Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Phormio and "the Comic Hero"

            Phormio and "the Comic Hero"
            The primary goal of this paper is to apply Maurice Charney’s article on the comic hero [CH hereafter] to the protagonist in Phormio. In his article entitled "Seven Aspects of the Comic Hero" Charney has classified the characteristics of the CH under seven categories. In what follows I will demonstrate that one can almost use Charney’s aspects as a description of Phormio. Since his "aspects" are in numerical order, I will follow them for convenience.
            To begin with, Charney points out that "the CH imagines himself to be in vulnerable and omnipotent. "Since the CH is a "dreamlike figure", he attempts at things which normal people would think they cannot realize. Although Charney does not have Phormio in his mind when he assents this, he seems to be depicting the latter. Phormio fits into this category perfectly well. He is a jack-of-all trades, engineers all the solutions to the problems underlying the comedy. It is he, again, who sees to it that each young man is allowed to marry the woman of his choice, even though at the cost of almost ruining their fathers. His plotting and acting on behalf of the sons involve a double plot. In spite of that, he skillfully overcomes any perturbation;  and he is virtually on top of everything.
            In his prologue to Phormio Terence pronounces that he is presenting a comedy entitled The Claimant in Greek and Phormio in Latin. Because, he goes on to say, Phormio plays the leading part and directs most of the intrigue. Although Terence calls Phormio an adventurer, he is more than that. He is a self-confident rogue, who has penetrated the human psyche, and who takes advantage of this faculty of his on any occasion. In the following citation Geta, quoting Phormio, evidences this;
            The law says that female orphans must be married to their next-of-kin under obligation to marry them. I will say you are her relative and I will take out a summons against you... who her father was and how she is related you, I can easily make in the way that suits me best,... I am sure to win. Of course, your father will come and I'll be in trouble, but no matter. We shall have got the girl.
            In virtually every sentence of this, the determined and self-reliant nature of the lawyer-like Phormio is self-evident. For instance, like an erudite lawyer, he ponders and talks about the possible outcome of the legal transactions in which they have been involved. His recurrent use of the first person singular subject and object pronouns, which total to six, as opposed to "we" used only twice and for collaborative purposes, betrays his high self-esteem. His use of three "will"s, which display determination or assurance, and of one "can", which indicates capability or ability, contribute to the omnipotent picture of Phormio as observed in the play. Together with him, the audience is led to believe that he can do anything he likes.
            As for his vulnerability, Phormio does not think that there is any way for Demipho to get back at him.
            Secondly, Charney propounds that "the CH indulges in wish fulfillment and fantasy gratification." According to him, the CH imagines himself both adequate for every situation, and infinitely superior to all other men. As a matter of fact, Phormio wanders through the world apparently unattached, doing exactly as he pleases. "Wish fulfillment" does not mean that he is sexual wish fulfillment of Antipho and Phaedria. Nonetheless, in fact, he fulfills his wish, his omnipotence through the two young men, now getting around the law, now twisting people around his finger. It should be noted that his gratification is not corporeal, but the other way around [If we ignore the dinner invitation(s) he has snapped]. If he had been in the quest of personal wish fulfillment, he could have as well taken advantage of both Phanium and the money given to him.
            Thirdly, Charney contends that "the CH engages in play without any ulterior purpose". This aspect is a little problematic when applied to Phormio. From the very beginning of the play he is delineated as a self-conscious, responsible man of wit and humor. A bosom friend as well as a parasite, he has empathized with the two young men,
Phaedria and Antipho. To reach his goal, which is to enable them to marry the women of their choice and to procure dinner invitation for himself, he acts in a purposeful and determined manner. The whole play is arranged to have him reach that goal. Geta seems to observe this when he is soliloquizing: "I have never seen a man so quick-witted as Phormio. I came to tell him we need money and find out how we could get it. I'd had scarcely said half before he'd god the point." Moreover, Phaedria testifies to the same as follows: "He is here to help. Put any burden on him you like and he’ll shoulder it manfully. He is a friend to his friends." It is important to remember, however, that he does all this for the young and at the expense of the old generation.
            Charney’s fourth argument is that "the CH is a realist who celebrates the body and affirms the life force." As a matter of fact, Phormio shows himself to be the patron of everything real and enjoyable. He is the enemy of all abstractions, seriousness and joylessness. Optimistic about anything, Phormio is a hedonist who lives for the moment. His wit becomes a kind of lifestyle that replaces any moral [except friendship] and legal commitments. To elaborate more, he has ridiculed the law and the values of the old generation by seeming to side with the young. One good aspect of him is that he is a real friend for the young. It is, however, possible as well that he may be trying to gain their favors so that he will, in turn, be provided with opportunities. One should be aware that Phormio may have displaced his bodily desires onto the young men. That is to say, by having them fulfill their wishes, he affirms his own life force and gets pleasure, too.
            Fifthly, Charney claims that "the CH cultivates comic paranoia, as if laughter were an essential defense against a hostile reality". He rivets his attention on the resemblance between the life of the comedian and the comic paranoia as arising from his real life experience and being reflected in his work. As a matter of fact, it is known that Terence was born at Cartage and was brought to Rome as a young slave. In accordance with the Roman tradition, his talents and good looks won him education and education, manumission and entry to a patrician circle with whose encouragement he wrote his plays. The fact that he was a slave certainly has had effect on him writing his plays. Consequently, the slaves in his plays are all clever and conducts all the business on behalf of their masters. The description Terence gives of Geta is that the latter is "a respectable middle-aged servant". He is the one who takes care of all the baseness of his master. Davos, too, is an honest slave of considerable genius as well as loyal to his master. What I mean to assert is that Terence, through creating such slaves, may be compensating for the degrading fact that he was a slave. Therefore, through his comedy, he is, in a sense, is revolting against a hostile reality-that such people of talent are enslaved by those, who have money although they are not so clever.
            Despite this trite but true observation, the claim Charney makes is correlated with the "techne" or the genesis of the art work, not with how the comic operates. Therefore, his argument should be taken with some reservation. The kind of comedian he talks about "never source of comedy. Thus, by twisting around the reality, Terence may be implying the Potentialities of the slaves and what the masters’ lives would be like without them.
            Charney’s sixth argument is that "the CH may serve as the ritual clown of his society, acting as a scapegoat for its taboos." Like the scapegoat, Phormio takes upon himself all the taboos of his society and spends his time flouting almost everything decent and sacred: the law, e.g., and the relationships of the husband and his wife. His outrageous conduct fills the fathers with fear and terror. Referring to Phormio, Demipho condemns as follows: "May all the powers of heaven see him damned! never heard of such colossal cheek. The law should have him deported-a desert island's the place for him."    
            As Charney propounds, not referring to him, Phormio is a philosopher and a moral instructor as well. As a matter of fact, Phormio almost gives a lecture to Demipho about the law, which he himself has taken advantage of at the beginning of the play: "Do you mean to tell me that this law experience." Although his argument has no originality, it is accurate. Since comedy wants to see things settled and people to be happy at the end, it avoids any tragic circumstances such as death and punishment. Therefore, it moves towards untangling complications and reconciling enemies. As a matter of fact, the comedy is a chocolate-coated-pill. The denouement is that the drawbacks of the society was examined, diagnosed and cured. Consequently, Phaedria and Antipho have married the women they are in love with; Demipho and Chremes have remembered their errors in the way they were treating their household and others.

            1. All the references to the article are from M. Charney, ed., Classic Comedies (New York: Signet, 1985) 586-80.
            2. For the whole text, see B. Radice, tr., The Comedies by Terence (1965, Great Britain: Penguin, 1976) 227.
            3. Radice 292.
            4. Friendship is actually one of the fundamental themes of this play, when the outward show of the plot is removed. Because, in most cases, Phormio is more concerned about Phaedria and Demipho than about himself; the latter, about the former, and the one brother, about the other.


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