By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

7. The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare

Selected criticism:

From Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom:
The shortest and most unified of all Shakespeare's plays, The Comedy of Errors, is regarded by many scholars as his very first, which I tend to doubt. It shows such skill, indeed mastery -- in action, incipient character, and stagecraft -- that it far outshines the three Henry VI plays and the rather lame comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
The twin Antipholuses are dead ringers but inwardly are very different. The Syracusan Antipholus has a quasi-metaphysical temperament.... The Ephesian Antipholus is not a very interesting fellow, compared with his Syracusan twin, upon whom Shakespeare chooses to concentrate.... Antipholus of Syracuse, already lost to himself before entering Ephesus, very nearly loses his sense of self-identity as the play proceeds.
Perhaps all farce is implicitly metaphysical; Shakespeare departs from Plautus in making the uneasiness overt.
The recognition scene, Shakespeare's first in what would become an extraordinary procession, prompts the astonished Duke of Ephesus to the play's deepest reflection: 
One of these men is genius to the other,
And so of these, which is the natural man,
And which the spirit? Who deciphers them? 
Though Antipholus of Syracuse cannot be called his brother's daemon or attendant spirit, one possible answer to the Duke's questions might be that the discerning playgoer would locate the spirit in the outlander, and the natural man in the Ephesian merchant. Shakespeare, who will perfect the art of ellipsis, begins here by giving the two Antipholuses no affective reactions whatsoever to their reunion.... the coldness or dispassionateness of the Antipholuses is striking in contrast to the charming reunion of the Dromios, with which Shakespeare sweetly ends his comedy.... Shakespeare, from the start, prefers his clowns to his merchants.
This is one of Bloom's briefest commentaries on the plays, but it's tremendously insightful, especially about the play's ending. He does wander into some disputed areas of the play without commenting on the nature of the dispute: He says that Emilia is "presumably a priestess of Diana," though the play several times makes its Christian context implicit, and he observes,"We can wonder, if we want to, why she has been in Ephesus for twenty-three years without declaring herself to her son who dwells there." The text makes it "thirty-three" years, though this doesn't jibe with the calculation that Antipholus was eighteen when he left Syracuse and Egeon has been searching for him for seven years, which would accord with Bloom's "twenty-three." (And let's set aside the fact that Egeon at one point says it was five years, not seven.) But more to the point, it's an open question whether Emilia even knew that her son was living in Ephesus: She would hardly have recognized a boy she last saw as an infant. No matter, though. These are questions an audience doesn't need to ask, as Bloom acknowledges.

From The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966):
In adapting Plautus to the English stage Shakespeare ... seriously modified the tone of these two plays by injecting the feature of romantic love.... The Romans saw nothing ennobling in sexual attraction. The frustrations met in the incessant pursuit of women, they thought ridiculous. Hence, in Plautus sex arouses no tenderness -- only scornful laughter. The Elizabethan attitude toward love was much more like ours. Centuries of the practice of courtly love and knightly devotion to a lady (never a wife) lay between Plautus and Shakespeare.
When Shakespeare designed his comedy, his sole object was doubtless to provide his audience with an occasion for an hour or two of boisterous laughter, but his developing interest in the actions and motives of his characters produces a conviction that the destiny of all of them is a matter of human significance.... It [offers] a richer and more complex experience than pure farce and thus, in however crude a fashion, it serves to foreshadow some of the later great achievements of Shakespearean comedy.
--Oscar James Campbell
Like Bloom, and like Foakes in the Arden introduction, Campbell, in his commentary for the Reader's Encyclopedia, is beginning to take the play more seriously than earlier critics did. 

This comedy is taken very much from the Menæchmi of Plautus, and is not an improvement on it. Shakespear appears to have bestowed no great pains on it, and there are but a few passages which bear the decided stamp of his genius. He seems to have relied on his author, and on the interest arising out of the intricacy of the plot. The curiosity excited is certainly very considerable, though not of the most pleasing kind.
--William Hazlitt, 1817
Hazlitt's would have been a representative view among the more serious Bardolators and collectors of the "beauties" of Shakespeare -- i.e., the great purple passages of Shakespearean verse. But it's interesting to see that he finds no significant differences between Plautus's play and Shakespeare's. 

The myriad-minded man, our, and all men's, Shakespeare, has in this piece presented us with a legitimate farce in exactest consonance with the philosophical principles and character of farce, as distinguished from comedy and from entertainments. A proper farce is mainly distinguished from comedy by the license allowed, and even required, in the fable, in order to produce strange and laughable situations. The story need not be probable, it is enough that it is possible. A comedy would scarcely allow even the two Antipholuses; because, although there have been instances of almost indistinguishable likeness in two persons, yet these are more individual accidents.... But farce dares add the two Dromios, and is justified in so doing by the laws of its end and constitution. In a word, farces commence in a postulate, which must be granted.
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Coleridge's distinction between farce and comedy is a bit labored, especially for a man who coined the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief." 

Nothing can be more beautifully managed, or is altogether more Shaksperean, than the narrative of Ægeon; and that narrative is so clear and so impressive, that the reader never forgets it amidst all the errors and perplexities which follow.... It appears to us that every one of an audience of "The Comedy of Errors," who keeps his eyes open, will, after he has become a little familiar with the persons of the two Antipholuses and the two Dromios, find out some clue by which he can detect a difference between each. 
--Charles Knight, 1849
It's charmingly characteristic of a Victorian critic that the sentimental element -- the plight of Egeon -- should predominate in his criticism. But he also begins to sense that there are individualizing elements in the two Antipholuses, a focus of later criticism. (The Dromios? Not so much.) 

The Comedy of Errors is to be classed as a comedy. But the label hardly applies to it as a whole, since ... the ethical element, no less than the element of romance, in the play has been imported into the original design under the promptings of the Elizabeth mood.... If the rehandling of the Plautine structure is to be attributed to Shakespeare himself, he was already a master of stage-craft. To this particular type of drama it is possible to give the name of farce rather than of comedy, if certain distinctions are observed. Farce, indeed, is a term which has been used by literary historians in two rather different shades of meaning. In one acceptation, derived from its use as applied to ... examples of fifteenth-century French dramatic humour, it does not so much connote something other than comedy, as a variety of comedy itself. It is a matter of temper and milieu. Farce is comedy translated from the speech and manners of a cultivated society into the speech and manners of the bourgeoisie; or perhaps it would really be more historical to say that comedy represents a development out of farce, due to the sharpening of the wits and the refinement of the moral issues which accompany or form part of the growth of a cultivated society as distinct from a bourgeoisie. Such farce is a comedy of the ruder vices and the more robust virtues, a comedy in which fisticuffs, literal and verbal, take the place of rapier-play.
--E.K. Chambers, 1925
Chambers seems to be anticipating (or perhaps suggesting?) Bloom's view that, because of the skillful "stage-craft," The Comedy of Errors doesn't seem to be the work of a novice playwright. He loses me in the distinction between comedy and farce -- farce as a bourgeois development out of "cultivated" comedy -- but perhaps because the excerpt here doesn't make it clear how the distinction applies to The Comedy of Errors

Adriana is doubtless shrew, virago and vixen to boot.... An English shrew, moreover, much more than a Roman one, is hampered by memories of the affection she once had for the man of her choice.... But her single lapse into the broken-hearted bride who will weep and die in tears is a fall both from type and from character.... Yet at the end of the play, the shrew is not so much out of countenance as she was meant to be. One cannot but remember that the person solemnly reproving Adriana for her shrewishness is not, as in Plautus, her own natural parent, but her mother-in-law. Nor does her husband appear to suffer much spiritual disquiet from her moods. A man who conducts a domestic tiff by calling his wife a dissembling harlot, and by threats to pluck out her eyes, is not too sensitive a fellow and has a sufficient protection in the thickness of his skin. Indeed, the general temper of the life depicted in The Comedy of Errors is so crude, coarse, and brutal, that Adriana's fault appears to be not so much her shrewishness as her undiplomatic use of it.
--H.B. Charlton, 1938
Charlton singles out Adriana's "lapse into the broken-hearted bride" as "out of character." I think this very much depends on how the actress plays the part. Depending on how the scene is integrated into the whole characterization, it can come off as self-pitying or self-justifying, and in any case can serve to humanize an otherwise one-note role. 

[In contrast with its source,] Shakespeare's play has a new beginning, a new end and en infusion of tenderness; there is love in it. In face he medievalized the story, starting it off in trouble, ending it in joy.... The [final] scene gathers in the whole cast and concludes in rejoicing, a model to all subsequent comedy, with a stage crammed at the end with happy people. The play-world has been led into delight, and with it the world of the audience. Although its main business is the fun of mistaken identity, The Comedy of Errors is given a touch of delicacy by the language of amour courtois (a thing unknown to Plautus) and the invention of a romantic sub-plot --- the love affair between Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciana.... Thus could the fantasy of the Middle Ages transform the stolid fun of the world of Roman imagination.
--Nevill Coghill

The play belongs in the stream of popular comedy, from Menander to Minsky; but it also shows an intelligence and control, on the part of the author, which is rare in any kind of play.... This mastery is revealed ... in the consistency with which its farcical limitations are accepted, and in the ingenuity of the plot.... Comedy of this type, or taste -- rationalistic, built on a Latin base -- was to be more fully explored in the succeeding age of the Enlightenment, in the innumerable comedies which lighted the theaters of Europe from Molière through Mozart. But Shakespeare was developing in a different direction ... not toward further ingenuity, but toward deeper insight.... Only Shakespeare could derive The Comedy of Errors from Plautus, and only he could proceed from that simple fun to the enigmatic humor of his maturity.
--Francis Fergusson, 1957 
Mistakes of identity all but destroy relationship, and loss of relationship calls true identity yet more into question; the chief persons suspect themselves or are suspected of insanity, or of being possessed, surrounded, or assailed by supernatural powers -- madness or demoniac possession would be the eclipse of the true self, and sorcery might overwhelm it. The alien Antipholus and Dromio fear Circean metamorphosis; Egeon, that he has been deformed out of recognition by time. Yet the hazard of metamorphosis and of the loss of present identity is also the way to fresh or restored relationship. Antipholus the bachelor desires that Luciana will transform him and create him new; and Adriana's belief that in marriage the former identities coalesce and emerge identified with each other, is true if rightly interpreted.... Adriana's envy of a husband's status contravenes principles of order that for Shakespeare and orthodox Elizabethans extended through the whole cosmos.... Adriana comes to style her husband lord, and they each lay their case, as each has come to see it, before the Duke, reminding themselves and him that the match was first made by his authority. By this point, disorder from the various disruptions of relationship has gone so far in the community, that only the appeals for justice addressed to the Abbess and to him, God's viceroys spiritual and temporal, are capable, the time now being ripe, of leading to a solution.
--Harold Brooks, 1961
We've come a long way from comedy in this interpretation, which has something too sober-sided and thesis-ridden about it. But Brooks makes a good point about the way the audience's expectation of the restoration of order is at the heart of any drama. 

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