Plautus was a Roman comic playwright, living from approximately 254 BC to 184 BC, and The Brothers Menaechmus is frequently considered to be his greatest work. Plautus’ comedies are the earliest Latin works to have survived in their entirety, and as such, they heavily influenced many other playwrights—including Shakespeare. Traditionally, Plautus’ plays were sung for the majority of their duration, rather than spoken.
Plautus borrowed from and adapted qualities present in Greek and Roman plays preceding him. The term that refers to the adaptation of other works with an original twist is “contaminato,” a feature often utilized by Plautus. Plautus adapted Atellan farce, Greek Old Comedy, and Greek New Comedy. Atellan farce included farcical skits involving crude humor, Greek Old Comedy involved sexual and scatological innuendo and jokes, and Greek New Comedy involved much situational humor. Each of these qualities is present in Plautus’ The Brothers Menaechmus, be it in the physical humor present or in the situational comedy that initiates the play then continues until the play’s end.
Stock characters were prominent in both Greek and Roman comedies, and Plautus utilizes them in The Brothers Menaechmus. While these stock characters existed before Plautus, Plautus redefined these tropes. Most prominent in The Brothers Menaechmus is the servus currens stock character, or the “running servant.” Menaechmus of Syracuse’s slave, Messenio, is the embodiment this stock character. Throughout the play, Messenio is running between Menaechmus of Syracuse and Menaechmus of Epidamnus, trying to fulfill their demands.
Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is heavily influenced by Plautus’ The Brothers Menaechmus. In fact, Shakespeare’s play can easily be called an adaptation of Plautus’. Shakespeare adapted The Brothers Menaechmus very closely in terms of events and timing in the plot. Similarly to The Brothers Menaechmus, The Comedy of Errors is concerned with the story of two twin brothers separated in infancy by a shipwreck. Both plays begin with one of the twins searching for their brother in foreign lands where the people are deemed untrustworthy. Plautus’ The Brothers Menaechmus influenced another of Shakespeare’s plays as well: Twelfth Night, which begins with a shipwreck that separates two twins from one another.