Plautus' Amphitruo: Sex Farce or Tragicomedy? The Case of Alcumena

John R. Porter

University of Saskatchewan

Recent studies of Amphitruo have tended to highlight the farcical elements in the play at the expense of its tragicomic features. In large part, this trend has been fostered by the analyses of Lefèvre and others, who have argued that Amphitruo was composed by Plautus directly from tragic originals, with no intervening Greek comedy to serve as a model. This new approach to the play has had a particularly drastic effect on the critical appraisal of Alcumena, who has come to be presented as a carnal parody of the loving matrona, offered up for the audience's amusement as part of a ludicrous sex farce.

This paper presents an examination of Alcumena in a critique of this tendency to reduce her to a mere "pregnant (and sexually voracious) lady" joke. In the figure of Alcumena Plautus presents, not a sensualist, but a traditional view of the loving newly-wed wife. While public expressions of sexual attraction between husband and wife were generally deprecated in both the Greek and Roman sphere, especially on the part of the wife, it was fitting and in fact expected that the young bride and groom would experience such mutual passion. The evidence of fifth-century Greek vase painting, Greek New Comedy, and both Greek and Roman wedding songs confirms that Alcumena is cast, not as the typical matrona of New Comedy but as the loving young bride bereft of her new husband — a Laodamia figure.

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