BMCR 2021.04.29

Plautus: Pseudolus

, Plautus: Pseudolus. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 414. ISBN 9780521149716 $32.99 (pb).


David Christenson here presents a splendid commentary on one of Plautus’ most celebrated plays. His reading of the Pseudolus heavily leans toward issues of metatheatre and, to a lesser degree, performance. Both are major trends in recent studies on Plautine theatre in general and Pseudolus in particular. Christenson’s commentary thus encapsulates scholarly trends that have dominated the field for the last decades.

The book starts with a clear and concise introduction to the literary, historical, and theatrical background of Plautus’ plays; due attention is paid to matters such as non-scripted theatre and, of course, Greek New Comedy (although the comparison of Dis Exapaton and Bacchides is allotted rather too much space).

The following section is a full-scale interpretation of the Pseudolus and contains in a nutshell what the editor has to say about the play. Departing from the assumption that it “is largely a comedy about the making of Plautine comedy” (p. 25), Christenson traces elements of metacomedy throughout the play. He convincingly relates the improvisatory character of Pseudolus’ play-within-the-play to the Italian comic tradition. However, this is at odds with the curious claim that “Pseudolus in fact has the script of his Greek source at hand” (p. 35): The poet that Pseudolus intends to become (401–405) needn’t be a Roman comic playwright; rather, Hellenistic ideas about poets’ inventiveness in general may be at stake. Christenson, presupposing Pseudolus is talking about comedy, is forced to claim that Pseudolus “overlooks the existence of his [!] Greek source” (p. 196).

While Christenson is at his best when spelling out how Plautine metatheatre works, he does not address nor indicate some of the more salient questions: What are the poetic purposes of Plautus’ metatheatre? What may audience responses to it have been like? Indeed, this whole interpretation is a showcase of the assets and detriments of his approach: On the one hand, we learn much about how Pseudolus and the title character mirror Plautine art and the playwright, respectively. On the other hand, very little is said about, e.g., societal issues, poetic form, or Plautine humour. I agree to Christenson’s final claim that much work needs to be done on Plautine intertextuality (beyond questions of Greek originals).

Next is language, but somewhat unexpectedly the peculiarities of early Latin are addressed only superficially. Rather, this section is devoted to linguistic means of characterization in the Pseudolus, especially of Pseudolus and Ballio. While there is much useful information here and the topic is interesting in its own right, it may have been worthwhile to devote more attention to laying out the basics of Plautus’ language, especially since students are among the core readership. It follows a commendable introduction to the notoriously thorny issue of music and metre and very sketchy sections on manuscript transmission and reception.

The text presented here, we are told, is based upon all relevant editions; for colometry the editor apparently relies on Questa’s seminal work. The text is conceived as a reading text only and features useful if few English stage directions. Christenson does not tell us whether he checked readings in digital reproductions as are available for the Palatini. There is no critical apparatus nor is there a list of passages in which the editor deviates from previous editors’ readings. Although such information is often included in commentary notes, this is not always the case, and the reader is left to wonder who, e.g., deleted 206–7 simul … nolunt (Ritschl) or how manuscripts and other editors besides Leo read 392. The commentary should therefore best be used together with Questa’s recent edition.

I should like to address some details of textual criticism. 335 i in malam crucem should (in line with most editors) be attributed to Ballio who is threatened by Pseudolus. True, it ‘is inconsistent with [his] aura of divinity’ (p. 184), but so is the unchallenged 336 ex tua re est ut ego emoriar; and more importantly, I fail to see why Calidorus should be uttering a curse here. 406–8, kept by recent editors, were first deleted by Ladewig on the ground that they do not square with 421–5. In fact, they must be spurious. Here Pseudolus says ‘I had planned to get the money from my master, but he somehow sensed it’. This does not go well with 412–3 (‘I will get the money from this old man’, though reference may be to the neighbour Callipho), 422–5 (Pseudolus is taken aback by his master’s allegation to know about Pseudolus’ quest for money and feels he needs a change of plan), and 481–7 (implying that there has not been a previous encounter between the two of them about Calidorus’ beloved). In 1051, Christenson reads triumphi of the Palatini and considers it a genitive to be taken with cantharum (‘to the tankard of triumph’). Because of the peculiar semantics of triumphus I doubt this is possible, and no parallels for this usage are cited. The reading triumphe of the Ambrosian palimpsest should therefore be preferred. 1245, the last line of Simo’s short exit monologue, unnecessarily repeats elements of the soliloquy (1239 and 1241), thereby weakening the humourous antithesis between Simias’s claim that Pseudolus is a more successful trickster than Odysseus (1244) and the drunken Pseudolus’ entrance: he can’t even control his feet anymore. It thus appears to be a later addition.

The commentary is written with a keen eye on issues of performance (including song, dance, and metre) and metatheatre. I found it clearly written, engaging, and perceptive. This holds especially for the longer notes, as they lucidly convey the editor’s notions (primarily) of Plautine metatheatre and performance (whether they are convincing in each and every case, is another matter: I have doubts about, e.g., the interpretation of the cook’s boasting in 810). A few minor points of criticism will not detract from its value. First, instead of explaining language use, the editor more often than not has recourse to translation (even in cases such as, e.g., 155 “doletne? ‘Does it hurt?’”, 523 “lubens ‘with pleasure’”). Even if the commentary is aimed at students too, to my mind the numerous translations prevent students from understanding how Plautus’ language works (especially as they are not properly introduced to Plautus’ language, see above). Second, the editor could have explained much of Plautus’ humour in more detail. For example, the joke about Jupiter’s feasting in 842–44 rests on the identification of Ballio with Jupiter (334–35, and perhaps 923), and Pseudolus’ call for an uprising (204–205) gains much when read as a response to Ballio’s magisterial language. Third, notes on style often contain little more than the acknowledgement that a certain stylistic means is employed. It would have been worthwhile to point out, e.g., the stylistic functions of some hiatuses, and I would have liked to learn more about Christenson’s views of how, in this comedy of linguistic hair-splitting and deception, language and style make meaning.

Some points of detail and disagreement: 157–75: The stage action is difficult here. Surely it seems impossible to have five actors leave, change, and re-enter through the same door at the same time within four verses. Shouldn’t we rather expect (some of) them, once dismissed by Ballio, to withdraw one by one (in spite of the plural in 165)? Christenson seems to consider this possibility in his running notes, but not in his introduction to the scene (p. 143). In any case, the actors playing the slaves at 157 and 159 cannot both exit through side entrances, as at least one of them needs to re-enter as a meretrix at 175. In 382, the joke exossabo … ut murenam coquos appears to mean more than ‘destroy’: Pseudolus will ‘gut’ Ballio by taking Phoenicium from him. 416 Athenis Atticis: the pleonastic place designation, not uncommon in Plautus, humourously highlights the contrast to the Roman institution of a dictator and the quasi-adunaton that there may be a dictator at Athens. 551 istac gratia is not ‘for your sake’, but ‘for the sake of your performance’. 653 apage te is no ‘acc. of exclamation’. 712 χάριν τούτωι ποιῶ is problematic: it is indeed idiomatic but means ‘to do a favour’, which makes no sense here. Given the fact that two instances of ‘no, thanks’ immediately follow, de Melo is probably right to assume the Greek phrase means the same. 767–89: Who is Ballio’s slave giving this soliloquy, and where does he come from? Is he perhaps to be identified with the puer who accompanied Ballio to the forum (170. 241. 380) and who is on stage in the following scene, speaking at 891–92? In this case he would have entered from the forum and not withdraw after his speech (there is no indication that he leaves). Christenson has nothing to say on this matter and believes that Ballio is accompanied by the slave when he enters (p. 267). 855 qui meus es is not ‘superfluous’, but a necessary address to the only person that belongs to Ballio while the stage is crowded with the cook and his helpers. 1064: arce Ballionia builds on the comparison of Pseudolus’ scheme with the Trojan Horse, punning on the arx of Ἴλιον. 1177: Can cubitare … in cunis, in the light of the immediately following innuendoes (1178–81), really mean nothing more than ‘sleep in a cradle’? De Melo sees a reference to masturbation (dismissed by Christenson), but perhaps we should read cunis = cunnis.

The book is excellently produced; errors and misprints are few and far between. As for factual errors, on p. 64 read Vatican, not Heidelberg; p. 99, Pseudolus and Phoenicium are missing from the scene title; p. 125 salutem dicit, not dat. Typos occur mostly in the Latin in the commentary, and few of them are disturbing: p. 118, read habuisti, not habuistis; p. 156, audistisne should be auditisne and p. 169, potisne est should be potisne es; p. 254, read ‘deification’, not ‘dedication’; p. 311, ‘20 minas’, not ‘twenty 20’. In the edition, line 1258 is labelled ‘350’.

These minor points of criticism and disagreement do not distract from the major fact: Christenson here offers an excellent commentary that successfully both encapsulates the major trends of Plautine scholarship and serves as a reliable guide for the beginner. It will doubtlessly earn its deserved place among the standard commentaries on Plautus’ plays.