Article Title

The Tempest, Plautus, and the Rudens


Bruce Louden


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Scholars have identified many elements in that mosaic of texts and traditions Shakespeare draws upon in The Tempest -Montaigne's essay "On Cannibals," the Aeneid, William Strachey's A True Reportory of the Wrack, to name only a few.1 However, Shakespeare draws on these works, and others, more for specific effects or colors with which to imbue a scene, than for the general structure, overall movement, or central themes of his own play. I argue that the Rudens, by Plautus, an author with whom Shakespeare was well acquainted, to whom he refers throughout his career, and in whose dramatic techniques he was deeply informed, serves as Shakespeare's principal source. I am not the first to make this claim. Several recent commentators have made the same suggestion, though limiting themselves to relatively brief expositions.2 The time seems ripe, then, for a fuller analysis of the evidence on which such an argument rests. Shakespeare appropriates and adapts from the Rudens not only specific details, as in other previously identified sources, but aspects of its setting, several of its most prominent motifs and central themes, and principal relationships between its main characters. Chief among these is the parallel predicament in which each play's protagonist finds himself, a wrongly exiled man who, at play's end, having in his power the very characters who have wronged him, forgives instead of taking revenge upon them. Shakespeare exploits the Rudens as an organizing device, a structure on which he builds, a vessel into which he can pour additional ideas and colorings, without, however, changing the essential shape or nature of that original vessel. Such a view of the Tempest's genesis addresses and accounts for many celebrated oddities of its characterization and construction, including its observance of the classical unities and concern with metatheatrical elements.3

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