Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.10.21

Robert S. Miola, Shakespeare and Classical Comedy. The Influence of Plautus and Terence. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994. Pp. xi + 234. $45.00. ISBN 0-19-818269-4.

Reviewed by Sander M. Goldberg, University of California--Los Angeles (

The old sources and analogues mill turned out some useful products in its time. What eventually shut it down was not managerial incompetence -- its top managers were very fine scholars -- but exhaustion of the historicist impulse that fueled it. However well executed the search for them, verbal and structural correspondences, echoes, allusions, and parallels do not reveal all that we want to know about the creative process. Thus T. W. Baldwin, whose studies of Shakespeare's intellectual background remain an invaluable resource, observed more in wonder than despair that The Comedy of Errors is "probably the most fundamentally Italianate play of the English lot, and yet there is not a specific element which can be traced to direct borrowing from the Italian."1 Debts more easily felt than documented inevitably resist the application of philological method. The study of Shakespeare's specific debt to Roman comedy has been further clouded of late by a growing inexperience with Latin literature among scholars of the Renaissance. To claim, for example, that "for all to end well in Plautus no character need be chastened or enlightened because no moral issues are raised, and no regret or sorrow is possible in characters who are fixed forever in their stereotypical natures,"2 is to reveal not just ignorance of plays like Aulularia, Truculentus, and Poenulus (not to mention practically any play by Menander or Terence) but an unseemly dependence on handbooks and, I suspect, too literal a reading of Northrop Frye. What is a respectable philologue to do in the face of such frustrations? Is the old mill worth retooling?

Robert Miola clearly thinks it is and has taken steps to avoid the old pitfalls. He solves the lesser problem of ignorance by the simple expedient of knowing firsthand the plays of Menander, Plautus, and Terence and reading what Classicists have written about them. His willingness to take us seriously is immensely heartening, and his missteps in our domain are few.3 M. is also aware of historicism's limitations. When he writes, for example, of "an Italianate appropriation" of New Comedy (120), of "inherited traditions, not source texts" (172), and of "deep sources" (passim), he is clearly operating on a different plane from T. W. Baldwin. Themes, devices, and characters -- what some have called "theatergrams" -- rather than strictly formal correspondences are his raw material. This broader view of the subject enables M. to arrange his ostensibly familiar material in new and interesting ways: New Comedic Errors (The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night), New Comedic Intrigue (The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing), New Comedic Alazoneia (The Merry Wives of Windsor, All's Well That Ends Well), New Comedic Romance (Pericles, The Tempest), Heavy Plautus (Hamlet, King Lear). There is an adequate introduction to the enterprise ("Light Plautus," not, to M.'s way of thinking, a redundancy) but no conclusion.

This scheme is, on the whole, productive. M.'s grasp of detail benefits both experienced and neophyte readers, and he handles that detail with admirable skill. I have only two complaints. The first is comparatively minor. M. too often forgets that Shakespearean comedy is comic. One small example: Act three of The Taming of the Shrew opens on Lucentio wooing Bianca through a Latin lesson:

Hic ibat, as I told you before; Simois, I am Lucentio; hic est, son unto Vincentio of Pisa; Sigeia tellus, disguised thus to get your love . . . etc.
"The passage quoted is highly significant," comments M., "as the original speaker is Penelope, model of the faithful and virtuous wife" (73), and he continues in that high-minded vein to describe the lovers' "complex negotiation through language." Yet the passage, actually spoken not by Penelope but to her (Heroides 1.33-34), is also significant because it is dull and learned claptrap. In this parody of a Tudor school exercise, the lovers are not misconstruing the set text -- M.'s own rhetoric misleads him -- but not construing it because Ovid's words, as Lucentio well knows, lull his rival Hortensio into inattention. It is a wry and -- for the Latin teachers among us -- sobering glimpse into the schoolroom memories of Shakespeare's audience.4 This "charming and civilized courtship scene" is also very funny, and the joke is on us. M. should not have checked his sense of humor at the library door.

My second complaint is more serious. Though Renaissance drama figures prominently in the current theory wars, this book is distinctly under-theorized. M. is an empiricist. Despite the occasional tumble into cliches of the trade,5 his enterprise is essentially descriptive and comparative. The descriptions are welcome and the comparisons usually apt, but not all the points he raises (or ought to raise) yield to empirical methods. Something more is occasionally wanted. Some examples follow.

Consider this statement: "The Merry Wives of Windsor belongs specifically to that family of plays that adapt Casina eclectically . . ." (104). Here M. gets to the heart of source criticism and its discontents: what does it mean to "adapt" a play? This particular family, as he soon explains, is not "a coherent group" but simply an assortment of plays sharing features with Casina. Shakespeare did not necessarily study any of them directly, nor was Casina necessarily open beside him as he worked. A lack of textual correspondence, however, is no obstacle to this kind of source criticism. "Traditions," M. reminds us, "speak much louder and longer than individual texts" (105). I agree, but in what sense, then, is it meaningful to call The Merry Wives of Windsor, as M. will do in the very next sentence, a "reworking" of Casina? Phrases like "deep source" and "eclectic adaptation" are meant to acknowledge the inadequacy of traditional source criticism, but they maintain its text-based vocabulary and its philological orientation. Traditions, however, speak louder than texts because playwrights do not use texts like scholars do. They exploit sources. They do not collate them. To understand why we hear echoes of ancient comedy in The Merry Wives of Windsor, we need to get closer to the dramatist's own outlook and modus operandi. The old historicism that M. builds on told us what Shakespeare read. Now we need to know how he read.

An important clue has long been available: Shakespeare's reading glasses were made in Italy. All eight plays of that Casina "family," for example, are Italian, and M. draws on a substantial body of research documenting the extent of Shakespeare's debt to Italian comedy.6 This does not simply mean, however, that source critics must read Italian as well as Latin. It means that we all read a different Plautus. The Renaissance Plautus was not the historical figure that modern scholarship seeks in antiquity's wreck nor the contemporary analogue we in fact create from our own experience.7 Nor was Shakespeare's Plautus simply the text he construed as a boy in Stratford. The demands of the Elizabethean stage and the structures of Italian comedy shaped his reading, inspiring new and ever more elaborate exploitations of the formulae he found there, from the straightforward doublings and embellishments of The Comedy of Errors to the unsettling inversions of Othello. The process was necessarily complex and dynamic. As M. observes in analyzing another of its manifestations:

The influence of New Comedy on Ado does not derive from a single discrete text -- a direct or intermediated source -- with a recoverable itinerary. Instead, New Comedy provides structures and principles by which Shakespeare organizes his novella material and creates the ado in Messina. New Comedy is present here as a complex legacy of character, convention, and form, deeply possessed and fluently manipulated (80).
This is a good and important comment, but M. never acts on this observation to show how that "complex legacy" works to generate plays or how and why New Comedy excited Shakespeare's imagination.

By focusing instead on specific relationships between and among texts, M. too often mistakes the scholar's tree for the dramatist's forest. Recall Lucentio's disguise as a Latin master in The Taming of the Shrew. M. claims the influence of Terence's Eunuchus: "In the action most pertinent to Shrew, Chaerea, disguised as a eunuch, gains access to Pamphila and rapes her; her long lost brother appears, reveals that she is Athenian by birth, and arranges her marriage to Chaerea" (70). Exactly what is so pertinent: the eunuch, the rape, the long lost brother, or the recognition? By this standard, what comic formula is not pertinent? Yet M. says nothing about Shrew's jokes on Italian avarice, pedantry, and internecine conflict, not to mention its characters' extravagant manners and funny names. The technique of dressing the audience's own foibles in foreign array could not come directly from Ariosto, whose Italy was a real place. Did Shakespeare learn it from Plautus? M. does not even ask the question. Nor does he consider the internal energy of the tradition. All that the Lucentio-Bianca plot requires, for example, is his father's signature on their marraige contract, a requirement soon fulfilled by the old man's fortuitous arrival in Padua. Why then did Shakespeare interpose the gratuitous complication of the false Vincentio? The fact that he borrowed the motif from Gascoigne's Supposes and its "deep source," Amphitruo, explains nothing. The odd thing would have been for Shakespeare not to have employed this traditional embellishment. More is lost than gained by reducing the comic mechanism to its sources and analogues.

And what, given so long, complex, and energetic a stage history, should we mean by New Comedy? M. seems to equate the term with the extant plays of Menander, Plautus, and Terence, but this is unsatisfactory. Imposing boundaries on a genre is not the same thing as defining its features, much less explaining their operation and accounting for their appeal. Simply mapping a sequence of instances only gets us in trouble. Take, for example, this statement about Pericles:

As before, New Comedic topography provides Shakespeare with resonant symbolism. From Menander onwards, the sea is the setting for various journeys, for personal and professional disasters, for storms and shipwrecks, for praedones and piscatores ... (145-46).
The bathos here -- what other setting is appropriate for shipwrecks and pirates? -- is a symptom, not a cause, of M.'s problem. He has Rudens and Sikyonios in mind, and for good reasons, but why suggest that this "topography" begins with Menander? These elements are fully formed in Iphigeneia at Tauris and Helen; hints of them may be found from Sophocles' Philoctetes at the end of the tragic line to Aeschylus' Suppliants at its beginning. There is no clear starting point. This is why Satyrus' life of Euripides credits him with pioneering the plot devices perfected by Menander, and why "Middle Comedy" remains a useful construct for explaining the reconfiguration of Athenian drama in the early fourth century.8 What then emerged as the "new" comedy of Menander's time was a rich assortment of characters and situations for dramatists to exploit, and what he and his colleagues left to posterity proved less significant as a corpus of plays than as ingredients for plays to come, as, of course, Plautus, Terence, Ariosto, Machiavelli, Della Porta -- and Shakespeare -- would eventually demonstrate. Because a tradition is a dynamic system, it is greater than the sum of its practitioners. M. needs a firmer grasp on the Proteus in his hands.

This lack of firmness creates a serious difficulty in the final chapter, where M. finds comic structures in plays that are not comedies. Precisely because New Comedy represents possibilities more than texts, it can be hard to know how far back a device can be traced with profit. Consider Othello. Both the progress of its action and the shock of that progress on an audience have been reasonably explained in terms of the commedia dell' arte and the expectations its conventions arouse.9 Here criticism rests. Nobody has cared to push Iago back beyond Brighella to Gnatho and Pseudolus. Would we gain by doing so? Is there any more explanatory power in claiming, as M. does, that Polonius is not just a Pantalone but "a New Comedic pater relocated into the murky world of Elsinore" (174) or that the scheming, villainous Edmund of King Lear is "both adulescens and callidus servus" (188)? Does every Shakespearean character and situation, every joke and stage device that finds an analogue in Roman comedy indicate "the influence of Plautus and Terence"? It is legitimate to ask what made the ancient devices so readily and so invitingly adaptable, but that is not the same as claiming an ancient pedigree for every adaptation. Philologists may trace a phenomenon to its origin and think that doing so "explains" that phenomenon. Literary criticism demands a more rigorous demonstration. This is where M.'s lack of theoretical grounding is most sorely felt. Theory, after all, shapes our definition of the evidence as well as our use of it. His concept of "heavy Plautus" would be easier to accept if it came with a clearer articulation of what "Plautus" means in this new context.

Yet it must also be said in M.'s defense that Classicists have done no better on the theoretical side and offer him little assistance. A structural model for New Comedy might advance the cause, but the structuralists -- Aristotle aside -- unfortunately shot their wad before discovering drama.10 Those of us who have since tried to develop conceptual models of the genre, as I did in The Making of Menander's Comedy and David Wiles did in The Masks of Menander, have not won converts. Nor has Niall Slater's Plautus in Performance, so sensitive to the energy behind the surviving texts, succeeded in "explaining" what makes the Plautine machine run so well. It is clearly much easier to feel the need for a theoretical base than actually to construct one. M.'s "fault" is thus also our own, and though his many astute theoretical observations remain obiter dicta rather than guiding principles, they -- and the extensive catalogue of influences that surround them -- remain of interest. That is no small achievement. When at last a new scholarly mill gets going in earnest, M.'s book is itself sure to prove a valuable source.


  • [1] T.W. Baldwin, On the Compositional Genetics of The Comedy of Errors (Urbana, Il 1965) 208. Among his other works are William Shakespere's Small Latine and Lesse Greek, 2 vols. (Urbana, IL 1944) and Shakespere's Five-Act Structure (Urbana, IL 1947).
  • [2] R. Ornstein, Shakespeare's Comedies: From Roman Farce to Romantic Mystery (Newark, NJ 1986) 21, quoted with an appropriate comment by Miola, 12.
  • [3] And harmless, e.g., Volcacius Sedigitus, inlustris poeta to the elder Pliny, called a humanist (p. 3: misreading W. Riehle, Shakespeare, Plautus, and the Humanist Tradition, p. 16); fora the plural of foris (p. 41). Greek quotations are accurate, though often merely decorative. The bibliography is full. Comparison with the notes, however, suggests that M. largely settled comedy's business before 1980 and continued to update his card file without revising his opinions.
  • [4] For the parody see Baldwin, Small Latine, I 587-89. M. does not treat the broad comic outlines of this scene.
  • [5] For example: The miles gloriosus "brags about prowess in war and love, appropriating the two discourses into a patently false rhetoric of power" (102); "The play [The Tempest, itself now a cliché of modern criticism] thus presents the discourse of colonialism, the rhetorical strategies and tropes by which European cultures demonized and dominated native ones" (164).
  • [6] See, for example, L. Salingar, Shakespeare and the Traditions of Comedy (Cambridge 1974) and L. G. Clubb, Italian Drama in Shakespeare's Time (New Haven 1989). Whether Shakespeare could actually read Italian is unknown: the evidence is internal and less convincing than we might wish. See N. Shaheen, "Shakespeare's Knowledge of Italian," Shakespeare Survey 47 (1994) 161-69.
  • [7] Shakespeare's influence in turn on this latter-day Plautus, the kind of influence that T. S. Eliot, as Persse McGarrigle so cleverly observed, exerted on Shakespeare, would repay attention. Modern classical scholarship is less helpful to M. than one might think in part because we are not all writing about the same Plautus.
  • [8] Miola (140) quotes Satyrus' statement without seeing its larger ramifications. Contrast W. H. Friedrich's sense of the problem in Euripides und Diphilos (Munich 1953). The whole question of drama's transformation in the fourth century is worth re-examining in the light of H.-G. Nesselrath's landmark work, Die attische mittlere Komödie (Berlin 1990).
  • [9] B. H. De Mendonca, "Othello: A Tragedy Built on a Comic Structure," Shakespeare Survey 21 (1968) 31-38, and for the larger context of this observation, Clubb 24-25.
  • [10] There nevertheless remains more than a little to pique one's interest in E. Souriau, Les deux cent mille situations dramatiques (Paris 1950).