Sunday, 1 April 2012


I wanted to write a post about early modern drama this week, but whenever I sit down to write about servants in a particular time period servants from other times and places gatecrash my thoughts. A butler in a Renaissance play reminds me of the butler I saw in a film last week, who reminds me of the butler in that novel I loved, and so on. As Bruce Robbins puts it in his magisterial work The Servant's Hand: Fiction From Below, talking about servants can sometimes feel like "a stroll down an endless gallery of look-alikes" (Columbia University Press, 1996).

When rummaging through a second hand bookshop this week I had a similar feeling. By chance I picked up an anthology of work by Plautus, a Roman dramatist whose plays teem with clever, scheming slaves. I remembered that early modern dramatists were heavily influenced by Plautus, and another Roman dramatist Terence, when depicting servants and slaves. Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, for instance, reworks Plautus' Menaechmi (there is obviously something to be said here about differences between depictions of servants and slaves, but that's another post).

Plautus and Terence's plays are fresh and engaging even for modern readers. Their slaves make metatheatrical asides and gesture to the hypocrisy of their worlds. But their plays are actually translations and reinterpretations of Greek New Comedy not straightforward critiques of Roman life. Just like Shakespeare, Plautus and Terence recycled and reinterpreted stock servant characters rather than inventing new ones which might more accurately reflect the realities of their transformed societies.

As I mentioned in a previous post, tv shows today are still accused of recycling worn-out, stale stereotypes of servants. But throughout history, obviously recycled characters do remind us of a simple and important fact: literature (or tv, or film) is never simply a mirror through which we can see servitude clearly and in a neutral light. In the same way, a servant - or especially a slave - cannot simply determine her own status because her identity is, to an extent, already decided for her. And so I will continue welcoming gatecrashers.

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