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The embedded epistle is a prominent plot device in Plautine comedy (cf. Jenkins 2005). In the Trinummus, the epistolary deception is subverted through the unexpected arrival of the letters’ alleged author, Charmides, who encounters the sycophant hired to deliver epistles supposedly written by him. While traveling abroad, Charmides has left his daughter in the trust of Callicles, who forges two letters so as to provide a dowry for the virgo from a buried treasure without alerting her spendthrift brother. In his collision with the “messenger”, Charmides quickly catches on to the trickster’s fiction and takes comic advantage of his ignorance. When he finally reveals his identity, the sycophant leaves the stage, taking the letters with him – unread. Offering a close interpretation of this failed delivery scene (Act 4 Scene 2), my paper argues that the clash between Charmides and the sycophant may be read metatheatrically as reflecting Plautus’ stance of independence towards his model text, Philemon’s Thesaurus.

My analysis builds on Jenkins’ (2005) observations about the stunted “kinetic potential” of the letters (cf. Rosenmeyer 2001, 65), the plot’s play with the epistolary absens/praesens topos, and the trickster’s characterization as graphicus, which connects him to the duplicity of the written word in Plautine comedy, whereby embedded letters qua writing serve as a symbol for the creation of fiction (cf. also Sharrock 1996). I suggest that the letters, on a metapoetic level, represent Plautus’ Greek model – the fact that they are belied and remain unread is significant and may, I submit, yield some insight into Plautus’ mode of translation.

First, I argue that the counterfeited epistles function as images of the script for the Trinummus’ internal plot, its “play-within-the-play” (Slater 1985), and for the play writ large. The external and internal performances are made equivalent by the fact that Plautus’ comedy bears the same title as the day named Trinummus by the sycophant after the three nummi he receives for his role (vv. 843-44). Next, I show how the trickster’s “scriptedness”, highlighted by his repeated characterization as graphicus, is contrasted with, and trumped by, the improvisational nature of Charmides. The senex is highly self-conscious: like Pseudolus or Chrysalus, Charmides is endowed with superior knowledge and empowered to make asides to the audience. The trickster is helpless in the face of this comic heroism: even as his story begins to unravel when challenged by the letters’ “author”, he can only cling to what is scriptum (v.982); he cannot improvise, although the situation demands it for the success of his performance. Charmides can, however: his metatheatricality enables him to confute the sycophant’s role and the letters’ fiction. By dismissing the epistles qua scripts, he sabotages the epistolary deception (made superfluous by his arrival), thus subverting the internal plot and, I submit, the play itself.

In the paper’s final part, I propose that this comic agon represents a clash of the two dramatic traditions influencing Plautus’ palliata, scripted Greek theatre and Italian improvisatory drama, and ultimately functions as an assertion of the playwright’s poetics. It has been suggested that the scene is originally Plautine, or largely so (cf. Petrone 1983, Lefèvre 1995); Riemer (1996) argues that Plautus composed this title scene so as to underline his contribution to the model text. These critical treatments, however, attempt to discern Plautus’ innovation by separating motifs they perceive to be Plautine from those considered Philemonian. Rather than basing itself upon a hypothetical recreation of Philemon’s Thesaurus, my analysis proposes a reading of Plautus’ originality from a metatheatrical perspective. Whether or not a similar scene occurred in the Thesaurus, Charmides’ arrival and clash with the sycophant, his impromptu performance, stands, I submit, for Plautus’ creative contribution to the plot. Within the Trinummus, the scene serves to highlight Plautine aesthetics: by subverting the play’s epistolary scheme, its scripted plot, it affirms Plautus’ independence and proclaims the triumph of his improvisatory poetics through the defeat of the scripted sycophant.