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Wife-Erasure in Terence's Hecyra

Hannah Sorscher

University of North Carolina Chapel Hill

Wife-Erasure in Terence’s Hecyra

Pamphilus of Terence’s Hecyra is a polarizing figure among scholars and readers. When he discovers that his wife, Philumena, has borne a child by an unknown rapist, he rejects both her and the baby. But when he himself is revealed as the rapist, Pamphilus joyfully changes his mind, and they remain married at the close of the play. To some, he seems noble and sympathetic (e.g., Austin, Bianco, Denzler, Forehand, Ireland, Rosivach, Knorr); to many others, self-centered, uncaring, violent (e.g., Konstan, Goldberg 1986, Fantham, Cupiauolo, James, Pierce, Anderson, Penwill, Moore). In this paper, I identify a lexical pattern, previously unnoticed, that supports the negative interpretation: after Pamphilus discovers the child, who he is sure cannot be his, he recasts his marriage to Philumena as a love affair on a par with his previous relationship to the meretrix Bacchis. A close look at Terence’s carefully crafted syntax and word choice reveals Pamphilus as fundamentally callous and self-centered.

Philumena has no speaking role and never appears on stage. Her name expresses her passivity (Goldberg 2013), and her absence is all the more striking considering the amount of female speech and the prominence of female characters in Hecyra (Slater, Knorr), famously dubbed “a woman’s play” (Norwood). But Terence shows Pamphilus erasing Philumena even from his speech once he has learned about the child (361). After his discovery, his references to her by name or relationship (words like uxor or nuptiae) decrease dramatically. For the bulk of the play, Pamphilus identifies Philumena mostly by pronouns or feminine word-endings (e.g., redducenda 402, eius 403, in illam 472, 485; ex ipsa 473; illa, quae, iniquast, aequa 474; indignam 477, quae, sua 478; quae…commeritast 486; meritam 487; illi 490; illam 492; suom 846).

Scholars have noted how quickly Pamphilus rejects his wife after his discovery, even though he presents himself as tortured and undecided (Penwill). His lexical erasure of Philumena, as he first mentions abandoning her, corroborates this observation: the feminine ending of redducenda (402) alone indicates whom Pamphilus is discussing. As he begins line 404 with lacrumo quae posthac futurast, the feminine relative pronoun quae and ending of futura, along with context, create the expectation that he is concerned for Philumena’s future. But as he continues, the audience realizes that he is lamenting his own life, loneliness, and fortune (lacrumo quae posthac futurast uita quom in mentem uenit | solitudoque. o fortuna, ut numquam perpetuo’s data, 404–405).

Pamphilus also uses periphrases to avoid mentioning either wife or marriage, describing their relationship with the terminology of love affairs (amor 403, 448; consuetudo 403). This vocabulary both centers on his own emotions, rather than on Philumena, and equates her with a meretrix: he twists his legitimate marriage into an affair so that he can more easily abandon his wife. As he says, his experience ending his relationship with Bacchis has prepared him to treat his wife similarly: sed iam prior amor me ad hanc rem exercitatum reddidit (407). Pamphilus’ periphrases also push Philumena back to her natal family: he calls her not his wife, but her mother’s daughter (suae gnatae 446). By contrast, the Pamphilus of Terence’s earlier Andria (Penwill) considers Glycerium his wife (pro uxore 146, 274), although they are unmarried and she is not yet revealed as a citizen (Williams, Konstan).

Even once Pamphilus learns, to his joy, that the baby is his, he continues to focus on himself and to erase his wife linguistically. By not resolving this pattern in Pamphilus’ speech, Terence creates a disparity between his joy and the discomfort that viewers and readers have felt about Philumena’s fate. Her lexical erasure throughout the play provides philological corroboration of Pamphilus’ selfishness and his uncaring attitude towards his wife, as well as the sense of unease that hangs over the play’s superficially happy ending.

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Greek and Latin Comedy

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