The Comedy of Errors

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On 28th December 1954, the gentlemen of Gray’s INN saw a play under rather unusual circumstances. Its presentation followed a near-riot from which the Ambassador (the representative) from the Inner Temple escaped with his colleagues, presumably in a hurry.

“After their departure the Throngs and tumults did somewhat cease, although so much of them continued as was able to disorder and confound any good intentions whatsoever.” (Gesta Grayorum, Records of Gray’s Inn, printed 1688).

One can imaginer the organizers, frantic to stop the Brawling, calling quickly upon the actors to begin their piece. “A Comedy of Errors (like to Palutus his Menechamus) was played by the players. So that Night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but confusion and Errors; whereupon, it was ever after called, The Night of Errors.” This reported incident reads like one of those real and imagined circumstances when brass bands strike up the ride of the Valkyries, blowing desperately, while an audience brawls or tries to escape from flood or fire.

The play was undoubtedly Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. The account of this early performance somewhat tartly implies that it did little to mitigate the confusion which dominated the evening festivities. It would be surprising that, given the evening was doomed to catastrophe, a play, or any attempted diversion, could calm the chaos. On the other hand, it would be equally surprising if this play would not have delighted the gentlemen of Gray’s Inn had they seen it in a more propitious atmosphere. Its own confusion is beautifully organized, its errors are enchanting to speculate upon, and its comedy ranges easily between farce and fantasy, and ends upon an affirmative note of total contentment.

In the right circumstances, it would have been an appropriate choice for Gray’s inn and its classically learned scholars. The eyewitness account, more concerned with strife than with art, still has time to recognize the affinity between the play and the Latin play Menaechmi of Plautus (Plautus’ comedy, in which one twin arranges to meet with a mistress, but is deceived by his brother, and his intentions revealed to his wife). There are also affinities with Plautus’ Amphitruo.

It is impossible to say, with any certainty, when it was written. Reasons, though not conclusive, can be given for dating it as early as 1589 or as late as 1594. It has particular affinities with the Two Gentlemen of Verona, which is sometimes regarded as Shakespeare’s first attempt at writing comedy. It has affinities with Love’s Labour’s Lost also – now being regarded as the latest of the early group of comedies. These affinities are both in language and the characterization. For example, F.A. Foakes has pointed out that relatively unusual words are common to this play and the Two Gentlemen of Verona – “hapless,” “peevish,” “overshoes.” Again, the dialogue of Launce and Speed has much of the mixture of punning artifice and simple naturalism to be found in the mouths of Dromio brothers.

Yet, even more certainly than in Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare has put his own handprint firmly on this play. There is an assurance in the dramatic construction and in the writing. The complicated plot is handled with dexterity, and the language has far fewer moments when it takes heedless wings and loses all contact with the groundwork of character and situation. Moreover, dealing with the plot ‘per se’ gives much opportunity for that kind of dissociation of sensibility in which an audience is left wondering what attitude they are expected to take up, Shakespeare displays a characteristic ability to unify. The position of Aegeon, the sudden transformation of his wife from nun to rediscovered wife and mother, the potential sourness of the relationship between Adriana and her sister and with her husband could, in less hands, lead to unsweetened bitterness of the kind that mars the Two Gentlemen of Verona and leaves our experience of The Merchant of Venice tasting of some gall.

It is the more remarkable that Shakespeare was able to unify the tastes and tones of the play when the atmosphere of the first two scenes is closely considered. It is a solemn, almost somber situation which we encounter, where an ageing man, already laden with the grief of loss, is faced with the final dispossession – his own wife – upon an edict even a sympathetic ruler cannot rescind.

Hopeless and helpless doth Aegeon wend,
But to procrastinate his liveless end.              (I.i.158-59)

This atmosphere is little relieved when we first meet his lost son, Antipholus of Syracuse:
He that commends me to my own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.       (I.ii.33-34)

Admittedly it is a characteristic of Shakespeare’s comedies o make the dark light enough – eventually – and there are sufficient examples in both early and more mature comedies to confirm this; the early scenes of As You Like IT are notable for the cruelty which surrounds Orlando and the faithful Adam. Yet, there is no other romantic play which so relentlessly, at its beginning, emphasizes an unrelieved somberness unmitigated by any comic over- or under-tone. Still, the play moves, after the first two scenes, very quickly in the direction of romantic farce, and the memory of the early darkness does not blight either our affection for the comedy we witness or our readiness to accept final and complete resolution.

Shakespeare achieves the resolution in two ways. First, simply by “losing” Aegeon from the dramatic action for the major part of the comedy when the farce of action has its head. He rediscovers him only at that correct point when we realize that the old man’s tribulations are about to come to a happy conclusion. He is not allowed to wander throughout the play, an irritant to the comedy and a tiresome jabber at our moral susceptibilities.

Second, the play is remarkable for being a comedy very largely in terms of situation rather than in character or even, in a sense, in theme. With the exception of Pinch (a fantastic) no character, including the Dromios, is allowed to be excessively comic in himself; the comedy is a result of what happens rather than what is. The result is that the audience is put in the comforting position of being able to laugh at a situation while, if they wish, realizing the “seriousness” of the underlying theme. In this sense, Aegeon, both Antipholuses and Dromios, and Adriana occupy the same position. They all have suffered or do suffer real or imagined loss – loss of children, of parents, of husband, of identity. The play, thematically, is a series of closely interwoven variations on the theme of loss. Because of this every character is in the same boat. Neither Aegeon, nor any one else, jars either our enjoyment of the plot or our speculations about what lies beneath the plot.

In the theatre there is no question but that our experience is dominated by the comedy initiated by the plot. The simplest testimony to Shakespeare’s dexterity is the fact that, at no point, is there any reason why the audience should be confused as to who is who or what is what. This clarity is considerably aided by Shakespeare’s deployment of three devices – a rope, a gold chain and, less mechanically, by the reactions of the bewildered Dromios. There is no more certain way of establishing comic identity than by the use of cuffs and blows and the individual reactions thereto. The kind of skill which we applaud in modern thriller and farcical dramatists by which identity is either established or confused by simple devices (like Priestley’s cigarette box in A Dangerous Corner) is used consistently in this play.

The comic effect which confusion of identity produces is given an extra piquancy by the impression that the confusion is capable of infinite reduplication – like an image seen in a succession of mirrors. One becomes delighted both by ingenuity and by the possibility of infinite comic progression. The dangers are that, overdone, it will not fall, but relax into mere comic device. Shakespeare avoids these dangers by controlling the extent and nature of his variations. He is thus able to maintain the comic tension and, at the same time, to personalize to some extent, characterization which is otherwise thin and underdeveloped. The general result of Shakespeare’s adroit economy with his identity game is an overall bafflement in his characters and it is their reaction to this growing fog that personalizes them. We find that Antipholus of Ephesus is a precipitate young man, quick to anger, in love with his wife, but quite prepared to play tit for tat for her imagined infidelity – he is Petruchio whose taming has not quite succeeded.

Good signior Angelo, you must excuse us all,
My wife is shrewish when I keep not howres;
Say that I lingered with you at the shop
To see the making of her carkanet. (III.i.1-14)

We learn that Antipholus of Syracuse is a quieter young man, a little saddened by his lot, romantically inclined, responding to the situations, not outraged like his brother, but as in a dream (at first the place seems like hell-mouth, then like a fairy-land, then like hell-mouth again). He is Romeo with a touch of shylock’s Antonio about him:

Because that I familiarize sometimes
Do use you for my fool, and chat with you,
Your sauciness will jest upon my love
And make a common of my serious hours.     (II.ii.26-9)

We learn that Adriana is a dutiful wife capable, naturally, of jealousy, but persevering in an anxious and, at times, tearful fidelity to the end. She is the stuff from which Shakespeare’s later wronged beauties will be made of:

I see the jewel best enameled
Will lose his beauty: Yet the gold bides still
That others touch, and often touching will
Where gold and no man hath a name,
By falsehood and corruption doth it shame:
Since that my beauty cannot please his eye,
I’ll weep (what’s left away) and weeping die.           (II.i.109-115)

Not only does Shakespeare keep firm hold on the manipulation of mistaken identities, he introduces into the comic chaos an episode which not only presents a point of rest for the audiences racing involvement but also deepens the meaning of the tensions which are so judiciously created. This is Luciana/Antipholus of Syracuse situation in which, for a short but significant space, the potential results of mistaken identity seem more poignant, less comically resolvable. Luciana believes him to be her sister’s husband and his professions of love to her thus seem particularly despicable. She pleads with him to be loving to his wife:

Comfort my sister, cheer her, call her wife;
“Tis holy sport to be a little vain, when the sweet
breath of flattery conquers strife.       (III.ii.26-28)

Antipholus’ reaction is to declare his love for Luciana:
Sing, siren for thy self, and I will dote.          (III.ii.47)

Luciana desperately tries to direct his thoughts to the one she believes to be his wife – her sister. His reaction is to redouble his protestations of love for her:
Thou hast no husband yet, nor do I wife:
Give me thy hand.                                          (III.ii.68-69)

Luciana is stricken, despite herself. There is a winsome pathos in her reply:
Oh soft, sir, hold you still:
I’ll fetch my sister to get her good will. (III.ii. 69-70)

She is caught in love and the irony is that what she believes to be illicit is, in fact, legitimate. Mistaken identity here disguises an affirmative true love which one of the participants mistakes for its opposite. Luciana tells her sister of her alleged husband’s protestations. Her words are ironic. She says he wooed her, “with words that in an honest suit might move.”

Luciana is a sad and honourable woman, brought to the point of suffering for a love which is true but seems false. It is what happens to her which calls our attention, as an audience, back tot eh underlying theme of the play. Foakes expreses it thus:

“Our concern for the Antipholus twins, for Adriana and Luciana, and our sense of disorder are deepened in the context of suffering provided by an enveloping action. The comedy proves, after all, to be more than a temporary and hilarious abrogation of normality. It is, at the same time, a process in which the main characters are in some sense purged, before harmony and responsibility of normal relationships are restored at the end” (Introduction – New Arden Edition). What is lost, or apparently lost, by each character, is restored, because order is restored. The result is that every character seems a more ordered person, and every relationship a firmer one. It is well to emphasize that in the comic interactions of true or false, illusion and reality, what “is” and “what seems”, by which these characters are comically tested, we are seeing the beginnings of one of the great themes of Shakespeare’s plays. It would be endowing this play with far too much importance to say more than that the theme is announced, but the announcement is clear. What is equally clear is that the interactions of illusion and reality forced upon him by the story are closely associated, even at this early stage in Shakespeare’s development, with the theme of order and disorder which is manifest in the history plays. What The Comedy of Errors implies is that love must be tested, that what is and what seems are part of the testing, and that order, represented by true love within the formalization of marriage, is the ideal and successful outcome of an honest and faithful submission to the testing:

Why ……………..accords                 (II.i.15-20)