As soon as the prologue of Menaechmi establishes the basic plot, the prologist comments on the mutability of the stage. Today we will see the house of Menaechmus E in Epidamnus, but come back tomorrow and perhaps it will be a pimp’s house in another city. (72-76) In a play that hinges on multiple mistaken identities and intentions, this acknowledgment of the transitory nature of who we are and how we are going to understand ourselves becomes the crux of the play. While Menaechmus S comes to Epidamnus as a stranger willing to play roles provided for him by the locals, the local brother, Menaechmus E, has firmly rooted himself within the socio-economic life of Epidamnus. Instead of trying to read Menaechmi as a play ultimately about who is in control, whether really or metatheatrically (cf. McCarthy 2000), this paper will examine how Menaechmus E’s commitment to a view of himself as a figure of control limits the avenues of action and understanding available to him on this topsy-turvy day. Menaechmi gives us the opportunity to see what happens when we accept a lack of control over our own lives.
Menaechmus E and his wife, his parasite, and his prostitute, are bound to one another through the ebb and flow of material goods. Menaechmus E buys goods to keep his dowered wife. He then steals the goods to keep the favors of the neighboring prostitute Erotium. His parasite Peniculus participates in this world of exchange by providing flattery for succulent feasts at others’ expense. The exchange of goods throughout these figures commodifies social exchange. Every action is done for a price. As a commodity then, human interaction should be predictable and regular. Menaechmus E believes he is the man to do such regulating since he provides the goods for the services.
The problem is that commercial exchange is an exchange between two parties who both have something to gain from the transaction. While Menaechmus E may think that he is in control of his world as paterfamilias, he refuses to acknowledge his own dependence on his dependents for the services that they provide. At times, he acts as if he can make his world the way he sees it by fiat, as he tries to do with his angry wife. (620-625) While the wife provides him with an opportunity to come clean about the mantle he stole to give to the prostitute Erotium, Menaechmus E opts to try to dodge the inevitable. Instead of taking the opportunity for negotiation that begins with accepting the legitimacy of the demands of others, Menaechmus E forecloses reconciliation with his wife. It is he, not she who will determine the direction of business in this partnership.
When Menaechmus E finds himself shut out of his own home by his wife, he acts indifferent. He believes that he can stroll over to Erotium’s pleasure palace, thinking that his gifts are what create access to Erotium, rather than Erotium’s willingness to allow him to come in. (668-673) Throughout the play, Menaechmus E fails to understand that he has entered into a system of mutual giving by treating his social interactions as ones of commercial exchange. The commercial world requires that individuals accept a certain lack of control over themselves. Menaechmus E wants his dependents to give up control of who they are and follow his whims. At the same time, Menaechmus E fails to realize that as part of a now commercial exchange, he too must relinquish some control over his situation.
Instead of presenting a play about who truly is in control, Plautus uses Menaechmi as an opportunity to explore what happens when you adopt a shifting attitude of yourself. Menaechmus E finds himself frustrated because he believes that he directs his life, whereas his twin brother, who has just come to Epidamnus for the first time, is in a position to do to Menaechmus E’s dependents what they have been doing to Menaechmus E. By accepting their versions of who he is, Menaechmus S is able to enjoy a day of pleasure at minimal cost to himself. Menaechmus S recognizes that here in Epidamnus he is not the person he necessarily thought he was when he arrived. The play ends by giving Menaechmus E an opportunity to start afresh, giving him the opportunity to return to Syracuse and start a life in which he has no deep investment to a particular view of who he might be.