Shakespeare 2022: The Comedy of Errors

This is the third post in a year-long series in which, week by week, I’m reading the complete works of William Shakespeare, more or less in chronological order. In my previous post, I wrote about The Taming of the Shrew.

Taking the play on its own terms, the first and perhaps the final thing to say about The Comedy of Errors (written ca. 1590?) is that I didn’t find it particularly funny. Sure, yes, it’s full of the comedic devices that Shakespeare would go on to perfect in his later plays — principally the device of mistaken identity, which gives the narrative an undercurrent of dramatic irony from start to finish. Here, though, these devices appear here only in incipient form, almost as gimmicks very much in the R&D phase of their creator’s attempt to master his craft.

Lest I come across as one of this play’s committed detractors, I’ll say straight up that I warmed to a few of its elements. I’m enamoured of those plays in which Shakespeare takes as his setting a dual locale in which one setting functions as the dark reflection of another: here, Syracuse and Ephesus; in other plays, Venice and Cyprus, or Verona and Mantua. There’s an almost fabular quality to the set-up that I admire, possibly because it’s something familiar to me from my earliest reading habits as a consumer of comic books: I see Gotham City and Metropolis, four hundred years before their time. And then, importantly, The Comedy of Errors is not without its share of fine dialogue, though of course the best lines all appear in those rare instances when Shakespeare has his characters plumb the depths of human experience: grief, hatred, the woes of old age. Here, for example, is Antipholus of Syracuse rebuking a merchant’s off-hand remark that he ought to try to cheer up (“I commend you to your own content”):

He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop;
Who, failing there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself…

And here is Antipholus of Ephesus getting carried away with his description of the duplicitous Pinch,

…a hungry lean-faced villain,
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler, and a fortune-teller;
A needy, hollow-ey’d, sharp-looking wretch;
A living dead man; this pernicious slave,
Forsooth, took on him as a conjurer;
And gazing in mine eye, feeling my pulse,
And with no face, as ’twere, outfacing me,
Cries out, I was possess’d…

And who wouldn’t shiver at the weary Aegeon’s description of himself as an elderly man, one whose apparent infirmity betrays the wealth of experience he harbours inside? “Though now this grained face of mine be hid,” he laments,

In sap-consuming winter’s drizzled snow,
And all the conduits of my blood froze up,
Yet hath my night of life some memory,
My wasting lamps some fading glimmer left…

Which I suppose means that the Shakespeare I like best is the Shakespeare of amplificatio, and that that Shakespeare’s learning curve is fairly evident in this play.

What Shakespeare had yet to learn while writing The Comedy of Errors, however, is that although amplificatio is predominantly a resource of rhetoric, it can also be a resource to deploy in the construction of a narrative, a mechanism for darkening the conflict of a drama or deepening the humour of a comedy. As it stands, The Comedy of Errors is a play in which the comedy remains linear throughout: the characters find themselves involved in a series of minor foibles, and for the most part the outcome of any one foible has no bearing on the intensity or consequences of the one that follows. It’s a thoroughly episodic piece of work, as per all those old sitcoms in which one week’s troubles would be forgotten by the time the next week’s episode went to air. Or, to switch metaphors, it’s like a game of musical chairs in which no chair is removed at the end of each round: all the characters run about in a fit of madness while the music plays, but everyone finds a place to rest when the madness temporarily abates, so that no particular bout of madness is really any more or less engaging than any other.

This is partly the case, I think, because Shakespeare, the apprentice playwright, was probably taking his cues from Aristotle, with particularly fidelity to Aristotle’s principles of the unity of time and unity of place. These principles hold that the intensity of a drama (often, but not exclusively, a tragedy) is in some sense commensurate to its temporal and geographical compression: set it in one location over a period of no more than twenty-four hours and that’ll make it as intense, as involving, as it can possibly be. But while Shakespeare grounds The Comedy of Errors on Aristotle’s principles, he doesn’t pick up on what is implicit in those principles: that temporal and geographical compression ought to work on the characters like an airless room in a heatwave. This is to say that the characters’ initial response to the circumstances in which they find themselves must not occur in de facto isolation from the remainder of the events on the timeline; rather, it must create a new set of circumstances which will prompt the next wave of responses, and these next responses must create new circumstances which in turn prompt a further wave of responses, and so on and so forth — each response being both an immediate reaction to the prior response and collectively, incrementally, an escalation of the prevailing circumstances throughout the play. In other words, everything that happens has to raise the stakes until the airless room reaches boiling point. In The Comedy of Errors, however, there really aren’t any stakes — at least not until Shakespeare tries to raise some, belatedly, with an imminent act of capital punishment — and there are certainly no meaningful stakes that arise from the original confusion of identity and then escalate. But without the escalation, without the raising of stakes from incident to incident, from one response to the next, there is no intensification, no dramatic amplificatio, of what we are watching unfold, what we are led to expect, and what we might laugh at next.

That said, I can see, on the horizon, a month or so from now, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play of mistaken identities in which the stakes are raised and complicated in unexpected ways, even though the characters’ foibles very much resemble the foibles of The Comedy of Errors. Since there were probably only two or three years between the writing of this play and the writing of that one, Shakespeare’s learning curve shows itself in the distance between here and there — and, from a vantage point of several centuries, it’s plain to see that he took to it quickly. In the absence of a dedicated instructor, then, this playwright-on-the-make must have been remarkably reflective on the quality and/or reception of his own work, attentive to lapses in the integrity of his plays and/or responsive to criticisms of the same. If indeed he did take Aristotle as his mentor-in-absentia during the writing of this play, he was wise enough to survey the constraints he imposed on himself by adopting Aristotle’s principles of unity, and courageous enough to cast off the philosopher’s rules for the creation of drama when unsure about how well they were serving his own artistic vision.

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