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.


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