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the Complete Review
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To purchase Amphitryon

Title: Amphitryon
Author: Plautus
Genre: Play
Written: ca. 185 BCE (Eng. 2011)
Length: 131 + cxvii pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: in: Plautus (I) - US
in: Plautus (I) - UK
in: Plautus (I) - Canada
in: Théâtre complet I - France
Amphitruo - Deutschland
Anfitrione - Italia
in: Comedias, I - España
  • Latin title: Amphitruo
  • Edited and translated by Wolfgang de Melo, in the Loeb Classical Library series, superseding the Paul Nixon translation (1916)
  • There are numerous other translations of Amphitruo
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the Latin text facing the English translation

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit rough, and oddly paced, but some fine bits to it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Antiquité Classique . (2012) Bruno Rochette
BMCR* . (2002.09.17) John Porter
BMCR . (2011.04.53) Peter Kruschwitz
The Classical Journal . (2012.08.04) Timothy J. Moore
The Classical Review* . 12/1917 E.A.Sonnenschein
TLS* . 13/12/1917 John Sargeaunt

[*: refers to a different translation]
  From the Reviews:
  • "C. falls down somewhat in accounting for the peculiar nature of Amph. itself, a play that poses a number of as yet unresolved interpretative difficulties, but he presents a fertile resource for anyone interested in grappling with those difficulties for themselves. (...) C. offers a very modern Plautus, with a heavy emphasis on metatheatricality, farce, and improvisation." - John Porter, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

  • "The translations themselves then are usually highly readable, not least due to de Melo's refusal to introduce inept idiosyncrasies as a means of verbal humour (recent times saw a plethora of translations that chose diatopic and/or diastratic varieties of English to add to Plautus' linguistic characterisation). However, it must be noted that, where Nixon tried to provide an overall smooth read, de Melo shifts between the idiomatic and the occasional awkward moment, especially where his translation attempts to stick closer to the original.3 Whereas the text is thus not designed to be used for a performance, the student of Plautus will get a fairly realistic overall impression of Plautus' language." - Peter Kruschwitz, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

  • "Most readers will probably turn to these volumes for the translation as much as for the Latin text. Here again de Melo is decidedly superior to Nixon, much of whose translation now seems painfully archaic. De Melo's English versions, appropriately, are generally quite literal." - Timothy J. Moore, The Classical Journal

  • "There are other obstacles to a perfect translation of these plays, and the rollicking vocabulary is hardly more possible in verse than in prose. Mr.Nixon has done his task very well within the limitations imposed upon him. To feel the full jollity of Plautus the reader will have to turn his eye constantly to the Latin pages which face the English." - John Sargeaunt, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The new five-volume Loeb Classical Library-series Plautus, edited and translated by Wolfgang de Melo (and superseding, after nearly a century, the Paul Nixon translation), arranges the plays alphabetically, which is probably as good a way as any. Consequently, it begins with Amphitryon -- but before getting to the play it is worth mentioning the general introductory matter added by de Melo that opens the volume (with each play then also coming with a brief Introductory Note consisting of plot summary, possible dates, and other relevant observations, as well a Select Bibliography (which, it must be said, tend to the eclectically (very) selective)); this lengthy (over a hundred-page) General Introduction expands greatly on the limited information offered in the previous Loeb edition of the texts.
       De Melo usefully opens his remarks by reminding readers that, while Plautus is a Latin-writing Roman playwright -- "the greatest writer of Roman comedy" (though, alas, far too few others' works survive) -- his play were all adaptations of Greek comedies -- where also: "the characters are fictional and live in a fictional world that is called Greece but has little to do with the Greece of reality". Times have changed by the time Plautus wrote his plays, the great days of Greece long gone, with Rome ascendant -- and so:

the Greek in Plautus' comedies is not the Greek of the originals he adapted but rather the Greek spoken in Rome and the rest of Italy, and its connotations are not prestige and education but servile status and frivolity.
       De Melo points out that these:
     Plays usually take place in Athens because as adaptations of Greek originals they should have a Greek air, and Athens is the quintessential Greek city
       (Ironically, the first play, Amphitryon, is set in Thebes -- necessarily so, given the subject matter.)
       Other useful observations include the reminder of the limitations of the Roman stage: the stage represented the street -- so: "the audience could not see what was happening inside the houses. All the action had to take place outside", a fascinating example of keeping the truly domestic out of sight, and bringing all action quite literally out into the open, into public view.
       De Melo also points out that:
Plautus loves to play with sounds, and every page bristles with numerous alliterations, assonances, and other figures of speech.
       This, of course, makes the Loeb-presentation, of the Latin text facing the English (with the lines helpfully also numbered in the translation, as opposed to solely in the Latin, as Nixon had it), particularly welcome, even for those with limited Latin. Thus even if the Latin is not entirely accessible to all (including this reviewer), readers can at least get some sense of the sound and rhythm of the original.
       A section on: 'Attitudes Toward Women, Sex, Prostitution, and Rape' also helpfully addresses this aspect of the plays (and Roman life in general) that most modern audiences likely have considerable difficulty with -- and which already is a central issue in Amphitryon. It remains problematic, especially since it is so common in these plays -- specifically that:
(N)either a Greek nor a Roman playwright could portray a citizen girl willingly sleeping with a lover, for such an act would immediately make her unsuitable for marriage. The only way out for the playwright was to have to young man rape the girl. Even though rape was a serious offense, it was not considered as bad as a woman having consensual premarital sex. [...]
     Rape was regarded as shocking in the ancient world, so that the rape itself is never staged but always happens before the play begins. What is more, the young men never plan to rape the girls but usually do it after drinking too much (cf. Aul. 745) and consistently want to marry the girls they have raped, which was considered to make their offenses less offensive. Whether the victims love them or not is deemed immaterial; what matters is that the marriage removes the stain from both families involved.
       (Discussion of this and similar issues can also be found in Donna Zuckerberg's Not All Dead White Men .)
       De Melo also discusses everything from the humor of the time -- some of which differs quite a bit in what is considered funny from modern humor -- to Plautine verse, the staging of the plays, and the texts relied on here, as well as, very briefly, on Plautus' considerable influence on later European literature. All in all it is a good, far-ranging, and interesting introduction to Plautus and Plautine comedy.

       Amphitryon is one of Plautus' best-known plays, and -- as the Heracles origin-story -- likely the best-known story among his plays, with the material re-used by playwrights that include Kleist, Molière, Jean Giraudoux, and Pete Hacks.
       Plautus opens the play with a lengthy monologue by Mercury -- at over 150 lines almost one-seventh of the entire play. Jupiter's son and, here, wingman is dressed up as a slave; he explains that dad sent him here to make his case to the audience. He first suggests the play that is to be presented here is a tragedy; then, sensing the audience's disappointment, offers to change it into a comedy -- after all:
I'm a god, I'll change it. If you want, I'll immediately turn this same play from a tragedy into a comedy with all the same verses.
       He settles on the happy medium: "I'll make sure it's a mixed play; it'll be a tragicomedy".
       Mercury then sets the scene, explaining how Jupiter has assumed the guise of local man Amphitruo, while the real Amphitruo is off at war with the Telobians. Jupiter fell in love with Amphitruo's wife, Alcumena, and has since, in disguise, "enjoyed her body". He has also knocked up Alcumena -- who was already pregnant with Amphitruo's child at the time.
       Even as Mercury stands outside Amphitruo's house, dad is: "now enjoying himself inside" -- and recounting his successes on the battlefield to Alcumena. But things are about to come to a head: as Mercury reports, the real Amphitruo is returning from battle that evening, with his slave Sosia .....
       The play proper then begins with Sosia returning home, having been sent ahead by Amphitruo. There he finds the disguised Mercury barring him entry -- and claiming to be none other than Sosia himself.
       The real Sosia admits to being no great hero, and not exactly cutting a fine figure on the battlefield:
If I tell a lie ... I'll be acting in my usual way, in keeping with my custom: when they were fighting most intensely, I was running away most intensely. Anyway, I'll pretend I was there and I'll tell what I've heard.
       The cowardly slave is no match for Mercury, who easily out-matches him even in imitation:
Now that I'm his double, I'll definitely make a fool of him. And since I took on his looks and dress, I also ought to have similar ways and habits. So I should be very malicious, sly, and tricky, and I should drive him away from the door with his own weapon, malice.
       The lengthy back and forth, with Mercury insisting: "I am Sosia, not you", has Sosia ultimately backing down -- violence and threats of more helping convince him -- and accepting that this other person is the real Sosia. He's befuddled -- "Did I by chance forget myself and leave myself behind ?" -- but slinks off.
       Jupiter then comes out and bids farewell to Alcumena, explaining he must return to the battlefield. When Amphitruo returns with Sosia -- whose story naturally baffles him -- Alcumena is surprised to see the man who just told her he was off to war again returning home. Meanwhile, Amphitruo is naturally outraged by what he hears his wife has been up to -- certain, of course, that it couldn't have been him that was with her, since he's only now returned.
       These competing realities are all the more baffling because Alcumena already knows of his battlefield accomplishments -- and can even produce the golden bowl that he had been presented with, all of which she should have no knowledge of, much less should the bowl have found its way into her possession, since Amphitruo still believes it to be in the sealed box he carries with him. (All-knowing Jupiter, of course both filled her in on the battlefield exploits as well as gave her the bowl.)
       Jupiter himself returns to clear up the matter -- though he takes his time going about it, his re-appearance beginning with him rather anticlimactically summing up how events will unfold:
Now I'll pretend to be Amphitruo, continuing as I have begun, and I'll cast their household into utter confusion today. Then afterwards I'll eventually have the matter revealed; I'll bring Alcumena help in the nick of time and I'll make sure that she can painlessly give birth in one go to both the child she's conceived with her husband and the one she's conceived with me.
       Confusion does reign for a while, including with Amphitruo getting into an argument with Mercury-disguised-as-Sosia; parts of the original from this part of the play have been lost, but what fragments there are pieced together here, culminating in Amphitruo encountering Jupiter(-as-Amphitruo). As Amphitruo's friend Belpharo, confronted by the scene, notes: "I don't think I've ever seen such strange goings-on anywhere".
       Finally, after the twins are born, Jupiter clears everything up for everyone -- including telling Amphitruo that: "First of all I enjoyed Alcumena's body and made her pregnant with a son by sleeping with her". Since it's a god that did the deed, Amphitruo is no longer upset -- or wisely holds his tongue -- and all's well that ends well. Still, the play's final line, Amphitruo directly addressing the audience, surely might have a sour, bitter taste to it; his suggestion
Now, spectators, give us a big hand for the sake of great Jupiter.
       From it's lengthy opening monologue, Amphitryon is an oddly paced play -- all the more so with some of the action revealed before it unfolds, rather taking the suspense out of what is to come. (Okay, the story is familiar in any case, so it's not like there will be any big surprises, but still .....) If somewhat awkward in set-up, specifically of some of the confrontations, Plautus does impress in those scenes themselves. Specifically, the question what is real is neatly entertained in the first long encounter between Sosia and Mercury, where Sosia winds up doubting his own being and everything about himself, as well as the arguments between Amphitruo and Alcumena, where each is certain that events unfolded in one particular way (having experienced them) and yet the two realities so described contradict each other .
       The double-game is enjoyably played -- though having gods as central figures, able to do anything, including passing for any human they want, is a rather simple premise that allows for anything. Disappointingly, too, Plautus does not have any of the characters reflect on the mind-blowing consequences of what happened, uninterested in what Amphitruo (much less Alcumena) think about the fact that one of their children is the son of a god, and all the consequences of that. (One of the twins will, of course, grow up to be Heracles; the other -- Amphitruo's off-spring, meanwhile destined to be plain old human.)
       The repartee is often quite good, and at his most inspired Plautus manages some brilliant turns; Mercury's prologue-suggestion that he's willing to transform the play: "from a tragedy into a comedy with all the same verses" is a concept that seems millennia ahead of its time.
       De Melo's translation is a considerable improvement on Nixon's, though there are the occasional jarring choices. So, for example, I'd suggest that:
That man will do some plastic surgery on me and remodel my face.
       is perhaps not the ideal rendering for Sosia's worried observation:
illic homo me interpolabit meumque os finget denuo.
       (Nixon had it:
That bully's going to do me up and mould my face all over again for me.
       which is also ... not great, but at least doesn't add a layer of anachronism.)
       Amphitryon is rough and a bit uneven, but certainly has enough, in its doubly usurped- and mistaken-identity premise, to make for a great deal of amusing back and forth. The play as a whole creaks somewhat structurally, not least with much being recounted for the audience, rather than played out for it (including revealing some of what lies ahead, on top of it all, i.e. cutting into the suspense), but there's enough to the basic story -- a pretty wild one, after all -- that even in this presentation it holds interest.
       Not the neatest of plays -- indeed, not neat at all by contemporary standards, beginning with the long opening monologue --, there's still enough sparkle to many of the bits and exchanges to make for a worthwhile read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 June 2020

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Amphitryon: Reviews (* refers to a different translation): Other books by Plautus under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Roman playwright Plautus lived ca.254 to 184 BCE.

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