Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Goat-Goo in Roman Plays

I've never had a sense of human history; other than Geography, History was the class I was LEAST interested in during school. But now I'm learning everything for the first time from scratch, and what fascinates me most about human history is how little we have changed.

It's for this reason that I'm thoroughly enjoying "Five Roman Comedies," a collection of Plautus and Terence plays translated into "modern verse" (eg., "the modern verse of Classical Studies professors in 1970").

It is really, really wonderful to know that we find the same things funny today that we did 2200 years ago: the irony of confused identities, the bumblings of a cocky idiot, the old routine of "Go quickly! And wait, don't forget what I told you to do! Now go, hurry! Wait, remember to be careful! Now hurry up and go! Wait a second, don't forget to be as quick as you can!"

Isn't this touching? Obviously our brains have changed little (if any) since Roman times, but neither have our joys and fears. And there is something ESPECIALLY touching that -- so long ago -- we had a theatrical system to entertain each other with, and that -- against all odds -- so many of these works have survived for us to read today.

Anyway, while reading these plays I'm torn between enjoying the "modern verse" translations and wishing they were a bit more literal. Like, I know instantly what "knucklehead" means to us today, but I sort wonder how the ROMANS had expressed such a thing. I'm currently reading the hilarious "Mostellaria," and the translator (Palmer Bovie) has really gone to town with the idioms. Here's my favourite section, which I hereby decree to be the best part of any play, anywhere:

Why don't you go up in smoke? I'll see you inhale first,
you halitosis garlic-green rotten excuse for a rustic
retreat, with goat-goo on your feet. I repeat:
You whiff of damp air, what's it like down there in your pig-sty?
Whew! What a combination of nanny goat and mongrel bitch!
That's great stuff! Then, as now, we've always found it enormously funny when two unlikeable people insult each other.

1 comment:

Gary said...

Same thing here - now that I understand the "big picture," history is fascinating.

BTW, about everything being the same – I like how it’s said in Ecclesiastes 1:9 - "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." Apparently, even back then, it was the "same old same old."

Regarding insults, Shakespeare is no slouch either. From "The Taming Of The Shrew," some gems:

“How foul and loathsome is thine image.”

“You heedless joltheads and unmannered slaves.”

“I know she is an irksome brawling scold.”

Two from "The Tempest":

“Hang cur, hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker.”

“Most wicked sir, whom to call brother would even infect my mouth.”

And two from Henry IV, Part 1:

“Out, you mad headed ape. A weasel hath not such a deal of spleen as you are tossed with.”

“Why, thou clay brained guts, thou knotty pated fool, thou whoreson obscene greasy tallow catch.”

And, finally, one from Hamlet regarding people in general: “A foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man!”

Translations are nice, but they don't always capture the bite of the original language. Now - smile when you say that! :-)