Pseudolus Summary

Plautus

Pseudolus

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Pseudolus Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Pseudolus by Plautus.

One of the earlier surviving examples of Roman literature, the play opens with a prologue that tells the audience to stretch their legs. This play is long, and they will be sitting for a long time as they watch it.

Pseudolus, a servant of the Athenian Simo, and Calidorus, Simo’s son, arrive on the stage. Calidorus is visibly upset. When Pseudolus asks Calidorus about the cause of his discontent, Calidorus gives him a letter from Phoenicium, a slave girl whom Calidorus loves. In the letter, Phoenicium says she is to be sold by her master, Ballio, and then taken away, but the transaction is not yet complete; Calidorus could purchase her instead. Calidorus does not have the money required. Calidorus is broken-hearted, desperate, and begs Pseudolus for help. Pseudolus confidently claims that he will trick Simo out of the money.

Ballio then enters the scene, spouting profanities and beating some of his slaves. Calidorus and Pseudolus implore Ballio to reconsider his sale, and mention that Phoenicium has been promised to Calidorus just as soon as he can raise money. Ballio, though, is unswerving in his plans, and taunts Calidorus for his economic hardship. Before he exits, though, Ballio reminds Calidorus that the deal is not yet complete. Today is the last day for the other bidder to make his final payment. If Calidorus can find the money, he can have Phoenicium.

Simo enters with a friend, and Pseudolus eavesdrops on their conversation. The two men discuss the rumor that Calidorus wants to buy a slave girl. Simo does not want to believe the rumor, thinking it is improper for his son to be in love with a woman who is essentially a prostitute, but his friend is a little more understanding. Calidorus is just another man in love, he explains. At this point, Pseudolus makes himself known.

Pseudolus discusses with Simo the prospect of using a trick on Simo to get the money. Simo refuses to give the money, but Pseudolus tells him he will, and that he was just warning Simo so he will be on guard. Pseudolus explains that he will wage war on Ballio, and get Phoenicium that very same day. They agree to a bet: if Pseudolus gets the girl, Simo will pay, and if Pseudolus does not, he will get the treadmill. Simo’s friend agrees to provide the money if Simo backs out of the bet.

Pseudolus then sees the Macedonian soldier who is to serve as the intermediary between Ballio and the purchaser. Pseudolus tries to convince the soldier that he is also working for Ballio, and that the solder must give Pseudolus the money for a court case. The soldier, unconvinced, leaves Pseudolus a sealed letter from his master, and tells Pseudolus to find him when Ballio arrives. Calidorus returns with his friend, Charinus.

Pseudolus speaks with Charinus, bragging about how he tricked the soldier and that he will win the girl before the end of the day. The only complication to the plan is that Pseudolus requires some things: a clever young man, a soldier’s cloak, sword, and hat, and 500 drachmae. Charinus offers the drachmae, and he and Calidorus know a clever slave who can help. They leave to gather the items Pseudolus needs.

At this point, a slave boy sneaks out of Ballio’s house and addresses the audience. The boy is in dire straits: he needs to find money to purchase a gift for Ballio by the end of the day or he will be tortured. Unfortunately, he has no money. Ballio then arrives with a cook. They argue about the cook’s wages. The cook is insulted over Ballio’s belief that the wages are too high, but the cook is the only cook Ballio has left, and it is Ballio’s birthday. Ballio remains unconvinced, and wants to see what the cook is capable of when it is dinnertime.

Calidorus and Charinus return with the clever slave Simia. Simia is confident that he can help get Phoenicium, and is a little insulted when Pseudolus expresses doubts. Nevertheless, they send Simia to Ballio, where the two have an exchange of wits and words. Ultimately, Simia gives Ballio the sealed letter and the money from Charinus. Thinking Simia is the representative of the Macedonian general who is supposed to purchase Phoenicium, Ballio hands her over to Simia.

Then the Macedonian soldier returns. Ballio and Simo both think he is an imposter hired by Pseudolus. They soon realize, though, that Pseudolus has successfully tricked all of them.

Celebrations ensue, and Pseudolus gets very drunk. He is so drunk, in fact, that he belches into Simo’s face repeatedly. Pseudolus invites Simo to go drinking with him. Simo suggests that Pseudolus also invite the audience. Pseudolus rejects that idea, but does end the play by asking the audience to applaud them.

There are many concepts that swirl throughout this play that modern audiences may find distasteful. Slavery is treated almost without thought. Slaves are obedient to their masters, with no self-determination at all. Conversely, however, slaves are also seen as having some measure of freedom and agency.

These contradictions result in a slight glorification of a slave system, or at the very least, complacency toward the specifics of slavery.

Given the original audience, however, slaves’ roles in the play would have been a distinct advantage for the production. At the time, there was a tremendous discrepancy in wealth distribution. Having Pseudolus so capable of out-witting his rich master would have provided the audience with hope that wealth does not equate to a person’s intelligence or value.