Ponytail Shakespeare read-through: The Comedy of Errors, Act III
We’ll come to the idea that ‘cheats never prosper‘ in a while. It’s a busy act.
In the meantime, sometimes the margins in comedy and tragedy are very, very fine. Exactly like in real life, actually …
Blink and you’d miss it, but we had a very near miss at the beginning of the play – when our ‘Boys from Syracuse’ (as Rodgers and Hart christened them) land in Ephesus, 1 Merchant warns them:
‘This very day a Syracusan merchant
Is apprehended for arrival here,
And, not being able to buy out his life,
According to the statute of the town
Dies ere the weary sun set in the west.’ (I.ii.3-7)
So close, and yet so far!
If only, if only the weary SON had enquired as to the hapless merchant’s name (and I think it would have been perfectly reasonable to do so, as they both hailed from the same city-state) the play would have been over before it had properly begun! Not that I’m complaining at all – I think the near-misses add to the fun.
And the first notable part of Act III is another near-miss, a delicious conceit that I can imagine working beautifully on stage, or in the slick writing that created Frasier (in fact, as I’ve read this play, it’s increasingly made me want to dig out my complete Frasier again and binge on it’s clever modern farce): nothing but a door’s width separates the pairs of twins when Antipholus (E) finally comes home for dinner with Angelo, the jeweller, and Balthazar. This passage is rightly glossed as ‘aural anarchy‘ by Kent Cartwright, as the twin servants bandy with each other through that locked door. Until this happens:
‘A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind;
Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.’ (DOMIO (E) III.i.75-76)
It’s tellingly indicative of how modern students are conditioned to put Shakespeare on a pedestal (wrongly, as I suggested back in October) that they are almost universally taken aback if I ever suggest that something we’re reading is an innuendo or a ‘knob gag’. In Shakespeare? Surely not! I wonder how they’d react to this fart joke in class …
The play takes an abrupt, very abrupt turn down darker streets as the temporarily defeated Antipholus (E) abandons plans for a nice home-cooked dinner. We’re heading down Infidelity Avenue, people, and it took me a moment to get to grips with it. There are times, reading EMP literature, when I have to make a mental effort to adopt a 16th Century attitude, and this was one of those. Thanks to Lisa Hopkins and Matthew Steggle, whose book, Renaissance Literature and Culture was a staple of my uni days, this quote’s been firmly fixed in my mind for years:
‘casta est quam nemo rogavit’ (‘she is chaste whom no one has asked‘)
Balthazar, previously mild and amiable, is the first to raise the spectre that Adriana might be ‘entertaining’ another man:
‘Herein you war against your reputation,
And draw within the compass of suspect
Th’unviolated honour of your wife.
Once, this: your long experience of her wisdom,
Her sober virtue, years and modesty
Plead on her part some cause to you unknown;
And doubt not, sir, but she will well excuse
Why at this time the doors are made against you.’
What? Hang on! I don’t think Iago could have made a subtler dig here, channelling what Hopkins and Steggle describe as ‘virtually universal male paranoia‘ about female infidelity. This simply wasn’t on the menu as Antipholus (E) called for a crowbar to force his way into his home … shame on you, Balthazar!
Antipholus’ reaction is also remarkable. It seems clear that he’s been playing around himself – of course in the EMP that was fine, almost expected, and Adriana has been almost expecting it – with some wench at The Porpentine; in his pique he vows to do something which I expect he’s going to regret later:
‘That chain will I bestow –
Be it for nothing but to spite my wife –
Upon my hostess there.’ (III.i.117-119)
In case we were in any doubt, the line:
‘this jest shall cost me some expense’ (III.i.123)
is glossed as having sexual undertones. He needs reminding that ‘cheats never prosper‘. Thus ends scene i.
It gets weirder …
I wrote in my thoughts on Act II that Antipholus (S) was just a foil for the comedy and unsatisfying, and this set in mind a train of thought that led me to the conclusion that the most interesting characters in Shakespeare’s Comedies are invariably the women. It’s born out by Beatrice, Katherina, Viola and Rosalind, I think – their characters are the ones with real spirit, the ones who undergo emotional or intellectual journeys during their respective plays. I think Luciana is another such figure – I have begun to find her fascinating.
From the passive mouse we first saw in the play, she now takes it upon herself to upbraid the utterly confused Antipholus (E) for his treatment of her sister. Interestingly, we have again the easy assumption (taking her cue from her sister in Act II) that Antipholus has a mistress, but what is remarkable, I think, is that she doesn’t warn her brother-in-law to stay off the ‘primrose path of dalliance‘ that she assumes he is treading like a ‘puff’d and reckless libertine‘. Nope – she simply asks him to make it less obvious to her sister:
‘Alas, poor women! Make us but believe,
Being compact of credit, that you love us;
Though others have the arm, show us the sleeve’ (III.ii.21-23)
Is there an echo of that earlier passivity? Or is something else going on? I think the clue is towards the beginning of her speech, when she is pragmatic about the marriage:
‘If you did wed my sister for her wealth,
Then for her wealth’s sake use her with more kindness.’ (III.ii.5-6)
And again with EMP goggles on I’m reminded that not all marriages (especially where there was money, land or power involved) were ‘companionate’ matches, even if the emphasis was beginning to shift.
I think there have been several hints that Adriana is sexually frustrated – more than one reference to the ‘marriage bed’ – and Luciana urges Antipholus (S):
‘Tis double wrong to truant with your bed.’ (III.ii.17)
Antipholus (S) has sex in mind – but not with Adriana. He doesn’t seem to be listening to what she actually says, because all he can register is Luciana’s seductive tones:
‘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’ (III.ii.45-47)
I noted, and Arden glossed, that Luciana’s quick exit might be a sign that she is weakening – after all, casta est quam nemo rogavit! And, obviously, ‘cheats never prosper‘! At this stage, without knowing how the play ends, my money’s still on the misunderstandings being resolved in favour of a happy-ever-after for her. IF Antipholus (S) doesn’t do the runner he’s now contemplating and which I suggested a while back.
This feels like a busy act, busier than the previous too, and one final passage needs mentioning. Poor Dromio (S), now chased by a far from chaste maid who, in his description, seems to be a ‘Whole Lotta Rosie‘:
‘You could say she’s got it alllllllllll …’
Judging by the Youtube stats for the link, it seems nearly 70 million viewers know how he feels!
Having already listened to the BBC’s excellent audio series, Shakespeare’s Restless World, I knew the punchline to Dromio’s extended joke about Nell, but still enjoyed, again, what I thought was clever writing. This is Shakespeare writing for the groundlings, I think, channelling contemporary attitudes to women and foreigners. Fun, if you don’t take it too seriously, and after the more serious diversion we end the act on a comic note …