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?


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