BMCR 2008.01.27

Lecturae Plautinae Sarsinates X: “Menaechmi”

, , Menaechmi : Sarsina, 30 settembre 2006. Lecturae Plautinae Sarsinates ; 10. Urbino: Quattro venti, 2007. 184 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 8839208097 €22.00.

With this tenth volume on Menaechmi, the Lecturae Plautinae Sarsinates, under the direction of R. Raffaelli and A. Tontini, have reached the midpoint of the Plautine corpus. We should be grateful for the ongoing intellectual and financial commitment that produces these collections of papers delivered by Italian scholars (and one foreign scholar) to student and faculty audiences in Sarsina. The present volume offers six studies ranging from Vorbild to Nachleben; unfortunately, there is no index to guide those who might consult the book. The studies are: G. Burzacchini, “Sull’ignoto modello greco dei Menaechmi“; E. Fantham, “Mania e medicina nei Menaechmi e in altri testi”; F. Mencacci, “L’equivoco felice. Lettura gemellare dei Menaechmi“; G. Guastella, ” Menaechmi e Menechini : Plauto retorna sulla scena”; R. Mullini, “La commedia degli errori di William Shakespeare: riscrivere Plauto nell’Inghliterra elisabettiana”; L. Ventricelli, “Le Gemelle Capovane : il tema della gemellarità in una tragedia italiana tra Cinque e Seicento.”

Gabriele Burzacchini’s prologue offers few original thoughts about the play’s Greek model: of roughly eight pages of text, nearly six are block quotations from Francesco Della Corte’s Da Sarsina a Roma and Cesare Questa’s Sei letture plautine.1 Burzacchini first parades at length Della Corte’s dead horse that the servile status of the cook Cylindrus and the garbled chronology of Syracusan kings in vv.408-412 point to an original by Posidippus, only to shoot that horse unceremoniously. After he quotes at length Questa’s summary of Plautine alterations to the unknown original, he jumps without warning to quotations on the significance of the stolen palla. Burzacchini himself proposes to trace the palla back to mentions of a χλαῖνα in early Greek iamb.

Elaine Fantham’s analysis of madness and medicine is a good representative of how scholars traditionally attempt to define Plautine elements through triangulation among the script at hand, Greek ancestors, and Roman peers. For example, Fantham shows how Menaechmus’ feigned insanity may descend from famous scenes of offstage madness in Greek tragedy, probably mediated through comic paratragedy, but likely relying upon the audience’s familiarity with contemporary Roman tragedy, perhaps the Alcmeon of Ennius. While triangulation is useful, we know that the map of Plautine dramatic intertextuality is often an exasperating series of loops, crossroads, and cul-de-sacs. Paucity of parallels can make some conclusions tenuous, and often the Plautine corpus itself provides the best commentary on Plautus. On the same page that Fantham speculates on the tenor of the medical exam in the lost Greek original (p.43), she reminds us that were it not for the survival of Trinummus we might not have concluded that the allusion to stealing Jove’s crown was typically Plautine. Plautus adapted from himself as freely as from his originals, as the chariot-mounting scene from Mercator closely parallels a crazy moment in Menaechmi. Attentive students in Fantham’s audience probably left with much to consider. For example, why does the theme of madness recur in the recognition comedies set outside of Athens ( Amphitruo, Captivi, Menaechmi)? Why does Menaechmus suddenly shift from Bacchic to Apolline possession? How are doctors portrayed compared to other professional types, such as cooks? The self-consciously theatrical elements in Menaechmus’ insanity and the doctor’s examination will repay further study.

The contribution of Francesca Mencacci also poses questions that might reward deeper investigation in a more scholarly format. Drawing upon her earlier study of brothers in Roman culture,2 Mencacci works from a cultural assumption that Roman twins share a singular identity. She proceeds to analyze the play from the perspective of the visiting Syracusan twin, the one formerly named Sosicles, who lives in search of the presumably dead sibling whose name he has inherited. Arguments for individual characterizations of the twins by E. W. Leach and Kathleen McCarthy are dismissed in a footnote with a highhanded remark that attributing individual identities to twins shows no familiarity with Roman culture.3 But Mencacci herself spends no time on the play’s characterization of Epidamnian Menaechmus. Instead, she assumes a priori that, if Roman culture accepts the identity of twins’ characters, the Plautine dramatic characterization of the Menaechmus twins (or perhaps the audience’s reception of that characterization) must be identical. Is it? If so, then the behavior of Menaechmus Sosicles is overdetermined and that of Epidamnian Menaechmus is imprinted: while Sosicles continually makes conscious decisions based on an identification with the lost twin, his Epidamnian brother, showing no thought of his twinhood, behaves the same way because of something in his cerebellum. It is surely more likely that genre trumps genetics for characterization. As her title indicates, Mencacci offers a joyous and comfortable reading of Menaechmi, describing a play filled with confusion and irritation but devoid of existential angst (p.67). This is largely true, for where Plautus’ Messenio expresses mere impatience at a search so thorough that it would find a needle in a haystack, Shakespeare’s Antipholus worries that in his search to find a brother he will lose his own identity.4

The bulk of the volume (81 heavily footnoted pages) is occupied by Gianni Guastella’s contribution on the 1486 performance of an Italian rendition of Menaechmi at Ferrara, organized by Ercole I d’Este. Menechini is a watershed in European literary history for being the first publicly performed classical comedy in a vernacular language. The play’s success marked the emergence of classical comedy from reading in schools to performance on stage; Ariosto’s la Cassaria would premier at Ferrara in 1508, and important works of commedia erudita would soon follow. Most of Guastella’s paper consists of unremarkable theater history, but the observations on how Amphitruo may have influenced Menechini should spark interest not only among scholars of the Quattrocento but also among classicists. Menechini apparently borrows from Amphitruo the idea to distinguish the twins by means of a gold versus a white feather so that the audience can tell them apart. And while Plautus leaves the name Sosicles unmentioned until 1123, Menechini presents the onomastic history of the twins in the prologue. Guastella argues for the importance of the confusions being onomastic rather than physiognomic, but this only begs further questions about the dramatic priorities of the authors and the preoccupations of their audiences. If indeed theater played a crucial role in reflecting and influencing Renaissance self-fashioning, what should we make of Ercole’s choice to stage a play about mistaken twins?5 What, if anything, can Plautine comedies of confused identities set in Greece tell us about Roman self-fashioning?

Roberta Mullini’s remarks on The Comedy of Errors disappoint by their lack of engagement with Menaechmi. Opting for a Neo-Historicist approach, Mullini chooses to direct her attention to Plautine plays staged in sixteenth-century England, the Gesta Grayorum, and the Elizabethan religious and political climate, especially exorcism and uncertainty surrounding the status of Scotland. There is nothing wrong with her brief and selective observations, but in a volume dedicated to Menaechmi one must wonder why there is more comparative analysis of Amphitruo and Jacke Jugeler than of Menaechmi and The Comedy of Errors, or why the concluding section, “Shakespeare e Plauto,” ignores Menaechmi to focus instead on Amphitruo.

The epilogue, by Luca Ventricelli, is largely a plot summary of le Gemelle capovane, a tragedy by Ansaldo Cebà (1565-1622) imaginatively set during Hannibal’s siege of Capua (cf. Livy 23). The twin daughters of Capua’s leading citizen are tricked by a false promise of marriage to Hannibal; after the twins, family members, and attendants debate issues of expediency, love, and honor, the girls ultimately commit suicide. There are cursory remarks on themes and dramaturgy but little to no tie-in with Menaechmi or Plautus generally.


1. Della Corte: 2nd ed., Florence, 1967; Questa: Urbino, 2004.

2. I fratelli amici. La rappresentazione dei gemelli nella cultura romana, Venice, 1996.

3. Leach: ” Meam quom formam noscito. Language and Characterization in the Menaechmi,” Arethusa 2, 1969, 30-45; McCarthy: Slaves, Masters and the Art of Authority in Plautine Comedy, Princeton 2000. The citation of McCarthy misspells her name, misdates the book to 1992, and wrongly invokes pages 70ff, which concern the characterization of Messenio rather than the twins.

4. Comedy of Errors (1.2.35-40). Antipholus’ fear of losing himself is all the more striking because, while the Menaechmi were separated as lads, the Antipholi were separated as infants.

5. Again, comparison with The Comedy of Errors is instructive. Shakespeare never reveals the wandering twin’s original name, with Egeon only saying: “the one so like the other, As could not be distinguish’d but by name” (1.1.51-2) and “Reft of his brother, but retain’d his name” (1.1.128).