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The Comic and the Tragic Birth of Heracles

Dustin Dixon

In this paper, I argue that Plautus’ handling of the Theban myth of Heracles’ birth in Amphitruo suggests a sophisticated adaptation rather than a slavish and defective translation of a Greek original. After Fraenkel’s seminal study of Plautus, certain original elements in Plautine comedy have been acknowledged (see recently Fontaine), but the mythological originality in Amphitruo has not yet been fully appreciated. Plautus’ mythopoeia likely remains unappreciated because of the currently prevailing opinion that most mythological comedies were parodies (therefore derivative) of tragedy. But recently students of Greek comedy (esp. Bakola and Henderson) have argued that Cratinus, the elder contemporary of Aristophanes, did not derive his mythological plots entirely from tragedy, and I apply their ideas to the only completely extant mythological comedy from either Greece or Rome: Plautus’ Amphitruo. Especially important is Henderson’s study, which shows how Cratinus’ Nemesis transformed Zeus’ rape of the eponymous goddess into a seduction plot more suitable for comedy.

My paper compares Plautus’ treatment of the myth to earlier literary treatments, especially Euripides’ fragmentary Alcmene. Previously, when scholars (e.g. Lefèvre) have compared these two dramas, they usually do so in an attempt to show how Plautus has translated Euripides’ tragedy into a Roman comedy. Instead, I argue that each playwright adapted the same myth in different ways to make it suitable for their respective genres. For example, Euripides’ Alcmene includes the detail that Alcmene refused to consummate her marriage until Amphitruo had avenged her brothers’ deaths at the hands of the Taphians, or Teleboans, (see fr. 87b). In the prologue to Plautus’ Amphitruo, although Mercury mentions the war against the Teleboans, he omits any reference to revenge and the refusal to consummate the marriage. According to Christenson, “Mercury shows no interest in the mythical background” (ad 101). This omission, however, helps to set up the doppelgänger gag at the heart of the comedy. Since Alcmene was pregnant before Amphitruo’s departure for war, he has no reason to be suspicious when he returns home to a pregnant wife. Thus, Plautus has subtly adapted the myth for his comic purposes.

Unfortunately, we can not definitively identify which innovations, if any, Plautus himself has introduced to the myth. Through a comparison of the Amphitruo and the Alcmene, however, we can better understand how subtle and substantial manipulation of mythology can make the same story either comic or tragic.

Session/Panel Title

The Matter of Thebes

Session/Paper Number

17.2

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