We all know the romantic comedy outline by heart: boy and girl meet, fall in love, overcome an obstacle and then live happily ever after in matrimonial bliss, ultimately proving to themselves and the world that true love exists. Hecyra destroys this formula and the result is shocking and incongruous to my sensitive modern ears.
According to Niall Slater (“The Fictions of Patriarchy in Terence’s “Hecyra”), ”In no other ancient comedy are women so noble- or so readily condemned. Nowhere is the contrast between seeming and reality so sharp as between the perception of women held by men in this play and their actual roles. The actions of the Hecyra is double: the unfolding of the real and potentially tragic story of the male perfidy and the parallel necessity of constructing and maintaining a narrative in which all the difficulties are the fault of the women in the play.”
There’s a temptation to imagine similarities to contemporary modern culture and the Roman Republic circa 180 BC. Maybe less toga wearing? But really other than that aren’t we virtually the same? We struggle with the same grey cloud of a debate between Epicureans and Stoics and the search for the “good” life. We’re obsessed with the appropriate amount of government intervention, and we are adverse to dictatorships. Some of us love to throw the word “patriarchy” around, and we see a case for a solid correlation depending on how conservative the circle you run with is.
After the Second Punic war (218-241 BC) Rome’s borders have dramatically increased and the slave population has risen exponentially. There is also now a large class of displaced men and women; residue of the turmoil of almost constant war and the fractious politics of the Hellenistic age. The plight for these women without male relatives to protect them is dire and their position in the social structure is tenuous. Usually the way to survive with any stability would be by becoming a courtesan and hoping for a kind and consistent suitor with minimal demands and an infinite supply of cash.
The opening exposition is given by two such courtesans, one of which has just returned after a two year stint with a “brute” in Corinth. They discuss how devoted the protagonist, Pamphilus was to the courtesan Bacchis, always promising her he would never marry. Men are all the same, they say. Never reliable.
Philotis: Talking of lovers, Syra, precious few of them prove faithful to girls like me. Take Pamphilus for instance; he promised Bacchis no end of times that he’d never take a wife as long as she lived, swore it on an oath so that anyone might have believe him. Now look at him- married.
Syra: That’s just why I’m always telling you not to be softhearted with anyone. You mark my words, catch whom you can, rob him, fleece him and skin him alive.
Despite his sworn oaths and promises to Bacchis, the marriage between Pamphilus and Philumena has taken place. His father Laches, having grown tired of paying for the never ending “sowing of wild oats” has decided it’s time for his son to marry. Laches picks out the neighbor’s daughter as a bride for his son, and after a few brow beating sessions convinces his son to do his duty, get married and provide the family with an heir.
Pamphilus dutifully complies, but never consummates the marriage, feeling like to do so would force him to be unfaithful to his one true love. Eventually through his wife’s quiet and dutiful spirit, he begins to find himself under her spell and to clear his head takes a trip for a few months to put life into perspective.
Recap: Boy and girl get married despite boy being in love with another girl.
So Philumena is left with her mother in law Sostrata, and everything seems to be going well, minus the fact that her husband has left her and she’s technically still a virgin. But then as the months trickle by, a peculiar tension seems to hover in the air until it becomes an immense unbreathable fog. It’s been 7 months since her marriage and Philumena sequesters herself in her parents’ house and refuses to be seen by visitors or even speak to her mother in law.
The action picks up with Laches yelling at his wife for obviously being so odious their daughter in law has been forced to return home:
Laches: Heaven and earth, what a tribe they are! In league the lot of them. Every blessed woman with the same likes and dislikes as all the others, and not a single one can you find who’ll show up a different mentality from the rest! Mothers-in-law and daughters-in-l aw, they’re all of one mind - in hating each other. And they’re all of a piece, too, in setting themselves against their men folk, the same damned obstinacy in every one. I’d say they’d all learned their cussedness at the same school, and if there is such a school I can tell you who’s head-mistress: my wife.
His wife, comes running after him, wringing her hands and making unacknowledged protestations about her character and intentions, but it’s no use. Laches can not fathom a world where there would be a surface level of complexity, belonging singularly to the womenfolk, and as such his reasoning is overly simplistic and impotent.
As people are running hither and thither across the stage, chaos and distress dripping from characters and props, Pamphilus returns to see his family in crisis and without so much as a knock on the door barges into his neighbor’s home to seek out his wife…only to find her in the act of CHILDBIRTH!
Obviously the child is not his! He never consummated the marriage…as he stands there in shock his mother-in-law quickly assures him of his wife’s good character! It’s not her fault! One evening, about 2 months before they were married Philumena was assaulted and raped on the way home and they were never able to catch the monster that did it. He managed to escape with a ring torn from her finger and her chastity. But can’t bygones be bygones? They’ll get rid of the child and it will be just the same as before, no harm no foul!
Pamphilus leaves wracked with emotion and confusion, and refuses to take back his wife and equally refuses to acknowledge the child. Despite the fact that he has been no champion of morals himself, apparently the line is drawn at assault. He decides he will remain a bachelor and will live with his mother for the rest of his life, choosing the happiness of his mother over that of his “unfaithful” wife.
Philumena’s father, Phidippus walks into the birthing room and is confronted with a very different situation. The birth of a son! What joy! Why would the womenfolk be trying to cover this up…unless his evil meddling wife Myrrina was trying to sabotage the marriage…she never liked Pamphilus from the beginning and she’s stirring up strife and trouble in a moment that should be joyous and reconciliatory.
Phidippus quickly makes his way to find Laches and apologizes: It’s not your wife it’s mine!
As the menfolk try to makes heads or tails of the situation that seems to be in a perpetual state of crumbling around them, Laches comes up with a plan to convince Pamphilus to reconcile with his wife: he will convince the courtesan to vouch for the character of his son. She will tell Philumena that he has remained faithful to his wife and she no longer has any hold on him…and then maybe his wife will fight for him? It’s unclear how this will help…
Bacchis agrees and while she is talking with the women, Myrrina recognizes the ring on the courtesans finger…
Bacchis: What happiness I have given Pamphilus by coming here today! I’ve brought him so many blessings and removed so many worries. I have saved his son for him, whom he nearly lost through his own fault and the women here; I’ve given him back the wife with whom he believed he would never live again, and I’ve removed the suspicions of his father and Phidippus. And all this train of discovers was set off by a ring!
What Baccis then describes is an evening about 9 months ago when Pamphilus drunkenly showed up on her doorstep. His hair and clothes were in disarray and after a few questions he admitted to assaulting a girl and pulling off the ring she wore…which he then gave to Bacchus as a gift and she has worn ever since…?
Now everything is clear, and disconcertingly joyous. The girl Pamphilus raped, as chance would have it, was none other than his own dear wife! Hurrah! And her bastard is none other than his own rightful son!
Bacchis: I’m glad he has found so much happiness through me, though I suppose other women of my sort wouldn’t agree- it isn’t really in our interest for a lover to be happily married, but all the same, I can’t bring myself to act unkindly…
When Parmeno, the slave who has spent the majority of the play running pointless errands to keep him out of the way, is told to bring his master the news that his wife recognized the ring that Bacchus was wearing as her very own, his master’s response is:
Pamphilus: I’m in heaven if this is really true! …Oh I’m the most fortunate of men! No one could be so lucky in love! Now what reward can I give you in return for this message? Tell me- I can’t think.”
Recap: Boy and girl get married despite boy being in love with a hooker. Boy eventually falls for girl only to realize she’s been assaulted at which point his honor keeps him from reconciling with his wife, but then he learns that he was the assailant, so all is well.
Pamphilus jumping around and ecstatic with joy says thing like “You have restored me to life and rescued me from hell!” On his way back home to search out his nuclear family he meets Bacchis who winks and smiles and says he’s married to a true lady. They agree not to mention anything that would constitute a past discretion to his father and Pamphilus adds the famous and ironic line:
Pamphilus: I’d rather this weren’t like the comedies, where everyone ends by knowing everything. In our case, the ones who ought to know know already; and the others who don’t need to know shan’t be told or know a thing.
Then he turns to leave with a salutation that hopefully all will go well with them from now on.
Somehow I doubt his wife would agree with the sentiment “You have restored me to life and rescued me from hell!”…Her life has been hell for the previous 9 months and she has a hellish life ahead of her. Her quiet attitude and respectful behavior has only won her the compulsory prize of living with her rapist.
This play has, as one would expect, a variety of mixed reviews. For one, it’s much easier to read than it would be to watch in an amphitheater. According to Betty Radice (1976) “the lively and farcical element, the colorful word play, the earthly vulgarity, the song and dance which made Plautus deservedly popular have gone; instead Terence offers subtlety of plot, development and interplay of character, and economy of dialogue.”
Once again Terence rejects the role of the slave/servant as the plot generator and humorously keeps the slave off stage for the majority of the play, with his few short lines offering varying grumblings about his ineffectual life. The virtuous heroine is replaced with a commentary on “rape culture”, something that would have been jarring and uncomfortable to digest.
Terence needed an educated and sophisticated crowd appreciative of Hellenistic nuance, but instead his rabble of a crowd lost interest as we can see from the first two times the play was put on. During the first attempt, a rumor of a tight-rope walker began to circulate and the “shouting and women’s screaming” forced the play to end abruptly. The second time after having made it a little farther, a rumor spread that there would be a gladiator show, resulting in the crowd stampeding out of the theater in a surge and jostle that left the cast scurrying for cover.
Finally, at the third attempt the play was carried through to completion and while the contemporary reviews were mixed, what is undeniable is that the result is without parallel.