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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

The Comedy of Asses


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To purchase The Comedy of Asses

Title: The Comedy of Asses
Author: Plautus
Genre: Play
Written: ca. 210 BCE (Eng. 2011)
Length: 113 pages
Original in: Latin
Availability: in: Plautus (I) - US
in: Plautus (I) - UK
in: Plautus (I) - Canada
in: Théâtre complet I - France
in: Komödien - Deutschland
Asinaria - Italia
in: Comedias, I - España
  • Latin title: Asinaria
  • Edited and translated by Wolfgang de Melo, in the Loeb Classical Library series, superseding the Paul Nixon translation (1916)
  • There are numerous other translations of Asinaria
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the Latin text facing the English translation

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Our Assessment:

B : perhaps a bit too much acid with its sharpness

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Antiquité Classique . (2012) Bruno Rochette
BMCR* . (2005.07.39) Michael Fontaine
BMCR* . (2007.01.03) Vincent Hunink
BMCR . (2011.04.53) Peter Kruschwitz
The Classical Journal . (2012.08.04) Timothy J. Moore
The Classical Review* . 12/1917 E.A.Sonnenschein
TLS* . 13/12/1917 John Sargeaunt

[*: refers to a different translation]
  From the Reviews:
  • "Plautus' lowbrow comedy the Asinaria ("The Jackass Affair") is quite possibly the world's oldest episode of Married...with Children. (...) With Danese's edition before you, you have a conservative text, equipped with a full and reliable report of the MSS, and a text that has been edited by an expert in Plautine meter. It is a very sound basis for interpreting the play, and one which renders obsolete previous editions. Inevitably, people will differ about this or that reading, but one can say in short that this is simply the best text of Plautus' Asinaria." - Michael Fontaine, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

  • "[John Henderson's] Asinaria proves his talents as a translator and his discipline as a philologist. The first half of the book will command respect even from more traditional classicists. (...) The translation is highly modern and lively. But as in the commentary, H.'s command of English is such that much of the text will be difficult to follow for non-English readers. I have to admit that the strongly colloquial flavour of the translation often forced me to consult other translations (such as the now generally despised Loeb translation by Nixon) or the Latin original, to find out what the text was actually saying. (...) To sum up, H. has produced a lively and provocative edition of the Asinaria, that has both the merits and hazards of a postmodern book. It will bring Plautus and his play very much nearer to those readers who can follow H.'s words and thoughts. But on a global scale, such readers may form a relatively limited group." - Vincent Hunink, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

  • "In conclusion, de Melo deserves praise and gratitude: his Plautus is beautifully produced. The volume has an excellent introduction, a refurbished text, and a translation which is a substantial improvement on the previous one. " - Peter Kruschwitz, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

  • "De Melo has not only provided a worthy updated successor to Nixon, but he has gone well beyond his predecessor in many ways to produce a work that will be of considerable value both to students and to scholars." - Timothy J. Moore, The Classical Journal

  • "That Plautus was a skilful metrist we can now see more clearly than could Cicero or Horace, who had rejected many of his scansions." - John Sargeaunt, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Wolfgang de Melo's Introductory Note to Asinaria, or The Comedy of Asses promisingly begins with the observation that:

     The humor we find in the Asinaria is more biting and more satirical than the jokes in almost any other play written by Plautus.
       He also warns of: "its less than edifying content", and the plot is indeed a bit crude. A brief Prologue, addressed to the spectators, promises: "There's wit and humor in this comedy, it's a funny one" ('inest lepos ludusque in hac comoedia, / ridicula res est'); de Melo notes that: "we can assume that it belongs to Plautus' earliest works", and he does seem to be trying a bit hard. (The Prologue also ascribes the original to Greek author Demophilus ("and Maccus translated it into barbarian language"), Plautus perhaps more eager than usual to give responsibility for the story to someone else.)
       An opening 'Argumentum' also quickly summarizes the plot, at least for the reader (if not spectator), but then this is very much a play whose quality is found in how things are played out (rather than the story itself), the simple story allowing for a variety of comic exchanges and humorous character-portraits. While a love story of sorts, this aspect is almost secondary -- or at least Plautus has a harder time convincingly presenting it as such in the foreground (for reasons that quickly become obvious) -- and so it's not surprising that Plautus begins not with the lovers but rather with Demaenetus and his slave Libanus, with Demaenetus explaining:
Well, I already know that my son is in love with that prostitute from next door, Philaenium.
       Dad wants top help the kid, Argyrippus, out, telling his slave that: "My son needs twenty silver minas at once" and charging Libanus to do what it takes to get the money -- even to go so far as to: "Cheat me". Demaenetus does not control the purse strings in the family, and so he wants Libanus to find away to deceive his domineering wife or the steward Saurea to get his hands on the money.
       What exactly the sum is needed for is made clear in an exchange between Cleareta, Philaenium's mother (and a madam), and Diabolus, who is not so much Argyrippus' rival -- Argyrippus has won over Philaenium's heart -- but a fellow customer, one who (also) wants her all to himself. Cleareta makes clear: for twenty minas, she'll make sure Philaenium only serves Diabolus for an entire year. Of course that offer stands for anyone else as well -- "if anyone else brings it to me earlier, it's good-bye to you" -- which is why Argyrippus is so desperate to get his hands on that amount of cash as well: he wants to have his beloved all to himself as well.
       Libanus and fellow slave Leonida target a merchant who they know is bringing cash to give to Saurea for some donkeys -- but the merchant is suspicious and won't hand the money over without getting confirmation from Demaenetus that he's giving it to the right person (as he admits: "I'm a foreigner. I don't know Saurea" -- and he isn't quite convinced by Leonida, who pretends to be Saurea). When they get Demaenetus to back them up, they get the cash, and give it to Argyrippus -- though not before making the couple dance for their supper (or rather, bizarrely, force Argyrippus to carry Libanus piggy-back ...). And there is another condition attached to the money: Demaenetus turns out not to be quite as generous as he appeared, and demands a night of his own with fair Philaenium. Plus dinner.
       Argyrippus is surprisingly (and disappointingly) obliging:
Tell him to come, please. He's fully deserved it and we'll do what he wants: he pulled our love together again, which had been pulled apart.
       It's a pretty melancholy scene when they all get ready to banquet, dad disappointed that his son looks so morose about what is about to happen -- even as Argyrippus tries to keep a stiff upper lip. He has to admit: "that does make me feel down", but he's not going to get in dad's way. Fortunately then, thanks to Diabolus (who is really pissed off about his missed opportunity), Demaenetus' wife Artemona appears on the scene and overhears just what her husband thinks of her, which leads her to vow her own sweet revenge and drag him from the brothel -- leading, at least for Argyrippus and Philaenium, to a happy ending of sorts (as they exeunt into ... the brothel).
       The odd story does allow for quite a bit of amusing hijinks, including the slaves trying to con their way into getting the money, as well as Diabolus, getting quite ahead of himself, carefully drawing up a contract for the year in question ("A fantastic contract !" his hanger-on praises), as well as all of Cleareta's business negotiations -- right down to those with her daughter. Yet there's also surprising poignancy -- perhaps more so from the contemporary perspective --, in particular as to the love-birds accepting their parents demands, regardless of how outrageous they are. Philaenium wants to follow her heart, but when mom says she has no patience for customers who don't pay the girl dutifully accepts that; so too Argyrippus agrees to his dad's outrageous demand of a night all his own with Argyrippus' beloved; there may be a comic lilt to the exchanges between the characters in these scenes, but they are also genuinely, crushingly moving.
       The exaggerated characters -- the two mothers, certainly, as well as the slaves -- do make for good comic entertainment as well, as does would-be rival Diabolus; Demaenetus turns out to be a bit too conniving -- or perhaps opportunistic. And there's no way of getting around the fact that the basic story here is a fundamentally disagreeable one, where really no one comes off looking good; even well-meaning Argyrippus is far too much of a sad sack, and anything but any kind of romantic hero.
       The comic elements and characters and the sprightly dialogue do make for an engaging play. The unusual spin on would-be romance -- even in a comic setting -- does make for a striking play, too: this isn't your usual lovers' story, and there's something to be said for that very different spin. Still, a glimmer of something more redeeming, somewhere, from someone, would have been welcome. As is, it really is quite a dark and (subtly) cynical tale.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 June 2020

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The Comedy of Asses: Reviews (* refers to a different translation): Other books by Plautus under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Roman playwright Plautus lived ca.254 to 184 BCE.

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