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The Performance of Identity in Plautus’ Amphitryon

Joseph P. Dexter

This paper offers a new reading of Plautus’ Amphitryon based on theorizations of identity as performative. A basic tenet of performance studies is that personal identity, in both theatrical and everyday contexts, is constructed by the set of repeated, characteristic actions that an individual embodies—what Schechner (1985) calls “twice-behaved behavior.” Identity performativity is deployed most famously in Butler’s theorizations of gender and has had an important reception in the study of gender in the ancient world (Butler 1988, Butler 1990, Gunderson 2000). Although performativity has influenced the critique of theatrical constructions of gender, race, and ethnicity in modern drama (Dolan 1991, Dolan and Wolf 2011, Negra 2006), performative readings of ancient theatre have not been developed. Here I argue that Plautus’ Mercury and Jupiter conceptualize identity in terms of performance, leading the audience to do the same, but that the human characters (Sosia, Amphitryon, and Alcumena) view identity as fixed, materially determined, and non-performative. The conflict of the Amphitryon is thus derived from a fundamental asymmetry in how the characters understand personal identity. The divine characters, who are preconditioned to recognize that identity is performative, exploit the humans’ zero-sum understanding of identity to great comic effect. Following this performative reading of the Amphitryon, I conclude by examining how the tragicomedy can be seen as a foundational text in performance studies.

Critics have long recognized that issues of identity are important in the Amphitryon (Barnes 1957, Oniga 1991, Faller 1999) and its reception (Gelineau 1998, Zunshine 2006). Past philosophical and psychological readings of identity, however, have not considered the play in terms of contemporary theories of performativity. Existing work has generally focused on the long confrontation scene between Sosia and Mercury (153-462), which culminates in Sosia concluding that he has “lost” his identity because of Mercury’s impersonation (cf. perii  and perdidi at 456-7). I contend that Sosia fails to appreciate what has happened because his zero-sum conception of identity precludes recognition of the potentials of performance that are intuitively obvious to Mercury and the audience. He fixates on the similarity of Mercury’s forma to his own, as evidenced by his lengthy catalogue of his doppelganger’s physical characteristics (441-5) and his tendency to think of identity in material terms (cf. his striking use of alieno at 399 refer to personal identity rather than property). Similarly, Amphitryon is later betrayed by his overreliance on material signifiers such as the golden bowl to “prove” his identity (780-1).

The Mercury-Sosia scene follows Mercury’s description of the double impersonation in the prologue. He notes that Jupiter has “assimilated” himself into Amphitryon’s character (sed ita adsimulauit se, quasi Amphitruo siet, 115) and that this transformation is routine for Jupiter (where uorsipellem at 123 highlights the performative process). In the course of narrating the play’s argumentum, Mercury details the characteristic actions that Jupiter has engaged in (120-40) to assume Amphitryon’s identity. These comments, which are echoed by Jupiter much later (861-6), indicate that the divine characters recognize that identity is constructed through “twice-behaved behavior.” Furthermore, Mercury is predisposed to think performatively, both because of his status as a Plautine seruus callidus and because of his transformation from Hermes to Mercury concurrent with the adaptation of the play to a Roman context, which he highlights in the prologue (cf. Feeney 1998 on nuntius and nuntiem at 8-9).

My reading suggests that the Amphitryon should hold a special place in performance studies as among the earliest demonstrations that identity is performative and as a basic illustration of the limitations of essentialist conceptions of identity. The central asymmetry of the Amphitryon is mirrored in many other Plautine comedies in which a seruus callidus acts metatheatrically to execute tricks that prey on another character’s non-performative understanding of identity. Future critical or theatrical work that emphasizes the performative dimension of the Amphitryon could open up a fruitful and symbiotic connection between performance studies and more traditional approaches to Roman comedy. 

Session/Panel Title

Performance and Space in Ancient Drama

Session/Paper Number

30.3

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