Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2007) 31.

John Henderson (ed. and tr.), Plautus: Asinaria: The One about the Asses. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006. Pp. xiv + 252. ISBN 0-299-21990-9. US$19.95.

Lisa Maurice,
Department of Classical Studies, Bar Ilan University

No reviewer can discuss any of John Henderson’s works without referring to his idiosyncratic style; he is never anything approaching an easy read, for each paragraph is peppered with multi-layered cultural and literary allusions, puns, word plays and sometimes tortuous distortions of English, the overall effect of which are often explosively creative. Of all ancient authors, perhaps the one most suited to Henderson’s style is Plautus, and Henderson’s new translation and commentary on an often rather neglected work, the Asinaria has an element of Plautine zaniness about it which is refreshing and often thought-provoking.

Henderson’s book is divided into three parts: the first consists of the Latin text and Henderson’s translation on facing pages (pp. 4-101), preceded by a prologue; a short section on ‘Language, Metre and Text’ follows (pp. 105- 22); and the volume concludes with a section of ‘Commentary and Analysis’ (pp. 125-212), followed by an epilogue. Notes, bibliography, and indexes complete the book.

Henderson’s own prologue and epilogue hint to the reader that Henderson’s work is far more than a translation and commentary on an ancient work, but is a work in its own right, a fact that becomes immediately apparent as soon as one begins to read. Henderson has made some innovations regarding the layout of the Latin text, with, for instance, elided syllables being written as superscript and hiatus marked by a vertical line. Although this approach is initially jarring to read, it does have the advantage of making its point. I suspect that a student who is less than familiar with Latin metre would appreciate this visual aid, although the use of bold and lighter fonts, rather than superscript, might have been less tiring to the eye. The translation on facing page is lively, colloquial and earthy, and while loaded with what he calls ‘slang and jive’,[[1]] it is free of the more enigmatic Hendersonisms that are found in his own prose as Henderson demonstrates his own sensitivity to, and deep understanding of, the Latin text. Again, the use of imaginative printing techniques enriches the reading, as, for example, an antique font is used for the contract drawn up between Diabolus and Clearata, contrasting nicely with the asides and comments that are interspersed in this scene.

The second section, ‘Language, Metre and Text’ is divided into three short chapters. The first is entitled ‘Plautin Language and Latin Vocabulary’ (pp. 105-116), and consists of an overview of the entire play, divided into sections, or what Henderson likes to call ‘chunks’. Each chunk of the play is headed by a title (for example, ‘127-52 Loverboy’s lament’; ‘828-850 Dad’s party swings’), and a summary of the action, written in typical Hendersonese, before continuing with a very concise philological guide to vocabulary and language in that section. Since this is laid out in prose paragraph form it is not particularly easy to follow, and I feel that it would not be particularly user-friendly for the student audience for whom it is surely intended. Henderson also includes in this technical section glosses of British and American colloquialisms that he uses in his translation. The brief section on metre that follows (pp. 117-20) is laid out far more clearly and would provide enough of an intoduction for a novice to follow the metres of the play. Finally the short third chapter in this section (pp. 121-24) lists differences from Lindsay’s Oxford text, but with only minimal explanation for these differences (for example, ’482 metrically incredible’).

The third part of the book is devoted to commentary and analysis. Henderson recommends that the play is read in ‘chunks’, and his commentary read after a chunk, each of the first seven chapters of the commentary being devoted to one of these. The chapters are titled with names such as ‘Killing the Plot’ (pp. 125-35), ‘American Beauty’ (pp. 155-57), and ‘Rotten Rhetorics’ (pp. 169-82), and provide Henderson’s own ideas and views of the play. As always, these are never fully expanded and developed before the reader’s eye, and demand concentration and effort to follow the elliptic argumentation. For the reader who does make the effort to do this, the rewards are considerable. Henderson’s knowledge is deep and his ideas and way of looking at a text are exciting. Reading his work is rather like being on a rollercoaster; he goes at speed and one often misses connections as he swoops from point to point, but one sees the world from an entirely different perspective and emerges at the other end with the feeling of having experienced something exciting, and which will be appreciated more and more with every subsequent trip.

Typically, Henderson deals only briefly with the question that has been the chief focus of scholarship on the Asinaria to date, namely the reassignment of lines 127-48 from Argyrippus to Diabolus (Henderson along with most modern scholarship agrees with this reading[[2]]), preferring to look at the play as a play, and to consider the real issues raised by the Asinaria. These issues, to Henderson, centre around power and slavery, and he convincingly proves this through a close reading of the text, stressing the nuances in such a way as to cast light upon the social values and mores of Republican Rome. Thus, for example, he writes, ‘The comic stage yokes together society’s house of decency and society’s red house . . . Money rules both outfits. What of desire? Comedy tests the world that insists on coupling carnal pleasure with civic degradation, when it fills the reservoir of energy that drives the strategies of masking, repression, and sublimation on which the family is founded. When conjugality buckles, its need for desire, affection and affirmation is (traditionally) exposed through alignment with the sex factory. So long as the product supplies disposable toys for absorbing adolescent testosterone at the city limits, it provides the community with its other system –- the object lesson in othering, denial and obliviation . . . Defamiliarize the domus, and there shows up the money-go-round of a sexless (de-pleasured) powerhouse’ (p. 136). Henderson traces the development and transfer of power throughout the play, providing consequent insights into Roman social and familial life.

The commentary continues with three more chapters, one on the stagecraft of the Asinaria (pp. 183-90), another focussing on the ass imagery of the play and how this affects characterisation (pp. 191-206), and a third entitled ‘A right earful: Audience as Asinaria’, in which Henderson analyses the references to hearing and listening, treating these as a dramatic device within the context of a play (pp. 207-12). These chapters round out the commentary and provide deeper insights into the play as a whole, placing the emphasis firmly on the Asinaria as a staged drama rather than a text.

Overall, Henderson has succeeded in producing a lively and challenging volume on one of Plautus’ lesser known plays. His translation of the Asinaria will make Plautus more accessible for a new generation of students, although its colloquial nature may make it dated quickly, and I am not certain how far someone who is not a native of the United Kingdom would grasp the allusions with which his work is peppered. The commentary may be incomprehensible to most students, although scholars will undoubtedly gain deeper insight as a result of his work. No reader will agree with everything that Henderson writes -– perhaps no reader will even understand everything that he writes -– but there can be no doubt that in the pocess of following his thought processes every reader will emerge with a deeper understanding of Plautus, and this volume is surely to be welcomed for that reason by classical scholars and students.


[[1]] P. ix of the preface. Henderson sets out his approach to translating Plautus: ‘The erudiated mix of slang and jive in my translation is meant to trip the ‘Plautus effect’, which hits on out-and-out abuse of norms and normality with full-on assault from stuff and nonsense. In particular, a scattering of mid-Atlantic misfit between my worst samples of staged Anglo- and my best bites of media-American English stands (in) for the defamiliarizing turn in Plautin that sets out to resist appropriation from any naturalizing critique, no matter how plebeian, vulgarian, or populist.’

[[2]] contra. J.C.B. Lowe, ‘Aspects of Plautus’ Originality in the Asinaria’, CQ 42.1 (1992) 152-75.