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the comedy of errors

21 march 2015

I've never seen The Comedy of Errors onstage, though I've read it several times, I've read Plautus's Menaechmi, its source, and I've seen Rodgers & Hart's musical version The Boys from Syracuse, which I almost called "contemporary" till I realized it's almost 80 years old.

It's a play that must work best as a kind of mechanical laugh machine. It doesn't feature complex and witty characters like The Merry Wives of Windsor. The whole point of it, after all, is that two sets of twins are so similar in both appearance and behavior that nobody can tell them apart. When your premise is an unsettling indifference to identity, you're hardly going to produce characters that the audience will invest a lot in.

Much of the play consists of masters beating slaves. This seems an odd way to get laughs, and there are of course a few mitigating factors: the masters are idiots, the slaves (as in Plautus) get verbally the better of them, and after all, Shakespeare was borrowing business from Plautus (though he's still responsible for choosing his source material). And of course there's the old fallback argument that Shakespeare was revising some earlier English play, and that he just touched up the beat-your-slave farce with some of his patented witty dialogue.

The most recent interpretation of The Comedy of Errors that I could find, a 2013 essay by Donald Carlson, sees the play as

a comic drama whose heart and inspiration arise from the Gospel message of salvation by a grace-inspired charity, effecting the reconstitution of a fragmented community meant to resemble England in the early-to-middle 1590s.1
Reading this, I felt like I'd taken a time machine back to my graduate education in 1979, when D.W. Robertson taught me that all literary works before approximately Lolita advocated an Augustinian approach to the inculcation of Christian charity. In one sense, Carlson can't be right, as the verbal echoes of St. Paul that he picks up in Shakespeare's text are too faint, and their links to Elizabethan religio-political situations too tenuous, to have registered on the play's audience or perhaps even on its author.

Readings like Carlson's don't really identify the theme of plays, though: they work to show that the age of Shakespeare was immensely complicated, both linguistically and culturally, and they use a few scraps of words from a creaky play about beating slaves to enter that wider world and dwell in it for awhile.

But that doesn't mean there's much reason to dwell in the smaller world of the play itself, unless you're a completist on a Shakespeare-reading project. When it's not violently class-stratified, The Comedy of Errors is misogynist and sex-negative, as when the visiting Dromio catalogues the ugliness of a slave girl who's been hitting on him. This snappy series of she's-so-fat jokes supplies light relief from all the beatings.

All's well that ends well, or what you will, and it's true that the play has a festive and forgiving resolution, at least for the upper crust. I don't know that the play's many restitutions and reunitings exemplify charity, but they certainly get everybody offstage briskly enough. It's one of Shakespeare's shortest plays, really resembling a series of sketches linked by an extended joke. On to something better!

Shakespeare, William. The Comedy of Errors. 1623. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1926.

1Donald Carlson, "'For he is our peace which hath made of both one': Echoes of Paul in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, The Ben Jonson Journal 20.1 (2013): 38-39.