‘Which is it today?’
‘The Comedy of Errors.‘
‘It’s about two sets of twins, separated at birth, who find themselves-‘
One of those voices is mine. As things stands (although it was the second, talking to my better half), it could have been either: I tell everyone that I don’t much like the comedies. By the end of act one, and after a long walk on a cold day, I felt like I’d been bitchslapped and told to see – and start speaking – some sense. This felt fresh, and lively – funny actually.
Comedy, as Jonathan Bate has already told us is Tragedy averted. And the play begins with the impending tragedy of a man who is prepared to do whatever it takes to try to reunite his broken family. Perhaps the averted tragedy makes us enjoy the laughter more, when it comes.
There are more intertextual echoes here, in this opening, than you will find in a Hanz Zimmer soundtrack (check out Bladerunner 2049 and Gladiator). I don’t care – where people complain of sameness and unoriginality in Zimmer’s work, or indeed in Shakespeare’s work – I see a broad palette of motifs which together create a style, a language that I enjoy.
What else did I find in act 1 sc 1?
a) twins divided by shipwreck? Twelfth Night;
b) a threat of impending doom? A Midsummer Night’s Dream;
c) a long exposition via dialogue? The Tempest; and
d) if there’s a fourth, perhaps it is the notion of the long journey, which we’ve already seen in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and The Taming of the Shrew.
Do these motifs, these recurring ingredients in Shakespeare’s plays, serve any purpose? A and C, I think, set up a certain amount of dramatic irony, the kind of audience privilege that facilitates comedy. D? I’ve often thought that removing plays to exotic locations allowed audiences to laugh more easily at what was going on when the antics were being performed by those funny people on the mainland. It makes any satirical targets less individually-identifiable, as well as channelling the general xenophobia of the day. Of course, fans of The Odyssey might appreciate this as loosely grouped with his adventures.
Which leaves us B – this opening portent of doom. I remember being surprised when I first read the death threat in the Dream. This was in the pre-Bate days, mind. Nowadays, I noticed the Stoic acceptance of Egeon‘s couplets:
‘Yet this my comfort: when your words are done,
My woes end likewise with the evening sun. ((I.i.26-27)
There’s a quiet nobility to his story, which I like, and a sense that here is a father who would place himself in real danger for his sons. It’s a far more satisfying frame than Christopher Sly‘s was in The Shrew. Except for one oddity I spotted, and if someone can explain it to me, I’d be grateful. The Duke appears to give Egeon the rest of the day to raise the thousand marks he needs to escape execution, but hands him over to the Jailer? How can Egeon save himself if he remains in custody?
If there’s a final comment to make about Act 1 scene 1 it would be to my students, on the central some might say Marxist critical) question: who is really in charge here? The Duke is sympathetic to Egeon’s plight, but quite pointedly states:
‘Now, trust me, were it not against our laws,
Against my crown, my oath, my dignity,
Which princes, would they, may not disannul,
My soul should sue as advocate for thee. (I.i.142-145)
But haste we merry onto scene II. Any reader, movie-goer, even TV-viewer, should have the ending figured in their minds after scene 1. A reprieve and a glorious family reunion, surely? Students of mine will suggest we’ll get a hitherto unhinted at wedding – or two, as I tend to generalise the Comedies as ending in weddings, plural. Kent Cartwright has something to say on this in the Introduction to my Arden Third, so I’m going to reaffirm my guess at at least one wedding to finish FFF the proceedings:
‘comedy looks hopefully towards the future. Marriage in comedy stands for the possibility, if not always the fact, of happy outcomes; it constitutes the social symbol for joy in the gift of life..’
This quality of forseeability returns me to our little discussion at the beginning of this post. She Who Must Be Obeyed (SWMBO) derides 99% of what I find funny as being ‘predictable’, and I spend all my time responding that comedy is often about the journey rather than the destination, and about appreciating the skill of the craftsmen telling the jokes. So I’ve stopped thinking about the twins, per se, and started just enjoying the jokes. Once they started, they came with enjoyable frequency.
My first impression of Dromio (E) was that he was a contender for my favourite of all Shakespeare’s witty but put-upon servants. He carried the humour with a constant __? __! patter to show his confusion, but his mastery of puns, and of using what Kent Cartwright calls ‘asteismus’ or ‘connective repetition’ was just brilliant. Lots of smiley face annotations in passages like this:
‘ANTIPHOLUS (E): Where is the thousand marks thou had’st of me?
DROMIO (E): I have some marks of your upon my pate,
Some of my mistress’ marks upon my shoulders,
But not a thousand marks between you both.’ (I.ii.181-184)
Cue our second conversation:
Me: Let me read you this (reads The above)
Her: It’s not the best, is it?
Me: Well, what would be the best?
Her: I dunno, maybe Blackadder?
Me: You wouldn’t HAVE Blackadder without this!
Her: You need to stop assuming that everything good is down to Shakespeare.
Our faces closely mirroring the ones to the left, I gave up at that point, leaving a barbed rhetorical question hanging about whether or not she understood all the words in the play.
I’ll probably pay for it later.
Line References are taken from:
Kent Cartwright (ed.), William Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors (Arden Third, Bloomsbury: London2017)