Words Are But Wind

The Comedy of Errors, Act III

Deft and prolific wordplay is one of the quintessential qualities setting Shakespeare apart from other playwrights –  and The Comedy of Errors proves that he had the knack from the beginning.  One wonders how and where he acquired it, this love of multiple meanings and double entendres, especially those of a comedic or erotic nature.  Might it have begun with the pranks of a bored schoolboy struggling to get through the tedium of endless Latin lessons?

At any rate, Shakespeare does not hesitate at the lengths he will go to keep his audience entertained.  Take this passage, for instance, when Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus wish to return home for dinner, only to be locked out by the duteous (and unknowing) Dromio of Saracuse:

ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS: Go, fetch me something; I’ll break open the gate.

DROMIO OF SARACUSE (within): Break any breaking here, and I’ll break your knave’s pate.

DROMIO OF EPHESUS: A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind.
Ay, and break it in your face, so break it not behind.

DROMIO OF SARACUSE (within): It seems thou want’st breaking. Out upon thee, hind!

Character doublings and trebblings in The Comedy of Errors are but metaphors for the multivalent meanings that Shakespeare set against each other here and the rest of his works.

It’s fascinating to see him doing this in the Comedy, especially since it is commonly dated as his earliest play.  Surely Shakespeare must have enjoyed an apprenticeship of some sort to achieve this kind of mastery from the start.

Again we see Shakespeare reveling in witty banter when he has Dromio of Saracuse describe a kitchen servant who claims him to be her own.  Her circumference is said to be so great that her body can be taken for a globe, upon which can be identified distinct countries.  Antipholus demands specifics, asking him in turn where Ireland, Scotland, Spain and the “Netherlands” may be found.

Such passages highlight how Shakespeare alternates between highbrow concepts and lowbrow humor, sometimes within the span of a single dialogue.  One minute he can be as brazen and cheeky as an Irish limerick, the next have Antipholus of Saracuse say to Luciana:

ANTIPHOLUS OF SARACUSE: O train me not, sweet mermaid, with thy note

To drown me in thy sister’s flood of tears.

Sing, siren, for thyself, and I will dote.

Spread o’er the silver waves thy golden hairs,

And as a bed I’ll take them and there lie,

And in that glorious supposition think

He gains by death that hath such means to die.

Let love, being light, be drowned if she sink.

Has anybody besides James Joyce ever displayed such a wingspan, reveling in lowly sophomoric puns and pranks only to soar to lofty heights of linguistic expression when he went a-wooing?


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