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 Three Dumases : Alexandre Dumas – “The Two Dianas”

Much is made of Auguste Maquet’s collaborations with Alexandre Dumas.


ABOVE: Auguste Maquet, the unsung musketeer.

Hard-core fans know Maquet was essential to Dumas’ astoundingly prolific period of the late 1840s. Some have gone on a pro-Maquet campaign that reminds me of the “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare” fanatics. The “anti-Shakespeare” gang has apparently decided  everybody alive in the 1500s wrote Shakespeare’s plays EXCEPT Shakespeare, and has produced overheated conspiracy pamphlets like “Anonymous”. By comparison, the moderate pro-Maquet camp admits that Dumas was the genius, but claims Maquet gave Dumas’ work solid structures he lacked elsewhere. (I agree). A nice, little speculative movie was made of the fractious friendship between the two a few years back. “The Other Dumas” is an overdue if fantastical homage to the forgotten Maquet. (The movie stars Gerard Depardieu as Dumas, as if you even had to wonder.)

ABOVE: “It’s not pronounced Dumb-ass, I keep telling you! You’re fired!”

To its credit, the movie doesn’t try to detract from Dumas’ work. The general consensus is that Maquet did the research, outlines and grunt work; Dumas provided the plot, the wit and panache. Maquet’s own novels are noticeably less engaging – although, and it does bear stressing, hardly terrible. I’ve read a couple and while the uninterested have no need to laboriously seek them out, (they’re only available in French as far as I know), they do have charms. I also strongly believe Maquet is authorially responsible for the character of Chicot in the Valois trilogy: when Maquet went solo after their parting, he took Chicot with him into the novel “The Belle Gabrielle,” under symbolic incognito. (Notice he didn’t try any of that with D’Artagnan or Montecristo, both of which had solid basis in Dumas’ theatrical work and early novels of the ’30s.)

Understandably most of the reviews of “The Other Dumas” lacked familiarity with any of Dumas’ work beyond “The Count of Montecristo” and “The Three Musketeers.” Take this typical article prompted by “The Other Dumas”:

The article mentions little of Dumas’ work beyond the two perennials. It says that “for nearly 20 years the two worked closely together.” Not quite.  It’s true that the date of the first meeting between Dumas and Maquet (1839, when Gerard de Nerval introduced them and Maquet showed Dumas the play that would become “Harmental”) and the date of Maquet’s lawsuit against Dumas (1858) would signal “nearly twenty years of closely working together.” But the real partnership between Dumas and Maquet went from 1842 (starting with the publication of “The Chevalier d’Harmental”) until 1850 (the ending of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne.”) That’s eight years, not nearly twenty. Moreover, the “closely together” part of that partnership actually involved the astoundingly prolific FOUR years period between 1844 and 1848 that produced the Count, the Musketeers Trilogy, the Valois Trilogy and the first three Marie Antoinette novels, among others.

Later that same article claims that after the two parted ways, “Dumas wrote nothing else of worth, while Maquet went on to write a lot.” Huh? Dumas went on to write a lot as well and plenty of worth. There were, after all, 22 years after their break, which included newspapers / plays / histories / essays / an epic multi-volume memoir / his classic “Dictionary of Cuisine”  AND at least one (more typically two or three) novels a year, including some big hits like “The Companions of Jehu,” “Emma Lyonna” and “The Mohicans of Paris.” What the writer means to say is that Dumas was ruined after throwing away several fortunes in his lavish lifestyle, while the wiser Maquet saved his pennies and died rich.

ABOVE: Paul Meurice, the other OTHER Dumas?

Anyway, the Dumas- Maquet partnership can only be fully understood in the context of   Dumas’ writer-factory process, which went back to his years as a young theater lion, when plays were co-scripted and passed around. Think of Dumas as the show runner, (the Joss Whedon or Vince Gilligan of his time.) Among Dumas’ other collaborators and ghost-writers were De Nerval, the Countess Dash, and the three Pauls: Paul Bocage, Paul Lacroix, and Paul Meurice. Meurice is more known for his close friendship with Victor Hugo, but he collaborated with Dumas in “Ascanio”

And “The Two Dianas,” which is the book prompting these thoughts.

ABOVE: Wow, someone decided that a drawing of a guy opening a book was an exciting cover for a historical romance!

Quick: It takes place in 1557 and picks up historically more or less directly after “Ascanio”. Gabriel de Montogomery has a problem. He’s in love with Diana de Castro, the illegitimate daughter of Diane de Poitiers and… either Jacques de Montgomery (Gabe’s father) or King Henry II. To complicate maters, Henry II put Jacques away to an indeterminate fate. So Diana de Castro is either Gabriel’s sister … or the daughter of the man who destroyed his father’s life. Dealbreakers everywhere Gabriel turns, so he runs off to sort things out at the Siege of St. Quentin. Nostradamus, Mary Stuart and Ambroise Pare are among the historical figures that parade through the pages.

Some scholarship suggests “The Two Dianas” may very well be entirely of Paul Meurice’s making. There exits a letter in which Dumas seems to give Meurice full authorship of the novel after Meurice asked for permission to prepare a stage version, but the phrasing is ambiguous enough that scholars are still uncertain. The letter could merely be an official business gesture and blessing (as in, “the novel is now yours to do with it as you will”). It’s a great “Dumas” anyway, and fits seamlessly into the canon. Furthermore, some fictional characters from here reappear on “The Page of the Duke of Savoy,” which works as a sequel.

ABOVE: A scene from “Martin Guerre.” They were very musical in 1500s France.

Talking about doubles and twos, “The Two Dianas” features Martin Guerre as Gabriel’s doubled Sancho Panza. Martin Guerre is one of the most famous cases of imposture in the historical record. Guerre was a French peasant who abruptly abandoned his home town in 1548, was thought dead, and reappeared eight years later, in 1556, to return to his wife and family. Except, PLOT TWIST, then the REAL Martin Guerre returned, and the man who had been passing as him for a while was revealed to be a stranger named Arnaud Du Thil. Du Thil was hanged for the fraud, but the oddities of the case – the wife who never said anything! – made a mark. Dumas popularized the Martin Guerre case before, in his massive “The Celebrated Crimes,” but here he uses it to great theatrical effect, (happily shouting out Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and Plautus’ “The Menaechmi”.) Mild-mannered Martin Guerre is puzzled by the more daring double of himself who creates mischief everywhere he goes. Dostoevsky’s “The Double”– WITH THE EXACT SAME CONCEIT – was published the same year as “The Two Dianas,” by the way.


Yes, totally. I just like saying “COINCIDENCE?” and raising my eyebrows significantly as I do it. Also I’m reading “The Double” as well so it casts its magic and makes you see doppelgangers everywhere. The “Martin Guerre” case inspired “Sommersby”, a Civil War-set drama starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, as well as a not-too-successful musical adaptation by Boublil and Schomberg, the makers of “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.” I am a fan of that show in its several attempted incarnations, but I fully accept its flaws, which include some laughably inane English-language lyrics.