The Comedy of Errors
By Dennis Abrams
It is, I imagine with just a hint of relief among the followers of this blog that we turn from the plotting and counterplotting, conspiracies, and murder upon murder upon murder that made up Shakespeare’s glorious Minor Tetraology (The Henry VI plays +Richard III) and turn to what can honestly be described as one of the greatest farces ever written: The Comedy of Errors.
When was it written? A play sounding very much like The Comedy of Errors was performed at the law college of Gray’s Inn on December 28, 1594. However, there is some internal evidence that it might have been written earlier – perhaps as early as 1591.
This indeed is one of those plays in which there is disagreement as to how it falls into the chronology. There are some, in fact many, who believe that it was one of his earliest plays, perhaps even his earliest. I, along with the editors of the Oxford edition of the plays, Garber, and Harold Bloom among others, don’t quite buy that. As Bloom states,
“The shortest and most unified of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Comedy of Errors is regarded by many scholars as his very first, which tend to doubt. It shows such skill, indeed mastery – in action, incipient character and stagecraft – that it far outshines the three Henry VI plays and the rather lame comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is true that in comedy Shakespeare was free to be himself from the start, whereas the shadow of Marlow darkens the early histories (Richard III included) and Titus Andronicus. Yet, even granted Shakespeare’s comic genius, The Comedy of Errors does not read or play like apprentice work. It is a remarkably sophisticated elaboration of (and improvement upon) Plautus, the Roman comic dramatist whom most of our playgoers know through the musical adaption A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Shakespeare himself was adapted splendidly by Rogers and Hart, whose The Boys from Syracuse took The Comedy of Errors as their source, much as Cole Porter later was to utilize The Taming of the Shrew for his Kiss Me Kate.
In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare compounds Plautus’s The Two Menaechmuses with hints from the same dramatist’s Amphityron, and gives us the wonderful absurdity of two sets of identical twins. We are in Greece, at Ephesus (where we will be again at the other end of Shakespeare’s career, in Pericles), and we never go anywhere, in the play so carefully confined in space and time (a single day). Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus with his bondman, Dromio. His twin brother, Antipholus of Ephesus, also has a bondman named Dromio, identical twin to the first. The merchant of Syracuse and his servant have arrived in Ephesus not on a commercial mission but on a familial quest to find their missing brothers. This quest is also the purpose of the merchant Egeon of Syracuse, father of the two Antipholuses, who enters Ephesus only to be immediately arrested in the name of its Duke who sentences the hapless Egeon to be beheaded at sundown. Syracuse and Ephesus are fierce enemies. That gives The Comedy of Errors a rather plangent opening, not at all Plautine:
Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall,
And by the doom of death end woes and all.
Duke Solinus regretfully but firmly assures Egeon that indeed it will be off with his head, unless a ransom of a hundred marks can be paid. In response to the Duke’s questioning, Egeon tells us the fantastic, really outrageous yarn of a shipwreck some twenty-three years before, which divided his family in half, separating husband and one of each set of twins from the wife and the other infants. For the past five years, Egeon says, he has searched for the missing trio, and his anguish at not finding them informs his wretched readiness to be executed:
Yet this is my comfort; when your words are done,
My woes end likewise with the evening sun.
These scarcely are the accents of comedy, let alone of the knockabout farce soon to engulf us. But Shakespeare, who was to become the subtlest of all dramatists, already is very ambiguous in The Comedy of Errors. The twin Antipholuses are dead ringers but inwardly are very different. The Syracusan Antipholus has a quasi-metaphysical temperament:
He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
I to the world like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
(Unseen, inquisitive) confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
These often-quoted lines belie our usual first impressions of The Comedy of Errors as a purely rambunctious farce, just as the laments of Egeon clearly transcend the expected situations of farce.”
Shakespeare…ambiguous? Shakespearean farce being something…more than just farce?
Tony Tanner elaborates on Bloom:
“It is remarkable that Shakespeare’s (possibly) first comedy opens with an old man under sentence of death, so that the long shadow of mortality falls over all that follows. The Syracusian Egeon submits, without hope, to the sentence passed on him for having entered Ephesian waters. The Duke of Ephesus, explaining this harsh judgment, speaks of ‘enmity and discord’ between ‘our adverse towns’, leading to ‘rancorous outrage,’ ‘intestine jars’; and invokes ‘law’ and ‘rigorous statutes’ while specifically excluding ‘all pity from our threat’ning looks.’ He evokes a little world in which all the normal, nourishing ‘traffic’ between two geographically related places has been blocked — trade replaced by violence, communication by contestation, love by law, and pity by ‘penalty.’ All the normal life-maintaining, life-enhancing, circulations and modes of meeting and exchange, have gone, somehow, fatally awry. It offers an opening glimpse of a world of sterility, oppugnancy, and death. This is the start. It is just such a world that comedy conspires to break up and uncongeal, by restoring the normal channels of communication and relationship to their proper flowings, leading to the reestablishment of a better appreciated amity and concord. This is all to come.”
As we read the play over the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at how Shakespeare transformed his source material for his own purposes, examine in the ways in which, as Bloom insists, “Exuberant fun as it is and must be, this fierce little play is also one of the starting points for Shakespeare’s reinvention of the human,” try to define what exactly is comedy, and learn how in Shakespeare, even something as seemingly straightforward as a farce can be much much more than that.
And as an added bonus…we’ll look at how the play has been adapted over the centuries, starting with this:
Our reading: The Comedy of Errors, Act One
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning.