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.
- 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.
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.