in Plautus and Terence. W.B. Stanford Memorial Lectures. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 321. ISBN 9780521761819. $99.00.

Reviewed by Ariana Traill, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


It is hard not to like a book that starts with the author admitting, "I hated Roman comedy as an undergraduate" (p. ix). Plenty of others did too, and some may still consider the genre "a stereotype-ridden exercise in lamentable literary secondariness". This book is written to convince them otherwise.

Alison Sharrock is well known for her work on Latin elegy and classical literary criticism. This book, originating in a series of lectures delivered at Trinity College in 1999, looks at comedy from the vantage point of Augustan poetry, to ask whether its poetic concerns might find resonances in the earlier, humbler genre. Sharrock focuses on issues prominent in contemporary Latin literary studies: liminality, programmatic language, intertextuality, closure. The plays are treated as texts, rather than performance scripts, although she recognizes that readers can be audiences "by projection and imagination". Her purpose is emphatically not to ferret out traces of the Greek source plays but rather to show Plautus and Terence as literary artists, not "fundamentally different from respectable poets like Virgil" (p. ix). Plautus is stylistically original and Terence is very aware of his "Uncle Plautus". This book differs from other work staking out the Romanness of Roman comedy in its focus on literary issues, especially those tied to the Latin language. It is written to be accessible to an audience with some Latin, but not much comedy. Summaries are provided when arguments hinge on plot details and all quotations are translated. It is a strength that the book says something about virtually every extant play, but this will make demands on readers who need to be coaxed into cracking the spine on their Plautus and Terence.

The book's many different topics have been dovetailed into an elegant structure that mimics a play: chapters cover beginnings, plottings, repetitions and endings. An introduction on "Art and Artifice" usefully sets out the vocabulary comedy uses to refer to its own intrigues: dolus, ludus, fallacia, mendacium, etc. These are largely uncontroversial, with the possible exception of architectus – serviceable enough to describe playwright-like figures who mastermind plots, but not marked for genre in the same way as consilium or callidus (architectus is largely confined to one play). Discussion of the lexical items is situated within a larger argument that deceit is "a programmatic signifier of the play-making process itself". The concept of programmatic language is a productive and useful loan, which might be better defined. Its meaning is relatively clear for elegy,1 but less transparent in comedy, which does not limit deception words to introductions or use them polemically. A distinction between programmatic and metatheatrical language would also be helpful.

The second chapter challenges misconceptions about "Beginnings": that the audience was a disorderly rabble, that Plautus was incapable of cleverness in his prologues, and that Terence bored everyone with "arcane literary polemics"2. Sharrock asks what the openings are trying to accomplish as ways of starting plays. Yes, they have to grab attention but so does all literature; comedy is distinct in that it jokes about the process. Plautus' prologues know that they are supposed to provide background and get things started, but they often make a joke of doing neither. They provide far more or far less information than we need or delay the start of the plot so long that the delay itself becomes the entertainment. Sharrock shows brilliantly that exposition in Plautine prologues is "mostly a pose", whereas the real content – the digressions, postponements and getting-started jokes – is a legitimate literary technique with a name (the "hysterically deliberate" opening, from Said) and some reputable descendants (e.g., Tristram Shandy). The trick of blurring the distinction between the fictional and real worlds provides an additional link between the plays and the religious rituals of which they formed a part. Prologues can include quasi-ritual calls for silence, prayer-like invocations, and some linguistic features of ritual language (alliteration, formulaic reduplications, legalism).

Terence is treated separately throughout, in part to show that he worked with a close eye on Plautus. An examination of the prologues turns up a few commonalities: alliteration, subordinate-clause openings, storytelling, a contractual relationship with the audience, and programmatic content that can work as a trailer, emphasize conventions the plays will up-end, or accomplish the "thematic imbrication of the audience into the plot".3 Sharrock's larger argument is that the prologues really worked: they drew the audience into the play's world ("composition, performance and all", p. 64) while entertaining them ("conflict is comic", p. 76) – like Old Comic parabases, with a hint of Roman flagitatio. Here she proposes the radically original idea that Callimachus also lies behind the use of a personal quarrel to articulate ideas about literature. Specifically, Andria 1-7 echoes Apollo's rebuke to the poet in the Aetia prologue. Not all will agree (Sharrock acknowledges that the allusion is understated), but she is certainly right that this was a period of increasing interest in Greek literature. If Ennius read Callimachus, Terence could, too.

Whether Terence's prologues captivated ancient audiences is probably unanswerable. Sharrock rejects any idea of a Callimachean appeal to an elite, which seems at odds with an illuminating comparison to prefaces Henry James wrote for an "upmarket New York edition" of his novels (p. 26 n. 14) and with the book's overall purpose of demonstrating the plays' literary sophistication. It is unlikely that the quarrel-with-critics angle was as effective as claimed (when they heard "Phormio open with our old friend the poeta uetus, the theatre would immediately erupt into the applause of recognition, as when a popular singer begins a favourite golden oldie unannounced", p. 63). Terence's career was short for golden oldie status, and the Vita suggests that popularity only came with Eunuchus (161 BCE).

The chapter on "Plotting and Playwrights" explores how deception functions as a metaphor for theatrical performance. Theories of humor as release are cited to explain its ubiquity: Roman comedy thematizes deception in order to offer reassurance about the stability of personal identity; it lets us identify with a controlling figure (the "plotter," sometimes a god) who gives us what we want – restoration, recognition, certainty. One particular metaphorization of deception is prominent in Mostellaria and Miles: the location of misunderstanding in faulty vision and the equation of duping with the creation of visual illusion (i.e., theater). These are not entirely new ideas, but Sharrock offers a nuanced discussion of the theme of vision in these plays and its connection with knowledge of identity. Further, the participation of gods in Amphitruo sets comic visual errors in a direct line of descent from tragic hamartia. This leads to discussion of a second common metaphor: the plotter as playwright, exemplified in Epidicus. (The equation of plotting with play-writing is somewhat lost here in the lengthy review of the complicated plot.)

To explain why the master plotter is so often a slave, Sharrock borrows another motif from later genres, the "pose of lowness" (e.g., Horace, in the satires), which serves as a captatio benevolentiae, cloaking the playwright's god-like power within the play and also reflecting his real world status. Hence, the requisite altruism of the slave's plotting. This reading captures the ambiguity of the clever slave's power (high on the artistic axis, low on the social one) but the argument for godlike elements rests entirely on Mercury in Amphitruo (a "hapax play", as Sharrock notes) and it is difficult to see how humility works as a captatio benevolentiae if it is a generically coded assertion of power. That Terence's clever slaves fail as playwrights while other characters succeed is read as deliberate opposition to Plautus. Sharrock makes a provocative case for seeing a critique of Terentian realism embedded within the plays themselves. Characters who fancy themselves sophisticated viewers, like Simo in Andria ("a kind of determined and slightly paranoid audience of comedies, seeing plots everywhere", p. 147) miss that the artifice of theatrical performance consists of making lies seem like truth, not of simply presenting "the truth". As Pseudolus puts it, the business of the poeta is to make illud veri simile quod mendacium est.

The chapter on "Repeat performance" uses repetition as a clever way to group phenomena not usually treated together: verbal excesses, running jokes, comic echoes (an inspired coinage to describe the unconscious repetition by one character of another's lines), "pop-ups" (recurring comic bits), parody, intertextuality, and even instauratio. After citing theories about why repetition is funny (Freud, Bergson, Frye, Eco), Sharrock surveys Plautine repetition devices and effectively shows that they are well-established comic techniques – not signs of lowbrow taste, laziness or inattention. The section on Terence revisits the issue of the prologues and intertexts. A thematic purpose is claimed for the Hecyra prologue, namely, that the history of failed performances mirrors failed attempts at establishing the marriage at the center of the play, both rituals gone wrong and both "informed by the ideology and practice of" instauratio (neither is technically an instauratio). Sharrock's interest is not in historicist readings, but this argument would be stronger if the ideological import of an instauratio were discussed in more detail. "Repetition," in a Kristevan sense, can certainly include intertexts, and Sharrock proposes two new ones for Eunuchus: Bacchae (already suggested for Amphitruo)4 and Sappho fr. 31. There can be no general answer about how active either was for Roman audiences, but both are worth considering. For Bacchae, Sharrock identifies situational and thematic parallels between the disguising of Pentheus and of Chaerea. The issue here may be how large Pentheus looms in cross-dressing scenes and how effectively the Eunuchus scene signals tragedy (versus, for example, Atellan farce). The Sappho allusion is verbal: ὠς γὰρ ἔς σ' ἴδω βρόχε' and τρόμος δὲ / παῖσαν ἄγρει (fr. 31.7, 13-14), behind totus, Parmeno / tremo horreoque, postquam aspexi hanc (83-4). This is quite close (arguably as close as a passage in Miles I have argued is also an allusion to fr. 31)5 and there is certainly reason to look beyond the palliata for models for Phaedria's unusual emotional state.

The final chapter ("Endings") concentrates on a few closural moves: moralizing, celebration, and metatheater. Final sententiae function as a kind of sphragis, affirming or mocking conventional values, in keeping with the tradition of farcical endings (under which Sharrock classes the Eunuchus and Adelphoe endings). The character with the last word gains the play's tacit backing (if Micio gets plaudite, as Sharrock argues, his come-uppance is slightly rebalanced), while metatheatrical techniques help move the audience back into reality. The book's own ending is a bit abrupt and, in general, there could be more definite conclusions to sections and summations of central ideas to match the very helpful introductions setting out theoretical assumptions and terms.

There are definite advantages to the book's novel approach. "Weak" intertexts receive more attention, how comedy articulates its identity as a genre is given priority, and Terence is shown to have a more complex relationship with Plautus than straightforward opposition on a binary scheme. Sharrock makes a compelling case that Roman comedies do the same things as other works whose status as literature is uncontested. She gives us a Plautus who is more literary and a Terence who is more popular. The disadvantages of this approach are some odd, backwards readings (e.g., animum ... adpulit in And. 1 against the opening of Ovid's Metamorphoses, p. 80). A project to rescue Roman comedy from the 'philomenandrist critics' can hardly be faulted for not citing Menander (the Index Locorum has no New Comic playwrights, though the short General Index does). Being one, however, I must admit to seeing some missed opportunities (e.g., Sik. 343-62 Arnott behind Milphio's scheme for Hanno to impersonate a father seeking his lost daughters in Poenulus, p. 162).


1.   For a good working definition, see W. Batstone, CP 93.2 (1998), 126. n. 5.
2.   Quotation from S. Goldberg, Understanding Terence, Princeton: 1986. p. 32.
3.   Quotation from J. Henderson, in A Benyamin, ed., Post-structuralist classics, London and New York: 1988. p. 199.
4.   Z. Stewart, TAPA 89 (1958), 348-73.
5.   CQ 55.2 (2005) 524-7.

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