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The prologue is an apology for the work of Terence, who was coming under attack at the time for his writing. It is believed that he was a member of a writer's circle, and his work was not completely his own.
This play centers on several interconnecting plots; the first forms the framework for the play—the love between a young Athenian man Phaedria and a foreign born courtesan named Thais. Introduced in Act I, Scene i, Phaedria and his wise-cracking slave, Parmeno, discuss Phaedria's situation. Before the curtain rose, Phaedria had been shut out of Thais' house, and he contemplates what he should do. "What, therefore am I to do? Will I not go? Not even now, when I freely summoned? Or is it better for me to prepare myself to endure the insults of whores? She shuts me out, then she calls me back. Should I go back?" (I.i.47–49) Offering philosophic advice, Parmeno encourages the love-sick Phaedria, "If you can go, there's nothing better or braver: but if you begin, and do not stoutly hang on, and when you cannot bear it, when no one seeks you out, with peace not having been made, you go to her freely, saying that you love her, and cannot bear it, you're done: it's over. You're through. She will play with you when she senses you are defeated." (I.i.50–55) He then offers his a famous line:
All these vices are in love: injuries,
Suspicions, enmity, offenses,
War, peace restored. If you think that uncertain things
can be made certain by reason, you'll accomplish nothing more than
if you strived to go insane by sanity.
Parmeno then encourages Phaedria to "not add beyond the troubles love already has," while buying myself back from her for "as little as possible" (I.i.75–80). There is obvious slave imagery here. At the end of the scene, Thais emerges from the house.
It's quite obvious that she's perturbed over her actions that irritated Phaedria, and caused the deliberations of the previous scene. She says, "Oh, miserable me! I fear that Phaedria bore it quite poorly, and accepted the action in another manner than I did it, because yesterday he was not sent in" (I.ii.80–83). Seeing Phaedria and Parmeno in the street, she calls them over to talk; obviously Phaedria, the perfect elegiac lover, is caught up "shaking and trembling all over" at the sight of her, and Parmeno is the hard-nosed interrogator about her intentions. Thais launches into a very lengthy explanation of her history; during this tale, the second subplot is introduced: the attentions of Thraso. He is then asked by Thais to leave town for a few days so that she can pay attention to a rich soldier Thraso. Thraso has a present that she is interested in (this present happens to be a slave girl called Pamphila. She comes from Phaedria's home town and is Thais's sister – this is known to Thais but not to Thraso). In doing this, Thais plans to re-establish contact with Pamphila and to improve her social standing in Athens by returning Pamphila to her Athenian family, represented by her brother Chremes. With their relationship already on the rocks, Phaedria sees this as the last straw. Nonetheless, Phaedria loves her and hopes that she will be his in the end. To show his love for her, he arranges two presents for her before he leaves: an Aethiopian slave girl and a eunuch.
Phaedria has a younger brother, Chaerea, who is just returning from military service when all these events are unfolding. At the port, Chaerea sees Pamphila coming off the boat on her way to be delivered to Thais and he is overcome by her beauty. He tries to follow her but he loses her. Luckily, however, Chaerea runs into his family's servant Parmeno who has just seen Pamphila go by, escorted by Thraso's servant Gnatho. Parmeno reveals to Chaerea that the girl he is chasing is the gift of the soldier to Thais, and that he himself is supposed to deliver a eunuch to Thais's house for Phaedria (one of Phaedria's gifts).
Based on a joking suggestion by Parmeno, Chaerea decides to substitute himself for the eunuch in order to get into Thais's house and he forces Parmeno to cooperate. Since he has been away on military service, Thais and her household staff do not know his face. Chaerea's plan works, and he is accepted as a eunuch and put in charge of guarding the girl with whom he is so strongly infatuated. When he is left alone with her, he rapes her, and then, discovered by Thais's maid Pythias, he flees the scene.
Thais's plan to get in good favour with Pamphila's Athenian family seems to be ruined. At this point Phaedria returns and discovers what his brother has done. Chaerea is dragged back to Thais's house and explains his love for Pamphila and agrees to marry her. Chremes is grateful for the return of his long-lost sister, Phaedria and Thais are reconciled, and the soldier and Phaedria agree to share Thais.
Dante alludes to Terence's Thais in Canto 18 of the Inferno, where he encounters the flatterers, who are covered with human waste. Virgil points to one of the suffering souls:
- At that juncture, my leader said to me,
- “Now send your gaze a little further forward
- So that your eye may rest upon the face
- Of that slovenly and disheveled slattern 130
- Scratching herself there with her shitty nails,
- Who can’t decide between standing and squatting.
- That is Thaïs, the whore who once replied
- To a lover asking, ‘Have I found much favor
- With you?’—‘Indeed, I’d say the very most!’
- And let this be enough for our perusal.”
From an unpublished translation of the Inferno by Peter D'Epiro.