Old Comedies Aristophanes' Clouds | The Comedies of Menander | Plautus's Pseudolus

Films The Comedies of Charlie Chaplin | Frank Capra's It Happened One Night | The Marx Brother's A Night at the Opera

Plautus's Pseudolus

Mosaic of Actors Preparing to Perform a Play

As in both the plays of Aristophanes and Menander, the roman playwright Plautus addresses the issues of class consciousness and status in his works. Plautus particularly addresses the influence that class and status had on ancient Roman society and thinking. This is clear throughout his play, Pseudolus, in which each of the characters are developed based on their class and status. Their actions are reflections of how the issues of class, wealth, and status influenced Plautus, and, through his plays, influenced Roman society.

Lower Class -


Pseudolus is the main character of the play, and, as a slave, represents a low social status in Roman society. He is cunning and is against authority, even his own master:

SIMO: His words will now convince you that you've taken on / not Pseudolus, but Socrates.
PSEUD: All right. I realize you've always put me down; / I know you've got no confidence in me. / You'd like me worthless; still, I'll be first class.
SIMO: Keep your ear space vacant, Pseudolus; / Admit my words as tenants for a while.
PSEUD: Speak your mind, though I'm furious at you.
SIMO: A slave, furious at me, your master?
PSEUD: Does that / Seem so strange? (464-472)

Unlike the lower class characters in Aristophanes' plays, Pseudolus seems to be his own master. He is the star of the play. This is in contrast to the main characters of Aristophanes' plays who, while being of lower classes, are far above slaves on the social ladder. Pseudolus represents an attack on the upper class, because, although he is a slave, he is more cunning than they, and can manipulate them:

He's gone; you're on your own now, Pseudolus. / Now what'll you do? You've loaded master's son / With precious promises; can you get the goods? / If you haven't a particle of a proper plan / You can't begin to weave a cunning cloth / Or execute a definite design. / But look at the poet: when he starts to write, / He seeks was doesn't exist, and the he finds it; / He makes invented fiction look like truth. / All right, I'll be a poet! Twenty coins, / Which don't exist on the face of the earth, I'll find. / Ages ago I said I'd give him [Calidorus] the money, / Hoping to lay a snare for our old man ; but somehow "Dad" [Simo] got wind of what I wanted. (394-408)

For all that he is a trickster, Pseudolus does not manipulate the upper classes for his own advancement. He does it to help others, although often twisting his plans to benefit himself at the same time. Pseudolus offers to help Calidorus find the money to keep his girlfriend by saying, "Don't fear, my lovesick dear, I won't desert you. / Somewhere, somehow, some way (maybe) today / I'll find you silvery succor and salvation. / Where, oh where will it come from? I don't know, / But I know it will: I've got a twitching brow" (103-107).

Plautus uses Pseudolus as a means of creating a comic hero whose worth is not based on his status and class in society. Instead his worth is based on his ruthless cunning and his kindness to those he helps. While it is clear that Pseudolus is a slave, it is also clear that he is has to potential to be kind and helpful to those he cares about. Plautus was attempting to show his audience that human worth is not based merely on wealth and social position, but on decent human qualities that transcend what society dictates as making a human powerful and great. Pseudolus is not of a powerful status, but his intelligence and kindness to those he loves makes him a great and essentially good character.

Upper Class -


Calidorus is the son of Pseudolus' master, and he is a lovesick and naïve young man. Calidorus represents the higher class, which should put him in a position of power, but he immediately defers his problem to Pseudolus and becomes dependent on the slave: "Help me: what should I send this man / To stop my girl from going on sale?" (233-234). He even lets Pseudolus boss him around:

CALID: I'm tortured!
PSEUD: Toughen up!
CALID: I can't.
PSEUD: Well, force yourself!
CALID: How can I?
PSEUD: Try to control your emotions, man! / Concentrate on constructive thoughts; / When things go wrong, don't pander to passion . . . CALID: Pseudolus, let me be silly. Please!
PSEUD: I'll let you, if you let me leave.
CALID: Wait! Wait! I'll be just the way you want me.
PSEUD: Now you're sounding sensible. (236-241)

While Calidorus is of a higher class, he has little power. He depends on Pseudolus, and is unable to stand up against Ballio by himself. He even asks Pseudolus to begin insulting Ballio, rather than start it on his own: "Pseudolus, stand on the other side and pile curses on him [Ballio]" (358-359). He cannot fight his own battles.

Plautus uses Calidorus' character to show that wealth and high class does not necessarily go along with power. While the powerful may often be wealthy, the wealthy may not always be powerful. Plautus was trying to make a statement about judging a person based merely on wealth and class. Calidorus is likable and his whining adds a lot of comedy to the play, but he is not an influential character. He is a key role, but is never a driving force behind the action.

High Status -


Ballio is a wealthy slave dealer and pimp, and is the villain of he play. He is manipulative, and is in a position of power over his slaves:

Get out! Come on, get out, you slugs! / As merchandise you're rotten; / You never do no good nohow: / There's naught you've not forgotten! / Unless I whip you this way, / You aren't in the least bit useful; / You're more like donkeys than men, / With ribs all striped and bruiseful. (133-137)

He is also in a position of power over Calidorus, who is of a higher class, but is unable to stand up to Ballio's villainous double-dealing:

CALID: What do you say, you ultimate / Extreme of human perjury? / Did you swear that you would never / Sell her to anyone but me?
BALLIO: I did, and I admit it.
CALID: Well then. / Hadn't you pledged, and formally too?
BALLIO: Yes, but I fudged; I normally do.
CALID: Perjury! You criminal!
BALLIO: I put some money in my pocket. / If that's criminal, don't knock it. / You've got virtue and family fame- / But not a penny to your name. (351-357)

While Ballio is wealthy and powerful, he is not at all likable. Plautus uses him as an example of how wealth and power have to potential to corrupt. While Calidorus is wealthy but not powerful, he is likable. Pseudolus is not wealthy nor of high class, but he is in a position of power and is the hero of the play. Ballio, on the other hand, is wealthy and powerful but detestable. While he meets the generally accepted criteria for greatness, wealth and power, no person would ever call Ballio a great man. Plautus uses this as a means of showing society how little wealth and power count towards true human worth.

Upper Class -


Simo, a wealthy slave owner, is the master of Pseudolus, so he should be in the position of power. However, Pseudolus once again gets the upper hand when the slave tricks Simo into making a bet that Pseudolus is already sure that he will win:

PSEUD: Ye gods! I'll never beg from another man / While you're alive. You'll give the cash yourself./ I'll wheedle it from you.
SIMO: From me?
PSEUD: Precisely.
SIMO: Holy Herc, knock out my eye, if I give.
PSEUD: You'll give. / Watch out; you've got fair warning. (507-510)

Simo plays the role of the upper class man who is somehow tricked into losing money to a poor, cunning slave. Although, he still has the power to deny Pseudolus the bet money, but he does not because he is dignified and keeps his promises: "I'll go inside / To find the twenty minas/ that I promised if he did the job. / I'll pay him of my own free will. / The creature is so very clever, / Very cunning, very sly./ Pseudolus has quite surpassed/ The Trojan horse, Ulysses too" (1240-1244). Finally by the end of the play, Simo and Pseudolus are closer to equals in terms of their power: Pseudolus has won the bet by outsmarting his master, yet Simo is fair and fulfills his end of the bargain.

Old Comedies Aristophanes' Clouds | The Comedies of Menander | Plautus's Pseudolus
Films The Comedies of Charlie Chaplin | Frank Capra's It Happened One Night | The Marx Brother's A Night at the Opera

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