Teaching Roman Comedy to high school Latin classes can be challenging. The Latin is difficult and idiomatic and the humor can feel foreign and even incomprehensible. The refrain is often: “Is this supposed to be funny?” Yet the challenge of Roman comedy should not be feared or shunned but rather accepted, because the rewards more than make up for the initial struggles.
The first challenge is to communicate to students how comedy functioned in the Roman world. Once the students understand the context for Roman comedy and have read through a play in English, they can tackle the Latin. In Level III, the students are at a stage in their Latin education where they can approach Latin texts in the original with only minimal adjustments. However, while these aids will assist the students with translating the Latin, they do not often result in the students laughing at the Latin. The jokes get lost in the difficult transition from Latin to translationese English to natural English capable of delivering the joke.
To tackle this lack of laughter, my students “modernize” selections of their translations. The students must analyze the goal of the humor (why is this funny?) and then put the passage in a form that achieves that goal for a modern, high school audience (how could this make my classmates laugh?). The jokes are now familiar and laugh-inducing and the students see the similarities and differences between modern comedy and Roman comedy.
Finally, students can experience the play as a whole with live humor and properly inflected jokes by attending a modern performance. Sometimes the divide between written and performed comedy is larger than that between the Latin and English. These lively performances put the students in the position of a Roman audience and give them a chance to let loose and laugh in a way they often don’t when simply translating Plautus or Terence in class.
Teaching Roman comedy in the high school classroom can certainly be daunting. Yet with some context, a few comparisons, and a lot of input from the students, those grumbles of “Is this supposed to be funny?” will transform to laughing out loud (or lolz, as the kids call it).