Sunday, January 29, 2006

Comedy of Errors - What a Production


Since the host has signed us off, consider this non-required reading.

As we are wrapping up, Ernst asked, some time ago, about productions of Comedy of Errors. I have seen only one Shakespeare play more frequently than Comedy of Errors, and that's Twelfth Night, but despite frequent evenings spent in the presence of Dromios and Antipholi, I only remember a couple well. Those that have been staged as simple farces, emphasis on the slapstick, have been mostly forgettable. And while I accept Ernst's observation that the characters in the play don't change much, I do think Shakespeare has endowed the narrative of the play with more than a series of farcical routines.

Perhaps I am hard on the farce. Perhaps I haven't seen many modern farces -- with the notable exception of the Marx Bros. and Joe Orton -- offer much other than forced silliness. Gil referred to the terminal appreciation one feels for Feydeaux’s farces, but my souring on the farce came in London in 1984 with Philip King’s See How They Run, in which the crucial problem is that the "Bishop is arriving and his niece, Penelope, has to pretend to be married to someone other than her husband, the vicar." (Titter, titter.) The director of that play, Ray Cooney, noted in the production program the plots of some of his own farces: "in Not Now Darling an important customer is arriving to purchase a fur coat and the inexperienced Arnold Crouch has to pretend that the coat is worth only £100 ... in Move Over Mrs. Markham, a famous lady novelist is arriving and the impoverished Publisher has to pretend to be his own partner; in Run For Your Wife, the police are arriving and the taxi driver husband has to pretend to be Gay." God, no.

What’s sad here is that Cooney, the founder and first artistic director of London's Theatre of Comedy Company, managed to reduce the form to a simple and simplistic formula -- someone pretends to be something they are not, in a situation of significant personal importance; awkward stuff happens -- much as if he were pitching the things to Hollywood producers with short attention spans. [So, in order to dispose of the Ring, Frodo and Sam must dress as female Hobbits to get past the Orc armies and Sauron -- It's Some Like It Hot in Mordor! ] Perhaps that’s what gets plays staged in the West End.

I did not like See How They Run. And it evaporated from my memory like a smear of rubbing alcohol on a piece of glass. So too did the much more enjoyable Noises Off by Michael Frayn. I remember appreciating its technical brilliance, particularly a bit with a swinging ax, but could not, if my life depended on it, remember the plot without prompting. I laughed hard at Noises Off and at Boretz and Murray’s Room Service which I saw at the Guthrie a year earlier (although it was much better as a Marx Bros. movie), but I experienced no, in Mike’s words, "sense of transcendence."

In the Cooney/King farce, comedy is the result of people being, deliberately with lies and deceit, foolish and from people making fools of each other. In Comedy of Errors, people do not pretend to be what they are not, they do not intentionally mislead others, and the comedy comes from their foolishness in spite of themselves. I wonder if part of this shift has to do with the absence of Mesdames Fortune and Fate as modern engines of human trouble. For Shakespeare, Fate can separate twins at birth then drive them into the same town, unbeknownst to each other, the very same town in fact where their mother is now an anonymous Abbess! I'll leave it to Ernst or Gil, at a future date, to explain whether the Shakespearean audience would have accepted this scenario any more than the modern audience does because of our different relationship with the concept of Fate.

So, what to do with Shakespeare now? In 1983, Adrian Noble staged the show for the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. I saw the show in 1984. Noble, who later became the RSC's artistic director, chose to exaggerate the play's comedic and farcical elements by dressing all the characters up as clowns. Noble's show started with a jolly, flamboyant score of music with racing pianos and risqué trap set. The lights dimmed and onto the stage raced the clowns, all in Whiteface, Auguste, and Character clown costumes: tight striped pants, Charlie Chaplin-cut coats, painter’s overalls, dunce caps, starched dickies, spray-painted bowlers, umbrellas, etc. The Dromios, on tricycles, in their baggy plaid pants, big shoes, five-o-clock shadows and white lip makeup, shaggy black hair, soft caps, and large loose overcoats, were dressed as hobo or tramp clowns, a style of character clown originated by Otto Greilberg but made famous by folks like Emmett Kelly, Red Skelton and, if you grew up in Denver, Blinky the Clown.

Both Antipholuses were dressed in a neat looking gray suit, white shirt, white shoes, blow-dried hair. Handsome men who might have seemed out of place surrounded by all the clowns. Except both had an entirely blue face. (This is actually a stunning choice by Noble, as, according to Wikipedia, "it is common for clowns to avoid the use of blue face paint, as this is considered bad luck." Perhaps this fits; both Antipholi suffer their fair share of bad luck. But if I ever have dinner with Noble, this is what I'm asking about.)

The tone was set: pratfalls, honking noises, occasional slide whistles, a white-faced policeman on a bicycle, and an amazingly purposeful set. It was a semi-circular wall about three stories high. White. A door in the furthest, middle portion of the wall. A small square door on the upper right (think Laugh-In’s comedy wall or a definite nod to Peter Brook's 1970 A Midsummer Night's Dream). In addition, a scaffold was lowered down from the ceiling: Adriana’s balcony. And a trap door appeared in the floor after the intermission: the whore’s house. (The imagery here is specific -- Adriana is from heaven, the courtesan from hell.)

The serious parts of the play that we have discussed were downplayed or played for laughs. For example, Aegeon's introduction and story are lampooned. To take away its seriousness and to break it up, Noble directed the company of clowns (townspeople) to take a step forward each time Aegeon’s tale would reach a suspenseful moment. And when he appeared unable to go further, they moan for fear of a lost good story, and he would continue.

My favorite moment was Luciana's dressing down of Antipholus of Syracuse, which made use of the little second story window in the wall. Antipholus is trying to escape from Adriana by climbing out the window and Luciana catches him. He slips and hangs from his knees upside down out of this window. Luciana's speech about how he must love his wife and be true to her is played while he is hanging upside down. (She climbs a ladder to put herself at eye level with him.) During her harangue, he puts his hands behind his head, in his pockets, on his hips, all ordinary movements made comic by his situation. And, again to turn a serious moment into farce, as Antipholus falls in love with Luciana, he keeps reaching for her hair, which forms a tall point, twisting up from her head like a drill bit. The audience laughed at the repeated sight gag.

I loved this production. I wrote in my journal that it was "the funniest production I had ever seen," and in a crude attempt at a pun dubbed it "the greatest show on earth." I was not bothered by its attention to and enhancement of the farcical elements of the play. And despite what I have thought over the last few weeks about farce, I am still not bothered. What Noble did with the clowns, I think, was brilliant. By using more than 100 years of clown tradition in his costuming, Noble calls attention to a human condition: first, that we are all foolish (and this explains our behavior), and second, that laughter is the only plausible reaction to the human predicament. We are laughing at Aegeon's story not because we fail to understand its sadness, but because we see our own needy desire for these types of stories lampooned. (And to see this attitude continued I refer you to The Onion.) Gil asks: "how does one stage a beating today, without lessening the comedy?" Set it in a tradition of comic exaggeration, clowns, that has its roots in Medieval jesters, who endured many a beating on their frequently deformed bodies but also had the freedom to speak the truth.

Bring on Love's Labor's Lost,

Comedy of Errors - Sign Off


Old habits never die. Randall's summation of Van Doren's contempt for Comedy of Errors invited me into other voices than ours. I'm not sure this should be part of our future discussions, given I'm finding what we have done so far quite provocative. Nonetheless, here are a few sidebars we might tuck away:

Anthony Caputo, Buffo (1978), contrasting Errors to Menaechmi, notes Shakespeare intensifies confusion and deepens the sense of wonder, the sense that the process has been strangely magical, associates the human tangle of this action with "magic, with an order of forces operating through nature but beyond human control or comprehension" (162). Magic-or the metaphor of magic-is one of the chief contributors to the marvelous sense that nature, the world, the stuff of life, is irrepressibly creative. He concludes "it is difficult to find a play which celebrates the marvelous unexpectedness of life with greater ebullience than The Comedy of Errors" (165). Yeah, we could have told him that.

Maurice Charney, All of Shakespeare (1993), contrary to Van Doren, but in keeping with Ernst's initial classroom questions, notes the "strong lines": lyric forms; stichomythic dialogue; hyperbole; couplets; sonnetlike quatrains (e.g., III.ii); extraordinary test flights of verse. He cites the motto of the entire play as "Come sister. I am pressed down with conceit:/ Conceit, my comfort and my injury" (Adriana, IV.ii.64-5). Conceit means literally what is conceived by the mind, but it was commonly used as a rhetorical term for the powers of the imagination, especially in an ingenious and overly clever figure of speech (4).

Two of the 173 books on my "try to read by the end of next week" shelf are Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human (1998) and Erich Segal, The Death of Comedy (2000), so I've used The Will Shakespeare Experience to at least open them to The Comedy of Errors. Bloom appreciates the skill in action, incipient character, and stagecraft-"that far outshines the three Henry VI plays and the rather lame comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona--enough to challenge the conventional chronology which places Errors first. "It is true that in comedy Shakespeare was free to be himself from the start, whereas the shadow or Marlowe darkens the early histories (Richard III included) and Titus Andronicus" (21). This tiny chapter is all I have read of Bloom, but when he writes "this fierce little play is also one of the starting points for Shakespeare's reinvention of the arena for inwardness...and Antipholus of Syracuse is a sketch for the abysses of self that are to come." (23-4), I am tickled that he is responding to what we, too, respond to.

I've read Segal's Roman Comedy, which analyzes The Menaechmi, as "festive release." In Plautus, "the action takes place in a magnetic field between personifications of restraint and release" (43), the former personified in Menechmus's (of Epidamnus) wife's behavior as excessive industria, while M. refers to the courtesan Erotium as voluptas. The comedy itself presents the conflict of industria and voluptas, everyday versus holiday, or as Freud would describe it, the reality principle versus the pleasure principle. We don't much care for Shakespeare's Antipholus of Ephesus, but Segal's Plautus makes his antecedent sympathetic, rebelling against domestic repression, so both Menaechmi assert that "funny things happen only on the way from the forum" (52).

In "Shakespeare: Errors and Eros," in The Death of Comedy, Segal is interested in the depth and dimension Shakespeare uses to enhance Plautus. Yeah, he explores "Christian coloration" provoked by Shakespeare's substitution of Ephesus for Epidamnus (remember St. Paul's Epistle), so he focuses on redemption and even death (homophone for debt) and rebirth, and he notes that II.1 is a scene Plautus could not have written, "two freeborn women having an intimate conversation" (291), though he finds Adriana "a bad-tempered wife" (am I the only one who likes her?), while Luciana's view of the proper role of women contains St. Paul's advice ("Wives, submit yourselves unto your husbands"). Yet, Adriana's "is a voice of a genuine, plausible lament, and in a real sense these two women provide the emotional core of the play" (292).

Remember when I wondered about sex in Shakespeare? In "Wife Swap" (there's a TV reality [sic] show called that, in which women swap households, with the only matter not included is the titillating promise of the title, the bedroom), Segal notes a significant change Shakespeare makes: in Plautus the visiting twin gets to enjoy his brother's mistress, whereas Shakespeare's traveling brother receives an affectionate offer to wine and dine with his brother's wife: the hazard of incest. Note Randall's paragraph on Adriana's concern for marriage in the "not bad" discussion. On identity, Segal quotes Harry Levin: "There is an inherent lack of dignity-I am almost tempted to call it a loss of face-in being indistinguishable from, in always being mistaken for, someone else." [I love that "loss of face"] Segal calls the lady Abbess a dea ex machina, then can't resist and calls her Mrs. Deus Ex Machina. [I would have quoted more Latin at you from Menaechmi but I'm pressed for time.] Anyway, after talking about rebirth and discovery in Act V, Segal ends with "This first comedy sets the tone for all those that followed. For in one way or another, every one of them is about lost selves, absence, recognitions, and reunion." (303).

Asides re: Randall's January 21 "Not Bad": My students often just would not suspend disbelief about nobody catching on to why there are two sets of twins abroad as early as Act II, but I find Randall's discussion of assumption that the normal laws of nature are being suspended perfectly anticipates this. And his description of Nora Vincent's My Life as a Man recalls Black like Me, John Howard Griffin's 1961 text about Griffin dying himself black and traveling in the South (I always wonder why it couldn't have been an authentic black account, but never mind). We have been really exploring the nature of human perception this month. When Randall says "it is human nature to jump to conclusions, to base whole rationales on faulty premises," this speaks to my chat about response and reaction. Remember that as we grow up every experience is new, and we must respond to everything, figure it out, place it into our self centric contexts, but as we mature, we can use the sum of these experiences as contexts to absorb semi-new stuff, making living much more efficient (trivial example, we learn to react when the alarm goes off we get up; but if we had to respond, weighing all the arguments pro and con about alarms and facing a new day, we would, most of us, spend the rest of the day in bed. Thus, faulty premises or not, jumping to conclusions gets us through the day).

But Comedy of Errors puts us in position to raise our consciousness about this process. When Randall challenges Van Doren on genre, he notes Shakespeare never limits himself. We discussed how the death sentence in Act I establishes a serious context (and the silent appearance of Egeon throughout the BBC production (over)does this reminder), but I also note that Act V briefly reintroduces tragedy. Enter the Duke and Egeon, on the way to beheading, and Egeon recognizes, at last, someone who can ransom him, his son. But, in one last twist, it is the wrong Antipholus, and Egeon resigns himself to his fate. (Robert Miola, in Shakespeare and Classical Comedy (1994) notes that in expanding Plautus, Shakespeare nearly triples the incidents of error from seventeen to fifty). We must know it will all turn out fine, but we get a last occasion to remember the fine line between comedy and tragedy, to be illustrated as Randall notes in Romeo and Juliet.

We don't have a theatre person (actor, director), but Randall speculates on production turning comedy into farce but not vice versa. When we get to Shrew, let us consider John Cleese as Petruchio in the BBC production and in Michael Hoffman's A Midsummer Night's Dream Kevin Klein as Bottom, where "broad" comic characters become sad and sober.

OK. As host, should I have last words? I've had a great time and learned a lot [two words!]. Old dog, new ideas! And I'm ready for Love's Labor's Lost.


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Comedy of Errors - Ernst's Profound Final Thoughts

As a poorly-prepared, poorly-read student at Yale, I was still torn regarding a major in the fall of my junior year—would it be philosophy or English? I received an A on a paper for a Shakespeare course, and so I decided, “Well, why not?” The assigned topic of the paper was “Does Hamlet Change,” and I argued that, essentially, he did not change. This led me to think about the extent to which characters in comedies change as they confront the tests comic plots put before them. It seems to me that, often, they don’t. However, on the other hand, I can see arguing that Orlando, Isabella, Malvolio, Benedick do change, and other characters can be shown to change by the way their plays are directed.

I don’t think characters change much in The Comedy of Errors. Rather, they do what lots of characters do—namely, they reveal their deeper natures as they encounter comic obstacles.

There may be, as I have suggested, a kind of fatalism at play in the world of The Comedy of Errors. The Duke, Aegeon, the Antipholuses’ father, and the two Dromios are quite fatalistic. They accept what comes their way and don’t seem to have it as part of their natures to figure out different or spiritually freeing ways of dealing with obstacles (which is one reason I can’t see Buster Keaton, who is always figuring ways, playing a Dromio). This, as other have said, leaves us with the two women and the two Antipholi as the play’s most interesting and quasi-deeply-probed characters.

I looked quickly at the number of beatings and noticed that A/Syracuse does most of his beating early on. After that, he comes to find a kind of whimsical delight in the various serendipitous events that come his way. I like him. Conversely, A/Ephesus get into beating toward the end of the play. He has a mistress; he has an ugly temper; he wants the world about him to be run his way, thank you. I don’t like him that much. At the same time, for all that can be said about Adriana’s grace, she, similarly, has a good bit of the shrew deep inside her. I would not want to be married to this woman. On the other hand, Luciana, whose name suggests light (like the Scandinavian light-bringing Christmas-time saint) and who is also the blonde, is gently intelligent and ameliorating at every moment. I like her; she must have been born, like my wife Betty and like me, under Libra. Ah, we are such balanced, sensitive, rational people! (Cough, cough!)

As I write, I see lots of “buts” and “ifs” here. Oh well; I guess that’s the way it goes with the big S.


Saturday, January 21, 2006

Comedy of Errors - Not Bad


I've finished rereading both Mark Van Doren's short essay on Comedy of Errors (in Shakespeare [1939]) and our various e-mails, and I've noticed a distinct difference of opinion. Van Doren, in his brief Comedy of Errors section, derides the play. He claims:

1) that Comedy of Errors is an "unfeeling farce,"
2) that "things happen to certain persons not because of who they are but because of what they are,"
3) that Adriana is "nothing save the exclamatory wife to be expected in a farce,"
4) that the speeches of Aegeon are overfull with "unnatural effort,"
5) that Shakespeare's rhymes "rattle like bleached bones,"
6) and that, in total, the characters simply "display a genius for misunderstanding the obvious" until Shakespeare can no longer "torture" them further, and all is resolved. (Van Doren, 33-36)

In short, Van Doren's opinion, to paraphrase The Reduced Shakespeare Company, is that Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare's "bad" plays. Yet reading through our e-mails I find the sentiment that it is anything but. Why?

I like Ernst's comment that the Shakespearean challenge is to take a situation and shape it until it answers the question "how, realistically, could people act that way?" not only opens Comedy of Errors up for more serious examination but offers a tidy way of looking at all of the plays (thanks Ernst!), and it also opposes Van Doren's dismissiveness about Shakespeare just putting his poor characters through a series of slapstick comic paces. My attempt to describe the characters' behaviors as a shift in their perceptions of law and witchcraft could be taken as a response to Ernst's question. As opposed to simple misunderstandings of the obvious, these people begin with the assumption that normal laws of nature are being suspended. As a result "obvious" explanations are not relevant. This happens in real life. just reviewed a book by Nora Vincent called "My Life as a Man." The author spent over a year dressing and living as a man (including at least one sexual episode) during which time no one -- Holy Billy Tipton! -- guessed her secret. Andrew O'Hehir's review has this fascinating paragraph:

"Passing for male, Vincent writes, was much easier than she expected. Although she began with an elaborate ritual of applying fake stubble, binding her breasts -- a sports bra two sizes too small worked better than Ace bandages -- adjusting her voice and mannerisms, and even wearing a prosthetic penis in her pants, she discovered that once Ned was established and accepted in a given milieu, none of that was necessary."

It may seem stunning that once "Ned" was established, no actual subterfuge was necessary, but Vincent had changed the foundation on which people base their realities (the reality here being the perception of her gender), and the presence of her breasts, lack of facial hair, indistinct bulge in her pants no longer sent the "obvious" clues to her colleagues. So back to Shakespeare. Once Dromio and Antipholus determine that Ephesus is full of witchcraft and fairy magic, no "obvious" conclusions about twin brothers is going to enter into their heads until the physical truth is placed before them. That is the nature of human perception. (And it will soon affect Olivia in Twelfth Night too.)

This takes Mike and Gil's discussion of perception (reputation) in a different direction, but Mike's observation that what we observe in Comedy of Errors -- that "our perceptions of the world around us are limited, foolish, and shallow, and yet there is very little of us that exists separate from those perceptions" -- hits the nail on the head. Malvolio's perception of his own importance is limited, foolish and shallow, and the result is humorous (or is it?). Othello's perceptions not only of Iago, but of his wife are limited, foolish, and shallow, and the result is tragedy. What's interesting is how often -- Comedy of Errors, Othello, Measure for Measure, Much Ado -- characters use other characters' limited and foolish perception against them. And it works because it is human nature to jump to conclusions, to base whole rationales on faulty premises. "I know what I think; don't confuse me with the facts." In the end, Shakespeare has realized very simply a fundamental human complexity.

One other thing: Van Doren's comment that these characters get into situations because of what they are (twins!) not who they are is, I think, a shallow response to this play. First of all, it is to a certain extent a semantic distinction. But really, if our discussion about perception is substantive, then his statement that "they are not men but twins," is wrong. Men struggle with perception; the fact that these men are twins is the catalyst that begins the exploration of the limitations of perception. But Van Doren's comment also suggests that these characters are unredeemably flat. I think many of our comments have revealed more complexity than that. For example, Gil says "Antipholus of Syracuse must put on a mask to acquiesce to Adriana's insistent invitation to dinner, but the true Antipholus (of S) courts a shocked Lucinda, actions that are contradictory, yet show us something Plautus's Menaechmi lacks, depth of character."

"Depth of character." Once can't have that if the play is only concerned about WHAT people are as opposed to WHO they are. In Northrop Frye on Shakespeare, Frye observes that if you transposed Hamlet and Othello into each other's respective plays, you would have no tragedy at all. Othello, he argues, unconcerned about consequences of his actions would have eliminated Claudius early in the play, and perceptive Hamlet would have "seen through" Iago and his deceits. (Frye, 4). Frye cites these as examples of what A. C. Bradley's term: "tragedies of character." To return to Ernst's question about why people act the way they do, they do so (delay revenge, listen to vile calumny) because of who they are. Can we not also apply this concept to Comedy of Errors? It may be a bit much to elevate the play to a "comedy of character," (although Measure for Measure and Merchant of Venice certainly are), but within the conceit (twins!) there are distinctions between the Antipholi that make for some of the best moments of the play.

How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it
That thou are estranged from thyself?
"Thyself" I call it, being strange to me,
That undividable, incorporate,
Am better than thy dear self's better part. (2.2.10-134)

Adriana is concerned about her marriage here, and Antipholus' (of S.) "strangeness" -- he's not acting like himself -- threatens that. But she questions not his forsaking their marriage, but his forsaking himself. And to her, acting out of character, separates him from his own soul (according the Folger glossary) which she equates with their marriage. This certainly seems to raise questions of character to me. If, on the other hand, this were a British farce, the mistaken identity here would simply lead to a series of bawdy jokes, often regardless of the characters involved, and probably Antipholus finding himself uncomfortably in bed with Adriana (ha ha!) leading to more sight gags and slapstick. Shakespeare's Antipholus, though, acts like himself! And he is confused and disoriented. And his confusion and disorientation seems to put "his" marriage at risk in the eyes of his "wife." These are real people behaving in real ways.

Perhaps where I (and we) depart from Van Doren is in generic distinction. One difference is that Van Doren sees Comedy of Errors simply as a farce, and he has little respect for the form. We on the other hand have been treating the play more as a full-fledged comedy with more attendant complexities. Indeed, as I read the play with my little column of cadged definitions of "farce" penciled into the early margins, I found myself struggling with such strict generic definitions. Shakespeare does not limit himself in this way. (Romeo and Juliet: comedy or tragedy? Well, both, depending on where you are in the play.) And so I think it is unfair to dismiss the play for being just a farce, when that is a generic distinction the critic first imposes and then uses as a lens to critique the play. It's like buying your wife a leather catsuit and then, when she models it, telling her it makes her look fat.

Second, I consider how much of my perception is shaped by reading rather than viewing the play. A director can insert between the lines any amount of whipping, cudgeling, slapping, butt-kicking, nose-pulling, pole-climbing, heated bosom-fanning, and groinal gesturing in order to enhance the farcical qualities of the play. The four Stooges (Larry, Moe, Curly, Shemp) can be signed up to mug and pummel their way through the text -- "Where [Scrunch!] is that [Bwang!] thousand marks [Fwawp-wapa-wapa] you had of me?" [Doink!] "Ow-woo-woo-woo! I have some marks of yours upon my pate!" -- but any comedy of mistaken identity can be turned into a slapstick extravaganza on the order of Run For Your Wife. The converse is not true. Noises Off cannot be made to tease out a serious comment on the nature of human perception or the evaporation of identity or the ethereal fragility of reputation just because the director wants it. With Comedy of Errors, on the other hand, one can. It is more comedy than farce, if one chooses to make the distinction (which I'd like to revisit in Taming of the Shrew), and I have really enjoyed how much there is to be found in it.

Dang. This was going to be short. I really wanted to talk about Luciana, the only character Van Doren thinks is worth beans, and the character who keeps coming up in our e-mails as really compelling. Any one want to jump in?


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Comedy of Errors - A Couple More Notes

I have five things to say, the second of which is:

[I had a student who would enter my office thusly, leave without ever getting to number 1, and render me sleepless deep into the night.]

2) Randall explored the nature of identity when both Syracusians and Ephesians encounter strange responses, attributing them first to "cozenage," then to sorcery--law, reason, logic are all somehow suspended--and he notes that "once they have shifted into this frame of reference, they deny the realities right in front of them. This does address the logical challenge to willing suspension of disbelief: if the Syracusians are traveling to seek their lost twin brothers, named Antipholus and Dromio, why don't they twig earlier to the logical explanation of why strangers keep calling them A. and D. Because, says Randall, the strangeness of assumption and perception, has removed logic from their responses.

But there is another facet to the strange situation that continues my earlier comments on perception and assumption. The newcomers from Syracuse face the dangers of a strange, then alien, place. Every situation and every encounter is new, and they know they must respond to it to figure it out. But the locals view Ephesus as their familiar environment. They have spent twenty years refining their reactions to daily discourse. When you come home to dinner, however belatedly, you will be welcomed in. If you bespeak a chain from the local goldsmith, even if you intend to give it to a courtesan and not your wife, when you encounter him he will deliver it, not have you arrested. One travels to a foreign country to experience the new, the challenge, the adventure. One stays home and expects to be comfortable, even a bit bored, as one moves through the familiar. We may have identical twins, but this contrast of expectation provides a very special dramatic irony for the audience, so we can learn anew the difference between our own reactions and responses.

3) When Randall extends this to identity itself, "If you don't act like yourself, are you yourself?" it reminds me of a wicked tease I used on my students. The term "personality" comes from Latin persona meaning mask, as in actor's mask. Thus, I would do a riff, when they claimed that a sorority sister had "a great personality" that she must be the best liar in the house and could present the most effective false front to those around her. This actually led to some serious discussions about when the mask becomes one with the face and the constructed identity replaces true character. Antipholus of Syracuse must put on a mask to acquiesce to Adriana's insistent invitation to dinner, but the true Antipholus (of S) courts a shocked Lucinda, actions that are contradictory, yet show us something Plautus's Menaechmi lacks, depth of character.

4) Ernst brings out a strange anomaly in my personality (smiley face here). Whenever I did observations of graduate students or peers teaching, I was transformed. I would be sitting in the back row and suddenly I would have the urge to be a student again, raise my hand, and shout, "Oh, I know, Teach! Call on me, Teach!" So here is Ernst with a list of study questions for study, and I want to answer all of them. (If it's possible, I think Ermst's approach would be interesting for me for many of the future plays.) Here are a few responses:

The feel of the Duke's opening language not only fits Theseus and Richard II, but also Henry IV, whose opening "no more" speech is my idea of "public speech," spoken not by Henry but by the Office of King (Richard Nixon used to refer to himself as "The Office of President"). Errors's opening lines are not so political, but they certainly have the sound of the sense of political order which Mike and Randall have explored.

How does one stage a beating today, without lessening the comedy? I mentioned that I saw a production at the University of Colorado in 1975 or so, and about all I can remember is one Dromio trying to escape a beating by shinnying up an officer's pike staff, and he fell, which sobered up the audience immediately. Another production, broad farce, at Colorado State, did Three Stooges beatings--with sound effects: bam, boink, clong. Didn't work for me. In the BBC video, Antipholus rolls up his cloth cap to give non-capital 40 whacks which makes Dromio's complaints into comic overstatement. My friend Dick Henze saw a production of Shrew in Northern England in which Petruchio beat Katherina with a bull whip (in the text, he never touches her), so realistically and so savagely, that at the end of the play as she lay motionless on the stage, the shocked audience rose, without curtain call, and crept out of the theatre into the night. Snuff Shakespeare.

I find the characters of Adriana and Lucinda the most full in the play. I make Lucinda prissy, self-righteous, Moral Majority, until Antipholus of Syracuse makes love to her. Adriana, despite her jealousy and foolish concern that she has lost her attractive beauty in the course of marriage, is still the more voluptuous, witty, ironic, common-sensical. In the BBC video, Lucinda is the blond, dressed in sky blue, while Adriana is brunette, in purple with black and jeweled trim and impressive décolletage. The actress is Suzanne Bertish, if you have time to fall in love this weekend. But in the (awful) Colorado State production, it was the Courtesan who was blond, with Helen of Troy tresses, and a white satin gown with golden brocade, who stood motionless on the balcony stage left, as a beacon/symbol of the pleasure principle. So different from the rest of the production that it was as though Jayne Mansfield had wandered onto the set from some other sound stage. The director cut the Adriana/Lucinda debate which is so important to me.

5) Above, I have referred a bit to productions. I think I have seen four. The first, despite the memory of the injured Dromio, I remember as a lively and well-dressed presentation of the text, though I retain little of the detail. The Colorado State version was among the five worst productions I have ever seen (the others: Rent, with the original London cast; Fuddy Meers; Speed the Plow; and a comically incompetent Macbeth in Harrogate, England, in which Lady Macbeth's death scene got laughs. I also once had two double brandies at intermission to get through a London production of Irma la Duce. The second act was swell). I don't remember much about the Dromios because the director had written in two nonspeaking parts of town folk who giggled and poked and pointed at the action, and who seemed to be, to complete upstage effect, spastic or otherwise possessed. The six of us who went vowed never to see Comedy of Errors again.

But, what kind of fool am I? Jean and I saw another at the Denver Center Theatre not three months later. Set in Venice Beach, sand and sunshine, with a board walk and a dune buggy. The effect was carnival. The spirit was infectious. Dromio of Ephesus was a beach bum, shades and all, while Dromio of Syracuse was more a tourist in bearing, if not in dress. Adriana was more shrewish than I read her. This time, the twins were double cast, DCT standbys John Hutton as the Antipholi and Mark Rubald as the Dromios, in one of the best comic (not farce) performances I have ever seen. Part of the pleasure was watching the character shifts as the actors moved from one twin to the other. The trick of course, is Act V, in which two actors (the program lists "the other guys"), similar in stature and identical in costume, sneaked on to the stage, shielded by other business, so we really did get "hand-in-hand."

I have not rewatched "The Brothers Karamazov" trapeze version, but I did look again at BBC, directed by James Cellan-Jones, a TV director with little Shakespeare experience. Money guys Time/Warner (?) or Gulf/Western (?) had commanded to just archive the plays, "no interpretation" which of course is an interpretation. Notable: Egeon (Cyril Cusak), looking mournful, walks silently across the set five or six times to remind us of his fate. Twins are double cast with young Michael Kitchen (have you seen "Foyle's War"?) as Antipholi and Roger Daltry (yes, of The Who) as the Dromios. No problem with pounding on the door or hand-in-hand because of split screen techniques. The twins are quite different: A of E is arrogant, intemperate, and impatient, A of S is more amused, bemused, and entertained; Dromio of E is frustrated but somehow practical, while Dromio of S is sweetly baffled by everything, a sort of "isn't this remarkable" look which never suggests comprehension. In the cluttered market Dromio of S fingers goods, then sees himself in a mirror, then goes around behind and discovers the "mirror" is an empty frame. Shades of a Marx Brothers bit I can't quite place. Cellan-Jones doesn't quite trust the text, so one Antipholus wears collar up, the other down. So, way back when I was an undergrad and said the director should have them wear different color ribbons, I WAS RIGHT!

1) Sorry, out of time.


Monday, January 9, 2006

RE: Comedy of Errors - Some Response

I continue to be concerned primarily with the contemporary tradition from which a play comes and with how it speaks to its own times. That grounds it for me, although general theories are interesting, if they are compelling.

I note that many pastoral and escape-from-civilization plays were written during the ten years coming down to 1591-2. These include:
  • Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune [Munday?] (1582),
  • Campaspe [Lyly] (1580-84),
  • Sappho and Phao [Lyly] (1582-4),
  • Two Italian Gentlemen [Munday?](1579-84),
  • Gallathia [Lyly](1584-88),
  • Alhpnsus, King of Aragon [Greene] (1587-88),
  • Endymion [Lyly] (1588),
  • Two Angry Women of Abingdon [Porter] (1588-90),
  • Three Lords and Three Ladies of London [Wilson](88-90),
  • Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay [Greene] (1589-92),
  • George A. Greene, The Pinner of Wakefield [Greene] (1590),
  • A Looking Glass for London and England [Lodge, Greene] (1590),
  • Love’s Metaporphosis [Lyly](1588-90),
  • The Cobbler’s Prophecy [Wilson] (1589-93)
  • Fair Em, the Miller’s Daughter [Wilson?, possibly bits by Shakespeare] (1589-91),
  • Mother Bombie [Lyly] (1587-90),
  • Mucedorus [?, possibly bits by Shakespeare] (1588-98).
There are, of course, many others whose MSS no longer survive. I would say that one thing found in a lot of these plays is servants—so common that it may not have been such a giant step for Shakespeare to semi-automatically add them to his version of Plautus. The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, which I will no doubt come back to, is a particularly interesting Shakespeare influence (in a number of writers’ eyes). However, here, it is Lyly’s Mother Bombie which interests me. Its plot is not particularly important, perhaps, but it does have the distinction of allowing its 16 characters to be arranged in a perfectly symmetrical character diagram made by me during my dissertation days. There are four servants in the play, one of whom is named Dromio. So there you have something, perhaps.

Personally, I found Anne Barton’s introduction to the play in The Riverside Shakespeare especially helpful. In it, (among other things) she says, “Shakespeare, even at the beginning of his dramatic career, seems to have been wedded to the idea that happy endings must, to carry conviction, be won from a serious confrontation with mortality, violence, and time.” Then she goes on to point out the peculiar sufferings which Antipholus of Syracuse, Adriana, old Egeon (of course), The Duke (arguably) and, in a very special way, Luciana must undergo before they “find themselves” before the curtain. Antipholus of Syracuse concludes, “He speaks to me. I am your master, Dromio./Come go with us, we’ll look to that anon./Embrace thy brother there, rejoice with him."

Luciana is especially interesting in that she is an early example of the Isabella-like idealist (with good reason, considering what she sees of marriage in the world about her) who will come, over the course of the play, to a position where she can get married (find herself and join the world of doers). And she will marry a man who has suffered and has finally found himself as well. This is a moral statement which sounds like Shakespeare to me.

Corrections: I, of course, meant Gilbert’s anonymous “professor” (not his “mentor”) in my previous discussion. My wife, Betty, kidded me about implying that she was someone on whom I depended for part of my own self to be carried out. It could sound condescending, but it’s true, dammit. We do this with slaves, with spouses and siblings, with students.

Note: I have never seen a production of C/E. And I am sure I have seen far fewer productions of any of these plays than the three others of you. I would certainly get a kick out of Gil’s discussing some of the differences among the three (or more) productions he has seen—perhaps with respect to a character or two. Dromio. Wherefore art thou Dromio?

More to come.


Comedy of Errors - Some Response


I have long worked with an evolving scheme to account for the continuous line of literature from " the beginning of time to the present" (my least favorite composition opening, in which student writers never talk about cavemen): Mankind and the Unknown (open exploration: e.g., Beowulf); Mankind and the Received Universe (closed illustration: e.g., The Canterbury Tales); Mankind and the Infinite Cosmos (open possibility: e.g., John Donne); Mankind and the Social Organism (closed structure of manners: e.g., Restoration Comedy or the novel); Mankind--or the Individual--and the Inner Self (open inward: e.g., the Romantics); Mankind and Assertion (closed declarations: e.g., Victorians); Mankind and Uncertainty (open: e.g., Darwin, Freud, Marx, James Fraser, WW I all destroy "things known for sure"). Reduced this way, it looks silly, but it would take too long a time to expand. Shakespeare falls in the cusp between what I call the Received Universe and the Infinite Cosmos. My working example is in Hamlet; everybody knows his or her place or office--Claudius, Polonius, Horatio, Laertes, Gertrude, even Fortinbras, except for Hamlet, who sees infinite possibilities, multiple often mutually exclusive possibilities. A son revenges the death of a kinsman, just like in Beowulf (Laertes knows this), but a sinner killed in prayer is rewarded by heaven (I think of the horror/glory of Donne's "Good Friday, Riding Westward"). I think almost all of Shakespeare explores this duality. Another way of describing the cusp is the shift between closed feudal and open bourgeois economies/societies.

Mike notes The Comedy of Errors is transgressive, and the lines that are crossed are social. Ephesus is an ordered social organism: the Duke, (draconian) laws about strangers, husbands' sovereign roles, wives' submissive roles, servants' absolute obedience, goods and services bought and paid for. The status quo is assumed at the beginning--another use for the opening exposition about how the laws of Ephesus are static and stable. Then, the twins call into question this social stability, because it appears that "nothing is known for sure." I agree with Mike that the revelations reestablish the status quo and nothing goes forward (Shakespeare even pulls an abbess out of his hat). In much comedy there is a change of generations by the end of the play (exception: The Importance of Being Ernest where everybody has reverted to being Lady Bracknell at the end), but here I think the status quo is reestablished rather than broken. Thus, there is little consequence except to challenge our own confidence in assumptions, appearances, and things known for sure. What really are the consequences?

The second merchant misses his boat. Lucinda discovers an eligible bachelor after all because it is a truth universally acknowledged that society abhors an unmarried woman? Antipholus of Syracuse gains a little weight--doesn't he get two free dinners? And, Mike, I agree that the power and superiority of dramatic irony invites us in the audience to feel smug, so the weakness of comedy, even though it is about "us," may be that we are delighted but there is less chance that we will be instructed.

Randall points out that Ephesus is a world of laws. I reread The Menaechmi, and it takes place in Epidamnus, famous (in reality as well as the play?) for dishonesty,. duplicity, and sharp practices--and puns on "damn." Plautus's courtezan, Erotium, is especially predicted to be a woman who will lure naive men and take them for everything they have. Messenio (Shakespeare's Dromio) warns his master Menaechmus of Syracuse a half dozen times that he is going to be robbed. Thus, Plautus, Shakespeare's source, has a setting exactly opposite of a nation of laws. I previously noted Shakespeare had doubled the women and thus created the debate between Adriana and Lucinda that so intrigued me. So here, creating Ephesus, he is able to play on all those anti-law rationales of sorcery, dreams, and madness, which Randall noted, rather than just cozenage.

Gotta go. I will come back soon to Ernst and Randall's twins.


Sunday, January 8, 2006

Comedy of Errors - Twins and Twinning

I wanted to respond to Mike's observation from Act II, scene 2 about how in marriage two people become one and with twins "one" person becomes two. Adriana says:

"For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too." (2.2.136-140)

This echoes Antipholus of Syracuse's earlier concern about being discontented or without pleasure. He says:

"I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself." (1.2.35-40)

The unity between the images here is ironic. It unites Adriana with the wrong Antipholus, as if the figurative language of the play were suffering the same mistake of identity that the characters do. I find the image a beautiful one, capturing at once the individuality of the drop with the completeness of the belonging to the larger ocean. One of the themes raised is that Antipholus of Syracuse is looking to belong once again to a larger whole (family); Adriana is looking to belong again to a larger whole (husband/marriage). And with all the images of division at the beginning of the play -- twins separated at birth, Egeon about to be separated from his life, Antipholus of E. separated (spiritually) from his wife -- the ocean image reminds us of the completeness and wholeness of unification, even before the final line and image of the play: "Let us go hand in hand, not one before the other."


Thursday, January 5, 2006

Comedy of Errors - Ernst is In

The Fox and his Wife without any strife,
They cut up the goose with a fork and a knife
But they burned themselves (oh, the fire was rife)
And the Fox cried out for the salve-o Salve-o, salve-o,
They burned themselves (oh, the fire was rife)
And the Fox cried out for the salve-o.

It seems to me that Shakespeare made it his constant challenge, whatever his material, to answer the question: How, realistically, could people act that way? Perhaps, like Gilbert’s mentor, I think Shakespeare’s early work with histories put him in a perfect position to figure out how those frequently flat characters found in historical accounts could be that way. And I think this follows long into his career. Because he so richly humanized and cleverly plotted his characters, his Overreacher play was richer than Tamburlaine, his pastoral romances were better than Greene’s, his “Jew” play was better than Marlowe’s; his humours plays were better than Jonson’s; his disguised duke play better than Marston’s; his revenge tragedy better than Kyd’s. (“Hey, Bill. That old Marlowe play about the Jew who invented the milkshake is playing across the street. Do you think you can give us something like that, but better?”)

Annals of English Drama suggests that Shakespeare was working on the Henry VI plays (and possibly an Edward IIII) in 1590-1 and assigns The Comedy of Errors to 1592. It also shows that there was a bit of a flurry of Roman plays including Maurice Kyffin’s translations of Terence’s Andria and his Eunuchus (1588) and William Warner’s translation of Menaechmi itself in 1592--all three for limited private performance. There were also Lyly, who was constantly choosing classical figures for his subjects, and a number of plays (some of them in Latin—at Oxford) involving figures such as Marius, Philotas, Antony, Mucedorus, Tasso, Octavia, Roxana, Seneca, Ulysses. So there were plenty of models about, and if Shakespeare didn’t first encounter Plautus and Terence through a Latin teacher’s looking for a little fun to enliven his classroom (or his own “little fun” when he—possibly--taught Latin himself—apocryphal), he had plenty of plays to consider “doing one of” or “improving on.”

It is my habit of mind to think of questions I would ask college students, the answering of which would open up their (and also, possibly, my) understanding and appreciation of the play under study. So here are some of the questions I would ask regarding the first two acts:

1.1.3ff: Contrast the feel of the Duke’s opening language to that of Theseus and Richard II.
  • Fewer of the dignified dark sounds and dramatic, well-chosen use of consonance and assonance than in the later plays.
1.1.31ff: What are the differences between Egeon and his wife?
  • She’s more of a doer; he’s more of a stoic. Hamlet and Horatio in the bud? Surely a sign of Shakespeare’s early concern with stoicism (think Kent)

1.2.1-8: Notice the balanced phrasing and assonance/consonance in these lines.

  • Give out…you are//very day…Syracus, etc., etc.

1.2.43-52: Notice the logic chain in this speech. How/why does the mixture of absurdity and the straightjacket of logic produce humor? How does this principle apply to the play (and comedy) as a whole?

  • Think of Feste and Falstaff, the masters of this form. Was Will Kemp in this play?

1.2.93: How would you stage such a beating today—without lessening the play or its comedy?

  • Good question.

2.1.15-25, 32-41, 85-115: In what ways are Adriana and Luciana different? Is either of them more like Egeon?, more like his wife? If you were to make one taller and blond (like Queen Elizabeth) and one shorter and dark—which would be which?

2.1.10-31: The back-and-forth one-liners here come, mostly, from Lyly (and from Roman comedy before that). It is a method called stichomythia. This form is also a kind of straightjacket into which sense is poured. How/why does humor come from this?

2.1.44-53: How many double-entendres can you find in these lines?

  • Six or so.

2.1.57-67: Why does Shakespeare choose to include this interchange in this scene and not have it acted on in the previous scene?

  • More fun in the telling, adds humor in form that balances the preceding scene, picks up and extends the stichomythia earlier in this scene. Etc.

2.2.24-34: To what extent is each Dromio an aspect of his master? Do the two equal a “whole man”? Who or what is your “Dromio?

  • I’ll never tell. My wife is in the room as I type.

2.2.35-39: Can you explain the dirty joke here?

  • I’m waiting . . .

2.2.51: List the double-entendres here.

  • --Etc.

2.2.109-45: “If we two be one . . .” Compare the man-servant and the man-wife relationship—at least as it is revealed in Adriana’s idealization of it.

  • Dunno. Which would I rather be—the servant, or the wife?

2.2.188-91: Ephesus is, indeed, a magical other world? Is it a pastoral world—a world into which characters go and changes happen to them?

  • The tetrameter in the second line reminds me of Bottom.

2.2.214: Would you decide to “go along,” or would you head off to the nearest bar?

  • Me, I’d go along—much as Bottom, one of my favorite characters, does in whatever that play is down the line.


Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Comedy of Errors - On Law and Order

Ah ha! Mike has made a sibling of his response - more on that anon. First, a very happy New Year to all. The quality of our exchange so far has already exceeded my expectations, and so I will try to tamp down my sense of intimidation and address something that's emerged from the discourse so far that has intrigued me. Both Gil ("this grave grounding even of the most frivolous of plays reminds the reader that human behavior is serious") and Mike (boundaries crossed "do have profound consequences") argue that Egeon's sentence indicates the seriousness of the human condition. Gil (sorry dad!) also points out flawed assumptions and perceptions, leading to farcical madness, a result of the natural human state of perpetually superficial assessment.

I wonder if the opening scene doesn't also suggest to us the fragile nature of our own sense of order and civilization. In this play, human laws are made to appear foolish and inhuman. Enter the boys from Syracuse, who find themselves in Ephesus, ostensibly a world of laws. And there's the Duke ("I am not partial to infringe our laws") passing sentence on Egeon ("if any Syracusian born/Come to the bay of Ephesus, he dies, his goods confiscate") against his own better judgment:

"Now, trust me, were it not against our laws,
Against my crown, my oath, my dignity,
Which princes, would they, may not disannul,
My soul should sue as advocate for thee." (1.1.142-145)

I notice here that Law overrides soul. In Ephesus the law is god, no matter how inhuman or draconian, and princes must obey it. (The United States also considers itself a nation, not of men, but of laws, so perhaps our ears should perk up a bit.) Antipholus accepts this state of things, even finds it so easy to circumvent the law (just "give out you are from Epidamium"!) that he decides to go for a stroll, take in the sights, window shop, dine. Just a civilized guy making his way through a community that plays by slightly different rules than he's used to.

The first incidence of mistaken identity, Antipholus's first sense that something is amiss, leads him to make a remarkable conclusion: "they say this town is full of cozenage." Fine; so Ephesus is full of pick-pockets and such who distract you with fancy sleight of hand. What are we then to make of Antipholus's logic when he adds the following to his litany of Ephesian sinners:

"Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body" (1.2.102-103)

How quickly we go from a city of rigid laws to a city in which sorcerers and witches work black magic that bends our perceptions and makes a hash of rationality. Dromio (of S.) picks up the thread two scenes later during Adriana and Luciana's attempt to serve the Syracusians a meal meant for Ephesians. Mystified by strangers' use of their names and the odd circumstances, Dromio is spooked -- he crosses himself (to ward off evil spirits?) -- and says:

"This is the fairy land. O spite of spites!
We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites." (2.2.200-201)

And there it is. Ephesus has been transformed into another non-rational, supernatural world, a fairy land, ruled by malevolent Pucks bent on impish games like sucking out people's breath and pinching them. I am struck by how similar this other world is to the forest outside Athens in A Midsummer Night's Dream in this respect. Quickly the Syracusians in Comedy of Errors perceive this shift and not only blame but rely on the supernatural to explain the occurring oddities, and once they have shifted into this frame of reference, they deny the realities (two Antipholuses, two Dromios) right in front of them. The normal rules of civilization no longer apply (Egeon, unknown to the younger Syracusians, is also forgotten temporarily by the audience), people are not who they appear to be, do not love who they are supposed to love, and find themselves at the mercy of perceived supernatural powers.

Our heroes are even threatened with farcical transformation. Dromio ask Antipholus, "I am transformed, master, am I not?" And Luciana's Bottom-foreshadowing rejoinder is "if thou art changed to aught, 'tis to an ass" (2.2.207,213). There is a less comic side to this fear of transformation, though, and it is Antipholus's sense that his journey through fairy land will cost him his identity. This is anticipated shortly after he is introduced and he tells us "I will go lose myself/And wander up and down to view the city" (1.2.30-31). He doesn’t know how right he is. The pun suggests that in Ephesus his identity, and sanity, is at risk. Later, Antipholus asks himself this directly:

"Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised!" (2.2.225-227)

Confronted with the faulty explanations for all the madness, the Duke himself reaches for a transformation analogy, stating "I think you have all drunk from Circe's cup" (5.1.278). How interesting that for all the suggestion the people are being turned into animals no one actually undergoes a physical transformation. What is actually transformed is people's sense of others' rationality (and loss of rationality is like becoming a beast) and therefore identity. If you don't act like yourself, are you yourself?

In the end, order and law reassert themselves, those things split asunder have been reunited (I liked Mike's observation about the joining of hands at the end of the play), but the echoing disturbances of the events in fairy land seem to have softened folks up a bit. The law no longer seems so important. Although Antipholus of Ephesus produces the thousand ducats to pay Egeon's bond, the Duke rejects it ("It shall not need.").

Perhaps the moral of all this is that not Dromio, but the law, is a ass.


Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Comedy of Errors - Thoughts on Doubleness

There's a lot that's doubled in this play of doubles, so I thought I'd share a few tidbits I noted to push things in another direction...

I'm also still digesting Gilbert's comments and thought I'd offer a little close reading of my own in the meantime:

In Act II, scene ii, when Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse were going back and forth -- the following lines resonated a bit more than usual.

Dromio: "There's no time for a man to recover his hair that grows bald by nature."
Antipholus: "May he not do it by fine and recovery?"

I'm not certain, but I think old Sylan Barnet informed me once upon a time, that in Elizabethan pronounciation heir and hair were puns (much like art and heart, the H's dropping away). This then gives another nuance to a man (Egeon) attempting to recover his heir (that was stolen away by nature), a man we encountered at the beginning of the play in need of a fine for his own recovery.

I suppose with the right delivery this unwitting truth could have landed quite nicely, adding another layer to the dramatic irony: they don't know the truth even when they're speaking it -- yet nonetheless, it's there, in the language, implying that for all the chaos in the play, this world is still essentially an orderly one, the Antipholi get to beat their Dromi, the hierarchy is still intact (as opposed to the fluidity of The Tempest, for instance).

I also loved the passage, later in the same scene, when Adriana says:

Do not tear thyself away from me!
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again,
Without addition or diminishing,
As take from me thyself and not me too.

What an image! And think how it resonates when uttered to the wrong Antipholus. In marriage, two people become one; with twins, one person becomes two. And we get to feel both dynamics going on simultaneously. The juxtaposition is heightened when this speech is placed next to the closing lines of the play: "We came into the world like brother and brother; and now let's go hand in hand, not one before another." It takes two to tango, but also to achieve equilibrium.

That's it for now, I'm afraid. Think of it as a tasting menu.


Monday, January 2, 2006

RE: Comedy of Errors - Host's Opening Salvo

Gilbert, That's quite the opening salvo. Thanks for a lovely start. I feel as if I should pour myself a pint and settle in ...

I think I'll start here:

Mankind still falls short, caught up in inevitable helplessness. Tragedy is impressive. But comedy is about humans, that is, about us, and we can't really let anyone catch us taking ourselves seriously, or they might laugh at us.

I like the distinction you make, but my impulse is to blur it, particularly in light of this play. Both Tragedy and Comedy strike me as being about lines and what happens when we cross them. My favorite comedies are transgressive, generally to the point of subversion. (I'm thinking of this play's ability to separate gender from gender roles, for instance.) And while comedies generally offer closure and tidiness at the end, the status quo comes off as simultaneously comforting and silly -- sometimes to the point of being, perhaps, broken, or at the very least absurd.

And while boundaries get crossed in both genres, they are crossed more readily or with less consequence than in supposedly meatier work, which for me can lead to a greater sense of transcendence, in all the meanings of the word.

One thing that you noted that really resonated with me was the draconian and in some ways arbitrary nature of how these societal boundaries are invoked:

This grave grounding even of the most frivolous of plays reminds the audience that human behavior is serious, that outside the doors of the theatre there is life and death and disappointment, and what happens in the play is not merely an escape.

I'd add Measure for Measure to the list, for obvious reasons, and throw in Prospero's rather notable fixation on the sanctity of Miranda's "virgin knot" in his paternal chats with Ferdinand. These boundaries do have profound consequences -- the kind of consequences that might cause a fellow who found himself abruptly married at eighteen to contemplate their ramifications for the rest of his life. (I'm just finishing Greenblatt's Will in the World -- which is excellent, by the way-- so these biographical musings may leak in for the first few plays.)

As far as your musings on reputation and honor (and the fact that these things don't exist separate from our perception of them), they led me here: in this intensely communal (and more geographically static) Elizabethan world, loss of reputation is easily conflated with loss of identity. So, when you say that "maintaining reputation potentially seems an occasion for human folly greater than errors of mistaken identity," my impulse, again, is to blur the two.

If our perceptions about the world around us are limited, foolish, and shallow, and yet there is very little of us that exists separate from those perceptions (or at the very least has little power and agency without the world's recognition and regard), then where does that leave us? This is the type of question that comedy can sometimes lead me to as readily as tragedy, and I like to sit and think about it. Or better yet, lie down in my hammock. This is complicated by the power and superiority that the dramatic irony confers upon the audience -- it's awfully easy to feel smug, perhaps, as we witness these shenanigans, because we know exactly what's going on, and yet virtually all of the folly we're laughing at is generated by the character's conviction that they know exactly what's going on.

I have much more to say -- I want to take a look at all the ropes and chains keeping things tethered, and I think the "sex" question is a good one -- but I'll send this along now, just to get things going. (As an addendum to my bio, I should probably add that my kids are 6 and 3, which often results in contemplation truncation.)