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CJ-ONLINE  June 2010

CJ-ONLINE June 2010

Subject:

CJ Online 2010.06.01 SHARROCK, Reading Roman Comedy

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Reading Roman Comedy: Poetics and Playfulness in Plautus and Terence. By 
ALISON SHARROCK. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xi + 321. 
Cloth, $99.00. ISBN 978–0–521–76181–9.

Order this text for $90.73 from Amazon.com 
using this link and benefit CAMWS and the Classical Journal:

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This and previously published CJ Online reviews are at 
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CJ Online 2010.06.01

After an autobiographical preface Sharrock (S.) offers five chapters that 
intermittently discuss the 26 extant comedies of Plautus and Terence “as 
literary devices, with programmatic beginnings, middles, ends and 
intertexts” (p. i): “Art and artifice” (pp. 1–21), “Beginnings” 
(pp. 22–95), “Plotting and playwrights” (pp. 96–162), “Repeat 
performance” (pp. 163–249) and “Endings” (pp. 250–89). The 
chapters’ huge length generally obscures their origin as a set of 
lectures given in Dublin in 1999. A bibliography and jejune index precede 
an index locorum in which Amphitryo, Andria, Bacchides, Epidicus, Eunuchus, 
Pseudylus and Rudens predominate, where Apollodorus, Diphilus, Menander and 
Philemon are not mentioned at all, but where Aristophanes, Callimachus, 
Euripides and Sappho are.

These biases reflect S.’s stated pathway to Roman comedy from prior study 
of Augustan elegy, intertextual theory and (presumably) the contemporary 
canon— i.e. via having studied Latin poetry rather than the Greek or 
Hellenistic antecedents of the genre (she never mentions, for instance, the 
technitai of Dionysus). Her interpretations are commensurate with these 
biases. She finds the ideals of Callimachean and Augustan poetics alive in 
the comedians, scores of “programmatic” ideas, words, characters, and 
signifiers, and numerous layers of subtle irony and meta-characterization. 
Playwrights are metaphors for characters, characters for playwrights or the 
play, and speech of all kinds reflects the process of creative writing. 
Internal complots are programmatic metaphors for dramatic performance, 
power relationships abound, and to begin, end or even read something is 
deemed tendentiously problematic. The book is a vitrine of “New Latin” 
ideas (for this term see Don Fowler in Arachnion 2, 1995 
[http://tinyurl.com/DFowler]).

Whether you accept these interpretations will depend on your own 
experience. On p. ix S. announces her book is meant primarily for “[t]he 
less-than-avid readers of Plautus and Terence,” i.e. those classicists 
who like herself find themselves forced to read or teach it, rather than 
specialists in the field, though she also hopes “to amuse, if not 
inform” those of us who find the genre intrinsically appealing, too. 
Since her discussion of actual texts is unpredictably organized and 
sparsely mapped out, in the following remarks I isolate what seem to me to 
be the principal themes.

In Chapter 1, Roman comedy is theorized in its complex totality as 
deception (actually an a priori assumption, we later learn: p. 229 n. 170) 
that is typically controlled by an “architectus,” i.e. a prominent 
character who “writes the plot with, for or against the playwright” (p. 
17). Hence the first theme (Chapter 2), that there is an archetypal 
prologue in Roman comedy that is pure exposition of requisite information 
(p. 64 n. 110, etc.). Any departure from this ideal that reader-response 
criticism can detect—superfluous details, jokes, tangential background 
information, banter with the audience—is due to “Plautine mess(ing),” 
meaning that Plautus relies on our earlier experiences to constantly tease 
and misdirect us about the trajectory of the plot that follows. This 
pseudo-expository prologic “pose” of Plautus’ (p. 31) is then refined 
by Terence to its fullest form, viz. the literary “quarrel with the 
critics” over issues of style and plagiarism. In what is by far the most 
original and ingenious idea in the book, these six prologues are considered 
to be actively inspired by Callimachus’ Aetia prologue, with Terence’s 
unnamed critic both the Telchines and the ear-twitting Apollo.

In Chapter 3 S. argues that complots are central to Roman comedy, with all 
extant specimens reducible in more or less procrustean fashion to a schema 
involving tricks of identity; the purpose is therapeutic, soothing our 
identity-anxieties (pp. 98–9). In a series of extended readings on this 
premise of varying depth, focus and originality, S. then traces the 
“self-conscious comic playfulness about the control of vision and its 
connection with personal identity” (p. 101) in Mostellaria, Miles, 
Amphitryo, Epidicus and Andria, and cursorily in other plays, isolating a 
number of perceived instances of the primacy of her theme. Chapter 4 
continues in this vein with extended intertextual readings of Aulularia as 
paranoia-play, Rudens as paratragedy, Eunuchus as 
para-Bacchae-Catullo-Sapphic intertext, and Hecyra as instauratio-inspired, 
i.e. ritually interrupted, comedy. Some of these readings rely on her 
suggestion that intertextuality is a fruitful model for interpreting Roman 
comedy’s relationship to its ‘originals’ (pp. 201–4; the inverted 
commas are hers, p. 203). By this S. refers not just to the Roman plays’ 
announced source texts (Kleroumenoi, Adelphoi, etc.) but to such non-source 
Greek comedies as Dyskolos or Epitrepontes that share thematic similarities 
with Roman plays.

Chapter 5 focuses on the closure of comedies. S. attributes to each 
plaudite-speaker (whose identity is sometimes disputed) either 
“pro-comic” or “anti-comic” characteristics and concomitant power 
to control the drama, while the comedies as a whole “dance” toward 
inclusive, farcical endings that “honour the comic spirit” (p. 279). 
Plautus likes “closural farce,” and so does Terence (p. 279). Even the 
moralizing occasionally found at the end of such plays as Captivi is 
insincere: “…underneath this pompous exterior, the signals are still 
there which tell us that this is all a joke, that we are to take the 
moralizing with a pinch of irony…” (p. 262). Thus will the axiom 
ridicula res est explain much. Throughout the chapter discussion rushes 
from one play to the next with little warning. The book then ends abruptly, 
with no general conclusion. What have we gained?

On p. i the blurb announces, “Where[as] most recent books stress the 
original performance as the primary location for the encountering of the 
plays, this book finds the locus of meaning and appreciation in the 
activity of a reader, albeit one whose manner of reading necessarily 
involves the imaginative reconstruction of performance.” Though 
tortuously expressed—the style is typical, the square brackets 
mine—this, the advertised novelty of S.’s approach, seems both 
interesting and original. Her “primary interest is in a reader of a text, 
whether ancient or modern,” who “is a member of an audience only by 
projection and imagination” (pp. 19, 18). This suggests in principle a 
narrow sort of res publica comoediarum: if not the Palatine Hill of 191 BC 
or Aemilius Paullus’ funeral in Rome in 160, then certainly Caesar’s 
schoolroom, Roscius’ greenroom, Varro’s study, Flavian Beirut, 
Gellius’ nightstand, the Carolingian scriptorium, 1850s Bonn, Manchester 
2009, your coffee table, mine….

A good idea, but in her execution S. is not committed to it. In fact she 
does worry how the play was originally staged (e.g. pp. 208, 211 n. 117) 
and how alert its audience was (pp. 54 n. 81, 228 n. 165). This impinges on 
her related aim of applying intertextual theory to “the plays as they 
stand” (p. 19), particularly in her belief that allusion “is in the eye 
of the beholder” (p. 205), i.e. that it is reader-generated rather than 
author-imposed, which she doesn’t really believe, either. In fact she 
frequently worries about the intentionality of allusions (pp. 78 n. 
140–79, 167, 288, etc.) and the related questions of relative chronology 
of the plays (e.g. pp. 190, 206 n. 100, 236 n. 191, 269), authors’ 
knowledge of predecessors, avenues and evidence of transmission, content of 
the models, “Plautine elements” vs. reflexes of the Greek source texts, 
direct parody, interpolation, etc.—that is, all the concerns of the 
traditional philologist, which ought to be totally irrelevant for her 
stated aim and beliefs. Meanwhile, her (unannounced) decision to ignore 
G.B. Conte’s insightful notion of “code-modeling” and its refinements 
in S. Hinds’ Allusion and Intertext (Cambridge, 1998) is hard to 
understand. Take for instance her argument (pp. 79–80) that Andria 1ff. 
alludes to Callimachus’ Aetia prologue. On its own the relation is at 
best topos (poetic quarrel), at worst impossible to see (because 
Terence’s prologues seem to evoke the Roman courtroom). But set it 
explicitly in the code-model approach (a poet’s rebuttal of unnamed, 
carping critics; early in a poem; outside intervention that alters an 
incipient poetic program, etc.), and you really can start to see it. But 
when S. underplays this approach and instead foregrounds counting rare 
words and the like to argue her contentions, it seems like an uphill 
battle.

At the same time, where she does adhere more closely to her announced 
program I find much of the analysis excessively fuzzy-associative and 
reductive. The various totalizations and taxonomies of perceived 
“doubles” of characters, plots, genre, etc., strike me as of dubious 
utility. Perhaps this is due to my reluctance to accept that, being more 
than 50% musicalized, Roman comedy is actually “mimetic” (and 
correspondingly “deceptive”) in the sense S. supposes it is, for if by 
“mimetic” we mean “a mirror of life,” then the difference between 
trimeter-based Greek comedies and Roman musicalizations of them will 
resemble that between Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story—the latter in 
varying degrees necessarily more abstract and more cartoonish than the 
former. I am equally skeptical that, despite its obvious appeal, 
intertextuality really is the appropriate model to apply. [[1]] But even 
so, how do these patterns help us to better appreciate the plays? Space 
taken up by potted accounts of verbal style (pp. 167–83) or numerous 
footnotes of the “on x see y” type could have been devoted to answering 
this question.

Still, quot homines, tot sententiae: I am not one of the less-than-avid 
readers of Roman comedy that S. hopes for, so this book was not written for 
me. The above remarks should be taken accordingly.

MICHAEL FONTAINE
Cornell University

[[1]] Adaptation theory is the better model; on this and the relationship 
between mimetic and musical comedy, see “The Reception of Greek Comedy in 
Rome,” in M. Revermann (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Comedy 
(forthcoming).


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