Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.10.21

Wolfgang de Melo (ed.), Plautus IV: The Little Carthaginian; Pseudolus; The Rope. Loeb classical library, 260.   Cambridge, MA; London:  Harvard University Press, 2012.  Pp. xi, 571.  ISBN 9780674999862.  $24.00.  

Reviewed by Fred Franko, Hollins University (

Wolfgang de Melo has established an updated text and rendered Plautus into smooth, pleasantly readable prose for the Loeb Classical Library. This fourth volume manifests the same praiseworthy characteristics (accurate translation, good text) and relatively minor defects (unsatisfying introductory notes and bibliographies) observed by BMCR for Volumes One and Two (BMCR 2011.04.53, BMCR 2011.12.32). Unique to this volume is an excellent fifty-page excursus on the Punic passages in the Poenulus. The production deserves a solid 4 stars but falls short of 5.

Evaluations of translations center upon decisions, and de Melo generally makes good ones that increase readability. Appropriate to the Loeb’s mission, the translation is literal and free of both ephemeral slang and British or American colloquialisms (and thus the very rare exceptions, such as “git” at Pseudolus 794, stand out). The translation’s uniform style offers the advantage of smooth flow, the disadvantage of concealing passages where Plautus alters the tone through diction or meter, or to reflect a speaker’s gender or social status. One will have to look to other translations, such those of Erich Segal, to sense the famous Plautine verbal exuberance because de Melo seldom tries to reproduce rambunctious sonic effects such as alliteration, and most puns he translates literally with an accompanying footnote. The frequent use of “chap” for various pronouns seems fine to me, bouncier than “fellow” or “man,” less crass than “guy” or “dude.” The choice of “go and be hanged!” for i in malam crucem evokes the image of shameful execution at the expense of idiomatic gruffness.1 Overall, the translation walks the line between the stilted and the colloquial, and thus it should enjoy a long shelf life.

De Melo makes the world of Plautinopolis intelligible without becoming too familiar. Footnotes succinctly explain references to Greek and Roman allusions. Sometimes the translation presents a clear modern analogue with the literal meaning footnoted. For example, Nixon’s old Loeb simply translated and left obscure a reference to flies at Poenulus 689-90 (ita illi dixerunt, qui hinc a me abierunt modo, te quaeritare a muscis: “And lodgings, so said those gentlemen who just now left me, free from (winking) flies”). De Melo gives us: “The people who have just left me have told me that you want hospitality with no risk of gate-crashers” and the footnote “Lit. ‘flies.’ Flies symbolize overcurious people, as at Merc. 361, where the signification is spelled out.” Footnotes unblushingly indicate double-entendres and allusions to sexual violence, such as the slave boy’s speech which opens Pseudolus Act Three. De Melo retains the Greek monetary denominations, which is vastly superior to misleading equivalencies of dollars or pounds.

Rarely will a Loeb be the first choice for one wishing to stage a play of Plautus, but a theater group would still benefit from having one at hand to clarify a passage or curb some unnecessary eccentricities found in zippier translations. De Melo shows commendable restraint in limiting parenthetical adverbs for how a character should deliver lines. While one might praise Nixon for envisioning a speaker’s delivery in his mind’s eye, some pages offered a heavy- handed directorial comment for every single speech. De Melo usually leaves intonation and intent up to the reader. Also commendably, de Melo marks fewer speeches as “(aside)” or “(to himself)” than did Nixon. Plautine theater is not naturalistic theater; characters remain aware of the presence of the audience and frequently address it. Anything a translator can do to reinforce this fact is welcome, and de Melo rightly marks some speeches as “(to the audience)”. On the other hand, the occasional stage direction “(quietly)” forgets that the actors performed to a crowd jammed in front of the Temple of Magna Mater.

The good quality of the excursus on the Punic passages in Poenulus justifies its length; indeed, this section alone makes the volume worthy buying. De Melo proceeds clearly and leisurely from the most basic background on Punic in its Semitic linguistic context, through orthography, grammar and syntax, to a glossary. The short passages receive as much attention as Hanno’s ten-verse entry monologue.2

Several enhancements improve the presentation of the new edition. The number of run-over lines in the Latin has been reduced by employing a slightly smaller font and by not capitalizing a speaker’s initial letter. Line numbers for both Latin and English appear in 5-line increments, and speakers’ names are abbreviated with three or four letters (much better than the old edition’s occasional employment of only two letters). On the other hand, the lengthy prologues of Poenulus and Rudens could have been divided into paragraphs. While Punic lines are italicized and left untranslated, words spoken in Greek are usually left unmarked; some indicator such as italics seems desirable. The new edition provides a thorough schema metrorum.

Finally, de Melo’s text tempers the excesses of Leo’s, the edition used by Nixon. Leo was too quick to athetize the sort of redundancies or inconsistencies which might offend a reader but seem genuinely Plautine to a viewer. The selective apparatus criticus is slender, appropriately for the series. I fear, however, that questions of staging continue to have too little influence on Plautine textual criticism. Reading and performing can offer complementary approaches to comprehending and constructing a dramatic text. Treating the works of Plautus as performance scripts sometimes suggests an attractive alternate reading. For example, the quips of the shipwrecked and shivering Labrax and Charmides at Rudens lines 528-38 contain an extraordinary number of hiatus. Something is afoot, and Seyffert, followed by Sonnenschein, proposed to eliminate the hiatus by delivering the lines with chattering teeth. Indeed, Plautus himself gives stage directions on how to deliver the lines: quia pol clare crepito dentibus (“because, dammit, I’m chattering loudly with my teeth,” 536). I know from directing and acting in this scene that the jokes about the Manducus and the qua-qua-quacking duck succeed with stuttered syllables, but fall flat with hiatus. De Melo’s apparatus criticus does not even report this satisfying solution to a real problem.

So far, so good. Now to the weak points, bearing in mind that the overall product is quite impressive and that the length of the following criticisms should not unduly detract from the positive assessment.

The preface claims that “[e]ach of the three plays is a masterpiece and has its own highlights” (x). Yet the individual introductory notes offer almost nothing on literary appreciation: readers receive no hints on where the highlights might lie, nor indeed why Poenulus can be termed a “masterpiece.”3 The introductory notes presume a readership narrowly interested in the relationship between Plautus and his Greek originals. The nine-page introduction to Pseudolus gives a scene-by-scene synopsis mapping the unknown Greek original against the unknowable Plautine invention. The eight-and-a-half-page introduction to Rudens disappoints: four and a half pages of detailed plot summary, two and a half of speculation on Plautine alterations to the lost Greek original, one and a half on date. An introduction might more usefully alert the reader to (e.g.) the play’s unusual modulation between farce and romance. Then, instead of complaining about Plautus’ pointless doubling of characters (“Ampelisca does not have any real function in the play and is a mere doublet of Palaestra,” 394), one could note how Plautus’ dramaturgy creates a charming entry duet by two young women. Furthermore, the standard comic routine of “I hear a voice! Who is speaking? Where is he?”, ridiculous when the setting is a street in Athens, acquires touches of pathos when the speakers are girls washed ashore onto the wild coast of Cyrene after a nocturnal shipwreck. “Function” in drama should not be limited to advancing the plot; at the very least, interaction among “doublets” serves to create mood and enhance characterization. De Melo is fully capable of making good literary judgments, but the choice to scrutinize lost Greek originals at greater length curtails other comments. For example, the introduction rightly points out inconsistencies in Daemones’ characterization as a generous man, especially his seeming callousness, but it neglects to mention his extraordinary and somewhat unsettling dinner invitation to the pimp who has held his daughter captive.

In a related matter, BMCR’s reviewer of earlier volumes alluded to deficiencies in the bibliographies; I would like to provide more detail and justification for that complaint. The bibliographies of individual plays in this volume are heavily devoted to philological minutiae in selecting (e.g.) studies by H.D. Jocelyn on lines 200-202 of Poenulus and lines 83-88 of Rudens. The choice to include such finely focused items is not bad in itself; however, since the bibliographies for the plays in Volume Four contain only seven to twelve titles apiece, the choice to exclude significant literary studies covering an entire play, which could have compensated for the lack of discussion in the introductory notes, becomes very hard to defend.4 While book-length studies of the entire corpus do appear in the general bibliography of Volume One, it would help a reader to see citation of a relevant chapter in a play’s particular bibliography. More damagingly, some seminal works do not even appear in the general bibliography. For example, neither the general bibliography nor the relevant bibliographies of individual plays include Kathleen McCarthy’s Slaves, Masters, and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy, winner of the 2002 APA Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit. I find no trace anywhere of Niall Slater’s works, neither his Plautus in Performance, certainly one of the half dozen most significant studies of Plautus in the past thirty years and containing a stimulating chapter on Pseudolus, nor his “Plautine Negotiations: The Poenulus Prologue Unpacked.” The choice to ignore performance criticism reinforces the divide between library and stage. On the good side, bibliographies do include works in Italian, German, and French.

This is not simple carping but a complaint that the introductory notes and their bibliographies ignore the needs of two important audiences: colleagues in other disciplines and the non-specialist public interested in literary or theatrical history. The dust jacket targets such audiences in its opening sentence: “The rollicking comedies of Plautus…are cornerstones of the European theatrical tradition from Shakespeare and Molière to modern times.” The introductory notes show little interest in literary or theatrical matters, and that is a shame, for a sentence or two could help readers savor (e.g.) the wonderful and sometimes disquieting intertextual dialogue between Rudens and Shakespeare’s The Tempest.


1.   De Melo apparently saves the stronger and more idiomatic translation “go to hell!” for Poenulus 295 to enable the rejoinder ibi sum equidem (“I’m there already.”). But note that Plautus himself gives us abi domum ac suspende te (“go home and hang yourself”) at Poenulus 309.
2.   Yet de Melo, contra Gratwick’s arguments based on staging, believes that Hanno delivered a Latin entry monologue after his Punic one because of the a priori reasoning that “Plautus is a playwright who prefers to spell things out for his audience” (p.8). The only way such a double entry monologue could work on stage is for Hanno to speak his Punic, somehow express exasperation at the audience’s failure to comprehend, and then perform again the monologue in Latin.
3.   While Harsh’s condemnation (“The Carthaginian is miserably constructed and is a poor play in every respect,” A Handbook of Classical Drama [1944], 364) is harsh indeed, calling the play a “masterpiece” is a stretch.
4.   The twelve titles for Pseudolus (four by Jocelyn) represent by far the most generous bibliography in the published volumes; in contrast, the bibliography for Aulularia lists only three items; Epidicus, Menaechmi, and Persa four each.

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