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In film studies we often refer to the concept of reflexivity. It is argued that the more self aware a film is of its nature as a film, then the more reflexive it can be said to be. The same can be said to be true of Plautus in his plays. Moments like the titular character Pseudolus comparing himself to a poet are certainly reflexive, and represent the metatheatrical aspects of Plautus’ work. The plays move beyond just being a story and begin to comment in the idea and forms of plays themselves.
However, unlike some others, Plautus does not seem so obsessed with metatheatre that he ignores the central plot of his story. Instead, Plautus uses metatheatrical elements as a stepping stone with which to continue his jokes and further the stories of his comedy.
When discussing metatheatre, an important place to start is with the origin of the term. The word “metatheatre” was coined in 1963 by Lionel Abel. Finding this origin is important because we can identify ways in which Plautus both resembles and radically diverges from what we would otherwise understand to be metatheatre.
For example, Abel primarily considers metatheatre to be a dramatic form, distinct from tragedy and in fact came to replace tragedy during the Renaissance (Abel 83). This idea is problematic in relation to Plautus for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that Plautus was writing more than a thousand years before the Renaissance, and was certainly not replacing tragedy as Abel describes it.
Therefore if we are going to discuss metatheatricality in reference to Plautus, it will not be in terms of a dramatic form. Secondly, and related to the first point, it seems hard to argue that Plautus would have thought of thought of the metatheatre of his plays as making them a different genre.
To elaborate, we can look at what Abel describes as the techniques that identify something as being metatheatrical. The five specific techniques often considered to be metatheatrical are: the play within the play, the ceremony within the play, role playing within the role, literary and real-life reference, and self reference (Hornby 32). These techniques are convenient because they are almost all concrete elements that can be solidly identified. For instance, the introductions of several of Terence’s plays are clearly referencing the real world, and so are metatheatrical in that way. If we look at Pseudolus’ soliloquy in Pseudolus, we would see something resembling the fifth type in his self reference (Plautus, 394-414). Pseudolus compares himself to a poet (or playwright), and even seems to be taking a jab at the profession, which seems very reflexive. However, the metatheatre here is not so tidy because the way in which it was used is so different from what definitions like Abel’s would lead us to expect.
A good way to see how different the metatheatre in Pseudolus is from other plays is to compare it to an extremely metatheatrical play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the Shakespeare play, the metatheatre is pervasive. Half of the story revolves around a play within-a-play, and even outside of that we have many characters playing roles within their roles. If that were not enough, the whole play ends by suggesting that the entire experience may have just been a dream, imagined by the audience. The play seems obsessed both with its nature as a play and also its relationship to other works of drama. In sharp contrast stands Pseudolus. The speech in question does indeed reference playmaking, with Pseudolus saying “a poet takes up his tablet and though he looks for what doesn’t exist at all, he still finds it and makes complete fiction seem like the truth” (Plautus 401-403). There is plenty that can be read into this moment, especially given what he is saying. A poet essentially calling himself and all other poets liars is significant, but as the speech plays out this moment does not turn out to be the main focus of what Pseudolus is saying. Instead of restructuring his entire life around imitating poets, Pseudolus merely uses the metaphor to spark an idea of conjuring something from nothing. The rest of his speech is about finding a way to scrounge up some money. Importantly, along with not caring about what it is that poets do, Pseudolus does not go on to mention the line about making complete fiction seem like the truth again. Suddenly, the accusation of poets being untruthful does not seem as significant, since even the character who makes it does not bring up the accusation again. Instead of the metatheatrical moment defining the the tone and plot of the play like in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pseudolus seems to use it as a throwaway moment in a speech that is really talking about something else.
The idea that the metatheatre in Plautus is fleeting and less significant to the plot is something that I personally noticed when preparing to give Pseudolus’ soliloquy. I decided early on that the best way to capture the character of Pseudolus in a single speech was to figure out what his core driving force was, and let that permeate all of his actions. It is clear fairly early on that the main thing that Pseudolus wants is his own freedom. This leads to his secondary motivator, which is the desire to gather money for his young master who has promised the slave freedom. Notably, Pseudolus is not motivated by a desire to impress people or to express himself. He is extremely clever, but does not take actions for the sake of showing off that cleverness to the people around him. Instead, that cleverness is a means to an end for Pseudolus; a way to earn his freedom. In the same way, the metaphor of becoming and poet and spinning something from nowhere is merely a means to an end for the slave. He needed an idea for how to gather the money, and that metaphor gave him an avenue with which to come up with an idea. I believe that if Plautus had come up with a joke about another group of people that fit better, he would have probably used that instead. The metatheatrical joke about poets was funny, poignant, and helped move the story along.
The critic William W. Batstone would probably agree. In his essay “Plautine Farce and Plautine Freedom: An Essay on the Value of Metatheatre” he makes broader characterizations of the works of Plautus, especially in comparing him with the works of Menander. One particular way in which he describes Plautus is to say that “Plautus liked his comedy broader, his colors brighter, and was willing to sacrifice art (that is, subtlety, consistent characterization, coherent design, integrated vision) for a laugh” (Batstone 13). This description seems to line up perfectly with Plautus’ use of metatheatre in Pseudolus. If we take the reference to poets as just a throwaway joke as I have suggested, then it definitely seems to fit into the idea of broader comedy. Anyone watching a play by Plautus would certainly have at least some level of interest in drama, so a joke directed at poets and playwrights is as broad as possible for its audience. Since we are not talking about a produced version of the play it is hard to comment on brighter colors, but Pseudolus and specifically this soliloquy seem to also fit into Batstone’s mention of sacrifices. If the crack at poets is merely a joke and a stepping stone to Pseudolus’ larger plan, then it would seem to not be as coherent as something like Shakespeare where all the metatheatrical elements are woven throughout the entire play. At the same time, even as that characterization is less consistent, it is defensible by the very fact that it is indeed funny. Similar is the idea of an integrated vision. Again, Plautus has not chosen to integrate metatheatrical elements into every part of his play for a broader comedy about the nature of drama, but he does not need to do so. The joke seems to be enough to justify itself in Plautus.
By the definition of certain techniques appearing, then Plautus is certainly metatheatrical. He references the idea of drama within his drama. However, unlike the definition spelled out by Abel, Plautus does not seem interested in metatheatre as an entire dramatic form, and unlike Shakespeare he does not have it permeate every aspect of his play. Instead, metatheatre in Pseudolus seems to be a tool that he uses for the sake of individual jokes and story moments.
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