Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.11.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.11.26

Elisabeth Hollmann, Die plautinischen Prologe und ihre Funktion: zur Konstruktion von Spannung und Komik in den Komödien des Plautus. Göttinger Forum für Altertumswissenschaft - Beihefte N. F., 7.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2016.  Pp. viii, 288.  ISBN 9783110470864.  $140.00.  

Reviewed by J.C.B. Lowe, Islip, Oxfordshire (

Publisher's Preview

It is a commonplace that the prologues attached to the majority but not all of the comedies of Plautus, as well as (usually) giving the background to the action of the play (argumentum), above all serve to secure the attention and good will of the audience. Hollmann offers a detailed analysis of the relatively limited repertoire of devices Plautus uses in different combinations to achieve these ends. After an opening section listing previous discussions of the subject and setting out the author's aims, the greater part of the book is devoted to this analysis. A final section uses four plays as examples of how the devices are used to enhance the dramatic effect of particular plays.

Pragmatically, questions of interpolation are in general not considered but footnotes cite works which discuss them. It is noted that recognition of Plautus’ diversity in many cases weakens the arguments of those who suppose interpolation; .in particular the authenticity of Palaestrio’s forecasting of the first intrigue in Miles Gloriosus is defended. Similarly, questions of the relation of the Latin plays to their Greek models are ignored as irrelevant to the argument, although footnotes refer to works which argue for it in particular cases. In principle Plautine innovations are considered more than likely. Only in the case of Trinummus does Hollmann rehearse the arguments for and against Plautine originality, without reaching a definite conclusion.

The external form of the prologue is considered under three aspects, position (initial, deferred, split), monologue or dialogue (the latter only Trinummus), speaker (character, god, anonymous prologus, connected with the action of the play in diminishing degrees).

The next section examines in detail how Plautus uses the prologue to establish the fictive world of characters in imaginary time and space. The introduction of characters in the prologue is of special importance, directing the attention of the audience and explicitly or implicitly establishing their qualities. By depicting certain characters as good or bad, clever or stupid, the prologue makes the audience well disposed towards them or the reverse. The basic exposition is usually executed in the argumentum in plain style aiming at maximum clarity, but outside the argumentum Plautus likes to play with the ambivalent status of the prologue on the borderline between the reality of the theatre and the illusion of the play. Hollmann devotes considerable space to these metatheatrical effects which are typical of Plautus but particularly common in the prologues. Direct address of the audience, including abuse of particular spectators, helps to establish a rapport and win their good will.

The longest section is devoted to the role of suspense and humour in relation to the prologue. Both concepts are defined in the light of recent theory. It is argued that suspense has two components, a cognitive aspect (curiosity to know what will happen), and an emotional aspect (hope about or fear of what will happen). The emotional aspect of suspense depends on empathy with or antipathy towards a character, which depends on an evaluation of his or her qualities, taking into account the conventions of the genre, which do not always coincide with the morality of real life. The information given by the prologue about the opening situation raises questions in the mind of the spectator about what will happen; each question creates a Spannungsbogen in which the audience is kept in suspense until the question is resolved sooner or later in the course of the play. Suspense is also created on a small scale within the prologue itself when information is promised but not at once delivered.

The difficult and contentious nature of the comic is briefly discussed in the light of ancient and modern theories. Hollmann distinguishes between Inkongruenzkomik, comedy of the incongruous, and Unzulänglichkeitskomik, comedy of the inadequate (including the ignorant), in both cases harmless from the point of view of the observer and containing cognitive and emotional elements depending on the context. Associated with Unzulänglichkeitskomik is Űberlegenheitskomik, when the audience shares a sense of superiority with one character over others (laughing with one character at another). Comedy of various kinds is obvious in all the prologues except that of Aulularia. Hints of comedy to come (Spannung auf Komik) are also a feature of the prologues which Hollmann claims has been insufficiently recognised; the prologue thus serves as a kind of ‘trailer’.

Finally, the dramatic effect of the prologue on four plays is examined in detail. The principal results are as follows. The prologue of Captivi reveals facts unknown to the characters of the play, thus preparing for dramatic irony, and promises a happy end for most of the characters, but in withholding information about Tyndarus makes possible a surprise, potentially tragic, development; its metatheatrical status allows it to draw the audience’s attention to the unusual nature of the comedy. In Aulularia the Lar's prologue both characterises the miserly Euclio and thus prepares for much resulting comedy, and in revealing Phaedria's predicament opens a Spannungsbogen over the comic scenes dominating the middle of the play. The prologue of Mercator leads the audience to expect a typical father-son conflict, but because Charinus is human and ignorant of his father's intentions, this makes possible the surprise development that father and son are rivals in love; the comic effect is increased by the contrast with the durus pater depicted in the prologue. The prologue of Miles Gloriosus, in conjunction with the opening scene, by presenting as adversaries the soldier and Palaestrio with his allies, creates a unifying Spannungsbogen to the end of the play, although the reappearance of the soldier is delayed by the first intrigue. These four plays illustrate how different types of prologue speakers suit different plays.

Hollmann shows good knowledge of the relevant literature. She succeeds in showing that Plautus’ prologues regularly enhance the audience’s reception of a play by exciting their expectations through explicit forecasts or subtle hints, while still allowing in some cases the possibility of surprise effects. Sometimes her categorisation seems overly schematic, as in the diagram illustrating supposed structural similarities between humour and suspense. She is not always convincing. The storm described by Arcturus in the prologue of Rudens in some sense prepares for the jokes on the theme of bathing, but not in the same sense that mention of the stock figure of the villainous pimp leads the audience to expect comedy to come. Hollmann poses but has no conclusive answer to the question of why the two intrigues of Miles Gloriosus are so loosely connected, and why the prologue does not more clearly forecast the finale of the play. She suggests as a tentative explanation that the two schemes present increasing difficulty for the schemers. A more complete explanation of the structure of the play and of an unusual feature of the prologue may well be that, as some scholars believe, Plautus invented the first scheme. Two intrigues offer more scope for comedy than one.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010