The following biography was originally published in Minute History of the Drama. Alice B. Fort
& Herbert S. Kates. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1935.
"PLAUTUS," the single name by which modern writers refer to this writer of Roman comedy, was merely a nickname which in exact Umbrian dialect meant "flatfoot." It is exactly as though, today, we were to say, "John Jones, Beanpole."
It is doubtful whether Plautus ever achieved Roman citizenship. He is supposed to have made money working around the Roman stages as carpenter or mechanic; to have set himself up in some sort of business where he promptly lost his entire savings; finally to have been reduced to turning a handmill for a baker. It is during this period, according to tradition, that he probably sold his first plays to the managers of the public games and thus began the playwriting career that lasted for nearly forty years.
The plays of Plautus, as was the custom, had Greek characters, Greek names, and Greek scenery, but the manners and flavor were distinctly Roman. Most of his plots Plautus adopted whole from Greek originals of the "New Comedy" period. If we find the comedies of Plautus unspeakably vulgar in conception and expression we must remember that he had to appeal to an uneducated crowd whose chief interests were in bear baiting and gladiatorial combats. If Plautus was to eat, his humor had to be broad or his plays would have been shouted off the stage.
Menaechmi, or The Twin Brothers, is probably the best known of the Plautian comedies because it was translated into English at an earlier date than others of his works. It is from this play that Shakespeare took the plot for his Comedy of Errors. From the Plautian comedy, Miles Gloriosus (The Braggart Soldier) the swaggering soldier type of the Renaissance was born while from Amphitruo later under Molière's skillful touch came a popular French comedy. Nicholas Udall's Ralph Roister Doister also owes its life to Miles Gloriosus as does Shakespeare's eternal Falstaff. Jonson's The Case Is Altered is a skillful amalgamation of Aulularia and Captivi. Dryden, Addison, and the German Lessing also profited from the plots and characters of Plautus.
The works of Plautus do not show the insight nor delicacy of Terence, but they posses undoubted life and vigor. His originality showed itself in his attempts to set whole scenes to music. His perfect command and skillful use of the Latin language gained for him the favor of the more cultured Romans, just as his swift-moving plots and humorous situations attracted the uneducated classes.