Back in grad school I was part of a short-lived Shakespeare reading group. Four or five of us met on weekend mornings to read all or part of a Shakespeare play. We started working through the plays in alphabetical order, and I’m pretty sure The Comedy of Errors was the last one we read. I remember shaking my head as we were reading and thinking that this play is just as kooky as Shakespeare’s other comedies but that it never reached (or even really aspired to reach) the profound moments that most of Shakespeare’s other comedies eventually achieve. This may have been the reason our group stopped meeting – though as I recall, the fact that the next play on the docket was Coriolanus may have had something to do with the permanent adjournment.
I reread this play a few weeks ago because Jill and I were making our now-traditional (i.e. we’ve done it twice) trip to the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare festival – and this summer’s play is The Comedy of Errors. The trip was fantastic, in spite of the hotel desk clerk who admitted that our room was ready when we arrived but refused to check us in until three o’clock on the dot. One of my favorite things about live performances of Shakespeare is seeing what different directors do with the all the empty space. Shakespeare’s plays include almost no stage directions (beyond such bare bones instructions as “Enter King”), and in modern productions the thing to do is to create a setting that fits the mood of the play. In 2014, when we saw As You Like It, the play was set in a mill town in early-20th-century Massachusetts. This year’s production of A Comedy of Errors was set in Brazil during Carnivale. Whether this was a deliberate Rio Olympics tie-in I don’t know – but the Carnivale setting seemed true to the spirit of The Comedy of Errors – mainly because the only way real people would get as confused as the four key characters in this play is with the help of masks and lots of alcohol. The Brazilian music and dancing were fun too.
Before this play begins, Egeon and Emilia gave birth to twin boys (and by that I mean that Emilia gave birth to the twin boys; Egeon just parked the car and held the camcorder). For reasons I don’t understand, they named both babies Antipholus. They were from Syracuse but happened to be in Epidamium when Emilia gave birth. Right about the time they decide to go back to Syracuse, they meet an “exceeding poor” (I.i.56) couple who also just gave birth to twin boys and – again, for some reason, they named both of their babies Dromio. Egeon and Emilia “bought” (I.i.57) these babies so their two Antipholi would have servants. They head back to Syracuse by ship and there’s a storm and long story short, Egeon ends up in Syracuse with one Antipholus and one Dromio, and Emilia ends up in Ephesus with the other set. When the play opens, Egeon is sort of an Ancient Mariner figure. He has arrived in Ephesus in search of his Antipholus and Dromio, who left Syracuse ten years earlier to hunt down their brothers. Upon arrival in Ephesus, Egeon is immediately arrested because it is illegal for anyone from Syracuse to set foot in Ephesus, which I guess is sort of like the North Korea of the semi-mythical Mediterranean.
Both Antipholi have grown up to be assholes. They routinely beat up the Dromios, and Antipholus of Ephesus also gets in a few punches on his wife Adriana. The spousal-abuse scenes were left out of the production we saw, which was likely for the best, though the beating of loyal lifelong servants apparently still qualifies as comedy. The rest of the play consists of various misunderstandings among the two sets of twins, most of which result in the Dromios getting clobbered. Some hijinks ensue when Adriana gets hold of the wrong Antipholus and when Antipholus of Syracuse, who is not married, puts the moves on Adriana’s sister Luciana. There are lots of sight gags, and of course it’s funny to see people running around and crashing into one another, but ultimately the comedy is hollow because we’re told from the beginning that Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse came to Ephesus specifically to find their identical twins – so as soon as the first misunderstanding happens it should be clear to them that they have reached their goal. But they don’t. The insanity just keeps going on, and the Duke of Ephesus gets involved, having seemingly never heard of the concept of twins: “One of these men is genius to the other. / And so, of these, which is the natural man / and which the spirit? Who deciphers them?” (V.i.343-5). And shortly after Antipholus of Syracuse finds Adriana and Dromio of Ephesus – and should have all the facts he needs to conclude that his twin brother is nearby, I wrote in the margin: “the human tendency to get exactly what we want and then beat the shit out of it.” Nearby, I wrote: “It’s always such a small world in Shakespeare’s comedies. Like Friends, Seinfeld, the characters always running into their friends even though they’re in a huge city. Is this quality essential to comedy? A response to the fact that we feel lost and alone in a wider world?”
When I read this play, I had it in my head that it was one of Shakespeare’s very first, and I was willing to forgive the total collapse of its logic for that reason. However, on further research, I find that it’s actually his ninth play – still from early in his career but not as early as I thought. It’s hard for me to find much to admire in this play, but I do see little glimmers of the characters and themes that will recur in his later plays. Many of the characters in this play are constantly on the verge of being arrested for debt – a foretaste of The Merchant of Venice – and the Duke’s determination to enforce Ephesus’ laws to the letter and execute Egeus for setting foot in Ephesus suggests Measure for Measure, as does a subplot involving some nuns. Shipwrecks and twins will recur in Twelfth Night, and Egeon himself is sort of a comic version of Lear in the wilderness scene. I also enjoyed the poetry, which is in blank verse when the emotional content of the language is low and then starts to rhyme more as the emotions become more intense. I’m not sure if I’ve seen rhyme used in exactly this way before.
I can’t blame The Comedy of Errors too much, since after all it brought Jill and me to Tahoe, where we watched the play with sand between our toes. And we read in our hotel beds, blogged in a Carson City Starbucks, and bought sandwiches in a grocery store deli staffed by people about as competent as the characters in The Comedy of Errors. Let’s do it again next year, OK?