Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.10.38 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.10.38

Richard F. Hardin, Plautus and the English Renaissance of Comedy.   Lanham, MD:  Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2018.  Pp. x, 195.  ISBN 9781683931287.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Fred Franko, Hollins University (


The book’s central thesis is almost certainly correct: after the rediscovery of twelve scripts of Plautus in 1428, early modern comedy became decreasingly Terentian, increasingly Plautine. The progress of Plautine drama varied in pace throughout different regions of Europe, but as priorities shifted from reading to performing classical comedy, the spectacular if scurrilous theatricality of Plautus supplanted the smooth safety of Terence. In short, Hardin argues that it was “Plautus, not Terence, who did the most to legitimize comedy as a serious art during the Renaissance” (p.5). The author supports his claim through rapid, descriptive survey rather than nuanced, deep explication. Many paragraphs cite half-a-dozen Roman and early modern plays as instances of parallel phenomena, an approach to comparative literature that seeks to convince through quantity rather than quality. Yet despite the book’s premise that we value performance equally with reading, it neglects to engage with recent advances in performance criticism, specifically the study of original practices in Early Modern and Roman theater. The result is a catalogue of generalized comparanda in texts, providing a useful corrective for colleagues in English and theater who ignore or misrepresent Roman comedy based on facile handbooks, but ultimately offering a somewhat bookish and superficial account of the English reception of Plautus.

Hardin aims to identify key Plautine elements of plot structure and characterization, with occasional remarks that said element is present in, attenuated in, or absent from Terentian or native drama, as well as texts inspired by Plautus from Italian and northern European intermediaries. Allied in approach with studies by Robert Miola and Wolfgang Riehle from the 1990s, the author offers an improvement upon rather than a challenge to the three massive and important tomes by T.W. Baldwin.1 In formidable positivist fashion, Baldwin used documentary evidence to establish the curricula of Tudor grammar schools, asserted Terence as the more influential Roman comic dramatist, and ultimately attempted to trace the compositional genetics of nearly every element of The Comedy of Errors. Baldwin’s combination of impressive research and sometimes frankly wonky judgment erected a monument to the virtues and vices of source criticism. For example, his emphasis on publication records and reading rather than performed plays led to overvaluing Terence and imposing five-act structures; and his focus on grammar school education ignored how the emergence of purpose-built public theaters might stimulate professional playwrights such as Shakespeare, Jonson, and Middleton to approach ancient scripts as crafty producers of an evolving theater rather than as adolescent consumers of an inherited curriculum.

Hardin’s survey embraces a literary approach to Roman comedy, as the book prefers to engage pervasively with Alison Sharrock’s Reading Roman Comedy but almost never with C.W. Marshall’s Stagecraft and Performance of Roman Comedy. Fair enough, if one’s interest lies in a dramatist’s read input, but unsatisfying if one wishes to evaluate the staged output. While comparative script anatomy does advance our understanding in small increments, consideration of staging could provide corroborating insights and potentially bolder, fresher, and more significant gains. For a small example, how is a thrust stage more congenial to Plautine versus Terentian dramaturgy? One will find no mention in the book of Shakespeare’s Globe in London or the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, new laboratories for ongoing research into original practices that has generated exciting scholarly and performative insights into the practical functions of many elements in our scripts.2

The book’s first two chapters consist of slight revisions to journal articles by Hardin on Plautine reception, “Encountering Plautus in the Renaissance: A Humanist Debate on Comedy” (Renaissance Quarterly, 2007) and “The Reception of Plautus in Northern Europe: The Earlier Sixteenth Century” (Viator, 2012). The first chapter provides a judicious overview of humanist preferences for Terence or Plautus among such figures as the pro-Terentian Heinsius and pro-Plautine Estienne. The second chapter covers important receptions and transmissions of Plautus by Erasmus, Camerarius, and others. Several complementary threads merge: that Terence better served the interests of readers and pedagogues because less racy and in less arcane Latin; and that a preference for performing Plautus gradually gained momentum, even without comprehension of his metrics.

The third chapter, “Plautus and English Comedy: Points of Comparison in Essentials,” suggests how early modern playwrights lengthened plays, exploited metatheatrical self-awareness, handled physical and verbal humor, and transformed tricksters from slaves to other social classes. Whereas a Plautine play was but one component of the ludi, performances in playhouses had to provide money’s worth of entertainment for an afternoon. One could simply supplement a play with interludes, pageants, and dancing, or expand the verbiage (for example, terza rima could triply inflate a single line of Latin), or interweave plots of several comedies (as The Comedy of Errors supplements Menaechmi with Amphitruo). Renaissance playwrights fashioning their own national drama by renovating Roman antecedents naturally invite comparison with authors of the palliata refashioning Greek scripts, and Hardin marvels that in scholarly studies of metatheater “no one seems to have considered drawing any parallels between discussions in the two fields” (86).

Too often the book’s “discussion” consists of lists of parallels from several plays rather than extended explication of elements within one or two plays, without exploration of why any retained or modified elements might be significant. Bland statements that we find beatings in both Roman and Renaissance comedy duck or ignore potentially illuminating differences. Even granting that Hardin focuses on the ahistorical structures of plot and characterization, as we devote increasingly sophisticated and sensitive attention to the role of human trafficking and slavery in Roman comedy, readers will balk at assumptions such as: “Slavery in the ancient world easily translates into debt slavery in the modern; innocent victims of a pimp, the most hated class of villain in Plautine comedy, may become the dupe of the modern moneylender, the most despised character type in seventeenth-century comedy.” (135).

The fourth chapter, “Comparison: Making Talk and Scene,” examines monologues and dialogues. The division of Plautine monologues into three types—wondering “What’ll I do?”, presenting a plan of action, and boasting/confessing—offers a reasonable rubric, which Hardin applies in tabular form to classify monologues in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, and No Wit/Help Like a Woman’s. Examples culled from Shakespeare, Jonson, Lyly, Gascoigne, Udall, and others exemplify “duologues” as framing devices for monologues. Early modern dramatists learned directly or indirectly from Plautus how to employ dialogue to advance the plot, offer a duet, pause for a species of vaudeville scene, or, with larger groups, enable observation scenes with eavesdroppers in double dialogue.

The fifth chapter’s title (“Further Points of Comparison”) and its opening with conjunctive clause plus passive voice (“Yet another feature of plot in comedy is provided by Fortuna,”) conveys a certain wearisomeness rather than an imminent crescendo. Hardin outlines similarities and differences among Tyche, Fortuna, and Providence in Plautus, Heywood, Jonson, and others. The emphasis on finding parallels reasonably minimizes distinctions between Christian and non-Christian forces and less helpfully brushes aside distinctions between environments of Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Like a docent rushing us through a portrait gallery, Hardin briefly points out the mutations of character types inherited from Plautus: one breathless paragraph covers the senex iratus, senex amator, parasite, meretrix, and others (135). While it may be true that “Roman character types in Elizabethan comedy have been well studied” (140), one still might wish to pause and ponder potentially fruitful observations on insanity, alienation, and metatheater as elements of characterization. Six pages on the nebulous topic of “Atmosphere” mingle ideas of time (festival or Saturnalia) and space (private inside versus public outside, city versus country, and Rome versus London or an imagined Italian city) and credit (finance and credibility). The chapter closes with a few remarks on identity.

A more leisurely conclusion provides testimonia and praise of “Jonson as Consummate Plautine” for his role in concocting comedy with flavors more ironic, parodic, and even nonchalant.

Unlike many scholars of early modern English drama, Hardin has studied both the Roman material (“From a distance, all New Comedy can look the same, especially if not informed by actual reading,” 12) and scholarship on it. The bibliography is generally good, up to date, and international, but often the engagement with theory is jejune. For example, a paragraph on the Saturnalian and canivalesque in Plautus (146) hopscotches from Segal to Bakhtin to Bettini to Konstan to Faure-Ribreau to Petrone. Perhaps because the book offers brief surveys, it has no index locorum. The general index is barely over two pages and almost worthless, both because it fails to include all references to an author or feature and because it ignores many significant items. One will need to consult an online format to find any and all references to significant figures. There are no grave factual errors other than the misdating of William Warner’s translation of Menaechmi (a typo on page 70: for 1592 read 1595).

Finally, one reconsideration could strengthen the case for the centrality of Plautus. Hardin’s discussion neglects Lambinus and his 1576 edition of Plautus (e.g., it is omitted from his useful four-page “A Plautus Chronology, 1428–1600”). Lambinus’ edition—fresh off the frisket in Shakespeare’s grammar school days and most likely the one he and later Tudor and Stuart playwrights used—offered a crucial dramaturgical difference from that of Camerarius. Whereas Camerarius appended commentary after the end of each play, Lambinus inserted his comments after each scene, with a scene understood as the entrance of new speaking character. Thus, while Camerarius evaluated the play as a whole, Lambinus treated the scene as key. Camerarius’ approach perpetuates misguided attempts to impose a uniform, pseudo-Terentian five-act structure upon Roman and early modern drama (Shakespeare, for example, did not compose five-act scripts; only Rowe’s edition of 1709 imposed canonical act and scene divisions upon the plays). But for Plautus, as for Shakespeare, the scene is the key compositional, structural, and performative unit.


1.   Miola: Shakespeare and Classical Comedy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence (Clarendon Press, 1995); Riehle: Shakespeare, Plautus, and the Humanist Tradition (D.S. Brewer, 1990); Baldwin: William Shakspere's small Latine & lesse Greeke (University of Illinois Press, 1944); Shakspere's five-act structure (University of Illinois Press, 1947); On the Compositional Genetics of “The Comedy of Errors” (University of Illinois Press, 1965).
2.   E.g. the already decade-old studies in Christie Carson and Farah Karim-Cooper, eds., Shakespeare’s Globe: A Theatrical Experiment (Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Paul Menzer, ed., Inside Shakespeare: Essays on the Blackfriars Stage (Susquehanna University Press, 2006).

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