Wednesday, April 19, 2017


Rodrigo Tadeu Gonçalves, Performative Plautus: Sophistics, Metatheater and Translation. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015. Pp. 130. ISBN 9781443882576. £41.99.

Reviewed by Deepti Menon (

Version at BMCR home site


Rodrigo Tadeu Gonçalves is a professor of Latin Language and Literature at the Federal University of Paraná, Brazil, and a translator. Performative Plautus: Sophistics, Metatheater, and Translation is a result of Gonçalves's Postdoctoral Research Leave Fellowship at the Centre Léon Robin, Paris under the mentorship of Florence Dupont and Barbara Cassin, who have written forewords to the book. Gonçalves asks in his introduction "How do sophistics and performativity relate to Roman theatre?" (p. 1) His answer is that Plautus "dar[es] to defy the most basic principles of philosophy and so to propose a world in which something may be and not be in the same way at the same time." (p. 4) Gonçalves understands these principles as 1) the principle of non- contradiction and 2) the notion that literary analysis deals primarily with text, and traces both to Aristotle. Gonçalves argues that Plautus, through his linguistic creativity and celebration of performance, programmatically undermines both these principles. In Gonçalves's view, this attitude brings Plautus' theatre close to the Sophists' (especially Parmenides' and Gorgias') ideas on language and being, while distancing him from Aristotelian logic and literary criticism.

The first chapter, "What It Means to be Non-Aristotelian, or the Sophistic-Playwright" outlines Barbara Cassin's and Florence Dupont's definitions of Non-Aristotelianism, which are essential to Gonçalves's reading of Plautus as a "non-Aristotelian" playwright. Cassin, in her introductory essay to Metaphysics Gamma, proposes that to be non-Aristotelian is to reject "letting oneself be dragged unwillingly towards the principle of non-contradiction." Dupont's work offers a model for an analysis of the ludic nature of Plautus. She argues that scholarship focusing on Aristotle's concept of muthos strips Plautine theatre of its performative nature. Her solution, therefore, is to look at the spectacular aspect of Plautine comedy. Gonçalves evokes two approaches as background to his argument that Plautus is a sophistic playwright in both literary and theatrical terms.

In his second chapter, "Performative Translation," Gonçalves considers fragments of the earliest authors of Roman literature as performative translation, a concept defined in Florence Dupont's and Pierre Letessier's Le théâtre romain. Livius Andronicus's self-consciously Greek and Roman Odusia, as well as Naevius's and Ennius's references to their intertexts created, Gonçalves argues, a mode of engagement with Greek literature that went against the principle of non-contradiction. Gonçalves illustrates this argument with a reading of Plautine prologues that highlights the self-conscious fascination with the name of the play and Plautus's ironic use of the adverb barbare when referring to Latin. He reads both as instances where the Latin text is a palimpsest over the Greek, allowing the play to embrace both source and target meanings "in the same way at the same time." In a brief coda on Terence's prologues, Gonçalves (following Dupont and Letessier) draws attention to the increased codification of the genre and the new trends that placed value on innovation.

Gonçalves's last chapter is devoted to a close reading of the Amphitruo that highlights the presence of gods and mythical characters among its dramatis personae as a source for "the generic fluctuation between tragedy and comedy." (p. 53) Gonçalves's reading divides the play into six 'arcs' (rather than acts) and focuses in particular on speeches by Jupiter and Mercury. The prologue and Mercury's first exchange with Sosia receive the most attention. Gonçalves asserts that the prologue, with its rapid shifts between "the divine, the human, and the theatrical" (p. 57) exemplifies the Amphitruo's resistance to the principle of non-contradiction. He comments on the ways in which Mercury's divine status grants power to his use of language, e.g., the "semi-performative" verbs (eritis, facietis), giving him the power to create an audience and fracture the sense of self of the characters on stage. Gonçalves argues that Jupiter's divine authority allows him to take control of the plot's multiple rôles as playwright, character, and deus ex machina. Metatheatrical performativity is essential to comedy and the gods, the masterminds of non-Aristotelian duality within the play, who turn (vortere) the plot from tragedy to comedy: "if we take out the metatheatrical and the doubling/transvestite, we have no palliata…only the core of a tragic plot" (p. 94).

As promised by the subtitle "Sophistics, Metatheatre, and Translation," Performative Plautus blends philosophy, comedy, and translation studies. This vigorous interdisciplinary approach is the book's greatest asset. Gonçalves is most innovative in his application of speech act theory to demonstrate the performative aspects of Plautine dramaturgy in the Amphitruo. Yet this approach also comes with its own challenges: how can a book address readers from several disciplines at once without ever verging on the opaque or the redundant? Performative Plautus does not always meet these challenges. The brief introduction does not lay out the theoretical framework in detail or signpost and elucidate the connections between the subsequent chapters, which at times do seem to read like separate essays. Further, readers from diverse academic fields will find in Performative Plautus a blend of unfamiliar and familiar ideas. For literary scholars, the terminology which Gonçalves uses , especially when it comes to the difference between "performative" and his own coinage, "semi-performative" verbs, is not always transparent. Literary scholars—and classicists in particular—are likely to be, conversely, well acquainted with previous work on Plautine performance, metatheatre and on the palliata as a creative appropriation rather than literal translation from the Greek.1

For all its focus on performance, the book gives us a very abstract, textual Plautus, removed from his audience's political and social world. Gonçalves's provocative and original presentation of Plautus as Anti-Aristotelian and quasi-Sophist, well-illustrated as it is, is not given a historical context or clearly linked to the playwright's generic awareness.2 Plautus's dramaturgy is instead juxtaposed with Greek theories of language and theatre. The results are mixed: Gonçalves has not quite succeeded in persuading this reader that it is necessary to engage with the Sophists and Aristotle to demonstrate Plautus' sophistication, but the book succeeds beautifully in illustrating Plautus' creativity and verbal artistry.3


1.   Niall Slater's Plautus in Performance (1989), Robert Danese's "Modelli letterari e modelli culturali del teatro plautino. Qualche problema di metodo." (2002), or Siobhán McElduff's Roman Theories of Translation: Surpassing the Source (2013).
2.   P. 64: "Plautus is playing with Aristotle's prescriptions—if he ever knew them."
3.   A final note: The book could have benefitted from another round of proofs. There are a few typesetting errors, of which the date of Donatus' commentary (4th century BCE instead of CE) is particularly confusing.

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