A Cheshire Smile:
Humor Texture and Personality in Shakespeare's Comedies
Comedy of Errors:
Comedy or Farce?
Obviously The Comedy of Errors is a comedy and presumably should start from that fact for any adequate analysis. Would that agreement on that point also led to a consistently fine critical reading of the play worthy of the many fine revival performances of the play over the last four centuries. Sadly, agreement on the comedic nature of Comedy of Errors hasn’t been a stable base for criticism because typically criticism hasn’t adequately focused on the kind of survival central to the play:
“Oh sure it’s a comedy, actually a comedy of errors! You know, everyone making one mistake after another.”
—But how does one survive error piled upon error?
“Oh—. Well, I suppose one has to persevere, to see it through, to not give up and to not be disheartened. Plug away; peg forward. Look for the bright light at the end of the tunnel. Hang on the bell, Nellie! Remember the Maine! Stay the course. Never say die.
I thought the Dromios were a stitch. If I have to choose—and I often can’t keep the two straight—I guess it is Dromio of Ephesus who really steals the show. Remember how he gets beat up—for just doing his job? And all the clever responses he has for his own master, for his supposed master, for his master’s wife, for the Duke himself? But I liked the other Dromio too, especially his description of the spherical kitchen wench he was almost forced to marry.
And how could you want a better comedy than their constantly being beaten up on by their masters?
So, yeah it’s a great comedy, very much in the Neoclassical tradition that borrows Aristotle’s three unities—you did notice that the play takes place within a single 24-hour period, on the same general street in Ephesus? As long as you consider the action the family getting back together, there is even unity of action. It’s also very Neoclassical in focusing on the ludicrous and on people very much less than ourselves. [Note: no backing from the play for this last claim.]
The really good stuff of the play, however, lies beyond the humor (and thus the comedy). Didn’t you think that was a wonderful idea of Antipholus of Syracus looking for another drop of water in the ocean. . . ?”
It is not so much that such critical analysis is entirely off-track as that it is so cursory, so clumsy, so superficial, so lacking in precision, so slipshod.
It also has no essential definition of comedy other than what is funny, so the question of success or survival seems basically inconsequential at best, a thorough non sequitur otherwise. And of course, there is no need within such criticism to find a consistent comedic strain running throughout the play and needing its own careful attention and definition.
What seems entirely to be ignored in such criticism is that the effect of it all is to make Shakespeare a poet who is either very platitudinous or very sloppy with both his comedy and his humor.
So let’s start over and see if our definitions in comedy and humor can lead us to anything more commendatory of Shakespeare as a great artist. Let’s start with the Dromios because that’s typically where the comedy question gets addressed and also because that’s where any close attention to the script text is quite obviously lacking.
The doubling of the Dromios and of the Antipholuses was, like so much in this play, borrowed from Plautus. The basic plot is the plot of Plautus’ Menaechmi, the twin in trouble with his wife and about to meet his long-lost brother. But the doubling of twins, the presence of Dromios as well as Antipholuses, is in imitation of Plautus’ Amphytruo. Shakespeare always liked challenges, so in addition to the challenge of doubling twins, he also did away with Plautus’ using a tell-tale difference in stage props to keep the identities of his twins straight.
Shakespeare’s technical demands on himself in these doublings can perhaps best be represented on stage by having single actors play Dromio and Antipholus until Act V, when reasonable look-alikes can play the second Dromio and Antipholus. This kind of doubling doesn’t necessarily save any production cost, but the wonder of one actor playing two parts, which Shakespeare’s script always keeps clearly separate, makes for amazing theatre.
If the Dromios are the main comic interest of the play, we need to clearly differentiate from the beginning between their wonderful body humor and their Humor of the Mind, which humor, of course, is our central concern throughout this volume. Dromio of Syracuse’s description of the kitchen wench is essentially centered in body humor, though Incongruity and Word Play can also be repeatedly shown in the scene. Either of the two Dromios’ quick-witted response to their betters, contrastively, has little or no body humor component and typically is long on both Word Play and Incongruity.
Our focus on mental humor is not at all meant to deny the reality of humor of the body or the reality of humor of the spirit either generally or specifically in Shakespeare. For our purposes here, it may be well to talk a little about humor of the body because it is a significant additional source of humor in Comedy of Errors as also in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Humor of the body derives from the reality that our bodies always have a potential humorousness for us. At the philosophical level, our bodies are our necessary habitation, but at the same time they are clearly not “us.” At more practical level, some parts of our bodies are more routinely humorous than others, our sexual parts, for example, which are the subject of so many footnotes to Shakespeare’s slang. And then there is excremental humor, notably and routinely attributed to Jonathan Swift. If our bodies are us and aren’t us at the same time, excremental humor is at a natural extreme of what is and isn’t related to us in the slightest.
These are snap-shot forms of humor. Animated forms of body humor include, among others, bloopers, missteps, pratfalls, and slaps in the face. The first three of these are passive forms of animated body humor. The last is decidedly aggressive, and it stands for a far wider range of humorous response to aggressive and often injurious or even fatal action.
Romans at the Coliseum laughed when a gladiator slipped on a patch of blood and was skewered by his adversary. Most of us would rather not remember that such brutality is in our humorous human nature. Yet comic strip writer Al Capp in his reflection on the work of Charlie Chaplain asserts simply: “All comedy is based on man's delight in man's inhumanity to man” (220). The repertoire of skit comics like Sid Caesar reflects the same assumption. Similarly in this camp is Charles Schultz, though Schultz’ cartoons move toward emphasis on psychological pain. Anton Chekhov, perhaps because he was a medical doctor, was another great practitioner of physical-pain humor.
Now physical-pain humor itself can also be subdivided between a grizzly form that is a conscious response to the reality of physical suffering—the Coliseum Romans—and a lighter form which shows the physical pain, perhaps even more graphically than the grizzly form but by art also denies the reality of the physical pain portrayed—Roadrunner’s Coyote is the cinema golden-age exemplar but equally Punch and Judy, who are the exemplars of a centuries-long street-puppetry tradition. It is one of the prominent definitions of farce that farce is a skit or play that uses this unactualized physical pain as a major center of humor. We will use this meaning of farce in the remainder of this volume.
From this brief digression on physical humor or humor of the body, it should be quite evident that Shakespeare knew all about it and used it extensively in Comedy of Errors. For our purposes, it is even more important to see what modern criticism has done with this kind of humor.
David Bevington is one of the great Shakespeare authorities of our times, and his The Complete Works of Shakespeare is widely used throughout American academe. In the concluding paragraph of his introduction to Comedy of Errors, Bevington says:
The playfulness about illusion should not be overemphasized, for the play expends most of its energies in farce. The Dromios, with their incessant drubbings, are often the center of interest in performance, and rightly so." (5)
Energy, it is said, is expended primarily in farce. And central to this farce, the great concrete example of that farce, is the incessant drubbings of the Dromios.
Bevington’s is not an example of exceptional criticism. Introductions in Complete Shakespeares are not meant to take extraordinary and controversial stands. They are judiciously designed to represent the critical tradition and the impression of a wide range of readers with highly developed taste and literary judgment. Bevington’s conclusion is consensus for late-20th century criticism. Like all such introductions, it is designed to be appreciative and to lead students into Shakespeare.
But does Bevington reflect at least the basic facts of the text, and do his comments honor Shakespeare’s achievement?
Shakespeare’s stage directions can be characterized by two guiding principles. First, his stage directions are terse and in extreme contrast to Eugene O’Neill’s.
Second, Shakespeare includes as stage directions all the necessary stage business of the play. Shakespeare used a basically unornamented stage. Perhaps Shakespeare’s sparse stage directions are artistically consonant with that minimal staging. Or perhaps more likely, as an actor himself, Shakespeare left a world of stage business to the invention of actors and stage design to a host of backstage artists, but he told them when staged action was necessary to his script’s artistic design. But, leaving stage business to actors should not be taken to mean actors inventing freely against the artistic design of the script.
When we examine Comedy of Errors for stage directions in the Bevington Complete Shakespeare, we find five stage directions for Dromio drubbings. In each case, Shakespeare uses “beats” not drubs, and perhaps that makes a difference.
The references are not incessant, but rather appear irregularly in the text. The first reference is in I.ii.92, the second in the very next scene, at II.i.80. The first of these is an instruction that the Syracusan Antipholus “beats” Dromio of Ephesus on the line, “There, take you that, sir knave.”
Now a drubbing is normally thought of in Punch and Judy terms of a frying pan to the head, a rolling pin to the belly, and both together again to the head. It is a severe thrashing. Duration is inherent to the fun, and if Punch and Judy can keep this sort of thing going for an hour, all the funnier. Note, however, that the line, “take that” sounds quite singular and sudden rather than protracted and complex. Dromio’s response, “What mean you sir?” sounds as though he is talking as soon as he is slapped. His follow-up, “For God’s sake, hold your hands! Nay an you will not, sir, I’ll take my heels,” seems to indicate that Dromio does not intend to stay around for more.
Since we have already seen that Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio also thereof are fast friends and that Dromio is a highly trusted servant and confidant, the text seems best interpreted as an extraordinary exasperation that finds an extraordinary and sudden response which Antipholus himself is quick to give up.
Now how very funny can we or even the best comic actor make a single quick slap in the face?
The second stage direction is for Adriana to strike Dromio of Ephesus, in exasperation, but fundamentally exasperation with Antipholus of Ephesus, on the line “Fetch thy master home.” She slaps Dromio around to get him moving on the errand he has so far failed to accomplish. Again, how much can this be exaggerated into many slaps and boots for comic effect without doing violence to the script? And if one slap, how funny can that slap be made?
In the ensuing scene, at II.ii.23, Antipholus of Syracuse “beats” Dromio of Syracuse on the line “Hold, take thou that and that.” Again, this is extraordinary given the friendship and trust already exposited. The grammar highly suggests that “Take that” means one slap and that here Dromio gets two. Dromio’s response, “Hold, sir, for God’s sake! Now your jest is earnest./ Upon what bargain do you give it me?” doesn’t sound like Dromio is seriously discountenanced at all. And from there, Antipholus answers Dromio’s question, suggesting that he is not out of control more than two slaps’ worth.
So if the energy of this Shakespeare masterpiece is in the drubbings of Dromio, the first three drubbings are exaggerations of what is in the script and questionable as directly contrary to script.
If actors can manage to make real Punch and Judy drubbings out of these stage directions without hashing the dialogue, they certainly deserve commendation, but it is very unclear that we are any longer talking about comic energy provided by the art of Shakespeare, as opposed to by the art of the actor.
Comedy of Errors has a very balanced construction of 11 rather long scenes. After Antipholus of Syracuse’s second “drubbing” outburst, there is a hiatus of beatings for five full scenes, almost a half of the play—that hiatus alone contradicts the idea of “constant drubbing.” Then at IV.iv.18, Shakespeare’s stage direction “He starts to beat Dromio of Ephesus” instructs Antipholus of Ephesus, now in the custody of the Officer. The Officer’s line “Good sir, be patient.” seems to immediately restrain Antipholus’ intent. And this allows Dromio to continue his banter—not the sort of thing people tend to do in the midst of drubbings—until at IV. iv .44 Antipholus is instructed, “Beats Dromio.”
Perhaps this is more than two slaps worth. But if it is riotously funny, it is the fun of good acting not good writing.
The beating is immediately followed by the Courtesan’s comment to Adriana, “How say you now? Is not your husband mad,” and Adriana’s response, “His incivility confirms no less.” That seems to suggest that Adriana is shocked by what she now sees before her.
There are no further drubbings in the play. And yet the consensus impression of criticism lately is that we have seen “incessant drubbings” and that they are the concrete example of the energy Shakespeare imparts to the play. Given the banality of dialogue and the terse stage direction, it is impossible to see how these drubbings and any energy associated with them could derive from Shakespeare’s art as opposed to the license the actors may take in exaggeration.
The consensus opinion derives from a sense of virtuality. This virtuality is created by Dromio’s claims, which can be epitomized in his claims shortly later in IV. iv:
“I have served him from the hour of my nativity to this instant and have nothing at his hands for my service but blows. When I am cold, he heats me with beating: when I am warm, he cools me with beating. I am waked with it when I sleep, raised with it when I sit, driven out of doors with it when I go home, welcomed home with it when I return. Nay I bear it on my shoulders, as a beggar wont her brat, and I think when he hath lamed me I shall beg with it from door to door.” (30-39)
If we believe Dromio here and elsewhere, then there have always been incessant drubbings. But then close attention to the text must deny that either of the Dromios has been drubbed more than once. Care here suggests the additional point: Dromio’s drubbing claims are largely uncorroborated by what we actually see on stage and by Adriana’s reacting to seeing a beating (and even by Luciana’s evident unconsciousness of Antipholus as a violent person in her good-wife advice to Adriana.) Much more to the point of the text, Dromio makes extravagant claims in which he is either extremely exaggerating (“from the hour of my nativity” which was the hour of Antipholus’ birth!) or outright lying.
Much safer to assert that Shakespeare’s achievement with the Dromio’s and their energy centers in the physical humor associated with two characters named Racetrack (hippo-drome=horse racetrack.)
Both Dromios are forever racing through the play—with a rope, with a bag of gold, with a message, with a beating. Talented actor or actors playing the Dromios will ignite a fireball of energy on any stage. This kind of comic energy is much more beholden to Shakespeare’s scripting, especially Shakespeare’s script that allows for virtuoso acting.
But, if the script, as opposed to the acting, is wonderful, it is wonderful for more than letting the Dromios loose.
Let us admit then that the Dromios are wonderful. That is not the equivalent of comedic analysis.
Comedic analysis can often ignore humor. It cannot ignore, as our opening burlesque routinely does, formal questions which often rely on traditional critical approaches including proof directly from the script text, consideration of symbolism, careful definition of central concepts set equally carefully in the historical setting, and the like.
Simply from the text, much of consensus comedic understanding is in error.
From the entire text, Comedy of Errors does not follow the Neo-classical model in plotted action. Just the reverse, Shakespeare makes the plot as multiple, complex, and confused as possible while still allowing us to know which twins are on stage. What happens to the two Antipholuses is greatly divergent; what happens to the two Dromios is only somewhat less divergent. Egeon receives new life at the grave’s edge. Everything works out simultaneously, but it doesn’t work to everyone’s success and survival in anything like similar terms.
Second, none of the characters is ludicrous and none is “beneath ourselves” or beneath 90% of the Elizabethan audience. Egeon is a merchant prince. His wife is an abbess. His Ephesian son is a war hero. His daughter-in-law is an upper-class matron. And all of them are intensely people with whom we can sympathize or at least people with whom we can laugh sympathetically, not superiorly in any other sense than that we know things as audience which they don’t.
It is probably well, however, not even to rush directly into the text but instead to do what great literature deserves, to make sure we understand its context. The key context in Comedy of Errors is the setting, Ephesus. What would Ephesus mean to the Elizabethan audience?
It obviously could mean “exotic” to an audience most of whom had never traveled 20 miles from home. An exotic setting is good for farce—the farther away from home a farce is set, the easier it is for us not to take its physical violence as truly harmful. Roadrunner’s setting—a desert somewhere—allows us to witness Coyote repeatedly destroying himself only to come back for more of the same. But is “exotic” really the full meaning of “Ephesus”?
Standard criticism of the play is almost sure to point out that Ephesus was known very well to the London audience because the Apostle Paul spent three years of ministry there as recounted at some length in the Book of Acts in the New Testament.
Central to that account by Paul’s companion, Luke the Physician, who also wrote the Gospel by his name, is that the Ephesians were much addicted to the worship of Artemis, that is, Diana (her temple being located at Ephesus), and that eventually the makers of wood, stone, and particularly silver icons became worried that Paul’s ministry was destroying their business. The uproar they created ultimately pushed Paul on to other fields of ministry.
But before that happened, it is recorded in Acts that Ephesian converts to Christianity, who had been also heavily involved in witchcraft and the occult, had brought their books of magic and burned them publicly (Acts 19:11-19). The witchcraft and sorcery imagery of Comedy of Errors is repeatedly explained in light of this sense of setting.
That association is crucial to understanding the whole play. Is Shakespeare’s Ephesus a city of witchcraft and cozenage? Is it a citadel of paganism? We need an answer, but the answer depends on much better biblical scholarship.
There are two other notable references to Ephesus in the New Testament, both of a magnitude far surpassing the reference to burning books of sorcery. And beyond these specifics, there is the greater fact that outside Jerusalem, there is no city so central to the general ambience of the New Testament as Ephesus, not even Rome.
Considering the general ambience first, Ephesus is not only majorly highlighted in Acts. It is also the city to which Timothy was appointed as an overseer and pastor of the church, and Paul writes two Epistles to Timothy about his charge, dated presumably in the late 50’s or early 60’s A.D. By the 80’s, the Apostle John, according to Church authority, headquartered at Ephesus, and by that fact alone Ephesus is closely associated with John’s Gospel and with his three Epistles. And Ephesus thus becomes the background to John’s banishment to Patmos and his Revelation. Ephesus was remote from Elizabethan Englishmen. But it was strongly related to the New Testamental basis of their faith and to their sense of the early Christian Church.
As such, Ephesus had been a center of pagan worship. It became one of the metropolitan centers of Christianity. And it is in this latter guise that we see it in Shakespeare’s play. It has an abbey. Its abbess is thoroughly part of the establishment of the city. And all this and more that will specifically concern us below sets up Ephesus not as a citadel of paganism but as a Christian community with a good deal to commend it and ultimately with none of the cozenage so easily ascribed to it.
We turn then to the two great specific references to Ephesus in the New Testament. The first is the Epistle to the Ephesians, a six-chapter book in which Christianity has routinely found some of its most important doctrinal positions in their pristine form. Ephesians is an interesting book for many reasons, one of which is its clear form, dividing equally between three chapters of cosmologically-centered doctrine and three chapters of practical Christian conduct based in these cosmological realities.
The second New Testament reference to Ephesus is in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St. John. The Revelation also divides in two distinct parts, the latter being by far the greater in length, concerning John’s vision on the Isle of Patmos of the things that are to come in the Last Days. But before that, in Revelations 2-3, John relates a vision given to him by Jesus Christ addressing seven prominent churches of the first century (Rome is not addressed).
The first of these is Ephesus, for whom Christ has several commendations, including their putting away heresy. However, Christ also censures Ephesus for having “lost her first love.” At the end of the message to Ephesus, He makes a great promise to those who will reform their conduct and return to their first love: “He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death” (Rev. 2:11, NKJV).
The second half of the Epistle to the Ephesians interests us because so many of its themes are also major themes in Comedy of Errors, themes which probably bear on comedic design. For one, the book of Ephesians makes a major statement on servanthood. It is one of the colossal ethical statements of the New Testament with doctrinal and personal implications that any Elizabethan audience (nominally all free) would recognize:
“Servants [slaves] be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eye-service as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men” (6:5-7)!!!!
(The emphasis of exclamation points is added to underline the colossal nature of the demand, very much what was taught from the pulpits of England to the working classes of Shakespeare’s day and expected of commoners routinely by the noble class.) It is part of the comedic and general humanistic structure of Comedy of Errors that the Dromios are exemplars of this precept in their racing around.
A second major emphasis in the book of Ephesians is on marriage and the proper role of wives—and the proper role of husbands:
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” (5:22a)
This too was universally preached from the pulpits of England, and this too was expected of actual Elizabethan wives. It is also profoundly the basis of everyone’s advice to Adriana, most notably Luciana’s advice. As Adriana protests, this advice is much easier to give than to follow.
This weighty injunction was typically left at that from the pulpit. Let us, however, choose otherwise and quote the continuation of the discussion, on the responsibility of Christian husbands:
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it.” (5:25)
For a full understanding of this injunction, we must remember what Christ did in love for the fallen humanity that would become the Church.
One of the disturbing realities of the Ephesus of Comedy of Errors is that it doesn’t seem that the husband—Antipholus of Ephesus—still loves his wife enough to come home to lunch, much less to lay down his life for her. In short, there is something wrong in Ephesus, and what is wrong is precisely that Antipholus and Adriana seem to have lost their first love—which, of course, ties in the Revelation reference. If Antipholus of Ephesus hasn’t lost his first love for his wife, his wife certainly has reason to wonder how she is supposed to know that.
In Revelation, the threat for losing one’s first love for Christ is a “second death.” There is a lugubriousness in both Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus which contrasts with the very alive determination of Antipholus—and Dromio—of Syracuse. If we can imagine the situation in Ephesus without the advent first of Egeon and then of the Antipholus-Dromio expedition, it is hardly an exaggeration that Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana are moving quite emphatically toward death. They are childless after a substantial length of time as husband and wife and at this point neither communicate to the other or understands the other.
There is perhaps a second lost love at Ephesus, a love for Dromio of Ephesus. He has served faithfully—even if he exaggerates the point, even if he lies about his master’s beatings.
The Epistle to the Ephesians has something to say to that also:
“And you, masters, do the same things to them [as the servants do for you], giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.” (6:9)
At a minimum, Antipholus of Ephesus does not have the companionship with his Dromio that is exhibited between his brother and his brother’s Dromio. Antipholus of Ephesus has become surly, and we see him repeatedly threatening. He seems to have lost his first love for his wife, yes, but also, he has lost or is threatened with losing the first love bought for him by his parents, his Dromio.
These more carefully considered clues allow us to move much more confidently to an analysis of comedy in Comedy of Errors.
It is—it goes without saying, doesn’t it?—a comedy of errors.
But what is that? Errors in Shakespeare’s day meant what it means now—mistakes—but it also meant wanderings. There are plenty of mistaken identities and misconstrued motives without our belaboring the point. There are also the obvious wanderings of Egeon and of the Antipholus-Dromio of Syracuse expedition. Less obviously, there seem to be the wanderings typical of an Ephesian loss of first love—a wandering that doesn’t really know how it got there, why it got there, when it got there, even that it got there. Or how to get out of there.
It is important to note that it is a comedy of errors, not a comedy of foiled malicious intent or a comedy of evil vanquished. What seems evil is illusory. What is real is precisely error, mistake, and wandering purposelessness. If there is to be a survival or success in this comedy, it is not a survival or success against evil.
Far from a comedy of malice and evil opposed and overcome, Comedy of Errors is generally a comedy of a Christian community. Antipholus of Syracuse specifically identifies himself as a Christian. The abbey extends a holy privilege of sanctuary within a Christian state. As Dromio of Syracuse comes to appreciate late in the play, the Ephesians are “gentle,” and their society is more than acceptable were it not for the “errors” noted in the play’s title and for the law against Syracusans.
And as a gentle community, we should note that there are no wily machinations, no crafty attempts to deceive for profit, no malicious intents whatever in any of the characters. (Some will make an exception for Dr. Pinch, but we are willing to defend him along with the rest of Ephesus in this assessment. At minimum, Dr. Pinch has solid Christian credentials as an exorcist.)
It is noteworthy that the Ephesians of Comedy of Errors seem not to be given to lying—in fact, the conduct of its merchants and businessmen suggests strongly that Ephesians are normally fully trustable at their word. The Epistle to the Ephesians and the similar Epistle to the Colossians make strong specific injunctions against lying. It is not that other parts of the New or Old Testament condone lying, but the two discussions of Christian conduct so heavily stress the point of not lying and of “speaking the truth in love,” (4:15) that it seems highly likely that the New Testament Christians of Asia (the province of Asia in modern Turkey where Ephesus and Colossi are found) had a particular need to be remonstrated on this point. Shakespeare’s Ephesians seem in no need of further remonstrance—with the possible exception of Dromio.
With the character of the Ephesus of Comedy of Errors in mind—they are gentle, honest, not malicious or evil, yet having lost first love—we return to the question of comedic success or survival. Specifically, what kind of success or survival does Comedy of Errors demonstrate within a state of constant error, but not of malice or evil or cozenage? We notice immediately that most of the bromides offered at the beginning of this chapter do not relate to the given facts of the play or its themes. Have patience; hang on the bell; peg your way; remember the Maine; never say die—none of them is sufficient, most are hardly relevant.
Consider the bromide of patience. If patience is the key to survival, Comedy of Errors is not an apt demonstration thereof. Patience might characterize something in Aemelia and in Egeon. They are however very secondary characters.
No one in the play “hangs on the bell, Nellie” while her poor daddy’s locked in a cold prison cell. Until Act V, no one even knows that Egeon is in town, and Antipholus of Ephesus doesn’t know that he is “Dad.”
No one in the play pegs or plugs away at any conscious design for success, though the Dromios more than plug away at that racetrack existence of serving their masters. Antipholus of Syracuse has been doing something important for seven years. But in Ephesus, he says he is wandering. And in Ephesus, he is willing to give up and get out of town.
No one remembers the Maine or even some old proverb that helps when the going gets rough. The expedition from Syracuse is glad to shift course and sail away rather than stay the course, and Adriana argues strongly against staying the course of the submissive wife. Everyone is disheartened, and Egeon claims he would have been glad to end it all when the ship went down a generation ago if it weren’t for his responsibilities.
Least of all does Antipholus of Ephesus seem either patient or committed to staying any course. Rather, he seems simply to be moving in a daze, wandering off course and without guiding principle.
In fact, nearly all the characters of Comedy of Errors demonstrate a lack of ability to succeed. Egeon is willing to sign his own death warrant. Aemelia retreated long ago into the cloister. Antipholus of Ephesus has antagonized his wife, threatened his servant if not actually beat him bloody, and alienated the businessmen of the town. Aemelia is in a continual funk, and her sister is a continuous virtuous scold with marriage advice she is unlikely to master for herself. Dromio hasn’t learned to keep his mouth shut.
More can be said for the duo from Syracuse. They have tried. They have stayed together. They have worked as Christian master and servant. But neither is bright enough to think that perhaps they are finally on the trail of their twins when they start getting accused of actions they didn’t commit. And both accept a cozenage thesis for a fundamentally moral community.
Where then to start finding success and survival?
If Dromio of Ephesus is the comic central role of the play, Antipholus of Syracuse is the comedic protagonist. Of all the characters, he is the only one who has the luxury in the midst of error to make proactive and possibly successful decisions for himself. Shakespeare is careful to have us know exactly how long he has been making such decisions—seven years.
And early in the play, we are made fully aware of the basis for Antipholus’ actions. It isn’t bravery; it isn’t wanderlust; it isn’t a reaction to a romantic relationship gone sour at home in Syracuse.
The key to success is contained in Antipholus' confession, made in response to The First Merchant's line: “Sir, I commend you to your own content.” Antipholus responds, in soliloquy since the Merchant has already left:
He that commends me to mine own content
Commends me to the thing I cannot get.
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, (unhappy), lose myself. (I.ii. 32-40)
The key to success and survival, to the extent that the key is at all in human hands, is to know one’s own incompleteness and to make a very conscious decision either to find the other people that will make up the lack—or to lose oneself in confusion in the attempt.
The bromide formulation would be that success and survival depend on knowing that we need others, that no man is an island, that there is no need to know for whom the bell tolls because it tolls for thee. This formulation is totally inept for Comedy of Errors. It is not that Antipholus of Ephesus needs other human beings. He needs specific other human beings which intuitionally he knows are the essential completers of himself. He can’t prove this intuition. There are plenty of brothers who don’t seem to fill the bill for their siblings. Realistically, the same can be said for mothers. But for our Antipholus, he is betting his life that these two people really do complete him.
This theme of the necessary incompleteness of the individual self and its need to be joined to its complementary self to be truly alive at all is echoed in the book of Ephesians. The epistle in its second and third chapters contains the New Testament’s most developed and articulated statement on the completion of the Church, the joining of Gentiles with Jews. “You who were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel,” . . . . “. . . who once were far off have been made near by the blood of Christ. . . .” “For he Himself is our peace, who has made both one, . . . .” (2:12-14).
The extension of grace to the Gentiles forces a new understanding of God’s cosmic purposes throughout history. While in the Old Testament the predominant emphasis seems to suggest that God is only interested in his Chosen People, the Apostle Paul’s good news—he calls it “a mystery” (3:3)—is that God’s purpose has always been that Jews and Gentiles might be joined into one ecclesia, finding their wholeness in Christ and their completion in one another.
The success and survival that we witness in Comedy of Errors is centrally dependent on a search for unity where there seems prima facie division, and a unity which is not some vague equality but a unity based on individuals that somehow can and must mesh together to form a specific and probably unique completeness.
It would help for comedic survival or success in Ephesus if other parts of St. Paul’s model in Ephesians were followed. There might be less friction in Ephesus if the wife could be more submissive. There might be less friction in Ephesus if the husband could be more loving.
It helps for Ephesus that parts of the Epistle to the Ephesians model seem to have become engrained. It helps that people in Ephesus aren’t malicious or evil or given to lying, much less sorcery, and it helps that the milk of human kindness evidently flows even in the veins of the duke. It helps that servants are basically wholehearted in service, and it would help if masters would give up threatening in return.
It might all help. But it wouldn’t be enough.
There’s a missing ingredient in a success and survival that started not in Ephesus but in Syracus with its Antipholus and its Dromio. It started there, but we’ve already seen that their initiative hasn’t been enough, they are exhausted and ready to flee.
Meanwhile the play has brought up a number of “issues” which seem totally unresolved but urgently in need of resolution.
There is the issue of Dromio. Has he been beaten from morning to night—or is he the one Ephesian who still needs remonstrance about lying?
There is the issue of Adriana. Is she a very unchristian wife—or is she a very long-suffering Christian wife?
There is the issue of Luciana. Is she a scold—or could she ever be the kind of Christian wife she advocates?
There is the issue of Antipholus of Ephesus. Is he the lout we hear he is—or is he the military hero and highly respected citizen the Duke knows him to be?
There’s even the issue of the abbess. Has she used the abbey in an honest monastic calling—or has she used it for protection rather than doing what she could to find her family?
(We could even ask if Dr. Pinch is, in fac,t poor old Dr.Pinch, a man with legitimate exorcist credentials—or just a charlatan who deserves everything he gets from Antipholus and Dromio.)
None of these issues is resolved, and in a lesser playwright, we would hear talk of leaving many loose ends in a play lacking in all artistry.
Thankfully, we don’t hear much of that about Comedy of Errors, which shows good critical judgment because all these loose ends add up to a significant part of the formal patterning of the play. None of them is resolved because none of them is really pertinent to the patterned success and survival. Among other things, that means that Comedy of Errors is replete with red herring issues, issues left unresolved as part of patterning.
So arguments can be made to defend Dromio as a member of the oppressed lower classes or to condemn him for lying. We’d rather not resort to either, because we know that there are arguments both ways. Instead, we’d like to let it remain a legitimate question within the comedic structure. What does that mean?
It means that the success and survival demonstrated in Comedy of Errors, among other things, do not hinge on having the right answers for everything. They don’t even hinge on everything smoothing out in the end. We don’t know what the truth of the drubbings of Dromio is when the play ends, and we don’t know whether or not that truth, whatever it is, will continue. But the play does end, after so long grief, with such nativity.
The truth about Dromio is the biggest truth left in question at the end of Comedy of Errors, but remember the others. What is the truth about Adriana? Has she been the submissive wife who nevertheless needs to be aware that her world is falling apart? Or is she the much too forward—or as Shakespeare’s world would say, froward—wife driving her husband possibly to drink but certainly to lunch at the Porcupine? And what is the truth then about Antipholus of Ephesus? He certainly seems to be a lout—unless Adriana isn’t what we would like to think she is, unless Dromio isn’t telling the truth we’d like to imagine about him.
These question marks, rather than confusing the comedic pattern, are part of the comedic pattern and consistent within the symbolic meaning of Ephesus. For a good many of the characters we have watched and learned to sympathize with, the play’s end is a possible beginning, a nativity, but not a successful resolution. The truth about Dromio of Ephesus’ relationship to his Antipholus, the truth about Adriana in relation to her Antipholus, and the truth of Antipholus in relation to his Adriana hasn’t been written yet. Instead of a second death, the end of Comedy of Errors is a second life, in which hopefully all these truths can be written with a surprising new and hopeful clarity.
But for Antipholus of Syracuse, the man who trusted what he heard inside himself and who bet everything on it, the play ends with full success and more, for Antipholus has not only found the mother and brother he knew he needed, he has also found and saved the father he risked, and he has found the love of his life in Luciana. It can be hoped for both of the Antipholuses that the future beyond the curtain will not be literally or symbolically childless.
The final scene with the two Dromios left on stage suggests an analogous success for the Dromio of Syracuse who also chose long ago to wholeheartedly serve his master and join in an impossible quest. We see the first fruits of that success, among other things a growth in self-awareness, as Dromio of Ephesus instructs him: “I see by you I am a sweet-faced youth” (V.ii.428).
And perhaps most revolutionarily, the two Dromios realize together that what all the world—at least all the primogeniture-fixated Elizabethan world—thinks is important isn’t really all that important. Who is older isn’t at all important. The Dromios have discovered what is important:
“We came into the world like brother and brother;
And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.” (V.ii.425-426)
Revolutionary maybe, but also a promising start, particularly for the speaker, Dromio of Ephesus. Perhaps unexpectable truths spoken in love and first loves rediscovered can heal much in Ephesus.
All this is part of patterning, but we are still missing the essential ingredient, a component of success Shakespeare repeatedly returns to in his comedies. Much as all this is true, it isn’t enough after all without resort to something higher, to a grace that is the fountain of both success and survival.
In this play, Shakespeare uses the duke as his symbol of this important point, a duke who started the play claiming no power to extenuate the law. Yet in the last scene, with Antipholus of Syracuse necessarily risking his life and the life of his Dromio (as they are both Syracusans), the duke reverses himself, refuses the bag of gold, that gold which always seemed the way of salvation for this play darkened by the specter of Egeon’s death at sunset. The Duke states simply, “It shall not need” (V.ii.391). Grace finally is sufficient against a death sentence for Egeon as it inherently is for his Syracusan son and servant.
And the sufficiency of grace is what makes Aemilia’s (and earlier, Dromio’s) word so apt: after such grief, such nativity. Nativity is a strangely Latinized choice where the Anglo-Saxon birth seems sufficient. Nativity, like Navidad in Spanish, is hardly ever just birth. It is a very special birth, a birth that comes from grace and brings grace. That grace, it be hoped from a comedic perspective, will be enough to write a generous answer in the virtual future—in that life after the play beyond the final curtain—to the Question of Dromio, the Question of Adriana, and even the Question of Antipholus of Ephesus, questions with which we could struggle interminably without arriving at a final resolution.
If this is the comedic import of Comedy of Errors, it is hardly trivial; the bromides with which we began this chapter are then solidly insults to Shakespeare’s art. The play recognizes a world of constant wanderings and errors by perfectly decent-minded people, moving them to the brink of madness. In such a world, the error itself may be caused by the individual’s (Antipholus of Syracuse’s) relentless search for what is missing in himself. And in such a world, the hope for human survival, much less success and happiness, does not depend on personal fortitude, personal talent, or personal skill. Nor does it depend on any of these in society in general. Instead, it depends either on luck or on Providence.
As in all Shakespearean comedy, it is possible to believe that everything works out by happy chance. But if you really believe that, as the saying goes, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you. If everything in Comedy of Errors depends on chance, the fascination of the play becomes little more than the fascination of tossing heads fifty or a hundred times in a row.
In Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare makes the point clear in the denouement, everyone having found everyone “accidentally.” Call it luck if you will. But even with luck, there is still an Ephesian law condemning Syracusans, three of whom are on stage, even if we exempt Aemilia .At that point, not only Providence but very demonstrably grace becomes the celebrated hope of humanity’s success and survival.
As a formal comedy, then, Comedy of Errors is indeed a comedy of error and wandering, within a basically Christian context with no societal force or foe to blame for basically wasted life and dependent on an outside hero embarked on an impossible quest to find those specific others who complete himself. And above and beyond all this, it is dependent on grace.
Given this kind of comedy, what can be said of the play's humor and of its humor personality to deepen the artistic appreciation of such a comedy? Having already recognized the strong element of physical humor in the play, we can move directly to humor-of-the-mind personality analysis, to consider which two of the four sub-forms of Humor of the Mind dominate the play.
Central to the mental humor of the play is Incongruity. The confusion of one set of twins was the comedic base for Plautus’ Menaechmi. Shakespeare doubled that and more, by adding, among other things, a minor theme of mistaken bigamous intent. Any play that mistakes the identity of two characters, as Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Plautus’ Menaechmi do, is going to be long on Incongruities, not just incongruity, but incongruity that is received as humorous. Any play that mistakes the identity of two sets of characters, as Plautus’ Amphytruo and Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors do, is going to be tour de force Incongruity. In stage productions, even with indifferent acting, this should be immediately measureable in terms of number of audible humorous responses in the audience, as person after person is befuddled meeting the wrong person, and as the wrong person is increasingly tempted to madness and to a sense of the world as illusion.
Weaving through all the Incongruity is a great deal of Word Play, especially springing from the Dromios. However, with the exception of the description of the spherical kitchen wench, the Word Play is quite typically simply the Incongruity of mistaken identities and intentions put into words. It’s certainly nothing like the flyghting we struggled through in As You Like It. Yet Shakespeare always being long on Word Play, for the moment, let us consider Word Play as a possible dominant humor sub-form.
If the dominant humors are Incongruity and Word Play, then the play is Intellectual in humor personality and texture, the same personality and texture of As You Like It. There is something of a hard finish in both plays that contrasts with the murky character of everything but the aristocrats of the fifth act in Midsummer Night’s Dream, (which we will further investigate in the next chapter).
But like Midsummer Night’s Dream, Comedy of Errors is about people in pain. Error typically is painful. It is painful, we have come to realize, if the Federal Reserve in all good intent makes a mistake. It is painful if in all good intent, somewhere back in the ‘90’s we invested in the stock market mistakenly thinking that 8.5% returns were so normal as to be guaranteed in the long run. And it is excruciatingly painful for all the characters in Comedy of Errors as their world falls apart.
If Sid Caesar, Al Capp, and Charles Shultz have it right, that humor is really all about laughing at other people’s pain, the pain experienced by Comedy of Errors’ characters should create a funny play. And, of course, it creates in Shakespeare a hilarious play. But is this simply pain humor? Are we simply laughing because the dinosaur snatched the other person instead of us, á là Sid Caesar?
We might try to argue, no, this is Gotcha humor. We aren’t barbarians who laugh at pain for itself.
But the problem with that solution is that by and large the jokes of Comedy of Errors don’t meet the demands of our definition of Gotcha. These characters wandering and scurrying around Ephesus are not got because they think too highly of themselves. Antipholus of Syracuse doesn’t think he is smart; he thinks he is incomplete. Dromio of Syracuse does not get got for thinking himself a competent servant or a loyal slave. He only gets got for being the wrong Dromio. Egeon does not get got because he is talented or even because he is a decrepit old man. He gets got simply because he is a Syracusan. And so on.
Dr. Pinch is the great exception. He does think he is smart and talented as a physician of souls. The scourging he receives as the hands of the escaped Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio thereof is hilarious proof that Shakespeare knew how to do Gotcha. But in Comedy of Errors, Gotcha is an exception, not the norm.
And that leaves Sympathetic Pain as the fourth sub-form of mental humor. And once we mention it, it is obvious that we find just about everybody in this play sympathetic—even, for some of us, Dr. Pinch. We know how mistaken they all are, and we know the pain they are undergoing through no fault of their own, no hubris, no thought of themselves as better than they are or better than we. Far from being less than ourselves—as neo-classical theory so glibly asserts—or better than ourselves—as their stated rank in society would indicate—they are like ourselves, wandering around in a world that often is maddening as they try to figure out what it’s all about.
And we sense, virtually throughout the play, Sympathetic Pain humor. We laugh with Adriana, not at her, as everyone tells her the obligations of a proper wife while refusing to deal with the realities of Adriana’s life. We laugh with Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse as they repeatedly conclude that everyone in Ephesus is a lunatic and a ticking time-bomb. We laugh with Antipholus of Ephesus as the world he won with his sword in honorable and dangerous service to his duke and to his polis sinks into insanity and senselessness. We laugh perhaps even with Egeon at the end when his wished-for death has transformed itself into abundant life. And we certainly laugh with Aemelia, who has endured decades of desperate faith, now suddenly rewarded after such grief with such nativity
And most boisterously of all, we laugh at the two Racetracks, the two Dromios, doing everything right and having everything go wrong, down to the drubbings so frequently claimed to be the quintessence of Shakespeare’s play.
And that allows us to be constantly on almost everybody’s side, constantly being sympathetic enough not to feel the pain they are feeling but to transmute real sympathy into Sympathetic Pain humor and essentially to exclaim, “That’s okay, we know exactly how you feel—but we’d rather laugh than feel it, and you’d probably be happier that we laughed with you than that we cried for you.”
If we protest that we weren’t rolling in the aisles on all these Sympathetic Pain jokes—which is typically true—that does not stop Sympathetic Pain humor from almost uninterrupted presence in Comedy of Errors.
Thus, while recognizing slaps to the Dromios (even though they occur infrequently in the play) and recognizing the great potentials for physical humor centered on two characters called Racetrack, and even recognizing that Shakespeare is always notable for Word Play, we have to argue that the play is dominated almost at every moment beyond the first expository scenes by humorous Incongruity and Sympathetic Pain. And that combination of humor-of-the-mind sub-forms makes the humor personality of Comedy of Errors what we have called Reconciler.
Comedy of Errors moves consistently toward reconciliation even as it vastly multiplies the errors that stand in reconciliation’s way. And the comedic center of the play, Antipholus of Syracuse, who alone makes a proactive decision and who alone sets the play in motion, is fundamentally concerned with a reconciliation that can only be accomplished by the completing of himself in specific others.
Now, we all recognize that most comedies lead to some sort of reconciliation. That does not give them all Reconciler humor personalities. The Reconciler personality recognizes all the incongruities and problems presented by the play, without diminishing them, yet at the same time embraces them all as common to humanity. The Reconciler personality is a generous personality, forgoing the righting of wrongs and the adjudicating of justice for recasting and transforming. Instead, it embraces error, foible, and weakness to recast them into a whole, held together by mercy and generosity, all within a new perspective. We don’t need a careful unraveling of all the errors and misunderstandings or even apologies for all the excessive verbiage and reactions generated by error. Instead, we have nativity, a fresh start with a new understanding. Even the questions of Dromio of Ephesus’ past beatings, of Antipholus of Ephesus’ treatment of his wife, and of Adriana’s congeniality as a wife are left unresolved, swept up into reconciliation through nativity.
In Comedic Tenor, Comic Vehicle our representative of Reconciler personality was My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The film unites in marriage two people whose love is fraught with familial and cultural differences and misunderstandings. In the end, the cultural incongruities remain. But the toast of the father of the bride embraces all the painful incongruities in hope by saying, “We are all fruit.”
If Reconciler is the humor personality of Comedy of Errors, what kind of texture is created by its humor components?
Taken separately, Sympathetic Pain and Incongruity are humors of maturity. While children early learn to enjoy Word Play and Gotchas (the knock-knock joke bearing exquisite proof), appreciation for Sympathetic Pain and Incongruity develops later.[i]
Sympathetic Pain humor is the humor of experience. Through experience, we learn to recognize the trials of others’ to be similar to our own. We also learn that Gotcha is not so much fun if we are the gottee. And we learn that if we laugh together at human foibles, trials, and errors, suspending the judgment implied in Gotcha humor, we create community.
As the humor of experience, Sympathetic Pain creates a texture of inclusiveness, of mercy, of a gentleness which is alive to pain, yet refuses to let pain have the last word. Comedy of Errors, embraces two generations of experienced adults—in shipwreck, in loss of family, in disappointment, in marital discord, in long service to one master, in hope deferred, and in misunderstanding and confusion. And through all of this, we as audience are feeling the sense of inclusiveness, mercy, gentleness which is alive to pain and looking beyond.
If Sympathetic Pain humor represents experience, Incongruity is a humor of mature thinking. In itself it creates something of a hard finish, an enjoyable contemplation of disparities, of seeming and real contradictions. Our laughter at Incongruity responds to all the mind-benders Shakespeare throws at us, with double twins, multiple reunions, and innumerable confusions and misunderstandings. We feel mentally lightfooted, alive to disparities, inclusive of inconsistencies, tolerant of uncertainties.
By itself, Incongruity creates a texture of mental engagement and inclusiveness but emotional detachment.
Yet Gentle Will has not left us in emotional detachment. In Comedy of Errors, he has asked us to be engaged, to respond to these characters as human beings like ourselves, as sympathetic characters rather than pieces on an intricate chess board. And it is the Sympathetic Pain humor which makes bearable a real awareness of the pain of these befuddled, incomplete, erring characters.
Given that Sympathetic Pain and Incongruity humor dominate the mental humor of Comedy of Errors, what kind of texture do they create in the synthesis which we call Reconciler? The combination of these two humors creates a certain tension between Incongruity’s hard-finished detachment and Sympathetic Pain’s gentle relational engagement.
And this tension is at the heart of Reconciler texture: it is a texture alive to pain yet with a certain detachment, compassionately perceptive, mercifully nonjudgmental of unresolved issues and disparities. It draws us out of noninvolvement into an emotional investment in and a concerned desire for an inclusive resolution—a resolution which bars judgment. It is a willingness to bear in ourselves the burden of questions unanswered, issues unresolved, justice forborne in order that no one be excluded from a generous resolution.
It is useful to compare the texture of Comedy of Errors to that of As You Like It. Both plays have considerable Incongruity, but Comedy of Errors lacks As You Like It’s preponderance of Word Play and the concomitant texture of razzle dazzle but also its stop-action, lugubriousness. A play with two characters named Racetrack cannot afford much stop-action lugubriousness! And whereas As You Like It has an undercurrent of Sympathetic Pain which will not allow us to remain completely detached from the characters and action, Comedy of Errors abounds in Sympathetic Pain, engaging our emotions in a way that overcomes Incongruity’s detachment. These humor differences account for the real disparity between the detached texture of As You Like It and the compassionate concern of Comedy of Errors.
Those who want to turn Comedy of Errors into a mere romp will do so at the expense of its Sympathetic Pain humor. If the play is not played for Sympathetic Pain, it gravitates toward farce, that enjoyment in the pain of others, an unactualized pain, which allows us to suspend both justice and mercy.
But we have argued that Shakespeare’s script does not allow us to get off so easily. Along with a comedy deepened by the real pain of separation and error, of first love on its deathbed, he gives us Reconciler humor which assures us that even exponential compounding of errors can be embraced and reconciled through mercy and a humble awareness of our common humanity. This isn’t farce. It is extraordinarily vivid Reconciler comedy.
We can argue about Adriana as a proper wife and even about Luciana as a thoroughly proper sister-in-law. We can debate whether Antipholus of Ephesus is indeed the lout of his current behavior or the hero of his previous service to the duke. We can wonder how bad it really has been for Dromio of Ephesus.
But our emotions are not interested. We have gotten to reconciliation in a comedy of error, reconciled into a rebirth and into a complementarity based in inherently contrastive parts. Everyone, except perhaps Dr. Pinch, has entered the celebration hall.
The question marks, the unresolved issue, are someone else’s play and the concern of some other audience.
[i] Studies done by Dr. Dan Holt, in association with the Institute for Travesty, Comedy, and Humor Studies, showed that Sympathetic Pain appreciation in men started low in young adult years and increased into middle age (HQN 1-2), while for women appreciation started higher in young adult years and decreased into middle age, (HQN 1-3). This seems to suggest that for women, Sympathetic Pain declines with age. Probably more accurately, Sympathetic Pain declines for women no longer with young children but facing the rough and tumble of a heterosexual workforce. In a later study, in cooperation with Winona Health, the Grawes showed Consoler preference among women reverses higher around age 55 and moves inexorably higher through old age (HQN 10-1)! [Return to text.]