Sunday, June 13, 2010

Discussion: Comedy of Errors

The play: Comedy of Errors

The plot tweet: Two sets of twins, unknown to each other, wander around same town; chaos ensues. Dad escapes execution; Mom shows up; everyone feasts.

My favorite line:
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.


In the past few years, I've used Comedy of Errors as a measuring stick for Shakespeare theaters and festivals around the Midwest -- not because it's the best indicator of a theater company's ability, but merely because it seemed to be playing everywhere I went.

The funniest version, by far, was at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and it starred one of my favorite comedic actors, Bruce Dow, as Dromio of Syracuse. The strangest version (although still quite funny), was with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company; it was set as a 1950s sci-fi B-movie, which naturally emphasized the more bizarre aspects of the play. I also saw a good version last year at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin (which, if you've never been there, is a fantastic open-air venue).

In the midst of this Comedy of Errors overkill, I broke one of my own Shakespeare rules: I saw the play without reading it first. So, as I read the play this week, many things were bumping around in my head, including different interpretations of the scenery, the characters and the overall tone. It's been difficult to sort out that "noise" and get a pure reading of the play.

Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, and some aspects of it -- the ample fart jokes, for example -- make me wonder if he had it left over from an adolescent writing experiment. On the other hand, as critics have noted, the play gives us a preview of many themes Shakespeare will use throughout his career, such as storms/tempests and the search for self. The final act, a reconciliation and reunion orchestrated by Emilia/the Abbess, feels to me like an early attempt at the mastery achieved in The Winter's Tale.

This is one of the very few Shakespeare plays that sticks to the classical unities of time and place: The action takes place on the streets of one town, in one afternoon, and characters are constantly mentioning the time -- a countdown to Egeon's scheduled execution at sundown (which we never for a minute believe will actually take place). It's also one of the Bard's shortest plays, and even then there are some sections that feel like filler.

One criticism of the play is that the characters don't have much depth. Just compare the play's most rounded-out character, Antipholus of Syracuse, with Hamlet or Falstaff. Another frustration: To make the plot work, the characters have to be pretty stupid sometimes. When Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in town, he's told that a merchant from Syracuse is facing execution, but it never occurs to him to find out who the merchant is. And, although the whole point of his journey is to find his brother, he never considers his twin to be a potential cause for the mix-ups of the day. (Nor, for that matter, does Egeon, when Antipholus of Ephesus swears he doesn't recognize him.)

Once we get past some fairly stupid characters with a penchant for fart jokes, what's left? Well, to start, it's pretty darn funny. Indeed, staged well, it's the funniest Shakespeare play I've seen. That doesn't come across very well in the reading because so much of the humor is physical slapstick. Think of the possibilities of a simple stage direction like "He beats Dromio." (Right now, in my head, Bruce Dow is wearing a funny little cap and running madly around the stage, shrieking like a girl.)

One thing I did notice in the reading, which didn't come across well on stage, was how repulsive Luciana can be. She's not married, but when we first meet her she's lecturing her sister on the need to be subservient to her husband. In her next appearance, she's screeching at Dromio, calling him "thou drone, thou snail, thou slug, thou sot." In her next scene, she's lecturing Antipholus of Syracuse about how to behave toward his supposed wife. She continues in this vein throughout the play. What a shrill, insufferable know-it-all. Imagine what she'd be like if she weren't pretending to be the meek and mild single girl.

Did you get the same impression of Luciana? She's not mentioned much in the criticism I read, so I'm interested in hearing what other people think.

Another question for discussion: If Comedy of Errors is a "preview" of Shakespeare's later work, what parallels did you notice? When Antipholus of Ephesus says, "But with these nails I'll pluck out these false eyes," for example, does that ring any bells for you? We haven't read that play yet, but I'll give you an imaginary bonus point if you know what it is.

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