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.
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!
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