Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.37

Dorota M. Dutsch, Feminine Discourse in Roman Comedy: On Echoes and Voices. Oxford Studies in Classical Literature and Gender Theory.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2008.  Pp. xiii, 278.  ISBN 9780199533381.  $110.00.  

Reviewed by Anise K. Strong, Stanford University (
Word count: 1335 words


Dutsch's book provides an insightful and groundbreaking examination of the characterization of feminine voices in the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence. She uses Judith Butler's theories about the performative nature of gender to illuminate both the nature of speech by female comedic characters as well as the ways in which discourse marked as feminine is used by male characters.1 The strongest sections of the book are those that focus on close analyses of specific passages of Plautus and Terence in order to generate larger conclusions about the style and nature of feminine discourse in comedy (Introduction, Chapters 2-3). Her study of ancient commentary on Roman comedy, especially the work of Donatus, is also noteworthy (Introduction, Ch. 5).

Dutsch's arguments are both weaker and less relevant to her main thesis when she deviates onto the topics of female poisoners and magicians, the liminal gender states of worshipers in the banned cult of Bacchus, or the philosophical nature of "chora." In general, this book will be invaluable both for scholars of ancient gender and for all specialists in Roman comedy. While excerpts could be used in an advanced undergraduate course on Roman drama, it seems to be intended for those who already have a wide knowledge of Roman literature and culture.

Dutsch's introduction briefly outlines her theoretical approach and definition of terms. She then engages in a detailed comparison of relational terms of speech between male-male and female-female pairs of characters in Roman comedy (18-46). She notes the female emphasis on terms of affection, endearments, and expressions of suffering, which she contrasts with the masculine characters' use of humorous insults and competitive banter. Dutsch is careful to compare Plautus speeches with other Plautus speeches and Terence with Terence. She draws heavily on the work of the late Roman commentator Donatus, who similarly noted the comedic emphasis on women's trivial concerns and overly sentimental attitudes. Dutsch emphasizes that these "feminine words" were spoken by male actors; what we hear in these comedies are not the actual voices of women, but women as imagined and limited by the male authorial imaginations of Plautus and Terence.

Chapter 2, "Plautus' Pharmacy," initially focuses on the idea of "blanditia," soothing speech, as used by both male and female characters in Plautus and Terence. Dutsch notes, for instance, that "amabo," often translated simply as "please," is used almost exclusively by female characters, even when speaking to subordinate male characters (51-2). By using statistical word analysis, Dutsch demonstrates that several stereotypically female terms, such as "mi" or "mea," are also used by men in romantic interludes and other similar situations. The key marker of gender is not the word itself but the circumstances of utterance.

The second part of Chapter II attempts to relate blanditia to the well-known Roman fear of female poisoners and magicians.2 This part of Dutsch's argument is less convincing; while "blandimenta" can indeed be used to transform male attitudes towards a female character, this is not necessarily related to love potions or poisons. Such a hypothetical connection requires a far deeper treatment of the role of potions and drugs in Roman comedies specifically, rather than resorting to weak claims that the parallel "might have been quite vivid for the audience of Roman comedy (65)." Most of the texts specifically referring to female poisoners and love potions come from Augustan Age elegiac poetry and the hypothetical legal cases of the 1st century CE; more contemporaneous parallels with Roman comedy would be needed in order to tie these ideas together.

Chapter III, "Of Pain and Laughter," focuses on the gendered representation of suffering in Roman comedy. Dutsch again puts statistical analysis to good use, noting, for instance, that "au" is an interjection used only by women and only as an expression of confusion and betrayal at treatment by a male character (103). She also discusses the discursive practice of women empathizing both with each other and with their own bodies over perceived physical and mental sufferings (110).

Chapter IV, "(Wo)men of Bacchus," addresses the important concept in Roman gender relations that limits and self-restraint are associated with men, whereas women are represented as fluid and transgressive creatures. Dutsch treats the distortions and reflection of this paradigm within the genre of Roman comedy and theater, particularly since male actors transgress their natural gender identities by assuming female voices and characters. The first section of this chapter, which focuses on the theme of moderation in Roman comedy, is insightful and based on illuminating close analyses of the Amphitruo and Poenulus. However, the discussion of Livy's Bacchanalian Conspiracy and the potential relationship between Roman actors and the cult of Bacchus seems fairly tangential to Dutsch's overall themes. Her comedic material is rich enough to deserve a spotlight to itself.

Chapter V, "Father Tongue, Mother Tongue," explores Roman commentators' discussions of gendered speech and the assumption of different personae, especially the works of Donatus, Cicero, and Quintilian. Some of the Donatus material seems to repeat from the Introduction here; the use of Donatus in both locations is somewhat confusing for the reader. Dutsch's excursus on Greek views of "otherness" feels extraneous to the main thrust of her argument, and she adds little to the extensive scholarly debate on Plato's view of femininity. Similarly, her lengthy analysis of "chora" in both Greek and modern philosophy might well make a valuable separate article, but it veers too far here from her central texts.

The Epilogue summarizes Dutsch's evolving argument that Roman comedy evokes a transitional space in which male actors "play the other," in F. Zeitlin's parlance, by portraying female personae characterized and limited by certain stereotypical speech patterns. At the same time, various characters in Plautus and Terence's works undermine these rigid gender categories by crossing the lines of normal gendered discourse and adopting the linguistic conventions of the other gender.

Dutsch concludes by arguing, somewhat less convincingly, that these feminine personae do represent echoes of actual female voices, rather than merely the imagined feminine caricatures created by male authors. This is a provocative argument that could have benefited from further development. Among other questions, Dutsch never addresses the issue of the later Roman appearance of female actresses and "mimae" on the Roman stage, starting in the 1st century BCE if not before.3 How might the portrayal of these feminine characters by actual women have changed audiences' conceptions of theatrical gender roles? If mimae did not perform in Plautus and Terence's plays, how did Roman audiences react to the switch between real women and cross-dressed men in their varying theatrical entertainments? Also, any discussion of "feminine Latin" might have benefited from at least cursory reference to the existing corpus of actual female Latin writers, such as the two Sulpicias.

Dutsch largely neglects the central issue of the relationship between Greek comic antecedents and Roman comedy, aside from a brief two-page treatment in the Introduction (39-40) and occasional references later in the text. While any lengthy discussion of this long-debated and thorny issue might have distracted the casual reader, it is one of the major problems of the scholarship on Roman comedy. Dutsch fails to prove that we are not simply dealing here with Greek stereotypes about feminine speech transplanted to the Roman stage. There are indeed important distinctions between the portrayal of women in Greek and Roman comedy, but they are not fully addressed here. In general, the sections of this book that focus on Plautus and Terence's use of gendered discourse are insightful and exemplary; they should serve as an illuminating new way to read Roman comedies and understand them as social and cultural texts. Dutsch has brought many of the sophisticated tools of feminist analysis to Roman comedy that were previously reserved for the Augustan poets and Greek tragedians. However, her overall argument is not strengthened by tangents outside the genre of Roman comedy. These sections might fit better into another separate work. I look forward to seeing more close philological and feminist studies of Roman texts from her in the future.


1.   Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York & London: Routledge, 1990. 11-33.
2.   Currie, Sarah. 'Poisonous Women and Unnatural History in Roman Culture', in: M. Wyke ed., Parchments of Gender. Deciphering the Body in Antiquity. (Oxford 1998) 147-168.
3.   Starks, John H. "Pantomime Actresses in Latin Inscriptions," in New Directions in Ancient Pantomime, ed. Edith Hall and Rose Wyles. Oxford, 2008.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2009
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 12:37:24, Saturday, 11 April 2009