Scholia Reviews ns 11 (2002) 20.

David M. Christenson, Plautus Amphitruo. Cambridge: Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics, 2000. Pp. x + 339, incl. text in Latin, commentary and introduction in English, bibliographical references and indexes. ISBN 0-521-45401-8. UKú45.00.

Shirley Murray
University of Natal, Durban

Christenson's Amphitruo is a commentary based on the premise that Plautus can best be appreciated as a playwright who wrote for the stage. Christenson examines the theatricality of Amphitruo, while providing an extensive commentary on the play. His bibliography is comprehensive, comprising the standard works from the last century on Plautus and New Comedy, such as Duckworth and Segal, and including the more modern critics such as Slater, Beacham and Moore.[[1]] Christenson's commentary supersedes the standard commentaries as these predate the revolutionary appreciation of Plautus in performance by Segal and Slater. Christenson goes beyond philological examination of the text to include commentary on the metatheatrical aspects of Amphitruo as well as giving brief historical and general interest background to items occurring in the text of the play.

In his substantial introduction, (pp. 1-80), Christenson comprehensively covers Plautus' life and times, the heritage of Roman comedy, the structure and performance of Amphitruo, the reception and reaction of the Roman audience, the play's background and sources, and also prior and subsequent dramatic treatments of this play. This section is interesting, as Christenson has successfully synthesised the major arguments of leading Plautine scholars, and he offers a sound background to the play. There is also an informative section on music, metre and scansion and the significance of cantica in the Amphitruo, which provides a useful aid to students, enabling them to analyse the difficult Plautine metre themselves. The section on the historical treatment of the text of Amphitruo includes a valuable concordance table of discrepancies between Christenson (2000), Leo (1895-6)and Lindsay (1910[2]).

Christenson argues that despite being one of three extant Plautine doubles-comedies Amphitruo is distinguished from Menaechmi and Bacchides by virtue of the mythical dimension of its plot as well as the fact that the plot is based on impersonation rather than identical twins. However, the uniqueness of Amphitruo lies in its self-conscious development of the theme of gemination, where the conventional theme of one pair of identical doubles with consequent comic exploitation of the confusion is expanded and exploited in Amphitruo in no less than seventeen scenes involving confusion and contrast of identity of the two pairs of doubles. In these artfully symmetrical scenes, the two pairs of doubles confront each other, with the human doubles, Amphitruo and Sosia, enduring physical and mental abuse from the divine pair, leading each to doubt his own identity. The doubles motif is also expanded to the utmost in Amphitruo not only with the mythical tradition of a pair of Amphitruos, the birth of the twins and the infant Hercules strangling the two serpents, but also with the addition of a pair of Sosias, two messenger speeches, two searches for off- stage characters and a second sexual encounter between Alcmena and her impostor husband (pp. 13-15).

Christenson describes Plautine theatre as 'driven by a dynamic complex of shifting relationships between the actors themselves, the actors and the audience, and the actor and his role' (p. 22). Using improvisatory and self-conscious techniques, this theatre constantly looks inward to find humour at its own expense as it simultaneously exposes and exploits its own artifice and convention (p. 22). Mercury is the epitome of impersonation, role-play and theatricality in Amphitruo. The prologue establishes Mercury's control over the play together with Jupiter, and the pair not only inexorably controls the entire action of the whole play but also the audience's interpretation of the events (pp. 22- 25).

In Amphitruo, the audience is frequently reminded of the audience's essential role in the dynamics of the performance, and that the play is a play (and is frequently a play about a play), and the audience is directed to enjoy the play from a comic perspective which is amoral. Plautus 'exhorts the audience to identify with the gods on stage, their co-conspirators, with whom they share and should revel in a position of superior knowledge for the duration of the play'. This joie de vivre is in keeping with the spirit of the Roman festivals, when Rome's rigid social order was relaxed (pp. 33f.).

Despite the fact that the uniqueness of Amphitruo is generally exaggerated by critics, Christenson notes similar sorts of verbal exuberance, comic motifs, and techniques as found in other Plautine plays. Even Amphitruo's storyline follows, to some degree, Bettini's basic outline of other Plautine comedies, which argues that the two main Plautine themes are 'the distribution of women' and 'the distribution of wealth'.[[2]] However, in a challenging variation of the former theme, the meretrix in Amphitruo is replaced by the matrona Alcmena, and Amphitruo is the antagonist blocking the way to Jupiter's adulterous relationship with his wife, with Jupiter depicted as a youthful senex. Christenson argues against the interpretation of Alcmena as a tragic figure, arguing that Alcmena is the only character in extant Greek and Roman drama to appear pregnant on stage, and that the pregnant woman on stage is inevitably a comic figure.[[3]] There are also several comical allusions to Alcmena's pregnant state by her husband and his slave to support this view, as well as the cavalier and crude manner in which Jupiter and Mercury describe the god's relationship with her in terms of finance and usury (lines 980f., 498, 108, 1135f., pp. 36-40). Following Segal, Christenson describes Alcmena as a voluptuary, with an interest in sexuality which conflicts with the conventional public persona of a matrona.[[4]] He views Mercury's description of Amphitruo as a tragicomoedia as an announcement that the play is a mythological travesty, and as such, combines the characters typical of each genre, i.e. the gods from the tragedy and the slave from the comedy. He refutes the view that the description tragicomoedia foretells that serious and comic elements will be combined in the play, as he argues that Amphitruo is 'a Plautine festive assault on Roman marriage . . . the play exploits an ambiguous, divinely determined situation where adultery is and still is not quite adultery . . .' (p. 44). Despite the strong Roman social condemnation of adultery involving a free citizen's wife, the audience can temporarily enjoy the violation of one of its strictest taboos. Christenson argues that at least some of the more serious elements of the play have been erroneously regarded as tragical, if the original spectacle of performance is taken into account and that Plautus himself repeatedly signposts the interpretation of the play as a bedroom farce (p. 44).

Christenson provides a useful insight into the interpretation of Amphitruo, which has proved notoriously difficult to define. His introduction to the play is sound, and will be invaluable to readers unfamiliar with Plautus and New Comedy while also providing useful material to sophisticated readers.

In his commentary on the text of the play, Christenson provides a valuable combination of editorial, textual and grammatical notes with useful additional comments, which aid understanding and interpretation of the play. For example, preceding his notes on the prologue of the play, there is a comprehensive section on Plautine prologues in general, the purpose of the captatio benevolentiae, as well as specific discussion on the unusual length of the Amphitruo prologue. Another good example of Christenson's excellent and extensive commentary on the text is his handling of Sosia's famous description of scenes from the battles with the Teleboans (pp. 172-94). He devotes twenty- three pages to this scene and provides interesting background by explaining the convention of messenger scenes, the conventional use of ablative absolutes in the official military reports of successful generals as well as pointing out the parallels between Sosia's burlesque and the claims made by Roman generals desirous of soliciting triumphs. The notes on the various metres used by Sosia are clear and helpful, as Christenson notes for example Sosia's switch from recitative octonarii to lyric song as the intensity is heightened with imminent battle looming.

True to his stated purpose in his introduction, Christenson, following on Slater, emphasises understanding of the performance and theatricality of the play as essential for proper appreciation of Amphitruo. Christenson's Amphitruo is a comprehensive, succinct and intelligible commentary on the play, which will be of interest and value to new readers of Plautus as well as Plautine experts.


[[1]] G. Duckworth, The Nature of Roman Comedy (Princeton 1952); E. Segal, Roman Laughter (Oxford 1982[2]); R. C. Beacham, The Roman Theatre and its Audience (Cambridge, Mass. 1992); N. W. Slater, Plautus in Performance (Princeton 1985); T. J. Moore, The Theater of Plautus: Playing to the Audience (Austin 1998).

[[2]] M. Bettini, Vorso un'antropologia dell'intreccio (Urbino 1991) 43-45.

[[3]] J. E. Phillips, 'Alcumena in the Amphitruo of Plautus: a Pregnant Lady Joke,' CJ 80 (1985) 121-26.

[[4]] Segal [1] esp. 180-84.