Shakespeare Report: The Comedy of Errors

The visual component is a requirement when encountering Shakespeare.
Photo by David Underland on Unsplash

I feel I have met my Shakespearean Waterloo in The Comedy of Errors. Absent the availability of a quality video production online, I resorted to Bard Audio Play 2: Silicon Valley, whose sound engineering, if admirable, did little to aid my following of a comedic farce featuring mixed-up actors (two sets of identical twins with identical names – the noblemen Antipholus, and the slaves Dromio).

The next time I cover this play (and now I feel I must, so abysmal has been my comprehension), I will find a production to attend. Hard to believe that in the world of remakes and remixes, there exists no relatively recent version of this piece. The heavy hitters are always the usual suspects: R+J (next in my queue), Hamlet, MacBeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew. If anyone out there is looking for Shakespearean arcana for a reboot, may I suggest The Comedy of Errors or any of the history plays, all seemingly relegated to the corner of complications. Surely a fearless creative spirit working out there can give us a version for our times?

I resorted to critical essays over at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The play debuted on December 28, 1594, at Gray’s Inn in London where, history tells us, the night was also marked by such Throngs and Tumults, Crowds and Outrages that it soon became known as the Night of Errors. (The only time I was ever in a production, as a fairy in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two sticks of fake dynamite flew through the cafeteria and caught on a vent coil, and spun around til its red paper tubes swung like the pendulums of a ghostly cuckoo clock.)

The plot is taken from Plautus, whose Roman sensibilities favored stock characters – shrewish wives, feckless husbands, flirtatious courtesans, and slaves constantly quarreling with their masters. The kitchen wench, whose body offers a bawdy geography lesson, is never even seen, being always offstage. Plautus’s Menaechmi, a very popular play with Elizabethans, has so much in common with The Comedy of Errors that scholars Menaechmi regard it as a source for Shakespeare’s play (along with Apollonius of Tyre, by the relatively obscure and John Gower). Appearance is what counts in these plays ( Shakespeare and Plautus), and individual identification or personality is effaced until the final scenes. Characters are governed by a single trait; Plautine (and Shakespearean) farce draws upon the Greek notion of character, according to which superhuman forces stamp and direct human behavior in a singular and predictable way. For the Elizabethans, too, social and family relationships often dictated behavior rather than individual choice or talent.

The city of Ephesus provides the scene for the play, whose action takes place in a one-day period. Ephesus for centuries represented a sort of magical melting pot, a meeting point for wayfarers, who met there from all corners of the world to mix and trade. It was known as a city given to witchcraft and superstition, where the impossible seemed possible and then became possible – perhaps thereby supporting the improbably plot element of two sets of identical twins with the same names existing in the same space unawares. In this sense, the vibe in Ephesus calls to mind Baroque Venice, where the watery canals concealed all manner of chicanery and infidelity, smugglers gliding past police who tucked jingling payoffs into their heavy pockets. Again, the visual effect of being present in this scene with the characters must only aid in comprehension and the accurate following of this mad caper of a plot.

The Comedy of Errors is really an everything and the kitchen sink situation. More madness than either Hamlet or Twelfth Night, shipwrecks, mistaken identities, a perceived crime and a detain punishment on deadline to move the action along (the better to avoid the death penalty). The most geography of any of Shakespeare’s plays, giving us a mental image of the public’s known world – from Ireland to Spain, America, Scotland and France, Belgium and the Netherlands. The wealthy twins Antipholus hail from Syracuse in Magna Graecia.

An insightful commentary on the play remarked that the point of this complicated venture is to show us how frail our attitudes and assumptions are. People we take for one person are proven to be another. Our beliefs are easily assailed by a different perspective. And Shakespearean puns are effective because they mock control in the same manner. Words that mean one thing in one context can flip and signify something different in the next moment. We can’t control meaning, a pun whispers. We can try. And watch someone’s face when they realize the alternate meaning being conveyed. Employed skillfully, there’s no wordplay more fun than a pun.

Alright, that’s all I got for you on The Comedy of Errors. Next time, I am watching a theater production of this, because it was a tangle of words in audio only. Hard to believe that no video production of this exists online. I am once more convinced (even though I had no doubt) that Shakespeare, unlike a Victorian child, is meant to be both seen and heard.

Next week I will bring you Romeo and Juliet with fresh eyes. It should be easy enough to find since there are approximately one million remakes of this piece. I know the Zeffirelli version (watched it in ninth grade English, with the teenage boobs and unwholesome disrespect for authority edited out by the Edmond School Board), and I am partial to the Baz Luhrmann R+J (from 1996, and perhaps especially relevant now with Chris Rock’s perfect doppelganger Harold Perrineau as the quarreling Mercutio), but could be convinced to find other versions. Watch this space …

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