1. Education

Quick Review of John Henderson's 'A Plautus Reader'

Selections From Eleven Plays


A Plautus Reader

A Plautus Reader


Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers has produced a series of Latin readers for intermediate to advanced college students that share a basic style, length, and format, and are written by topical experts. They contain an introduction, representative selections, notes (commentary), references, and a vocabulary list. Some -- like the one on Lucan are self-contained and excellent. The University of Cambridge's Professor of Classics John Henderson wrote the volume on Plautus and while it might work in class with other texts and commentary, it doesn't work well on its own.

In his A Plautus Reader: Selections from Eleven Plays, Henderson tries to be funny. As he is well aware, trimming the fat makes humorous gibes more poignant, but he leaves out too much.

In the first sentence of the commentary section, Henderson refers the reader to a different text. That was almost enough to make this reader throw up her hands in frustration. The commentary's opening sentences are "Plautus defies formulae in getting plays started (see *Marshall 194-97). Sometimes he cracks on without a word." What does that second sentence refer to or mean? What are the formulae? How does Plautus defy them? Had Henderson discussed the conventions of Roman theater in the introduction, this might be more understandable, but he does not. My best guess is that the sentences are designed to elicit a (British-style) laugh.

Here is the first half of his introduction to the Menaechmi, a comedy about twins and mistaken identity [see Classic Literature at About.com on Shakespeare's 'The Comedy of Errors']:

"Drop-Dead Gorgeous: The Babe

Lust doesn't always rule the comedy roost. But it's usually in the mix, and ogling and gawping at/and pawing and groping keeps spectators and actors at it. In general, predatory desire scents 'totty' or hottie'...."

Henderson suggests to the reader that it is easy to get the feel for Plautus, despite the ancient playwright's colloquialisms and archaic language. The commentary should help with this, right? Well... it sort of does. The commentary contains some grammatical notes, and the references, and the proper names index are useful, especially since Henderson provides the meanings behind the names (e.g., Diabolus = Mud-Slinger or Snitch and Simo = Snub-Nose-y) in addition to a standard pronunciation, but Henderson seems too intent on stimulating the reader to share his love of Plautine humor and language (he lovingly refers to the language as Plautin) to provide much real help.

Unfortunately, Plautus (d. 184 B.C.), the earliest Latin writer from whom we have complete works [see Timeline of the Golden Age of Latin Drama] and an ongoing source of interest to non-Classicists because he was a plot source for William Shakespeare's comedies, needs even more commentary than the Bard of Avon. Plautus used contemporary colloquialisms, slang, and puns, as well as archaic spelling and word forms, so he also needs more, not less grammatical and lexical help than later Latin writers.

Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.

About 'A Plautus Reader'

A Plautus Reader: Selections from Eleven Plays
John Henderson
Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc.
182 pages. ISBN 9780865166943

616 lines of Latin text from 11 plays:

1. Asinaria lines 746-809

2. Amphitruo (Amphytrion, the only Plautine play on a mythological theme) lines 361-462

3. Captivi lines 1029-36

4. Casina lines 798-854 and 1012-18

5. Cistellaria lines 203-38

6. Curculio lines 462-86

7. Menaechmi lines 77-108 and 351-69

8. Poenulus lines 1-45 and 541-566

9. Pseudolus lines 1-2 and 394-414

10. Rudens lines 938-1044

11. Truculentus lines 482-548

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.