Sunday, January 29, 2006

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.


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