Monday, June 30, 2014


Michael Fontaine, Funny Words in Plautine Comedy. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xvi, 311. ISBN 9780195341447. $74.00.

Reviewed by James Tatum, Dartmouth College (

Version at BMCR home site


Nothing expires more pitifully than a joke being dissected for scholarly scrutiny. Freud still provides the best model for how this kind of autopsy can be done in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Amy Richlin put Freud's example to brilliant use in her book on sexuality and aggression in Roman humor, The Garden of Priapus. In Funny Words in Plautine Comedy Michael Fontaine shows he is as ardent a philological vivisectionist as Freud or Richlin, in the process writing a witty and deeply learned book about Plautine comedy at its most Beyond-The-Fringe moments. For Plautine studies in particular Funny Words should prove comparable to such original and enduring books as Niall Slater's Plautus in Performance and Timothy Moore's more recent Music in Roman Comedy. Like Slater and Moore, Fontaine is bound to be of great help to anyone who reads and teaches Plautus in Latin, at any level. His work should be a constant companion for future translators who want to turn an ancient comedy into performable scripts for actors today. For those who have already seen their translations performed or published, Funny Words will also inspire the gnashing of teeth. It's the kind of book that makes you wish it had been at hand when you attempted to translate the untranslatable and explicate the inexplicable.

It's also a book that can be judged by its cover. As ecphrastic moments go this one is really something. Jean-Léon Gérôme's 1861 painting Phryne before the Areopagus depicts the legendary Athenian courtesan at the moment when her lover Hypereides snatches away her cloak with a flourish, revealing her nude to an astonished audience of Athenian men of all ages and types, each one caught in various stages of gawking and gasping.1 I wondered at first if Fontaine realized he was going over some ground that Edward Said used, with an earlier painting by Gérôme for the cover of his 1978 book Orientalism: The Snake Charmer (1850). There the centerpiece is not a beautiful woman but a callipygous youth unfurling a huge python before a calm audience of distinguished-looking men in a suitably orientalist setting. 2 What on earth does this picture of the disrobing of Phryne have to do with funny words in Plautine comedy?

Everything, as it turns out. Fontaine's use of Phryne before the Areopagus is not just a knowing glance back to the rhetorical design of Said's famous book, but also the best possible image he could have chosen to illustrate the surprises his own argument has in store for his readers. The point of Gérôme's startling image will come to seem obvious, even inevitable, once you have read the first chapter on ambiguous words, Verba Perplexabilia (3-36). Fontaine argues that the courtesan-in-chief in Truculentus that we have all known as "Phronesium" was actually named "Phrynesium" by Plautus himself, recalling the Athenian courtesan Phryne whose fame as a ruthless and overwhelmingly beautiful woman made her a name a legend to conjure with, comparable to a film stars like Marilyn Monroe. To give just one example of the many eye-opening moments that lie in wait for readers of Funny Words, here is how I once translated the first appearance of her name in the dissolute youth Diniarchus' opening monologue.

Now, consider my case. Phronesium,
The courtesan who lives here in this house:
Her name is one I should learn from, but don't.
Phronesis, you know, is Greek for "good sense."

So much for me, erring. Fontaine steps back and asks an Emperor's-New-Clothes kind of question. What on earth does it mean to give the most ruthless and grasping courtesan in all of Roman comedy a name that suggests "Ms. Sensible"? For the courtesan-in-chief in Truculentus is nothing less. He shows that these lines of Diniarchus are a mish-mash of a scribe or scholar's intrusive gloss (one whole line carefully explaining Phronesium's origin in the Greek phronesis) and the result of more recent critics' too-rapid dismissal of a reading in a Vatican codex that preserves an archaic spelling of the name "Phrynesium, "a clear link to the famous Athenian courtesan Phryne, not phronesis.

In short, we have been thinking "Einstein" when we should have been dreaming of "Mae West," if not of Barbara Stanwick in "Double Indemnity." In a welcome pedagogical move clearly designed for Latin teachers and their students as well as text critics, Fontaine takes his reader into the heart of the paleographer's work by supplying a photograph of lines 186-189 in Codex Vaticanus 3870, where the shadowy Phrynesium's name makes its misty appearance, along with another, close-up picture of the archaic spelling of her name, Brunesium, written at a point in the evolution of Latin where the voiced bilabial stop br- replaced Plautus' voiceless bilabial phr- (p. 24). What Diniarchus' lines actually constitute is not a moralizing message but a characteristic trope that Fontaine refers to throughout his book, parechesis, "jingle," "near-echo," a riddling and echoic pun (p. 27). Mindful here and everywhere of the theatrical dimension—like every dramatist, Plautus was writing lines for actors, not silent readers—Fontaine provides enough blocking and direction to make the plausibility of his emendation clear. The lines require direction and blocking if they are to be realized completely.

Now here's my case—this courtesan that lives in there, Phrynesium
(pointing), she's expunged that name of hers entirely from my mind.
(Waiting for our puzzled reaction. Then, deadpanning) Phronesis. (dryly)
'Cause "phronesis" means "being sensible" (jabbing his elbow at us).

In a comic tradition filled with dumb kids squandering or threatening to squander their inheritance and disgrace their families, Diniarchus is about as clueless an adulescens as they come. It's a delight to see him liberated from delivering an etymology that made him sound more like a third-rate Isidore of Seville than a comic actor. The courtesan Phrynesium thus inhabits a comedy even darker than what I had realized, and this ecphrastic moment and what it reveals about Fontaine's book brings me to the second point that needs to be made about Funny Words in Plautine Comedy.

After you've taken in the full implications of this book's cover and frontispiece, you will need to heed the King of Hearts' advice: Begin at the beginning, go on until you come to the end, then stop. Fontaine is well aware of the different audiences he's reaching for in his book and makes a conscious and quite convincing distinction between those parts of his argument that engage with textual criticism and the more inferential arguments that depend on the kind of insights critics learned to draw from Freud and other thinkers of the twentieth century.

There are also just as likely to be major discoveries in a footnote as in the main text. As arresting example of this design is the way Truculentus' very name is called into serious question in a footnote. In keeping with his argument that the names of characters in Plautine comedy were regularly Greek names, not Latin or a hybrid of the two languages, Fontaine argues that the slave who gave his name to Plautus' Truculentus was actually called "Stratilax," not "Truculentus." You will discover this only if you go to Chapter 2 ("Parapraxis and Parechesis," 37-89) and keep your eye alert for signs of another of his main arguments, that scribes in antiquity as well as some modern editors of Plautus have emended many of his jokes out of existence.

At the same time Fontaine is scrupulous about how far he can go with his claim about the name Stratilax: "As the name is not certified by the text, it is impossible to determine whether or not it is original, and I retain it in this book only as an economically convenient designation" (39 note 5). Economical and convenient it may well be, but in its own way this renaming of what we have taken to be the namesake of the Truculentus is as intricately planned and unsettling as the use of Gérôme's Phryne before the Areopagus. And you won't get the last word about Stratilax a.k.a. Truculentus until you read the section "Countrification in Truculentus in Chapter 3 ("Equivocation and Other Ambiguities," 98-102). The title of the play remains the same, and maybe even the moral that I once drew from it—it's a disturbing work by a playwright at his most savage about the human comedy—but it now seems more than a simple reference to a slave who does not dominate the stage nearly as much as Diniarchus, Phronesium, or her capable assistant Astaphium.

After Diniarchus has appeared as well as the slave Stratilax a.k.a. Truculentus Plautus lets things build up—tension, wonderment, prurient suspicions— until Phrynesium finally makes her grand entrance, one-third of the way through the play. Diniarchus has vivid lines to cue her entry.

(aside) But there! There go those seething doors
that gulp down anything that comes within their bolts! (25)

Fontaine comments in a rather detached manner, "This 'engulfing' imagery is, of course, something of a commonplace in Greek comedy" but takes no notice of Phronesium's spectacular entrance lines (emphasis added).

Why, bless your heart, you don't think my door will bite you,
Darling, so that you're afraid to enter it?

At first reading I thought this was a return of the repressed, a raising of the critical eyes to heaven. Not at all. This passage and much else gets a full discussion in Chapter 5 ("Double Entendre"), in the forthrightly named section "Comedic Courtesans and Fear of the Vagina Dentata" (208-213). Thus the opening chapter's way with mixed-up, twisted words and the three chapters that follow constitute a single sustained argument, as Fontaine demonstrates how much we have misunderstood Plautus' special ways with puns and word play. These first four chapters culminate in a comprehensive reassessment of what Plautus' original audiences were like: who was in them, what they could understand, and how familiar they could be with the Greek playwrights whose texts and traditions he barbarously subverted into something rich and strange—and Roman (Chapter 4, "Innuendo and the Audience").

The author regards his fifth and final chapter "Double Entendre"as a separate essay that deals with "puns and jokes that involved a sexual component" (201-248). He must be right. My own view is that Plautus is a master of what might be termed the single entendre, that unavoidable word or phrase that draws you into an obscene meaning you were hoping to find in the first place. In any case the discussion of double entendre more than lived up to my expectations, and while the author regards this last chapter as a separate essay that can be read apart from the rest, to me at least it was integral to the design of the book. I don't see how you could do it justice if you hadn't read all that came before.

Funny Words in Plautus is an accessible, densely argued work that will inspire future commentators at more than one point to rethink whatever Plautine text is the target of their labors. It's also a deft and engaging work of literary criticism, teaching its readers how much can be achieved by engaging in the kind of discursive philological and theoretical arguments that Michael Fontaine handles so well.3


1.   Jean-Léon Gérôme, Phryne Revealed before the Areopagus (1861), Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany. Phryne
2.   Jean Léon Gérôme, The Snake Charmer (1850) Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Ma. The Snake Charmer
3.   While reading our library's copy of this book I checked online to see what the BMCR made of it, only to discover to my surprise that it hadn't yet been reviewed. I am grateful to the editors for giving me a chance to alert BMCR's readers to this important book. ​

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