Being Double – William Shakespeare : “The Comedy of Errors” (Re-read)


ABOVE: Two sets of twins, and not a single Marx-Brothers mirror routine?

Every couple of years I decide to have a marathon in which I read Shakespeare chronologically: a play a day during one intense, immersive month, (and six or seven days, depending who you ask). Naturally, that means I get distracted sooner than you can say “hey-nonny-nonny” and decide to have a CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE marathon instead (doesn’t happen either), and just resort to re-reading the faves here and there, occasionally attempting the Histories, my Shakespearean blind spot (I have not ventured too far into those.) It ALSO means that I have read “The Comedy of Errors” about a dozen times in my life, which is maybe 10 more times than it deserves.


ABOVE: “Dudes, where is our carriage?”

Shakespeare’s first play, (at least until we learn otherwise), “The Comedy of Errors” is, like many debut / apprentice works, closely modeled on another play, a trusty scaffold in which Shakespeare hangs his jokes. That play is “The Menaechmi” by Plautus, and Shakespeare’s main addition to that plot is that, instead of merely having a set of identical twins who keep being mistaken for one another, he adds ANOTHER pair of identical twins: their clownish servants. Plausibility is not an issue.

Egeon, a merchant from Syracuse, has the bad luck of landing in Ephesus at a time in which those two city-states are in a (historically imaginary) war. Syracusans caught in Ephesus are immediately condemned to death, which is only fair since the same happens to Ephesians caught in Syracuse. Egeon doesn’t seem to mind death: after all, he’s had an unfortunate life where he has lost his loving wife, his twin sons, AND his sons’ twin servants. Those are losses of a  Jobian magnitude.

Egeon’s sons, Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, accompanied by Dromio of Ephesus and Dromio of Syracuse respectively, now collide in the streets of Syracuse- or rather they DON’T collide, but keep on crossing paths, confusing Adriana, A. of S’s neglected wife, not to mention merchants and soldiers and each other.

Mature Shakespeare would have turned this set-up into an exploration of identity. Beginner Shakespeare only sees an opportunity for farce and repetitive slapstick scenes in which one of the Antipholus (Antipholi?!) unwittingly orders the wrong Dromio to do a task, and then runs into the OTHER Dromio and beats HIM up for not having fulfilled that task. (Dromio feels like a kicked ass- notice that “hippodrome” is a horses’ racecourse.)

Two reasons why this twin mess doesn’t make it to the top tier, despite having a lot of laughs.

One: The characters are dumb, failing to see there’s a logical explanation for the confusion. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse have NO excuse for their stupidity: they’re actively looking for their twins! They KNOW there’s two dudes who look just like them in this city, which would explain everything!

Second: The characters are not sympathetic. Slapstick is an undeniable stage tradition, but we’re supposed to laugh at the “heroes” constantly abusing their – let’s call them what they are- SLAVES. I’m not necessarily saying that torturing slaves at the slightest perceived transgression isn’t hilarious stuff, but not ALL the time, you know? Switch it up, Antipholi, variety is the spice of life!


ABOVE: Notice how the cop says: “Good sir, be patient.” When the cops are you telling YOU not to use excessive force, that’s when you know you have a problem.

The play’s funniest, most vulgar joke is, er, “problematically fat-shaming”: when a rather overweight kitchen-maid develops a crush on Dromio, the servant likens her to a globe, grossly equating several parts of her anatomy with places on Earth. The punchline? “So where is Belgium?” “Oh, I didn’t look that low.” *Ba-dum-bum* (Funny! Specially if you know that Belgium is “the Low Countries,” and that “country”‘s first syllable sounds like…Well, it’s Shakespeare, what can you expect? It’s filthy stuff.)

Only Adriana’s feelings emerge as recognizably human. She moves us as the wounded wife, clinging to her dignity but fretting at the possible infidelity of her husband, (a cad who seems to be on first-name terms with every Hetairas in the Hellenic world).

His company must do his minions grace,
While I at home starve for a merry look:
Did homely age the alluring beauty took
From my poor cheeke? Then he has wasted it.
Are my discourses dull? Barren my wit?
If voluble and sharp discourse be marred,
Unkindness blunts it more than marble hard.
Do their gay vestments his affections bait?
That’s not my fault: he’s master of my state.
What ruins are in me that can be found
By him not ruined? Then he is the ground
Of my de-features. My decayed fair,
A sunny look of his, would soon repaire.

Shakespeare’s shortest and breeziest, it’s of course worth one or two reads. NOT TWELVE. When will I learn? I almost recommend tracking down Rodgers and Hart’s musical take on this, “The Boys from Syracuse.” It throws in some classic tunes, like “Falling in Love with Love.”

RATING: MASTERPIECE!!! among mortals, merely GOOD by Shakespeare standards


The Real Red Wedding 2 : Christopher Marlowe – “The Massacre at Paris”

ABOVE: Paris is Well Worth a Massacre

Christopher Marlowe: Spy. The idea that Shakespeare’s nearest Elizabethan competitor had an action-packed life in the political stage is too fun to dismiss, slight as the evidence of Marlowe’s adventures are. Sometimes the theorists cling to such minor details as the fact that Marlowe inserts an “English Agent”/ spy / self-portrait at the end of “The Massacre at Paris.” Marlowe’s less-beloved play is a minor burst of chaotic violence, dealing with the same bloody  events as Alexandre Dumas’  “Queen Margot” and extending to the latter part of the Wars of Religion (up to the assassination of the Duke de Guise by Henri III, an act which dismayed Catherine de Medicis.) The play was far more influential politically than aesthetically: it was used in England as anti-Catholic-refugee propaganda during the 1590s. The fact that Marlowe was uncharacteristically dealing with recent, still controversial history is of interest to scholars, but try as I might, I cannot see here the poetic power or theatrical inventiveness of the author of “Dido, Queen of Carthage” and “Doctor Faustus”… Although the character of De Guise does ocassionally show something of the dare-devil, fate-tempting nature that Marlowe favored in characters. Not only is De Guise Faustian, he’s downright Miltonian:

What glory is there in a common good,

That hangs for every peasant to achieve?

That like I best that flies beyond my reach.

Set me to scale the high Pyramides,

And thereon set the Diadem of France,

I’ll either rend it with my nails to naught,

Or mount the top with my aspiring wings,

Although my downfall be the deepest hell.

But for the most part, whatever enjoyment I extracted from this brief play came from re-encountering the characters from the Valois Trilogy, albeit here in paler, far less charming versions.

ABOVE: De Guise De-Dies


Sad Stories of the Deaths of Kings : William Shakespeare – “Richard II”

Second in the monarchic Histories, (after “King John” ), William Shakespeare’s “Richard II” chronicles the forced 1399 abdication of that mediocre-yet-poetic titular king before Henry Bolingbroke, (soon to be Henry IV.)

ABOVE: “I can’t remember… did I turn the oven off before I left the palace??”

“Richard II” aims at pure poetry: about a third of it relies in couplets. The rest slides into blank verse, not always in a smooth or logical transition. Bardolaters might believe Shakespeare’s inspiration inexhaustible, but you can certainly spot the moments where Will throws up the quill: “Can’t think of a rhyme/So it’s blank verse time!” It’s not the only schism in evidence: the play is also half dutiful textbook account, half lyrical attempt at metaphysical poetry.

A third schism runs through the play: We’re supposed to accept that Richard, (whom the plot requires to be a rash, unthinking fool) is also somehow one of the greatest philosophers to ever wear a crown. Shakespeare never manages to reconcile the external, historical, blundering Richard with the internal, invented, meditative poet who could give John Donne a metaphorical fit of envy.

Richard is not very heroic: his plight (losing the throne after he’s created enemies left and right, and then developing a fallen-Messiah complex) hardly gets our sympathy; and yet he  is the only character whose emotional life we can access here. “Richard II” has no Faulconbridges to amuse us, no worthwhile female roles to break through the martial ranks. The closest thing to a secondary character of worth is Old John Gaunt, who at least has enough personality to pun on his own name.  I find this dearth of character atypical for Shakespeare, who can usually conjure unforgettable people out of two-line cameos.

For me, there are three truly memorable moments in “Richard II”:

-the highly dramatic bit in which the deposed Richard II asks (Lear-like) for a mirror that will show him what his own face looks like, once drained of its Kingliness

ABOVE : “Mirror, mirror in my hand/ who’s the worst king in the land?”

– the “sceptred isle” speech, a jingoistic anthem of England uber alles that would make any slightly susceptible audience break into salvoes of “God Save the Queen”

– and the stand-out speech, a high epic poem that doubles as a manifesto for the Shakespearean Histories, since it purposes to

“…tell sad stories of the death of Kings:

How some haue been depos’d, some slaine in warre,

Some haunted by the Ghosts they haue depos’d,

Some poyson’d by their Wiues, some sleeping kill’d,

All murther’d. For within the hollow Crowne

That rounds the mortall Temples of a King,

Keepes Death his Court, and there the Antique sits

Scoffing his State, and grinning at his Pompe,

Allowing him a breath, a little Scene,

To Monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with lookes,

Infusing him with selfe and vaine conceit,

As if this Flesh, which walls about our Life,

Were Brasse impregnable: and humor’d thus,

Comes at the last, and with a little Pinne

Bores through his Castle Walls, and farwell King.

Couer your heads, and mock not flesh and blood

With solemne Reuerence: throw away Respect,

Tradition, Forme, and Ceremonious dutie,

For you haue but mistooke me all this while:

I liue with Bread like you, feele Want,

Taste Griefe, need Friends: subiected thus,

How can you say to me, I am a King?”

That’s absolutely beautiful stuff!!! ( Being Shakespeare, there’s a couple of other great turns of phrase here, my favorite being “the purple testament of bleeding war.”) Still, “Richard II” is more prologue than it is play. Many things are set-up here for the future: the rest of the “Henriad,” the War of the Roses, the Lancastrian segment of the Hundred Year’s War. But few things actually HAPPEN, and when they do, it’s off-stage.

ABOVE: It is good to be king.

The conclusion to Act V is particularly frustrating, with Henry IV passively listening to the rapid report of all sorts of decisive off-stage events. Towns consumed in fire! Dozens of important parsonages are mutilated and be-headed! Except  we were barely introduced to any of them and so do we do not care about them. They’ve taken the heads of

Oxford, Salisbury, Blunt and Kent/

The manner of their taking may appear/

At large discussed in this paper here.”

That’s four guys whose deaths were apparently very dramatic- but Shakespeare withholds the drama with that line. The Bard might as well have walked in from the wings: “Folks, you missed out on a lot of super-cool action scenes I couldn’t really work into the plot. Real HEART-POUNDING, EDGE-OF-YOUR-GLOBE-SEAT stuff! Trust me, you wish you had been watching THAT play instead!”

To add some sort of visual interest to this scene, a coffin gets dragged on stage. WHO’S IN IT, you wonder in suspense?

“Great King, herein all breathless lies

The mightiest of thy greatest enemies:

Richard Bordeaux.”

(WHO? We have no clue, because this great nemesis WAS NEVER ONCE MENTIONED BEFORE.)

“Richard II” can accurately be described as: “King realizes he’s just a human being; gets bummed about it.” I do not, if you noticed, rate “Richard II” high on the Shakespearian scale.

RATING : GOOD ENOUGH (on the Shakespearian scale)

Signifying Nothing: William Shakespeare (and Joss Whedon) – “Much Ado About Nothing”


ABOVE: Oh, they’re NEVER going to find you THERE.

Joss Whedon and William Shakespeare are, like, two of my favorite dudes in the history of ever, so I liked Whedon’s low-budget, intimate adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing,”  but most people can be excused for feeling like they’re watching a student film. I mean, it’s an A+ student film for sure, but a student film nonetheless. Beatrice is arguably Shakespeare’s best female character- so Amy Acker fails her by being a little too frail, too wounded. She’s wounded by Benedick’s hinted-at dip-and-rip, (the play’s Beatrice is just annoyed). She’s wounded by Claudio’s slut-shaming of Hero (the play’s Beatrice is righteously pissed.) She even seems wounded and defensive in her “skirmish of wits” (the play’s Beatrice took no prisoners.) Acker is still a highlight- she clearly knows what her lines mean, which may not be true for everyone else in this non-Shakespearean cast culled from the Whedonverse, (although I found Nathan Fillion hilarious with his surprisingly subtle Dogberry). A good chance for subversion was lost here: Whedon may have made some nods to a current atmosphere of financial distrust with the character of Don John the Bastard, but what he needed to modernize was the absurd gender politics in the Hero-Claudio plot-line. Even Shakespeare found THAT brouhaha about Hero’s virginity ridiculous, (it’s nothing to make ado about!)  so why would Whedon, who’s very attuned to the battle-of-the-sexes, not even blink when Hero and Claudio get reunited? Claudio didn’t deserve the girl. What a dick.

Sorry, was that a spoiler? It’s been 400 years!

The Kenneth Branagh version remains the gold standard despite its quirks *cough*keanureeves*cough*

ABOVE: “Whoa, dude. Thou are, like, making much ado nothing. Hang loose.”

The Hungry, Thirsty Ass : Alexandre Dumas – “The Tower of Nesle”


ABOVE: Queen Marguerite of Burgundy was so shy she rarely went in public without having her eyes modestly covered.

Celebrity scandal preceded supermarket tabloids by many centuries. In 1314, long before there were blogs to weigh  in, Queen Marguerite of Burgundy was communally trashed for her sexual transgressions. The affair of the Tour de Nesle puts to shame any of our modern, prudish presidential sex scandals. Marguerite, dissatisfied with her husband Louis X the Hutin, became an adulterous party gal, frequently indulging in orgies in her richly-furnished tower of sin, located a hop and a skip away from the Louvre. There, “courtly love” found its most carnal expression. But (goes the speculative premise of Alexandre Dumas’ early stage hit, “The Tower of Nesle”) since the Queen had too much to lose should a boastful lover report on their shared night of passion, she routinely had her boyfriends killed post-coitus and dropped into the Seine.

Dumas’ play (written in collaboration with Frederic Gaillardet, with whom Dumas would eventually duel over royalties) is a lurid and exciting melodrama, and must have made many a Parisian critic of 1832 polish their accusations of “Grand Guignol”. The plot has been often imitated (by the Michel Zevaco dyptich “Buridan, the Hero of the Tower of Nesle/ The Bleeding Queen”); novelized ( into an archaically grandiloquent Henry Llewellyn Williams translation); filmed ( into a competent Abel Gance costume piece);  and downright exploited ( there’s a bizarre pastiche out there that inflates Dumas’  two-hour show into a 1,760 page mammoth.)

ABOVE: Tower not affiliated with the Nestle chocolate brand.

“The Tower of Nesle” is perhaps of most interest to the Dumas fan because Marguerite of Burgundy, monstrous and sensual, presages Milady from “The Three Musketeers,” while the hero, Dom Jehan Buridan, (a witty swordsman/ scholar/ master of disguise) has all of the romantic traits that would later split into the characters of D’Artagnan, Montecristo, and Chicot the Jester.

Jean Buridan was a real person, and since he happened to be alive in the same century as Marguerite de Burgundy, Dumas decides to involve them in a tempestuous dalliance, because why not? There was some romance in the life of the historical Buridan, but no sword-wielding escapades or royal affairs: he was a philosopher/ scientist/ priest, and a pupil of Occam (he of the famous razor.) Buridan set the stage for Copernicus and anticipated the idea of inertia, but is now mostly famous for his ass.

This is Buridan’s hypothetical “poser” in its simplest form: an ass is placed between equal, equidistant stacks of hay. The ass, unable to decide between them, will starve to death. Anyone can easily see what the ass would choose between hay and poison; but between hay and hay? What makes an individual choose between equally good alternatives? Baruch Spinoza dedicated some dismissive words to this problem of determinism and  free will. (To the effect of: “Who can say what’s going in the head of an ass? A sane person will just PICK ONE.”)

Here’s the more interesting take on the exercise: what if the poor animal is hungry and thirsty, and is torn between a pail of water and a stack of hay? If he decides to move toward the hay, he will eat but die of thirst. If he eases his thirst, he dies of hunger.

Nobel-Prize-winner Camilo Jose Cela used the header “Buridan’s Ass” for an anthology of political writing. Politics make asses of us all. How DOES one happily cast a vote for either hunger or thirst? F. Scott Fitzgerald famously eliminated the animal with his quote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Two ideas? How unimaginative. First rate intellects balance dozens of nuanced view points  in their heads.

But sympathy with every side leaves our asses dead.

Dumas offered a jocular solution to the paradox, BTW: the ass should go for the hay, take the hay to a bar, trade it for beer, drink the beer to kill the thirst, and use the beer carbs to kill the hunger.