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Enjambment in the trimeters of Plautus and Terence:

New measures of compositional method and technique

This presentation assesses enjambment in Roman palliate drama within the framework of modular composition. Modular clause units in Plautus and Terence—composition by set measures of syntax and meter—can be shown to be the predominant vehicle by which playwrights composed and imparted the words of their plays to their actors. Clause enjambment, that is, clauses with syntax spanning verse-end(s), is integral to this comprehensive system of composition.

A brief report on the syntactic boundaries derived from all iambic trimeters in the corpora of complete plays of Plautus (de Melo, 2011-13) and Terence (Barsby, 2001) demonstrates the system of modular composition in the playscripts. Half of all clause composition in the spoken iambics of palliate drama can be shown to fall into just five metric measures. These clause measures use verse-end and the two mid-line caesurae (the A5-B6 penthemimeral and the C7-D8 hephthemimeral breaks) as syntactic boundaries (Smith, 2022). Theatrical scripts are the product of a rhythmical system of composition where syntax predominantly conforms to regulated measures. These measures, in turn, conform to verse specific licenses and constrictions that serve to distinguish clause types.

When Plautus and Terence compose syntax that runs from one verse to the next, these clauses, too, are part the system of regulated measures. Half of all composition in clauses which run inter-verse in palliate trimeters tallies into only ten measures of length. In both corpora, the most frequently composed clause type with enjambment runs exactly two trimeters (A1||D12). The next most frequently deployed clause-shapes with enjambment use the major caesura (e.g., A1||A5, B6||D12, B6||A5), or the minor caesura (e.g., D8||D12, A1||C7), or both the major and minor (D8||A5). Twenty percent of all inter verse clauses extend to the end of the next trimeter, and another thirty percent extend to the major or minor caesurae. Within these modular units, the arrangement of syntax (i.e., the disposition of subjects, verbs, arguments, and satellites) is free and flexible. Given these parameters of composition, enjambment in palliate trimeters should not be understood as the over flow of syntax or metrical boundary violation (Dunkel, 1996; Deufert, 2007; Danese, 2008). The evidence speaks overwhelmingly to composition by prefab modular measures in which syntax of regular length is organized and packaged into highly favored metrical units.

Plautus and Terence, though they use the same system of composition, favor different sorts of clause measures in their composition. Individual plays in both corpora can be shown to foreground certain clause shapes, including the disposition of certain enjambing clause shapes. Such foregrounding is integrated into character and scene design.

This compositional system favors the aural/oral patterning of syntax. Playwrights availed themselves of this system, composing verse in modular measures that had distinctive metrical rhythms from regularly set word shapes. Roman play composition (just as play performance) appears to have been an oral art, but one whose methods and purpose must be distinguished from the orality of other poetic modes.