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.
Antony, Lepidus and Octavius Walk Into A Bar
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