BMCR 2021.02.48

Plautus: Casina

, Plautus: Casina. Bloomsbury ancient comedy companions. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019. Pp. ix, 162. ISBN 9781350020535 $55.00 (pb).


David M. Christenson has written an engaging and accessible introduction to one of Plautus’ most unusual and entertaining comedies. Christenson dedicates the book to his students, and indeed my undergraduates found this book both interesting and easy to understand, and they appreciated Christenson’s thorough treatment of the socio-historical context in which this play was first produced. Christenson’s approach to the palliata genre and clear discussion of the action and potential staging of individual scenes, as well as several major themes of Casina, allowed my students to build from his observations on that play in order to reflect constructively on the very different Trinummus (which we were translating at the time). As such, this book meets all stated goals of Bloomsbury’s new Ancient Comedy Companions series, of which Casina is amongst the first volumes to be published. But beyond the excellent orientation to Rome, the palliata genre, and Casina in particular, my students also greatly enjoyed how Christenson connected elements of Casina’s plot to comic works in the Renaissance and beyond.

The book opens with an introduction to Plautine comedy (Chapter 1). Christenson briefly summarizes the plot of Casina before discussing the little we know about Plautus himself. The following sections describe the influence of native Italic traditions on the palliata genre but also situate the adaptation of Greek New Comedy as part of Rome’s attempt to enhance “Roman nationalist identity” and acquire some much-needed “cultural capital” after the First Punic War by adapting a host of Greek genres: “Plautus belongs to the second wave of Europe’s first large-scale translation project” (p. 4). It is refreshing to see Plautus given the respect he deserves for his innovations, as Christenson uses the standard comparison of Menander’s Dis Exapaton fragments with Plautus’ Bacchides to frame Plautus’ adaptation process as an act of literary imitatio and aemulatio with his predecessors (p. 12). Christenson covers all the necessary bases of an introduction to Plautine performances—i.e., the actors, performance spaces, masks, costumes, and props that they involved—but also introduces the themes of metacomedy and metapoetics, which will feature heavily in his discussion of Casina. This is the only section where I felt images of even hypothetical stages, performance contexts, or masks might help Christenson’s audience better understand the experience of watching Roman comedy.

The second chapter describes the social-historical context of Casina, a play whose original performance date is easier to narrow down than that of many other Plautine comedies. Christenson points to the increasing imperialism and nationalism of the years following the Second Punic War, but also the concomitant social tensions and changes to “militarism, slavery, religion and women’s roles and rights” (p. 19). Depicting the time as a series of culture wars between tradition and innovation in the social arena (all of which strained Roman political, religious, and legal institutions), Christenson argues that Plautine characters—especially in Casina—do allude to these central issues although Plautus himself avoids clearly picking a side in these battles. For Christenson the families of Casina are only nominally Athenian, and much about them is patently Roman. He concludes the chapter with a thorough treatment of the Bacchic scandal of 186 BCE and its relationship to Casina and to the social, political, and religious areas of tension in post-Hannibalic Rome.

Chapter three is the longest of the book, as Christenson summarizes and analyzes every scene in the play. Along the way he highlights the metrical and linguistic complexity of Plautus’ comedy, the outright spectacle of several scenes (amongst them the drawing of lots for Casina’s hand in marriage, Pardalisca’s bravura performance as a terrified messenger, and Chalinus’ violent impersonation of the nubile Casina), and the ways in which this comedy requires the audience to imagine considerable offstage activity. Christenson is especially good at emphasizing the power dynamics at play in the contest between Cleostrata and Lysidamus, as Plautus innovates by shifting palliata comedy’s usual father-son competition to that between a husband and wife.

In the fourth chapter Christenson argues that Casina has maintained its appeal because of its focus on those perennial human interests “desire, sex, gender and power” and the ways in which those facets of human experience influence one’s happiness (p. 81). Four sections treat what Christenson considers the primary themes of this comedy. He opens by focusing on “sexuality and sexual violence” in the play and the animalistic portrayal of Lysidamus. New to me was his observation that because the audience knows that Casina is freeborn and has been raised chastely and like a daughter by Cleostrata, “[l]urking beneath the old man’s lust and the Plautine sex farce, then, is the incestuous and potentially tragic pursuit of a quasi-daughter or daughter-in-law” (p. 85). In the section entitled “the performance of gender,” Christenson connects Casina to Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Thesmophoriazousae, and Ecclesiazousae, where women transgress their usual limited roles in attempts “to correct the misbehavior of men” (p. 87). He also argues that omitting Casina herself from the play—and giving the character the enticing name “Cinnamon Girl” (p. 64 and elsewhere)—is a brilliant move that allows Plautus to engage in metatheatrical play but also continues his tendency to present aspects of gender and the social hierarchy as performative and socially constructed. The intersection of “food, desire, scents and sense” in Casinaforms the subject of the third subsection, as Christenson argues that “Casina offers a cornucopia of culinary themes and metaphors that are often intricately combined with motifs of sexuality and gender” (p. 92). Aside from Casina’s “aromatic and alluring” name, for example, Cleostrata’s punishment for Lysidamus and Olympio involves starving them (p. 92). The final subsection presents Cleostrata as a comic heroine unique in Plautine comedy who emerges as a rather “provocative” figure given Rome’s patriarchal society even as the play works hard to maintain her decorum and moral rectitude (p. 81). Christenson acknowledges that our lack of clarity about Cleostrata’s own motivations prevents us from being able to pin down what Casina says about Roman marriage. However, he does think that the play suggests that “a partner’s emotions and mutual respect and consideration do count in marriage, and that even if this institution in Rome is asymmetrically structured, both legally and ethically, husbands are not really their wives’ masters and so do not possess full license to treat them tyrannically, that is, like their slaves” (p. 98-9). In keeping with his general view of theater as potentially subversive (p. 92, cf. 118), Christenson argues that—despite the apparent return to the status quo in the epilogue—the play nevertheless offers a vision of a different world that the spectators will not soon forget (p. 99).

Chapter 5 traces the reception of Casina and individual elements of its plot through a surprising number of comic works. The first subsection traces Casina’s textual transmission, revival ca. 150 BCE, and survival until the Renaissance. Christenson also discusses the composition of the acrostic summary to Casina, which seems to entirely miss the point of Plautus’ comedy by omitting any mention of the female characters and focalizing everything from Lysidamus’ perspective. The second subsection on sixteenth century reception demonstrates the enduring popularity of Casina in the Renaissance. Christenson shows how four Italian authors (Berrardo, Macchiavelli, Aretino, and Dolce) highlighted different themes of Plautus’ comedy in their own adaptations (i.e. bawdiness, the institution of marriage, metatheater), although issues of gender and power of course remain a primary focus. The section ends by showing how Shakespeare incorporated elements of Casina’s plot into both Comedy of Errors and Merry Wives of Windsor. The final subsection treats important works of reception from the seventeenth century (Jonson’s Epicene or The Silent Woman), eighteenth century (Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro, whose revolutionary effects are well established), and twentieth century. In the case of the comedic works from the twentieth century, Casina as a whole is no longer the sole source of a plot; rather, the comedies recycle—presumably indirectly—individual elements from Casina such as the smart wife with a “loutish and sometimes lecherous husband” or general “intrigue and cross-dressing” (p. 119).

The book ends with an appendix on the structure of Casina which separates the play into 23 scenes (plus prologue and epilogue) and lists the line numbers and participating characters for each. Next comes a simplified metrical outline of Casina’s six musical arcs, each of which consists of spoken iambics followed by sung mixed meters and then recitative trochaics following the scheme outlined at Moore 2012 253-5. The book concludes with 23 pages of helpful endnotes, a guide to further reading, the works cited section, and a remarkably detailed index for a book of this length.

Christenson has written an excellent and easily digested introduction to palliata comedy and Plautus, and I have only minor quibbles with this volume. It goes too far, for example, to assert that the “males in the play tend to be associated with unpleasant odours” (p. 95) when that is only demonstrably true of Lysidamus and the theoretical non-applauding male spectators mentioned in line 1118 of the epilogue. And one could argue that Tyndarus—and even Philocrates—give the lie to Christenson’s claim that “[n]o clever slave in Plautus is outfitted with such morally sanctioned motives as Cleostrata’s” (p. 98). As a whole the book is a valuable resource for both students and scholars alike, building from the ideas seen in the notes and introductions to Christenson’s admirable 2008 and 2015 translations of Casina to present a compelling argument for Plautus as a literary innovator and stealthy social critic.

Works Cited

Plautus, Titus Maccius, and David M. Christenson. Plautus: Four Plays. Casina, Amphitryon, Captivi, Pseudolus. Focus Classical Library. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2008.

David M. Christenson, Hysterical Laughter: Four Ancient Comedies About Women: Lysistrata, Samia, Casina, Hecyra.Translation, Introduction, and Notes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.