The Comedy of Errors
By Dennis Abrams
Act Four: Antipholus E accuses Angelo of not delivering the gold chain as promised –
which Angelo denies (having given it to Antipholus S by mistake) denies, and instead arrests Antipholus E for non-payment. Dromio S rushes in, having procured a ship, but his “master” is, understandably, bewildered by the offer and demands bail instead. So…Dromio S is sent to fetch cash from Adriana, and meets Antipholus S on the way back; he’s amazed to see his master freed, but gives him the bail money anyway. That pleasant surprise quickly sours, though, when the Courtesan appears and demands the chain from Antipholus S. Certain that the Courtesan is a witch, Antipholus S and Dromio S escape. MEANWHILE, Antipholus E is still under arrest and his wife and friends are convinced that he (and Dromio E) have gone mad. Fetching an exorcist (the eminent Dr. Pinch) they send him home captive – but are terrified when the OTHER twins suddenly appear armed with swords, having apparently escaped.
Now’s where it’s starting to get increasingly farcical, as identities (and mistaken identities) collide and poor Antipholus and Dromio E end up bound and ready to be exorcised.
What I find interesting is how money and the problems it buys are such an ongoing theme in the play, as is the subject of madness (and the links between the two). “Lapland sorcerers inhabit here,” Antipholus mutters to himself, but in this event it is his twin brother who end up in the madhouse. Desperately trying to straighten everything out, the imprisoned Antipholus of E is enraged to discover that Dromio has apparently mislaid the money for his bail. Everyone responds, though, by assuming that it is Antipholus that is mad, and he is bound and turned over to the ministrations of the all-too appropriately named Doctor Pinch. The Doctor’s considered verdict – reasonable enough, given the circumstances – is that ‘both man and master is possessed…I know it by their pale and deadly look,” and he begins an exorcism:
I charge thee, Satan, housed within this man,
To yield possession to my holy prayers,
And to thy state of darkness hie thee straight:
I conjure thee by all the saints in heaven.
Antipholus of Ephesus:
Peace, doting wizard, peace! I am not mad.
O that thou were not, poor distressed soul.
Antipholus is caught in the same Catch-22 situation as we shall see happen to Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Unable to prove that they are sane and that everyone else is behaving irrationally, both characters find themselves confronting the prospect of genuine insanity – because if everyone else thinks you’re mad, you might as well be. Adriana’s bewildered observation that her husband is “much, much different from the man he was,” (5.1.46) is true enough, but at this point it looks as if no will ever find out why.
I have to admit that I genuinely laughed out loud at the end of Act Four, when Adriana et al are returning to her house and run into Antipholus S with his rapier drawn,
God, for thy mercy! They are loose again.
And come with naked swords.
Let’s call for more help to have them bound again.
Away! they’ll kill us.
More from Garber, whose take on the play I appreciate the further I get into it:
“Typically for Shakespeare, the main themes of the play are all doubly inflected, offering both benign and dangerous possibilities. Thus, for example, the question of dream, wonder, magic, and transformation – the journey to Ephesus as a place of wish fulfillment – has its dark underside in the fear of sorcery, trickery, and loss of control of events. Here is Antipholus of Syracuse at the end of act 1, having already been mistaken for his identical twin:
They say this town is full of cozenage,
As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many suchlike libertines of sin.
He had given a purse of gold – the thousand marks – to his servant Dromio, only to then encounter the other Dromio, who claims he never had it. By the next act Antipholus of Syracuse has met the woman who thinks he is her husband: ‘What, was I married to her in my dream?/Or sleep I now, and think I hear all this?/What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?’ (2.2.182-184). He has also met her sister, Luciana, with whom he will fall in love. ‘Are you a god?’ he asks Luciana, to her initial consternation. ‘Would you create me new?/Transform me, then, and to your power I’ll yield?’ (3.2.39-40) His Dromio think “[t]his is the fairy land,’ populated by goblins, elves, and sprites, and asks rhetorically, ‘I am transformed master, am I not?’ ‘I think thou are in mind, and so am I,’ replies Antipholus of Syracuse, who closes out the scene by posing, once again, the conundrum of dream and nightmare: ‘Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?/Sleeping or waking? Mad or well advised?/Known unto these, and to myself disguised!’ (2.2.212-214)
Notice that Antipholus tells Dromio that he is transformed ‘in mind,’ while Dromio’s own attention, typically enough, is redirected to the body: ‘Nay, master, both in mind and in my shape.’ It is characteristic of Shakespearean plots, especially but not exclusively in the comedies, to match sets of aristocrats or nobility with sets of servants or commoners. Typically, the ‘high’ characters experience on the level of language and the mind, metaphorically, what the ‘low’ characters experience on the level of the body and literally. The Syracusan Dromio speaks of being transformed into an ‘ape’ (a copy, a fool) and an ‘ass;’ when he encounters a woman of Ephesus who claims him for her own, she is not the lady of the house but the greasy kitchen wench Nell (also called Luce), whose overwhelming physicality is comically described in the most specific and repellent terms. The Duke, at the play’s close, will wonder whether all the characters have ‘drunk of Circe’s c up’ alluding to the enchantress of the Odyssey who transforms men into swine. The implication, as so frequently in mythological transformations, is that this is a making-literal of an already existing state of affairs: the men, bewitched and seduced, are already behaving ‘like pigs’ when they turn into them literally. So, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a character who behaves like an ass is transformed into one, developing long ears, a braying voice, and an appetite for sex and for hay.
‘Here we wander in illusions,’ asserts the visiting Antipholus, Antipholus of Syracuse. Despite his sense of ‘wonder’ he is made increasingly uneasy by what is, to him, an uncanny situation: everyone he meets seems already to know his name; they give him money, invitations, and thanks, and he is convinced that he has landed in a place of sorcery from which it is wiser to depart. One constant element of the action is his desire to leave Ephesus – a departure that would, of course, prevent him from face to face whit his twin…and ultimately, his wife-to-be Luciana, the woman who think she is his sister-in-law, but whom he has already described, in the play’s characteristic language of identity and doubling, as ‘mine own self’s better part.’”
And finally, this from Tony Tanner, discussing Adriana’s speech to Antipholus S in act 2, the speech in which she castigates him for seemingly not knowing her, the speech with the lines “That thou art then estranged from myself,” and “For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall/A drop of water in the breaking gulf,/And take unmingled thence that drop again…” (II, ii, 120-147)
“….there is something comic in the situation – a wife addressing a torrent of reproach to a bewildered man who doesn’t, as it were, know her from Eve. But the sentiments expressed are of the utmost seriousness (and the verse has a corresponding passionate energy and kinaesthetic power which would not be out of place, I venture to say, in many of Shakespeare’s later, greater plays – particularly those which touch on sexual infidelity. This is true of quite a lot of the poetry given to Adriana; as, for example, when, referring to her husband, she asks her sister what she has observed of ‘his heart’s meteors tilting in his face,’ IV,ii, 6 – one of those astonishing Shakespeare images which, I find, leave one both speechless and haunted). The drop of water image is there again, you will notice, though with another turn. Once you’ve let fall a drop of water into the sea, you can’t get it out again, at least, not as it was. The theme is the indissolubility of the marriage bond, and one of the texts behind it again, is Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians:’…a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and the two shall be one flesh’. The two-in-oneness achieved, or achievable, in the marriage tie, was a crucial notion for Shakespeare. He writes in ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle,’ at around this time:
So they loved, as love in twain
Had the essence but in one;
Two distincts, division none:
Number there in love was slain.
Property was thus appalled,
That the self was not the same;
Single nature’s double name
Neither two nor one was called.
I will just say here that the two-in-one-ness of marriage, which somehow preserves difference in unity (which is how number is ‘slain;), is, for Shakespeare, the ideal of a true relationship; while the two-in-one-ness suggested by identical twins (it points to a narcissistic effacement of different – just glanced at in the final scene: ‘Me thinks you are my glass and not my brother’) is very much the wrong model for relating. And the experience that ‘the self was not the same’ is undergone, has to be undergone, by those figures in Shakespearian comedy who variously emerge from the self to achieve, or rediscover, a true relationship. When Adriana asks Antipholus S ‘how comes it,/That thou art then estranged from thyself?’ she is being much more pertinent, and prescient, than she can possibly know. For that is just what is about to happen to him. And, in a different way, to her errant husband as well.
This feeling of self-estrangement, and possible transformation, immediately takes hold of this Antipholus and Dromio:
D.S. I am transformed, master, am not I?
A.S. I think thou art in mind, and so am I.
D.S. Nay, master, both in mind and in my shape.
A.S. Thou hast thine own form.
D.S. If thou art changed to aught, ‘tis to an ass.
The Ovidian moment, with the Shakespearian difference. They do not experience a change in shape and form, but something is happening in their minds. Dromio, as perhaps befits a servant, has a traditional (English) rustic-superstitious explanation for what is happening:
This is the fairy land. O spite of spites!
We talk with goblins, owls, and sprites;
If we obey them not, this will ensue:
They’ll suck our breath, or pinch us black and blue.
We will encounter fairy land, and a man transformed to an ass, in a later Shakespeare comedy. Here, Antipholus has the more relevant response to this seeming strangeness of being known to women (because of their names) whom they have never seen.
What, was I married to her in my dream?
Or sleep I now, and think I hear all this?
What error drives our eyes and ears amiss?
Until I know this sure uncertainty,
I’ll entertain the offered fallacy.
Awake, asleep; sane, mad; right, wrong? – the important point is that, whatever is the case, he is both willing and determined to ‘entertain the offered fallacy.’ He thus shows himself to be a good candidate for positive metamorphosis. He repeats this resolve when Adriana insists that he comes back to dinner with himself and Luciana:
Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?
Known unto these, and to myself disguised?
I’ll say as they say, and persever so,
And in this mist at all adventures go.
It is this resolve to plunge into the ‘mist’ which is the saving, or rather the making, of this Antipholus. Mist, like water, like dream, is an area in which boundaries blur and identities dissolve – as William Carroll puts it: ‘metamorphosis thrives in unstable regions, and it takes some courage to step into ‘this mist.’” He will gain his reward.
Once Adriana has her ‘husband’, as she thinks, securely back within the house, she orders the doors to be locked and no one allowed entrance. This leads to one of the central scenes of inversion, or subversion, of the play. The local Antipholus, of E., at last pts in an appearance for the first time (Act III), and finds that he is barred from his own house, denied access to his own wife. This is a visible image of the sort of topsy-turvydom which is beginning to spread outwards from the initial mistake of identity – the stranger is within, the familiar is without; the outsider is inside, the insider outside. Antipholus E. is, understandably, both angry and bemused. He is starting his experience of self-estrangement, displacement and dislocation, which will take him, as it will his brother, to the edge of a kind of madness or mania – from which he too will emerge a new, or renewed man. (For Antipholus S the experience mainly concerns spiritual or mental strangenesses; for his brother, it is more a matter of a series of domestic and social goings-wrong.) The comic errors begin to multiply.
Inside the house, Antipholus S. is suddenly and powerfully smitten by the sister, Luciana, and thus he addresses her:
Less in your knowledge and your grace you show not
Than our earth’s wonder, more than earth divine.
Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak:
Lay open to my earthly-gross conceit,
Smoth’red in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words’ deceit.
Against my soul’s pure truth why labor you
To make it wander in an unknown field?
Are you a god, would you create me new?
Transform me, then, and to your pow’r I’ll yield.
This is Ovidianism refracted through Revelation (‘And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new’, 21:5). The vocabulary is laced with Christian terms – grace, soul – and projects the idea of being purified of the error-prone grossness of man’s earthly condition. Just as he calls her ‘my sole earth’s heaven, and my heaven’s claim’. (Note, incidentally, Shakespeare’s first use of the world ‘folded’ – concealed, hidden; it was to become a crucial word for him.) But he also shifts into a pagan key which, perhaps unconsciously, reveals more wariness or ambivalence about Luciana’s female attractions.
O train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note,
To drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears.
Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o’er the silver waves thy golden hairs;
And, as a bed I’ll take them, and there lie,
And, in that glorious supposition, think
He gains by death that hath such means to die.
Let love, being light, be drowned if she sink!
Perhaps she promises, not redemption but (admittedly delicious) drowning – not a saviour but a siren. (It offers yet another extension of the motif of entering water – to find, or to lose.) By the end of the scene, he has decided to ‘trudge, pack, and begone’ – flee the possible danger. Luciana (who, of course, thinks he is her brother-in-law and has given him no encouragement) is, he says:
Possessed with such a gentle sovereign grace,
Of such an enchanting presence and discourse,
Hath almost made me traitor to myself.
But, lest myself be guilty to self-wrong,
I’ll stop mine ears against the mermaid’s song.
It is, of course, the time-honoured Ulysses strategy, and for Antipholus, it represents a defensive, self-retractive instinct coming into play. Deciding that ‘There’s none but witches do inhabit here’ he wants to leave Ephesus – get out of the ‘mist’ as it were. But that will not prove so easy.
In the same scene, Dromio reveals that he, too, has had a disturbing encounter with a strange woman – the ‘kitchen wench,’ called Luce rather than Luciana, and (on account of her kitchen work) ‘all grease,’ not ‘grace.’ Dromio’s account of this encounter offers an amusing parody of the Petrarchan, etherealized discourse of love which we have just heard from his master…It also points to the extremely physical and corporeal element in the relationship between the sexes. Dromio, too, is beginning to feel that sense of self-estrangement which seems to be spreading. ‘Do you know me, sir? Am I Dromio? Am I your man? Am I myself?’ The important point about his encounter – apart from its amusingness – is that it threatens a downward transformation: ‘she would have me as a beast – not that, I being a beast, she would have me, but that she, being a very beastly creature, lays claim to me…She had transformed me to a curtal dog, and made me turn I’ th’ wheel.’ Grease, not grace. Metamorphosis can go either way. Revelation and Ovid. Remember that the whole play takes place under the signs, as it were, of ‘the Centaur’ and ‘the Phoenix’ and ‘the Tiger’. Are these people going up – or down? Experiencing a change in the self can be an unnerving – and risky business.”
Sorry if that went on too long, but I found it fascinating. His reading makes sense to me – who knew that there was so much going on in a play that I’d always thought of as “just” a mindless farce?
And a suggestion: If you come across a speech or passage in Shakespeare that isn’t clear, take the time to sit in front of your computer and type it out. Forcing yourself to read it that closely, following the line breaks that carefully, can help to make things clearer than you imagined.
Our next reading: The Comedy of Errors Act Five
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning