Shakespearing #6 by David Foley
The Comedy of Errors
Last summer the New York Shakespeare Festival produced a rollicking version of The Comedy of Errors in Central Park. It was set in the forties, had swing numbers, and featured a hilarious performance from Jesse Tyler Ferguson as the two Dromios. Best of all, it was over in 90 minutes. Because The Comedy of Errors, to be honest, can be kind of a drag. One reason is that it’s heavy on the comedy, and Shakespeare’s comedy has survived less well than his wit.
“Wit” was once defined for me as “play of mind,” and it ripples all through Shakespeare. Think of Rosalind or Hamlet or Falstaff. It burbles up at odd moments. Here’s Luciana in Comedy, urging men to put on a show of being faithful, to be “secret-false”: “Though others have the arm, show us the sleeve.” It may be obvious to say that play of mind survives better than play with words. Changing vocabulary will undermine the latter, though you can still get some of it in Comedy. We get fart jokes: “A man may break a word with you, sir, and words are but wind/Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.” And there’s the extended bit in which Dromio of Syracuse describes the kitchen wench as “spherical, like a globe.”
Antipholus S: In what part of her body stands Ireland?
Dromio S: Marry, sir, in her buttocks, I found it out by the bogs.
But a lot of the dialogue in Comedy, particularly if you’re reading it, can be a slog. I began to wonder if even Shakespeare’s audience got a little annoyed at all the word play. As anyone who’s hung out with an inveterate punster will tell you, word play isn’t the same as play of mind. It doesn’t necessarily require the mind to be engaged and therefore doesn’t engage yours. Maybe that’s why wit survives the centuries; it sets your mind at play.
Comedy is also one of those plays that sounds more hilarious in synopsis. Typically, Shakespeare upped the ante by adding another set of twins to his Roman source, and this should mean double the hilarity, except you don’t buy it. This may seem a strange complaint to make of a work by the man who put a donkey head on a weaver and made a statue come to life; whose men never recognize their lovers once they’re dressed as boys. Somehow we swallow it all. Comedy makes it clear why. However improbable, these events are imbued with a psychological and thematic persuasiveness. Orlando’s inability to recognize Rosalind as Ganymede is part of the play’s psychology of love.
In Comedy, Antipholus of Syracuse has been looking for his twin for seven years: “I to the world am like a drop of water,/That in the ocean seeks another drop.” Why then does it never occur to him that the reason for all the misunderstandings is that he has at last found his twin? In a way, it’s Shakespeare’s big problem: he could never resist the human touch. Farces really don’t require much humanity, but he had to give Antipholus that lovely, yearning line. Just as he sent centuries of literary exegetes into spasms because he couldn’t leave the type of the conniving Jew alone. He had to give him “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions.” Even in Comedy, the shrewish wife, Adriana, is given pathos, sadness, hurt. Perhaps our most humane playwright was never meant to be a farceur. Or perhaps he hadn’t yet learned to meld his comedy and his humanity.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.