“If thou hadst been Dromio today in my place,/Thou wouldst have changed thy face for a name, or thy name for an ass.”

The Comedy of Errors

Acts Two and Three

By Dennis Abrams

Act Two:  Furious that her husband has not arrived for dinner, Adriana hears from Dromio E that his master (the wrong one, of course) is behaving oddly (naturally).  They set out to find him and meet Antipholus S who is, quite understandably, perplexed as to why this strange woman is insisting that he come home with her and eat.

Act Three:  Meanwhile, Antipholus E has been with his friends Angelo and Balthasar.  Realizing that he is indeed late for dinner and that his wife Adriana is going to be furious with him, he invites Angelo and Balthasar to come and join him for dinner – only to discover that Adriana is already dining and they are locked out.  They head off elsewhere:  Antipholus E promises to gain his revenge by giving the gold chain he’d had made for his wife to a courtesan instead. MEANWHILE, the house is in an uproar:  Luciana (Adriana’s sister) can’t understand why Antipholus S is pretending not to know his wife, and is horrified when he tries to woo her instead.  For his part, Dromio S is appalled to learn that he is engaged to a kitchen wench, and leaves to find a ship so that he and his master can escape as soon as possible.

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Interesting, interesting, interesting…  I have a feeling that The Comedy of Errors plays funnier on stage than it does on the page, where, at  least for me, there’s a sense of…sadness (from poor Adriana largely) and danger (to most concerned) throughout.  And while there are some very funny scenes (Antipholus E trying to get into his own house for dinner, for example), some scenes, such as the exchange between Antipholus S and Dromio S about hair and excrement, just didn’t work for me.

But the sense that the play needs to accomplish a seemingly impossible task (reuniting the family and sorting everything out in order to save Egeon) within a tightly restrictive time-frame is at the same time serious and funny, and in a similar fashion, it seems, many of the funniest moments are funny because they flirt with real danger.  Initially, it appears that Antipholus S can’t believe his luck – for him, Ephesus is a bemusing paradise, almost a dream, in which everyone seems only to know him, but to treat him as an old friend.  ‘There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me,’ he exclaims,

And everyone doth call me by name,

Some tender money to me, some invite me,

Some other give me thanks for kindnesses…

[4.3.1-5]

Shakespeare cleverly balances the fates of his Antipholus twins, ensuring that as one rises, the other falls.  The comedy is at its sharpest when the identities of the pair are closest to collapsing into one another, the central “error” of the comedy, but at the same time, there are real emotions, real lives and relationships at stake (in a true farce, it seems to me, nothing ‘real’ is at stake).  One of the play’s most interesting subplots (for me at least) concerns Antipholus S’s marriage to Adriana, which is apparently experiencing difficulties even before his twin – and all the confusion he brings – arrives in Ephesus.  When her husband fails to arrive on time for dinner, Adriana is quick to turn on her ‘unkind mate,’ and the problems only build when Antipholus S turns up (albeit unwillingly) instead.  This Antipholus rapidly realizes that, far from being married to Adriana (as everyone constantly assures him that he is), he has in fact fallen in love with her sister.

She that doth call me husband, even my soul

Doth for a wife abhor.  But her fair sister,

Possessed with such a gentle sovereign grace,

Of such enchanting presence and discourse,

Hath almost made me traitor to myself.

Antipholus S’s attempts to woo Luciana are pointedly and comically counterpointed by Dromio S’s attempts to escape the clutches of the kitchen wench who is betrothed to his twin, Dromio E, but the point is the same.  Arriving on this mysterious foreign shore has, they come to realize, removed along with their very identity, their liberty.

But they are not the only victims.  Take the scene in which Adriana confronts Antipholus S (imagine how furious she’d be if she knew her own husband was giving her gold chain to a courtesan).

How comes it now, my husband, O how comes it

That thou art then estranged from thyself? –

Thy ‘self’ I call it, being strange to me

That, undividable, incorporate,

Am better than thy dear self’s better part.

Ah, do not tear away thyself from me;

For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall

A drop of water in the breaking gulf,

And take unmingled thence that drop again

Without addition or diminishing,

As take from me thyself, and not me too.

Note how Adriana echoes Antipholus S’s soliloquy in Act I:  (Antipholus:  “I too the world am like a drop of water/That in the ocean seeks another drop;” Adriana:  For know my life, as easy mayst thou fall/A drop of water in the breaking gulf,/And take unmingled thence that drop again…” Antiophlus:  “In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself;” Adriana:  “How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it,/that thou art then estranged from thyself?”).   But Shakespeare, I’ve read, gives her words even further resonance (one that his earliest audiences would have picked up on) by having her echo Saint Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians – certainly apropos, given the play’s geographical setting.  The moment might on the one hand be funny, but it also (and in this very…unfarcelike), painfully touching:  while Antipholus of Syracuse is beginning to doubt his own sanity, the woman who thinks she is his wife is trying desperately to persuade herself that he still loves her.

As in his earlier play, The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare uses the framework of a comedy to ruthless examine the dynamics involved in the relationships between men and women.  In contrast to her sister, for example, Luciana has a much more cynical (or realistic) view of marriage.  “If you did wed my sister for her wealth,” she begs Antipholus S.,

Then for her wealth’s sake use her with more kindness;

Or if you like elsewhere, do it by stealth:

Muffle your false love with some show of blindness.

Let not my sister read it in your eye.

From the outside, of course, Antipholus’ insistence that he loves Luciana looks like a man attempting to play away from home; only he knows that he is in the right, and Luciana, to protect her sister, advises him to hide the fact.

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Garber elaborates on this:  [MY NOTE:  Just so you all know, when doing my post I write my own stuff at the top first, and then look through my pile of books on Shakespeare and the plays to find arguments either for or against what I’ve said, or just stuff I think you’ll find interesting – or that I find interesting myself.]

“Losing  oneself to find oneself is a frequent and powerful theme in Shakespearean drama, and especially in the comedies.  Clearly here it is linked to the ‘errors’ of the title.  Antipholus of Syracuse’s speech on this topic, which will be echoed unwittingly later on by Adriana, the wife of the other Antipholus, evokes the ideas of twinship, doubling, problematic identity, sundering by water, and, indeed, the seriocomic parable of split beings in quest of their other halves that is told by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium.  Here is Antipholus of Syracuse:

I to the world am 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.

Antipholus’ ‘drop of water’ speech, emphasizing his isolation and his search for a lost brother (and mother), as we noted above, is itself matched and ‘twinned’ with Adriana’s speech in act 2, where she confronts the man she thinks is her errant husband, but who is actually this same Antipholus:  (see above for quote)

Adriana’s argument is especially of interest in light of the play’s constant emphasis on twins and splitting (What is a self?  What does it mean to be incorporate, of the same body with, someone else?) and also of its emphasis on disguise.  For this is a play, after all.  The performers are actors; they are always impersonating someone else, always both ‘estranged from’ themselves and ‘undividable.’  The circumstances of losing oneself to find oneself is the ordinary everyday business of the stage, as well as the highly dramatic and potentially tragic story of a sundered family, a threatened merchant, a fragile marriage.  Notice, too, that this Antipholus does not recognize the echo of his own words.  The repetition of this image in the two speeches makes the love of a brother and a mother parallel and cognate to romantic and martial love, while the two sons are also ‘splits’ of their father, one ‘inquisitive’ and wishing to travel, the other remaining at home with his wife.”

Garber goes on to talk again about the fact that although the play is comic, it is framed and overhung by Egeon’s death sentence and the menace of time passing.  In one legendary 1938 production of the play staged by Theodore Komisarjevsky in 1938 at Stratford-on-Avon, a large clock with moving hands marked the race against time – while in another production the place where Egeon would be executed was clearly visible on the front stage from the opening scene to the end of the play.

She continues:

The Comedy of Errors offers a fascinating roster of female roles, each character in her way a type that will recur in later Shakespeare plays:  wife, sister/friend, courtesan, comic servant, abbess.  Perhaps unexpectedly, it is the wife who voices the more ‘feminist’ sentiments, her unmarried sister who speaks up for traditional wifely subservience.  In the following exchange, provoked by the husband’s absence from the midday meal, both women use the key word ‘liberty,’ a word that is also essential to the play’s other ongoing conversation about domestic authority, the relationship between masters and servants:

Luciana:

Good sister, let us dine, and never fret.

A man is master of his liberty.

Time is their mistress, and when they see time

They’ll go or come.  If so, be patient, sister.

Adriana:

Why should their liberty than ours be more?

Luciana:

Because their business still lies out o’door.

Adriana:

Look when I serve him so, he takes it ill.

Luciana:

O, know he is the bridle of your will.

Adriana:

There’s none but asses will be bridled so.

Luciana:

Why, headstrong liberty is lashed with woe.

The other female characters in The Comedy of Errors also derive from classic and classical types, and each will participate in a lineage that extends throughout the Shakespearean corpus.  The Courtesan, whose role in Plautus’s version is much more extensive than the role that Shakespeare gives her, is associated with love for money, and therefore with the wrong bestowal of the golden chain.  Like Bianca, the Venetian courtesan in Othello she has, if not the stereotypical ‘heart of gold,’ at least a genuine affection for the man who spends his time with her, and she is part of a similar love triangle that exhibits one partner’s unreasoned jealousy, as well as the ‘error’ of false clues and mistaken identity.  Nell the kitchen servant, who pursues Dromio of Syracuse under the mistaken belief that he is Dromio of Ephesus, is elaborately described in a grotesque mode indebted, on the one hand, to the standard antifeminist literature of the past (see, for example, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s ‘Prologue”) and, on the other, to the genre of the antiblazon.

[What’s a blazon?]

A blazon was the praise of a beautiful woman, usually through a description of the ideal and idealized features of her face:  the eyes like stars, the cheeks like roses, the lips like cherries, and so on, as in many sonnet sequences of the period.  The antiblazon, also familiar from Italian as well as from English sources, describes the emphatically unideal and materially real characteristics of a woman, focusing on her body below the neck rather than above it.  Dromio of Syracuse compares the parts of Nell’s body to the parts of the globe, with comical, often scatological, and disparaging results:  her buttocks are like Ireland (‘I found it out/by the bogs;’ the hard and barren palm of her hand is like Scotland, legendary home of both rocks and misers; her breath like Spain, the land of garlic eaters; her complexion like ‘America’ and ‘the Indies,’ full of blemishes (‘all o’er embellished with rubies, carbuncles, sapphires’)  As for Belgium and the Netherlands, than as known colloquially as the Low Countries, he ‘did not look so low.’  Since the ‘country’ itself was a familiar homonym for a woman’s sexual parts (‘I could find out countries in her,’ says Dromio; compare this with Hamlet’s teasing remark to Ophelia as he asks to lie in her lap, ‘Did you think I meant country matters?’), this ‘world tour’ is a sexual map as well as a sly disquisition on contemporary politics.  Poets of the period often made similar extended geographical analogies; one familiar example is John Donne’s ‘Elegy 19:  To His Mistress Going to Bed’:

License my roving hands, and let them go

Before, behind, between, above, below.

Oh my America!  My new-found-land!

My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d.

My mine of precious stones!  My empery!

How blest am I, in this discovering thee!

To enter in these bonds is to be free…

Donne’s love poem, like Shakespeare’s comic prose, uses the contemporary obsession with exploration and discovery to explore, and exploit, the pleasures of the body.  (This reference in The Comedy of Errors is in fact Shakespeare’s only mention of ‘America,’ although a similar antiblazon in Twelfth Night, this one aimed at the ridicule of a man, describes Malvolio’s face as smiling like a ‘map with the augmentation of the Indies.’)  Donne’s poem is homage and praise, not comic undercutting, of course, yet he uses many of the same elements:  the mine of precious stones, for example, and the lover’s paradox that bondage is freedom.  This same paradox, a commonplace in love poetry and also in romantic comedy, will find its insistent literal equivalent, throughout The Comedy of Errors, in the itinerary of the golden chain (intended for one Antipholus, given to another, promised to the Courtesan, confused and conflated with the worthless and punitive ‘rope’s end’ that Dromio of Ephesus is sent to fetch) and in the language of binding and bondage that animates the entire play, from the bond-servants to the supposed therapeutic binding of madmen at the hands of Doctor Pinch and the officer.  How can one distinguish ‘good’ bondage from ‘bad’ bondage?”

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A quote from Gamini Salgado’s, “Time’s Deformed Hand:  Sequence, Consequence, and Inconsequence in The Comedy of Errors:”  “The main action takes place in a time gone crazy, twisted, looped, turning in on itself, not so much the medium of existence as a manifestation of its perplexities, even, at times, of its horror.”

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So…what do you think about all this?  Is there more going on than mere farce or are things being read into the play that aren’t really there?  Is the comedy as funny as it’s meant to be?  Share your thoughts with the group…

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Our next reading:  The Comedy of Errors Act Four

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning

Enjoy.

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6 Responses to “If thou hadst been Dromio today in my place,/Thou wouldst have changed thy face for a name, or thy name for an ass.”

  1. The play performed beats the play on the page all hollow. Not a big surprise. And I agree, there’s more than just yucks. It’s a kick seeing Roger Daltry Dromioing.

  2. Mahood says:

    It’s hard to know what to make of the play, whether there is an intended seriousness underneath all the farce. The threat of the execution of Egeon at the beginning of the play as well as other unsettling subjects: dodgy marriages, separated families, violence against slaves etc., would suggest that tragedy and suffering is never far from the ‘surface’ of this comedy of slapstick and coincidence … But I suspect that in this play at least (I haven’t got to the end yet!), comedy, final resolution of farce and a happy ending will prevail.

  3. wayne says:

    Lucille Ball owed a huge debt of gratitude to “a Comedy of Errors” for making disguises so easy to assume and so hard to penetrate.

  4. While I am, so far, not really a fan of the play (most likely due to my distaste for farces) I find that I am a fan of the words. This is the essence of what draws me to Shakespeare, not the plot or the characters as such, but the beautiful things they say, and the wit.

    “He gains by death that has such means to die.”

    The wordplay between the sisters at the beginning of Act II is another example.

    • Johann: Understood — farce is not everybody’s favorite form — and I’m not altogether sure that this isn’t one of those plays that just plays better onstage than on the page. But you’re also right — when it comes to Shakespeare, even in this early play, it’s still the language.

      And if it’s language you’re looking for, you’re going to LOVE the next play, “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” which Bloom describes as “…a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers that there are none.”

      Dennis

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