Four down and 34 to go, although I doubt I’ll average one per week regularly. It was easy in this case; The Comedy of Errors (circa 1593), at 1786 lines, is Shakespeare’s shortest play. What I’ve noticed, not surprisingly or particularly insightfully, is that the more I read, the more connections I see, and the more curious I become about seeing them. For instance, like in The Tempest and Twelfth Night, a storm ignites the plot. A trinket, much like in All’s Well That Ends Well or Othello, complicates it and carries it along. I suppose such literary devices are as old as tales, and certainly Shakespeare wasn’t the first to use them, but I love the thread that, for me, weaves his work together. These connections spark in me other ideas for investigation: What similarities exist in the plays’ opening lines? Closing scenes? The possibilities are endless and it’s clear that I could waste an inordinate of time looking at minutiae that would likely be of interest only to me and a few other Shakespeare nerds who need to get a life, but I suppose I could be doing worse things.
Said storm and subsequent shipwreck separates two sets of identical twins (sons of a merchant and the sons’ servants) and their parents. Egeon has set out on an Odyssey, at his son’s urging, to find and reunite the two pairs of twins, and their mother. Time itself plays and integral and interesting role in the play. Much has passed since the separation: at 18, Egeon’s son “became inquisitive/After his brother” (I,i,125-6), and so Egeon sets out like Odysseus: “Five summers I have spent in farthest Greece,/Roaming clean through the bounds of Asia,/And coasting homeward, came to Ephesus” (I,i, 132-4). Like Odysseus, he begins and ends in the same place, and so does this play; but all in a day. I like that circularity of journey and of time. It ends where it began and begins again, but really from where it started – two sets of brothers and one couple reunited in the most unlikely of circumstances and against seemingly insurmountable odds. Shakespeare nods to the Odyssey a few more times when Syracuse Antipholus repeatedly calls Luciana a siren and then when the Duke concludes in Act V, scene i, that they all must have “drunk of Circe’s cup,” (271), which would, frankly, be as good an explanation as any for everyone’s seemingly crazy behavior up to that point. What a long, strange trip, indeed, it has been.
Time has, in one way, seemingly reversed to bring the brothers back together. Adriana notes, “The hours come back! that I never did/hear” (IV,ii,54-5). But at the same time it has changed all of them. Egeon laments that “careful hours with time’s deformed hand/Have written strange defeatures in my face,” (V,i,299-300). It’s passed, but in some ways stood still for the family until they could reunite and continue where they left off. TIme passes, changes everything, but comes back around and makes things as they were.
Shakespeare packs quite the farcical punch in the time between introducing the problem and resolving it. The confusion that ensues from two sets of identical twins running around the same village, unbeknownst to each other or their friends and families, causes confusion and conflict. The whole of Act III, Scene i is a staccato, thrust-and-parry, rapid-fire, ping pong game of phrase that could have inspired Abbot and Costello’s Who’s on First. The male-female fracases foreshadow any episode of The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy.
But as fun and funny as it is, The Comedy of Errors presented me with some problems:
1. Another spineless woman. Adriana blames herself for her husband’s infidelities and grovels at his feet, accepts admonition from the Abbess ( who turns out to be Egeon’s long lost wife and the twins’ mother) for not being hard enough on him, and then for being too hard. Finally her sister Luciana (“Luuuuuucyyyy”…) suggests she grow a backbone: “Why bear you these rebukes, and answer not?” (V,i,89). I’m so glad she said what I was thinking all along. What is it with these Shakespearean women?
2. Incredulity. I know that I’ve said this before, and that in the comedies especially we need to suspend our disbelief, but in my mind, Shakespeare pushes the boundaries of credibility here. We have not one, but two sets of identical twins running around the set. Presumably dressed alike, even though they’ve long been separated by time and geography. What are the chances that – even though one set is actually actively looking for the other – that no one would have noticed the resemblance or the differences and put two and two together long before the Duke and Egeon come back and figure everything out. Wouldn’t a father recognize his own son, a wife her own husband, a mother her own child? Perhaps I’d do better seeing this on stage, but I had a hard time grappling with that irritant.
3. An unsatisfying concluding scene. Perhaps what troubled me most was the seemingly startling and striking dearth of enthusiasm or emotion that ought to have abounded and imbued the reunion scene with merriment. The Duke does go wild and say “With all my heart, I’ll gossip (i.e., make merry) at this feast” (V,i,408) to which the Abbess has just invited him. She seems happy but pretty subdued for a mother who has just found her long-lost children and husband. And the brothers embrace, and then exit with a silly “you first, no, you first, age before beauty, oh no let’s go together…” routine. I mean far be it from me to even dare to criticize the bard, but it seems that this denouement deserved at least the flair that all the conflict and confusion merited. Just saying.
So I’m trying to “look on the bright side of life” and embrace the Comedies. I will admit to liking them better than when I started but interestingly almost as much for the dark side they reveal under their cloak as for their amusement. I will certainly get what I asked for next with the 3824-line tragedy of Coriolanus. Might be awhile before you hear from me again!