Category Archives: Comedies

Far too Much Ado About Nothing

I came to Much Ado About Nothing (Ado) relatively late in my Shakespeare reading: that is, I considered myself seasoned in Shakespeare before coming to this play. At that point I knew many who were in love with Ado. I have read it a few times now, and seen a few productions: unlike most Shakespeare plays in which the more I read it the more I discover and thereby the more a like it, with Ado I find I like it less and less each time I read it. Beatrice – the reason why people love this play – is a great character, but unlike Rosalind, whose wit and charm grows with rereading, or Viola/Cesario, who herself grows the more you read into her, Beatrice seems to tire herself (and us) out the more time we spend with her. But still she and Dogberry (yes, Dogberry) are the best parts of Ado, and worth the most consideration in what will prove to be a short exploration of this tedious play.

Tedious, what Dogberry ironically considers himself too poor to possess, is the trope of Ado. Dogberry says to Leonato, when the later calls him tedious:

It pleases your worship to say so, but we are the
poor duke’s officers; but truly, for mine own part,
if I were as tedious as a king, I could find it in
my heart to bestow it all of your worship. (III.v)

The play itself wears tediousness as great an honour as Dogberry himself. Tediousness, the repetition of a single point until it wears us thin. Tediousness, the hammering of a joke until the humour is as flat as the metaphorical nail. Tediousness….

But what do I mean by it? Take this drawn out conversation between the two bros – Claudio and Don Pedro – and their mutual target of amusement – Benedick.

BENEDICK: Gallants, I am not as I have been.

LEONATO: So say I methinks you are sadder.

CLAUDIO: I hope he be in love.

DON PEDRO: Hang him, truant! there’s no true drop of blood in
him, to be truly touched with love: if he be sad,
he wants money.

BENEDICK: I have the toothache.

DON PEDRO: Draw it.

BENEDICK: Hang it!

CLAUDIO: You must hang it first, and draw it afterwards.

DON PEDRO: What! sigh for the toothache?

LEONATO: Where is but a humour or a worm.

BENEDICK: Well, every one can master a grief but he that has
it.

CLAUDIO: Yet say I, he is in love.

DON PEDRO: There is no appearance of fancy in him, unless it be
a fancy that he hath to strange disguises; as, to be
a Dutchman today, a Frenchman to-morrow, or in the
shape of two countries at once, as, a German from
the waist downward, all slops, and a Spaniard from
the hip upward, no doublet. Unless he have a fancy
to this foolery, as it appears he hath, he is no
fool for fancy, as you would have it appear he is.

CLAUDIO: If he be not in love with some woman, there is no
believing old signs: a’ brushes his hat o’
mornings; what should that bode?

DON PEDRO: Hath any man seen him at the barber’s?

CLAUDIO: No, but the barber’s man hath been seen with him,
and the old ornament of his cheek hath already
stuffed tennis-balls.

LEONATO: Indeed, he looks younger than he did, by the loss of a beard.

DON PEDRO: Nay, a’ rubs himself with civet: can you smell him
out by that?

CLAUDIO: That’s as much as to say, the sweet youth’s in love.

DON PEDRO: The greatest note of it is his melancholy.

CLAUDIO: And when was he wont to wash his face?

DON PEDRO: Yea, or to paint himself? for the which, I hear
what they say of him.

CLAUDIO: Nay, but his jesting spirit; which is now crept into
a lute-string and now governed by stops.

DON PEDRO: Indeed, that tells a heavy tale for him: conclude,
conclude he is in love.

CLAUDIO: Nay, but I know who loves him.

DON PEDRO: That would I know too: I warrant, one that knows him not.

CLAUDIO: Yes, and his ill conditions; and, in despite of
all, dies for him.

DON PEDRO: She shall be buried with her face upwards.

BENEDICK: Yet is this no charm for the toothache. (III.ii)

I have decided to copy this out in full to stress the point. What starts off as a charming attack on the headstrong and cocksure (or is it the other way around?) Benedick overstays its welcome and becomes annoying and tedious. Claudio and Don Pedro have no understanding of when to wrap up a joke and amuse each other because they are both horribly unfunny. In Act V, scene I, Benedick says to Claudio (but implying both Claudio and Don Predro): “you break jests
as braggarts do their blades.” This is perhaps the greatest truth stated in this play. It also sets up an interesting question: is the tediousness caused largely by Claudio and Don Pedro a lapse on Shakespeare’s part or is it intentional? Of course the question of intention is a dangerous one, but in this case it is just bothersome. If Shakespeare did intend for Claudio and Don Pedro to serve as foils for the two wits (Beatrice and Benedick) I think he missed his mark. Rather than heightening the two wits, they suck the humour out of the play so thoroughly.

Add to the tedium the abundance of plots in this play. A good comedy (Shakespeare or otherwise) has its plots. The ring trick is a classic plot that we see in Shakespeare (most notably in Merchant of Venice) and the bed trick another (as seen in Measure for Measure, and All’s Well That Ends Well). We love to be in on the joke and laugh at the character’s expense. Or, as in the case of Ado, be present to a “tragedy” that we know is a trick. The Friar’s plot to convince Claudio and Don Pedro that Hero is “dead” only to reveal her living at the end (also used in All’s Well that Ends Well) is a good one – one that creates a sense of tragedy without any fear for the audience, who knows full well that a comic ending will occur. However, this is not the only plot in Ado. There is Don John’s failed plot to break up Claudio and Hero, Borachio’s successful plot to break up Claudio and Hero, the plot to snare Beatrice, the plot to snare Benedick, the Friar’s plot (described above), and Leonato’s plot to marry Claudio and Hero. Add to this that the plots to snare Benedick and Beatrice are mirrors of each other and occur one after the other, and the result is tiresome. We have no time to discover the characters in this play because we are caught up in the plethora of zany plots. Yes, everyone is always trying to outwit everyone else, and this is the underlying theme of the play, but it is done as the sacrifice of what makes Shakespeare plays what they are – works with exquisite characters and relationships. Aside from the allowances I will make for Beatrice and Dogberry, the most human character in this play is wit, but without a Falstaff, Rosalind, or Hamlet to give it corporeal form, we cannot identify with Wit in this play as much as we should.

Now that that is out of the way I must speak to this play’s merits, for it does have merits. Ado in my opinion stands towards the bottom of the High Comedies, but certainly rises above the travesty that is Merry Wives of Windsor, as well as the earlier comedies Two Gentlemen of Verona and Taming of the Shrew. Beatrice is the primary reason for this. She does succeed to an extent at containing Wit, her fault is that she is not as present as Falstaff, Rosalind, or Hamlet are to their respective plays. Beatrice is more than the token of wit; she has a coldness in her which foreshadows Hamlet. It is not until the last scene that we can begin to puzzle out the oddity that is Beatrice. When Benedick asks her if she loves him her response, most often played playfully, is: “Why, no; no more than reason” (V.iv). Beatrice is a woman who loves reason more than she loves people in general. For all her command of wit, she is governed by logic as opposed to her cousin who is governed by her heart, so much so that she faints because of the false accusation made against her. Beatrice is cold, she is the lady of disdain as Benedick greets her: “What my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living” (I.i). Beatrice parries his blow with her wit:

Is it possible disdain should die while she hath
such meet food to feed it as Signior Benedick?
Courtesy itself must convert to disdain, if you come
in her presence.

But she is still disdain. Benedick is not intelligent enough to invent such a character for Beatrice if it were not as plain as the nose on her face. Thus we may see Beatrice’s jab in the same way we see Hamlet’s “I am too much in the sun,” wit as a mask for the cold bitterness within. We are well aware of Hamlet’s bitterness – the death of his father and hasty marriage that followed – but what about Beatrice? Where does her “disdain” stem from?

To answer this I think we must turn to Don John, the purported dark character of this play. But as Benedick cannot hold a candle to Beatrice’s wit, so Don John cannot hold a candle to Beatrice’s bitterness. The extent of Don John’s villainy is at the start of Act II when he tries to convince Claudio that Don Pedro is stealing Hero for himself. The rest of his malicious activities are of Boarchio’s making, even though he takes the credit for them and then flees. But Beatrice is manipulative enough to bring about potential death (if a comic ending did not thwart her attempt):

BEATRICE: I love you with so much of my heart that none is
left to protest.

BENEDICK: Come, bid me do any thing for thee.

BEATRICE: Kill Claudio. (IV.i)

Benedick refuses at first, but the cold-hearted Beatrice disarms him to the point where she does not allow him to speak, and Benedick, so changed by his love of Beatrice – or just as helpless as any man is against Beatrice – eventually consents to kill his friend. Don John could not have orchestrated such an event.

This was of course a digression to show how even in villainy, Beatrice surpasses the villain. Don John is a “villain” for the same reason that Edmund is: he is a Bastard. Don John has no claim to the titles that Don Pedro had, so he rebelled. We are never given the specific nature of his transgression, but by the start of the play Don Pedro has welcomed his brother back into his grace. This does not satisfy Don John, who feels trapped by his position. In his only good speech in the play he says:

I cannot hide
what I am: I must be sad when I have cause and smile
at no man’s jests, eat when I have stomach and wait
for no man’s leisure, sleep when I am drowsy and
tend on no man’s business, laugh when I am merry and
claw no man in his humour. (I.iii)

He, like Edmund, longs for chaos because he cannot achieve any power through order. Beatrice does not desire chaos: she thrives on reason. However, like Don John, she is in an inferior position. She lives under the protection of her uncle Leonato, and has been the bedfellow of Hero since they were girls. It is, however, Hero that will inherit everything – all titles and fortunes Leonato leaves. It is Hero who is seen as the better prospect for marriage; despite her apparently small stature, according to Benedick. Beatrice has no fortunes and no means of gaining power.

More interesting is Beatrice’s parentage. The play introduces one brother to Leonato, Antonio, and yet Antonio is not Beatrice’s father. In Act V, while putting his plan in motion, Leonato says to Claudio:

My brother hath a daughter,
Almost the copy of my child that’s dead,
And she alone is heir to both of us:
Give her the right you should have given her cousin,
And so dies my revenge. (V.i)

The brother here is Antonio, and the daughter is the fake Hero. Antonio is not Beatrice’s father, so who is? An absent figure who we must assume, along with her mother, to be dead: such is why she is under the care of Leonato. And suddenly the Hamlet comparisons come rushing back: is Beatrice Lady Disdain for the same reason Hamlet is Sir Melancholy? Did she love her parents and was affected so much by their death? Perhaps, but such information has no place in a comedy. So why introduce the question at all. Would the play in of itself be any different if Beatrice was a younger sister? For me, this is what gives Beatrice enough of a “character” to salvage this play: she is a mystery to us as much as she is to those around her.

Finally, I wish to touch on Dogberry. Harold Bloom, whose opinion of Shakespeare’s works I hold with the highest esteem, derides Dogberry for his tedium. He is, as Bloom notes, a one-note character whose reliance on malapropisms for humour grows old quickly and does not cease. I cannot argue with this: it is true. More than any Fool, (except maybe the gravediggers in Hamlet, but they have such a short appearance) Dogberry’s speech is riddled with malapropisms that must have been funnier in 1598 than they are today. And this might have been a deciding fault for me if it was not in line with the other tedious parts that score this play. But let’s look past this flaw and see Dogberry’s sentimentalism. Dogberry, as fool, comes from the same tradition as Launce, who transformed into Dromio, Bottom, Launcelot, and even to an extent, Falstaff. They all have about them a certain sentimentalism to them that allows them to be the light in a dark world. Dogberry, and to a lesser extent his shadow Verges, are the only characters who are not self-centred. Every character has his or her own motives and seems to be focused solely on his or her own particular plot, but Dogberry genuinely cares about his fellow human beings. His logic may be muddled and comical, but it is honest and caring.

DOGBERRY: you are to call at all the
ale-houses, and bid those that are drunk get them to bed.

Watchman: How if they will not?

DOGBERRY: Why, then, let them alone till they are sober: if
they make you not then the better answer, you may
say they are not the men you took them for.

Watchman: Well, sir.

DOGBERRY: If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue
of your office, to be no true man; and, for such
kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them,
why the more is for your honesty.

Watchman: If we know him to be a thief, shall we not lay
hands on him?

DOGBERRY: Truly, by your office, you may; but I think they
that touch pitch will be defiled: the most peaceable
way for you, if you do take a thief, is to let him
show himself what he is and steal out of your company. (III.iii)

The world would be kinder if it was run by Dogberry: not better, but kinder. He attempts to bring

the news of Borachio’s plot to Leonato, but the old man doesn’t have time for a tottering

sentimentalist like Dogberry. If he had, then Claudio would have never accused Hero and we

would not have an act IV or V of this play.

Dogberry becomes buried in the game of wits for he is certainly a weak player in the game and

thus the play has no time or patience for him. He is simply meant to provide some comic relief

and accidentally bring about the comic resolution. Certainly, Beatrice and Benedick command

the show, and this is why they are awarded the honour of final marriage. Like final death, final

marriage is a mark of the true Heroes (no pun intended.) Such is why Berlioz, when creating an

operatic adaption of his play, named it Beatrice et Benedict: even though, oddly enough, the

parts of the opera belong to Hero, such as: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JtZleGpT9Gk

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All’s Well That Ends Well

Harold Bloom refers to All’s Well that Ends Well (All’s) as Shakespeare’s “most undervalued comedy” in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (one of the best books on Shakespeare you will find). I would personally give this title to Comedy of Errors, or even Measure for Measure which seems to not get the appreciation that it deserves. I will admit that I do not like All’s that much: the first time I read it I did not have the time to give it its full consideration, so I re-read it recently and still cannot say that I love it. I think it boils down to this play is severely lacking in language and character: there are no great moments of literary passion that you find in many of Shakespeare’s works, and there are really only three characters that can come close to surviving in a Shakespeare character death match.

While touching on these complaints, I will focus on All’s redeeming qualities as well, which can be summarized in two and half words: it’s different. Yes, as a Romantic comedy All’s is inevitably placed against the two champions of the genre – As You Like It and Twelfth Night – and while there are some similarities, there are more differences. All’s offers a clash of genres and contemporary dramatic tropes, woven into one story. It offers a relationship that is unlike those in previous comedies. And it offers a mother. Think of how many Shakespeare plays have a mother figure – then think of how many have a strong mother figure and you can cross off Gertrude and Amelia. We are left with the nameless Queen from Cymbeline, Volumnia from Coriolanus, and the one that precedes them both – the Countess Rossillion from All’s. But we’ll get back to her.

For the male readers/audience of All’s, the play addresses that phenomenon of women who go after a guy despite the fact that he is no good for her and you cannot fathom what she sees in him. For the female readers/audience of All’s, the play asks: “why would you do that? What do you see in him?” Or as W.B Yeats, puts it:

“It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.” – A Prayer For My Daughter

The reason for this is because the primary relationship in the play is between Bertram, Count Rossillion, and Helena. In any other Shakespearean primary character, you can find some redeeming qualities: “yeah, he’s an idiot, but he represents sentimentalism at its height” or “he’s not a well-developed character, but he’s funny.” There is nothing redeeming about Bertram. As the play opens, his father has died, leaving him as Count Rossillion. But he is too young to assume his title, so the King of France adopts him as a ward. “I must attend his majesty’s command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection” (1.i). He just becomes more and more of a spoiled brat as the play goes on.

Then there is Helena. Helena is an interesting character. She is often compared to Rosalind from As You Like It for her control over of the situation, and ability to scheme. Helena does not have nearly as much wit as Rosalind and is more like a whiny little sister (not Celia). And yet, Helena has a formal education, sort of. Her father was a great doctor and before he died he passed on all his knowledge to Helena. It is very rare that you find an educated female character. Despite her education, since her father died she has become an orphan and was taken in by the Countess as a “favour.” So she is lower class, as Bertram is so quick to point out. Helena loves Bertram: as mentioned the crux of the play is “why?” Why does she, a good-natured, smart young lady love that horrible person?” Let’s see…

The play opens with Bertram leaving for France to attend the King. We learn from Lafew, a Lord, that the King has a anal fistula…can’t sit down very well. This little piece of information is not present in any of the source material for All’s and so Shakespeare looked at this story and said “there is really not enough butt jokes in here…I can fix that.” But this disease of the rectum becomes a major plot point in the story.

So Bertram leaves, with some advice from his mother:

Love all, trust a few,

Do wrong to none. Be able for thine enemy

Rather in power than use, and keep thy friend

Under thy own life’s key. Be check’d for silence,

But never tax’d for speech. What heaven more will,

That thee may furnish, and my prayers pluck down,

Fall on thy head” (1.1)

Anyone familiar with Hamlet will recognize Polonius’ advice to his son in these lines. However instead of an incompetent father, we here have an incompetent son. Bertram will do none of these things that his mother tells him, because Bertram looks out for number one.

Just before he leaves he tells Helena to be good to his mother, that’s all. So as soon as Helena’s alone of course she will launch into the “O! I am unhappy” routine – “I cannot live if he is gone…what am I going to do?” WHY?

Helena is interrupted form her thoughts when Parolles enters. Parolles, along with Helena and the Countess, is the redeeming character of this play. He’s like Falstaff, but not good enough to be Falstaff. But he is a scoundrel, and he is funny, and has a sharp-tongue, so there is much to like in him. Helena announces his entrance by telling the audience that he is a “notorious liar” and a “great way fool, soly a coward” – all which is true. The two have a fun banter about virginity and how to seduce a man. He is then called away to join Bertram and Helena is once again left alone to torture us. She delivers a sonnet-like-thing that is just…awful. I will always give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt and say it is intentionally awful – but it illustrates that we are dealing with a play in which we should not expect any bon mots, or sweet phrases.

“Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie,
Which we ascribe to heaven: the fated sky
Gives us free scope, only doth backward pull
Our slow designs when we ourselves are dull.
What power is it which mounts my love so high,
That makes me see, and cannot feed mine eye?
The mightiest space in fortune nature brings
To join like likes and kiss like native things.
Impossible be strange attempts to those
That weigh their pains in sense and do suppose
What hath been cannot be: who ever strove
So show her merit, that did miss her love?
The king’s disease–my project may deceive me,
But my intents are fix’d and will not leave me” (1.1)

The first major development in the paly comes in I.iii when the Countess calls Helena before her, after dismissing a Clown who I will not write about because he is not funny, nor adds anything to the play, and is an embarrassment to the great clowns that came before him. So Helena and the Countess go round and round as the Countess tries to draw out that Helena loves Bertram. Helena is being coy and the Countess – who I picture as Maggie Smith – finally says for Helena to just admit she loves Bertram. Helena does and the controlling mother starts forming her plan to get the two married. She gets Helena to admit that she wishes to go to Paris and we learn that Helena believes she has a cure for the King’s troubles. She goes off to Paris to win the favour of the King, all according to the Countess’ plan.

And of course she succeeds in curing the King. So happy is he that he gathers a group of his young lords and says to her: “pick one.” And of course in a long-winded manner – because she is ever so happy! – she picks Bertram. But she does not even pick Bertram, but says: “I dare not say I take you, but I give me and my service, ever whilst I live, into your guiding power” (2.3). She gives herself completely to him – an absolutely obedient wife falls right into his hands, and he says “I don’t want to marry her.” “But she saved my life,” says the king. “Yeah, well why should I suffer for that?” said the brat….and he continues.

“She had her breeding at my father’s charge

A poor physician’s daughter my wife! Disdain

Rather corrupt me ever!”

Translation: I don’t want no poor girl to muck up my title!

The King becomes very wise and philosophic and says that if the only thing stopping him is her title that is silly because he is the king and he can raise her title to whatever he wants. He then waxes poetic about the nature of goodness and how good is good and virtue is virtue and the class distinction is arbitrary and meaningless. It’s great! Let’s tear down those class barriers and see people for who they really are! Bertram replies:

“I cannot love her no will strive to do’t”

Helena tries to save face – because who would love being told she is unworthy to her face and says that she doesn’t care anymore, it is enough that the king is well, let the rest go. But the King flips out and starts berating Bertram. Interestingly enough, he begins his tirade with “my honour’s at the stake” – so we might ask how much he really cares about Helena, and how much he cares about looking like a weak man in front of his lords? He concludes by saying that Bertram must take her as wife or he will be cast out and left a beggar, so of course the goat’s end says: “Oh, yes, I have been so foolish. I thought she was base but now, if I look at her from this angle, yes as long as you, King sire, say so, she is beautiful!”

So that’s settled, and Bertram confides to Parolles that, yes they forced him to marry, he will never bed her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars, and never bed her.” What? He would rather go die in the wars than have his wife? Why? But this is what he does and writes a letter to send to his mother and Helena saying that he is so sorry but he had to go to war.

So you would think that Helena, having suffered so much from this guy, would realize that he is not worth her time, and that there are so many lords who would love to have a treasure like her, right? No. Well, actually she comes home pretty defeated, but the Countess will not give up, and doesn’t really care for people’s emotions.

Now Bertram, or Shakespeare, created this caveat to the situation. Bertram says

“When thou canst get the ring upon my finger, which never shall come off, and show me a child begotten of thy body that I am father to, then call me husband” (3.2)

Most audience members would have been familiar with the two classic “tricks” – the “ring trick” and the “bed trick.” Over the course of his career, Shakespeare uses both – in All’s he uses both at the same time. Not only does Helena have to get Bertram’s ring off him, but she has to sleep with him. In brief: she runs away, disguising herself as a pilgrim (a male pilgrim), goes on pilgrimage to St. Jacques, meets a widow and her daughter Diana, devises a plan in which she gets Diana to seduce Bertram and have sex with him in the dark (so that Helena can take Diana’s place), and Diana also gets the ring. By the way, it is Diana’s mother who Helena arranges all this with, Diana is as much a pawn to her mother as Bertram and Helena are to the Countess – mothers are evil.

So the plan goes off, somewhat smoothly. And of course “All’s well that ends well” – sort of. In the last half of the play, the amount of times that a character says a variance of “All’s well that ends well” is quiet absurd. It is like Keats’ use of “happy” in Ode to a Nightingale – clearly he is not happy. We really have to question how well everything ends by the amount of times it is affirmed. There is a complex plot involving Diana and the ring which almost gets her killed until Helena shows up, reveals her plot and shows Bertram that she has both gotten his ring and is pregnant by him. And in a Shylock-like moment he says something to the effect of “I am content” and then takes Helena for his wife. To which Helena says something to the effect of “if I am ever untrue, leave me or kill me.” So everyone is happy…but something is wrong. Shakespeare never answered the question: why? Why does Helena submit, after everything she went through, to this man who is really the same man? He will go on being a spoiled child and she will be submissive – and this is a happy ending? The lesson: girls will find themselves attracted to spoiled jerks, plain and simple – nothing you can do about it. So don’t try to be intelligent, or chivalrous – just be a rich spoiled jerk.

But enough of that. I want to, in this long discourse, turn finally to Parolles, for his plot gets lost somewhere in the mess. He is in the Tuscan wars with Bertram and his fellow lords hate him, for being a coward and a liar. They devise a plan in which they will capture him, pretending to be the enemy, and get him to betray his own men. Without needing to read anything else in the play, I suggest you read Act 4, scene 1: it’s delightful: http://shakespeare.mit.edu/allswell/allswell.4.1.html

They blindfold Parolles and use a made up language to sound like the enemy. Then a “translator” gets Parolles to talk, and he reveals secrets about the men who are standing around listening to him. A key joke is Parolles’ line:

“I shall lose my life for want of language” (4.1). He means that he shall die because he cannot understand them. But the joke is that his name means words and it is words that are responsible for his downfall. So they go through the whole bit – reading the made-up language aloud is fun – and then they take off the blindfold and reveal the plot, at which point Parolles becomes suddenly serious, like Malvolio at the end of Twelfth Night, but more dejected than vindictive.

“Who cannot be crushed with a plot?” he says: and this is really true for everything in the play. Bertram is crushed with a plot. Helena is crushed with a plot. Parolles is crushed with a plot. Diana is almost crushed with a plot. There is a danger in scheming: this is really the only surety that Shakespeare delivers in this play.

We may not know why Helena loves Bertram, but we do know that her plots, like the plot against Parolles, is meant to humble everyone around her, not satisfy. No one is truly happy at the end of the play despite what they may think: except the Countess, who got exactly what she wanted, and maybe Diana and her mother who after all is done, the King offers one of his lords to marry. The fact that this king reverses the whole suitor role is a matter left for a further time.

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Filed under Comedies, Post-Hamlet

Comedy of Errors

I want to start with Comedy of Errors (Com.) because it is often overlooked in the Shakespeare cannon. I will be addressing two main complaints that are often lodged against this play, and a how this play can work in the 21st century, with the benefit of modern theories in theatre.

The first compliant: “Com. is an early play and therefore Shakespeare is not as mature as he is in his later works.” This is a dreadful argument. First, while it is only his third comedy, it is (according to most scholars) his eighth play. Before Com. you have the entire York tetralogy. And despite what Mr. Bloom would argue, I think that Richard III is a testament to Shakespeare’s maturity. The faults that can be found in some “early works” such as Titus Andronicus and Two Gentlemen of Verona have nothing to do with the fact that they are “early works.” So no more of that.

The second complaint: “Com. is full of flat characters, a stale plot, and is predictable at every turn.” This complaint is at least something to sink our teeth into. I will address these issues in their own right, but summarize here before I go further. Com. is analogous to The Artist: that soon to be winner of the 2012 Academy Award for Best Picture – if I’m wrong about that prediction I will eat my hat (NB: my hat may be made out of a Twix bar). Just as The Artist takes us to a time of the silent picture, all the while making it fresh and enjoyable for today’s viewers, so Com. takes us back to the glory days of Roman comedy, while at the same time making it fresh and enjoyable for contemporary and modern viewers/readers. C

Com. begins much like Act 1, scene 2 of The Tempest, or the original Star Wars if you will: that is, Shakespeare clears away all the exposition at the start so we are not bogged down with it during the play. The play takes place is Ephesus, and we learn almost immediately that there is enmity between Ephesus and nearby Syracuse, and that anyone from one city found in the other would be put to death (unless they can pay a certain sum). This is the law: and like the laws in Merchant of Venice or Measure for Measure, it helps keep everyone (including the Duke) in check. So of course we have a hapless Syracuse merchant, Egeon, thrown before the Duke who informs Egeon that he is to be put to death if he cannot produce his bail by this night. Egeon replies:

“Yet this my comfort, when your words are done,

My woes end likewise with the evening sun.” (I.i)

“Go ahead,” he says, “kill me; it will only bring me comfort.” And the Duke takes the bait. “Why/” he asks, which launches Egeon into his life story. In brief it is thus: Egeon and his wife are in an inn and his wife gives birth to two twins, both named Antipholus. At that very moment a poor woman also gives birth to two twins, both named Dromio. Egeon buys the poor woman’s twins and decides that they are to be the servants of his twins – what a nice man. A storm hits them on the way home and Egeon’s ship is torn apart, and everyone is separated. Egeon, one of his sons, and his son’s servants make it back to Syracuse. Years later, Antipholus, goes with Dromio, to find his long lost mother and brother. He does not come back, so Egeon goes looking for his son and that’s why he’s in Ephesus – all that in one speech! So the sentimental Duke starts crying and says how piteous the whole affair is but he is bound by law. He never thinks to offer to pay Egeon’s bail himself. “I wish there was something I could do.” he says fanning himself with money, “but my hands are tied.” So that ends and we don’t see Egeon again until the end of the play.

We quickly learn that not only are Egeon’s Antipholus and Dromio in Ephesus, but the other set of twins are there as well. The remainder of the play is taken up with the exploits of two Antipholi and two Dromios. Antipholus of Syracuse will go tell his Dromio to do something, Dromio leaves, and then Dromio of Ephesus comes and fails to understand what his “master” is talking about, and gets beaten for it. It is pure Roman anarchic comedy, full of slapstick humour and silly plots. This is what angers certain critics and makes the play seem “immature.”

And yet, there are a couple of things in this play that are interestingly Shakespearean, and exist beyond the surface. Some critics will tell you that the Antipholi lack any character to distinguish themselves, that they are placeholders rather than characters. This claim can be made about the Dromios, but it is a lazy reader who says this about the Antipholi. We have two brothers who look the same in every way, but they grew up in completely different circumstances. While we do not learn too much about them as characters it is true, there is a major distinction. Antipholus of Syracuse is very philosophic, likes to ruminate, almost a dreamer character – he might find himself in good company with Orlando, or Sebastian. Antipholus of Ephesus is more like Timon before his fall: he is a businessman who has grown wealthy and established a great reputation in the city. Everyone loves him. But he is also very prone to anger, and far rasher than his twin: although both of them never pass up an opportunity to beat their Dromio. Not only do we have two distinct characters who enter and exit the stage throughout the play, but the way these two characters view Ephesus is wonderful, and provides a completely different perspective for the audience depending on who’s talking. For the businessman of Ephesus, his city is like Venice from Merchant of Venice: a place to buy and sell, and to gain wealth and pleasure.  We do not see him as much as we see Antipholus of Syracuse. Remember, we are dealing with a man who comes to a strange city and is suddenly both recognized and renowned as a great man by people he has never seen. So he starts to think he is in a strange city filled with magic – it’s great. We are thrown between these two versions of the same city as we switch between the two versions of the same man (physically): there is so much happening here beyond “flat characters.”

Usually the way comedy works in Shakespeare is that there is a fool or clown and he uses his wit to outsmart a more stoic character and thus plays jokes for the audience’s delight. How often in Shakespeare do you get honest schtick? I can only think of a few examples where both characters are in on the fun. Com. has probably the best example of schtick, real Abbot and Costello material. The set-up is that the Syracuse Antipholus and Dromio go to the Ephesus Antipholus’ house for lunch. There they meet E. Antipholus’ wife and single sister (who of course S. Antipholus will fall in love with). We also learn that E. Dromio is engaged to the fat kitchen wench. Here is a conversation about the maid.

ANTIPHOLUSOF SYRACUSE

Then she bears some breadth?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE
No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE

In what part of her body stands Ireland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE
Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE

Where Scotland?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE
I found it by the barrenness; hard in the palm of the hand.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE

Where France?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE
In her forehead; armed and reverted, making war
against her heir.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE

Where England?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE
I looked for the chalky cliffs, but I could find no
whiteness in them; but I guess it stood in her chin,
by the salt rheum that ran between France and it.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE

Where Spain?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE
Faith, I saw it not; but I felt it hot in her breath.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE

Where America, the Indies?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE
Oh, sir, upon her nose all o’er embellished with
rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich
aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole
armadoes of caracks to be ballast at her nose.

ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE

Where stood Belgia, the Netherlands?

DROMIO OF SYRACUSE
Oh, sir, I did not look so low. To conclude, this
drudge, or diviner, laid claim to me, call’d me
Dromio; swore I was assured to her; told me what
privy marks I had about me, as, the mark of my
shoulder, the mole in my neck, the great wart on my
left arm, that I amazed ran from her as a witch:
And, I think, if my breast had not been made of
faith and my heart of steel,
She had transform’d me to a curtal dog and made
me turn i’ the wheel. (III.ii)

What is a Shakespeare comedy without drama – what is a drama without drama? The main problem in the play occurs when Angelo the goldsmith makes a chain for E. Antipholus, gives it to S. Antipholus and demands payment of it from whichever Antipholus he happens to be talking to, but neither of them will pay: one claims he never received the chain, the other that he never ordered it. So E. Antipholus is taken to prison and a doctor tries to “cure” him of his madness. In a post-psychology world, the idea of multiple-personality would be played up in what I’m sure would be a Freud type doctor. Antipholus is suffering from committing acts and then having no knowledge of committing the acts (BECAUSE THERE ARE TWO OF THEM!) Just in case you didn’t get it. Of course the tragedy does not last long, and the only one who gets severely hurt in this play is the Doctor no one cares about: he gets his beard burned off by enraged E. Antipholus.

And of course a reunion scene must happen at the very end. Like Twelfth Night nothing could be solved until the twins are both on stage at the same time. E. Antipholus and E. Dromio escape from the prison and end up in front of an abbey, where S. Antipholus and S. Dromio are taking sanctuary. The entire cast (not a very large one) starts to gather on the street. The Duke and Egeon (remember them) arrive for Egeon’s execution, and there is a painful scene where Egeon cries out to E. Antipholus:

“Unless the fear of death doth make me dote,
I see my son Antipholus and Dromio.”

He thinks this is S. Antipholus who he spent years looking for and as a result is about to be executed. And of course, E. Antipholus has never seen this man and denies him the money for his bail. This is the most “tragic” part of the play – but we know that everything will turn out right: and it does.

The Abbess, Amelia, walks out with S. Antipholus and S. Dromio and makes sense of the whole matter. Everyone meets everyone, everything is explained, the bail is paid and what is more is that Amelia (character who does not appear until the last scene) reveals that she is Egeon’s wif and the boys’ mother! A random twist, but it serves a purpose beyond adding to a happy ending. In a play full of predictable plot points, where the comedy relies on dramatic irony, Shakespeare still manages to say “ha! Didn’t see that coming, did you?”

So the play ends, in this wonderful scene where the two Dromios are deciding who should walk before who, and then decide to exit hand in hand beside each other. This is a stark contrast to the two Antipholi who barely acknowledge each other when they finally meet. Shakespeare loves showing how humbleness produces better people. And I guess the Dromios had to get something for all the beating they suffered.

The relation between the characters and the audience is interesting in this play. The audience is both invited into the action and alienated from it at the same time. Due to the heavy reliance on Dramatic irony, we are always in on the joke – we know what the characters do not. And yet for the comedy to “work” we must accept the state of perpetual chaos that this play demands. That is why so many do not like it: they are thinking at every moment “yeah, yeah, we know that there is a confusion of twins and that they will eventually figure everything out: so what?” As an audience member you must create a disconnect between what you know and what you see. The characters do not give a damn what you are thinking: unlike Hamlet, Richard III, or Iago for example. They don’t need you. So a modern director can have a really fun time finding ways to alienate the audience, or to get them to see their insignificance as audience members.

Romeo and Juliet, written very shortly after Com. is a tragedy in which we know how it ends from the start: it’s told to us in the prologue. But it doesn’t affect us too much, for we can still feel the necessary pathos for the lovers. But Com. as a comedy in which we know the end from the start and this does affect us, and if you rely too much on your own knowledge, you will not enjoy this play. But if you can alienate yourself from the action and take it for what it is – it is a wonderful play.

Copyright ©; 2012 Alex Benarzi – All Rights Reserved

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Filed under Comedies, Pre-Hamlet