Archive for the The Comedy of Errors Category

Dromio, Dromio! Wherefore Art Thou Dromio?

Posted in The Comedy of Errors with tags , , , on 2014/02/13 by mattermind

The Comedy of Errors, Act V

Way back in Act II, I promised I would return to Adriana and address the fascinating dialogue she has with her sister, Luciana, regarding the nature of marriage.  I do this now both as the fulfillment of a promise and as a prelude to Valentine’s Day and The Taming of the Shrew.

Even farther back – yonder, at the beginning of the year – I broached this subject by meditating on the role of Desdemona in Othello.  Were her actions heroic?  Or those seen all too frequently in modern times by women suffering from battered-wife syndrome?

For three plays running, women – just like in horror films – have been the victims of male violence.  In Othello it was Desdemona, In Titus Andronicus, Lavinia.  In Richard III, Anne.  To borrow an archaic usage, the fairer sex has not been “used” well by men thus far.  But does that make Shakespeare a bad guy?

The worst class I ever endured, bar none, was a core humanities requirement at UCLA.  Throughout the entire semester i sat on my hands, attempting to restrain myself while an angry professor took it upon herself to correct 3000 years of canonical literary domination by men.  While I feel it necessary and vital to widen the discourse and make the Great Conversation available to all, I draw the line when the creative titans  of history – Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare – are subjected to critical assault for perspectives that seem too easy a target from a 21st-Century perspective.

If Shakespeare was a misogynist, then by all means, take him down a peg or three.  But is that really what the texts reveal?  Or his biography?  Peter Ackroyd suggests that if anything, Shakespeare had a strong, resourceful mother who exerted a powerful influence upon the boy and young man.  She taught him by example that women could be confident and clever.

Why else would actresses flock to Shakespeare’s plays – just for the steady work, perhaps?  And yet we so often hear about the complexity of his female characters, the range of expression he offers, especially compared to today’s bimbos and video-game sex kittens.

I’m not claiming to have the answers here.  But it’s certainly a subject that needs to be addressed, not just now for one play, but over the span of the year covering the gamut of Shakespeare’s works – the poems and sonnets as well.  Let’s see what the actual writings convey.  [If you, dear reader, wish to participate in a discussion or pen a guest blog, the forum is yours.]

But as for Adriana and The Comedy of Errors, I must confess that her actions bespeak a complex, complicated woman who seems plenty strong and outspoken in the company of her sister and husband, yet who backs down at a crucial moment when the Abbess confronts her about accepting blame for her husband’s apparent madness.

During the early dialogue in Act II, Adriana expresses vexation at having to wait upon Antipholus to return at his own leisure, while her sister defends this tardiness as the sole prerogative of men.

ADRIANA: Why should their liberty than ours be more?

LUCIANA: Because their business still lie out o’door.

ADRIANA: Look, when I serve him so, he takes it ill. 

LUCIANA: O, know he is the bridle of your will.

ADRIANA: There’s none but asses that will be bridled so.

LUCIANA: Why, headstrong liberty is lashed with woe.

There’s nothing situate under heaven’s eye

But hath his bound, in earth, in sea, in sky.

The beasts, the fishes and the winged fowls

Are their male’s subjects and at their controls.

Man, more divine, the masters of all these,

Lord of the wide world and wild, wat’ry seas,

Endued with intellectual sense and souls.

Of more preeminence then fish and fowls,

Are masters to their females, and their lords.

Then let your will attend on their accords.

ADRIANA: This servitude makes you to keep unwed.  

This hardly sounds like a docile, passive woman content to be restricted by her husband!

There are, however, social conventions and expectations that Shakespeare could not avoid.  (This will come up again more prominently in Taming of the Shrew.)  Adriana may back down at the withering accusations of the Abbess, but that doesn’t stop her from taking measures to retrieve her husband from that lady’s care.

She wastes no time trying to bail out Antipholus from his debts.  She directs her men to seize him so he can be taken home and administered to by Doctor Pinch.  And she appeals to the Duke for justice once Antipholus flees (his twin, actually, but it’s hard to keep up) into the Abbey.  In short, she never allows herself to be a victim of circumstances – not even in the backstory when, again, according to the Abbess, she should have meekly tolerated her husband’s alleged affair.

Shakespeare may not be perfect when it comes to his portrayals of women.  He is a bawdy prankster who loves his sexual puns and banter.  But the women he created run the gamut from serving wenches to grieving widows, lusty strumpets to loyal housewives and spiteful queens.  In Othello, it was Iago’s wife, Emilia, who took the bravest action in the drama by standing up for the moral right when others wouldn’t, even knowing it would cost her life.  If Desdemona exemplifies the purest love, then Emilia personifies the most heroic bravery and selflessness.

Argue whatever position you wish about Shakespeare.  But call him a misogynist and I will take you to the mat.

For the record, I earned a C- in that humanities class at UCLA, the lowest in my entire academic career.  By today’s lax standards, that should be regarded as an F.  And I have absolutely no regrets about it whatsoever.


Here We Wander in Illusions

Posted in The Comedy of Errors on 2014/02/12 by mattermind

The Comedy of Errors, Act IV

Each of the four plays that I have read so far has involved the misapprehension of reality to some degree.  In Othello, Titus Andronicus and Richard III, the truth is manipulated for temporary advantage – and ultimately tragic ends.  In The Comedy of Errors, the driving force is not a man’s malevolence, but strange twists of fate.  And the results are not murder and mayhem, but laughter, love and family reunion.

In Act IV, the farce is stretched to its breaking point.  Antipholus of Ephesus is arrested for failure to pay a debt, his wife thinks him mad, Dromio chastises him (with right) for being cruel, Luciana believes him to be a scoundrel (even if she might not mind were he not wedded to her sister) – and now he’s headed for jail.

The fortune that flees this Antipholus fattens up his twin from Syracuse who can’t help but marvel at his good fortune.  Women throw themselves at him, strangers hand him gold chains and purses of money, people greet him warmly wherever he goes.  From his perspective, this place must be bewitched.  He can’t wait to set sail with his booty intact at the first opportunity.

Perspective thus becomes a key to understanding how Shakeseparean drama works.  For there always seem to be multiple meanings at play, variances of awareness and clashes of mis/understanding – dramatic ironies, if you will, from the audience’s point of view.  Some characters know things that others do not.  We know things that the characters do not.  And Shakespeare knows things that we do not.

Maybe that too is another reason that we hold Shakespeare to be such a master.  For our actual lives exist on a variety of competing levels, only some of which we are aware of at any given moment.  We create our own fortunes and yet find ourselves the victims of cruel circumstances.  Things happen for reasons we never fully comprehend.

For the span of a play, Shakespeare allows us the luxury sit back and enjoy a complex web of destiny spun around other people.  We, the theatergoers, are in on the joke.  We hiss at the evil doers, cheer for the heroes, yearn for star-crossed lovers to hook up, knowing the whole while that Shakespeare’s got it all under his control. 

We’re in good hands, even when the world outside the theater can seem a little…well… shaky.

[Exit, pursued by a bear.]

Oregon Shakespeare Fest to Set Comedy of Errors in Harlem

Posted in Performance, The Comedy of Errors on 2014/02/11 by mattermind

Antipholus and Dromio live in the rural South and travel to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s in this season’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival staging of The Comedy of Errors.

Director Kent Gash explains his reasoning for the novel setting in this video:

In what has the makings of a hysterical double bill, the festival will also host a performance of the Marx Brothers’ “Cocoanuts.” I’m tempted to add, “Because sometimes you feel like a nut” except few people will catch the reference and both plays are equally nutty.

I mean that in a good way.

For more on the 2014 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, here’s the SCOOP from the Oregonian.

Words Are But Wind

Posted in The Comedy of Errors with tags , on 2014/02/10 by mattermind

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?

The Comedy of Errors in a Minute…or Two

Posted in The Comedy of Errors on 2014/02/07 by mattermind

Why bother summarizing the plot when I can leave it to the experts?

What Error Drives Our Eyes and Ears Amiss?

Posted in The Comedy of Errors with tags , , , , , , , on 2014/02/05 by mattermind

The Comedy of Errors, Act II

Technology fools us into believing that time and space no longer matter, that we have somehow overcome such barriers to know each other better than we ever have before.  Every weekend during football season, I was subjected to a nonstop battery of “tech porn” advertisements seducing me into accepting that life would be more enjoyable if only I would purchase a nonstop array of glittering, new electronic devices.  The implicit promise underlying said technology is that one day our lives will finally achieve perfect bliss when we upload our souls into the cloud. Um, no thanks, Mr. Man in Gray.


Illustration from Michael Ende’s “Momo”

These ads remind me of how home appliances were once touted as “time-saving” devices that would allow us to enrich our lives with more intimate, “quality” interactions with the ones we love.  We all know how that turned out.  It seems like, more and more, we have to unplug ourselves from the grid and toss away those clever gadgets in order to recover our collective sanity.

No matter how many iPods, iPhones or iPads you might own (personally, I’m an Android guy), you have probably discovered that there’s no real way to avoid the epistemological problem hardwired into the human experience.  (If you don’t know what epistemology is, you probably weren’t around to read Othello with this blog.  Go look it up.  I’ll wait.)

I mentioned then my surprise discovering Shakespeare’s implicit awareness of this philosophical conundrum in Colin McGinn’s fabulous book titled “Shakespeare’s Philosophy.”  I’ll badly summarize it here by saying that epistemology is the philosophical enquiry into how humans know what we know – and indeed, whether we can know anything with any certainty whatsoever.

Back when I was in college at UCLA working on a German degree, I was required to read (or attempt to read – it’s extremely difficult) a groundbreaking work by the renowned scholar Jurgen Habermas called “The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere,” a discourse on how our ideas defining (and separating) exterior, public space from private, interior space evolved.  You’ve probably never thought of public space as a learned concept, but I think about it all the time now whenever I see somebody chatting on their cell phone on a bus or in the grocery checkout line or during a concert or while conducting a transaction with a bank teller.


What McGinn has done for me is to awaken a sensibility regarding personal and private space within Shakespeare, to understand that not only his tragedies but his comedies are informed by epistemological concerns.  In short, that there always seems to be a discrepancy in shared information, leading to confusion or worse.  In the tragedies, truth can be manipulated to ruthless ends.  In the comedies, ironic levels of misunderstanding evoke laughter.  But in both cases, ignorance of what’s actually happening lies embedded at the core.

I would love to carve out a span of time to go back and re-read Habermas with an eye on Shakespeare.  The issues at stake in the Comedy of Errors hardly require such heavy lifting, but over the long haul this year I am fascinated by whether Shakespeare was unique in his preoccupation with epistemology or whether it was inherent in the age.  Perhaps society as a whole was only coming to grips with the implications of interior and exterior forms of knowledge, grappling with how discrepancies might be exploited or manipulated.  Machiavelli was a Renaissance thinker who advocated such awareness and usage by a ruler who wished to stay in power.  But deception itself is as old as human self-awareness.

In my next post, I will harken back to Act II in order to write about Shakespeare’s women.

Shakespearean Comedy: Who’s on First?

Posted in The Comedy of Errors with tags , , , , , , on 2014/02/04 by mattermind

The Comedy of Errors, Act 1

Finally, a break from the tragedy.

The Comedy of Errors was probably the first play written by Shakespeare.  While the chronology of his repertoire is far from definitive, scholars have more or less established a working sequence, with the Comedy of Errors heading the pack.

It’s a farcical tale of mistaken identity whose underlying premise reminds me a lot of this classic routine from Abbott and Costello:

In order for a story like this to work, you have to go into it like you would a campy Michael Bay movie – with a big bucket of popcorn, willing to suspend your disbelief.  Accept in advance that the premise will be sketchy and roll with it.  Tom Cruise flicks have required less.

In this case, prepare to swallow the whopper that identical twin sons were born on the same day as their identical twin servants.  One day, a shipwreck separates the parents along with one son and a servant each. Unable to reunite, they spend many lonely years apart.

Fast forward to the present, where both sons, along with their servants, a wife, her sister, and the parents unknowingly end up in the same city together.  Suffice it to say that hilarity ensues…if you are the sort that goes in for that kind of thing.

Me? I’m a Monty Python fan who used to love the screwball humor of Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and Dom Deluise (R.I.P.).  Good comedies are harder to come by than competent dramas and tragedies these days, so it’s not like I’m rooting against this kerfuffle.  It’s just that the schtick tends to wear out its welcome fairly quick.  More like Benny Hill or an overly long Saturday Night Live sketch than Murder by Death, Arthur or The End.

I’m told that the staged versions of these mistaken-identity farces come off better than the plays read alone.  I’ll grant that I have yet to witness an early specimen presented live, as it was meant to be experienced.  So I will reserve judgment until then.

Did I mention how happy I am to be free of tragedy and history?