The Comedy of Errors

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The Comedy of Errors

Handout #4

English 231/231W

Spring 2008

The play opens with Aegeon, a merchant of Syracuse, being arrested in Ephesus because of enmity between Ephesus and Syracuse. Aegeon tells Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus, his tale: he was shipwrecked many years ago while sailing with his wife, Aemilia, and two pairs of identical twins—their twin sons, both named Antipholus, and twin servants, both named Dromio. In the course of the storm, his wife, one of their sons, and one their servants, were lost. At eighteen, Aegeon had allowed the remaining Antipholus and Dromio to leave Syracuse for Ephesus to search for their long-lost twins, at which point both of them had disappeared as well. After five years, Aegeon had come to Ephesus to find them.
Solinus, moved by the old man's tale, postpones Aegeon's sentence; Aegeon has until nightfall to produce a ransom, or he will be put to death. At this point in the action, Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus, and the farce commences as everyone—including the twins themselves—confuses the identities of the twins. Antipholus of Syracuse ends up invited to dinner at the home of Antipholus of Ephesus and dines with his twin's wife, Adriana. Meanwhile, Angelo, a merchant, gives a gold chain commissioned by Antipholus of Ephesus to Antipholus of Syracuse by mistake, telling him he'll come back later for payment. When Antipholus of Ephesus refuses to pay later on, Angelo has him arrested. All this time, Adriana and her sister, Luciana, are convinced that Antipholus and Dromio (of Ephesus) have gone mad, which leads them to forcibly restrain them and take them to a doctor.
Of course, when Adriana later encounters Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, she thinks they've escaped from the doctor. The pair from Syracuse are forced to flee into a nearby abbey for refuge. In the meantime, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus do escape from the doctor, and arrive to petition the Duke as Aegeon is being led to his death. In the midst of everyone trying to tell their varying accounts of the day, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse arrive with the abbess—who turns out to be Aemilia, Aegeon's long-lost wife. The twins all sort out their stories in the presence of the Duke. In the end, Aegeon is released from his death sentence and reunited with his wife and sons, Antipholus of Syracuse is set to marry Luciana, and all has been put to right.

Language, Magic, the Dromios, and The Comedy of Errors

By Kent Cartwright

(Studies in English Literature Spring 2007)
Discussions of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors eventually tend to find their way to Dr. Pinch: although Pinch is "lean-fac'd," he casts a wide shadow.1 He may appear only in one scene and speak only some dozen lines, but he registers an impression so lingering as to suggest something characteristic about the imaginative structure of the play.2 Whether he is a "doting wizard," a schoolmaster, or a quack doctor familiar from dramatic tradition, he carries onto the stage, nonetheless, an aura slightly disturbing, even eerie (IV.iv.56). That sense of disturbance emanates not from his gaunt frame or "saffron face"; it derives, rather, from the way that Dr. Pinch becomes the physical manifestation of an idea, an anxiety, and an obsession (IV.iv.59). In him, the play's imaginings of demonic possession have finally called forth their bizarre material counterpart. Dr. Pinch thus enters the action from a realm more of fantasy than of narrative, and he stands for the fear that what one utters-by its own mere agency-might just turn into reality. As the proverb says, "Speak of the Devil and he will appear."3
But I am getting ahead of my story, and this is a story that involves a variety of characters, especially the Dromios, and, more broadly, the workings of language in the play. My argument is that words and thoughts in The Comedy of Errors unexpectedly acquire a certain magical agency and that the magical and the fantastical also acquire a certain potential for truth. I would suggest, that is, that the play delves beyond its own overt empiricism toward a substructure of fantasy and enchantment that conveys, paradoxically, a sense of the "real." This argument points toward a residual medievalism in Shakespeare, identifiable in elements such as fairies and sympathetic bewitchment. The magical resonates importantly, too, in The Comedy of Errors's expressions of copia and festivity. Instances of amplitude, doubleness, and repetition eddy through the scenic structure and language of the play as if bearing witness to some uncanny agency. The Dromios are the characters most sensitive to the magical, and, in their festivity and unruly speech and their earthiness and responsiveness, they enhance the sense of magic's odd realism. At the end, the rationalism of the denouement will draw a certain power from the penumbra of the magical.
The idea of magic arises in the action, of course, from the disturbing possibility that different characters might share the same identity. That possibility cannot be explained, at least initially, by empirical sense impressions: "What error drives our eyes and ears amiss," asks the alien Antipholus (II.ii.184). With sense impressions baffled, the characters are launched into a "green world" of Ephesian enchantment-made that much more numinous by the reputation of Ephesus in the New Testament as a place of magic.4 Conversely, in the last act's resolution, Egeon's declaration that his eyes and ears "cannot err" will help to bring the city back to its senses (V.i.317). Thus, rational empiricism will finally unravel the truth, while magic will be understood as the false explanation for, as the Abbess puts it, "this sympathised one day's error" (V.i.397).5 But, of course, the very idea that an "error" could be "sympathised," that is, spread from character to character by some psychic force, does not seem itself altogether rational or empirical. Despite the play's Providential and Pauline denouement, magic acquires, I want to suggest, a certain agency and validity, a truth value.
Three aspects of magic stand out for our purposes: sympathy, language, and possession. Sympathetic magic in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance identified the belief that effects could be created on a remote being by performing them on another object representative of that being.6 Dromio of Syracuse alludes to one form of sympathetic magic when he explains that devils usually ask for "the parings of one's nail, a rush, a hair, a drop of blood, a pin, a nut, a cherry-stone" (IV.iii.69-71). With one such domestic trifle, a witch can work vicarious effects.
A related form of sympathetic magic involves what today we think of as voodoo dolls. A number of English witch trials in the years just before The Comedy of Errors give evidence of witches who configured wax effigies of their enemies and then mutilated them-for example, by stabbing the effigy in the midsection with stiff hairs in order to cause stomach pains in the victim.7 Likewise, in 1591 the possibly deranged William Hacket was executed for seeking the queen's death in that he "did trayterously raze a certaine picture of the Q. Maiesties . . . and . . . did maliciously and traiterously put in and thrust an yron Instrument into that part of the sayde picture, that did represent the Brest and Hart of the Q. Majestie."8 In April 1594, the year of The Comedy of Errors's first probable performance, Ferdinando Stanley, the fifth Earl of Derby died from bewitchment, according to some reports. Shakespeare surely had specific knowledge of the earl, the patron of Lord Strange's Men with whom Shakespeare was connected.9 Surrounding the earl's death were peculiar events associated by some with bewitchment or Catholic revenge or both. The earl's demise reportedly involved a wax effigy, a wizard, and an apparition; and near to the earl during his illness, allegedly, was a "mumbling" woman who "seemed to be able to ease him of his vomiting and hiccough, but whenever she did so, became troubled in the same way herself."10 The Comedy of Errors has no wax effigies or mumbling women, but it does have telepathic effects, especially between corresponding characters, in that the fears for the self that one character expresses can produce real afflictions for another. In this play, thoughts have the potential for sympathetic agency.
Magic also has a historic and histrionic association with language: spells, charms, incantations, and prayers. "The whole of Elizabethan culture testifies to the power imagined in words," states Jane Donawerth, but word magic inspired opposing judgments in contemporary rhetorical treatises and also on the stage.11 Although radical thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino and Henry Cornelius Agrippa could argue for thaumaturgic effects in language, many Elizabethan rhetoricians were suspicious of word magic, given the attack by Protestants on what they considered the witchcraft of the Catholic Mass.12 A dramatist such as Christopher Marlowe, however, could claim that eloquence has the power to bewitch. In Tamburlaine, for example, Theridamas finds himself charmed by Tamburlaine's blandishments: "What stronge enchantments tice my yeelding soule," he asks (I.ii.224).13 In Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 1, Joan la Pucelle's word magic is both defended and denied by other characters-and never quite discredited. More extensively in The Comedy of Errors, words take on magical lives of their own; they migrate and double; and they infuse themselves into and dominate the minds of characters.
Such a version of word magic might recall the idea of possession, perhaps the most extreme form of bewitchment, wherein an alien force inhabits and controls one's body. Possession, for Protestants, constituted a difficult subject. Just as Reformers rejected relics, pardons, intercessions by saints, and most forms of priestly mediation between God and man, they also tended to reject the efficacy of exorcisms. Many Protestants, nonetheless, still considered demonic possession possible.14 In the late 1580s and early 1590s, numerous cases occurred of apparently demonic possession, even mass possessions, especially of children, often taking the form of trances, wild hallucinations, and involuntary utterances.15 As just one example, in 1593-close to the time of The Comedy of Errors's probable composition-a sensational pamphlet detailed the notorious case of five Throckmorton sisters and seven maidservants from Warboys, all possessed by demons. For this virtually communal or "sympathised" act of possession, three accused witches were tried by the Bishop of Lincoln and hanged in 1592.16 Possession seemed capable of spreading within a household like a contagion, observes Philip C. Almond of cases from 1574 to 1597.17 As The Comedy of Errors reached the stage, demonic possession was in the air, and it constitutes one of the ideas iterated most often in the play.18 The resident Antipholus even comes to exhibit what others perceive as the signs of demonic possession-frightful countenance, nonsensical talk, and physical violence. The alien Antipholus and his Dromio, for their part, feel mutually bewitched and even transformed in their first encounter with Adriana, and, in general, they believe themselves beset by "enchanting" "witches," afflicted with the "imaginary wiles" of "sorcerers," and made to "wander in illusions" (III.ii.160, 155; IV.iii.10-1; IV.iii.41).
Alongside magic, I would like to place a different set of terms that will lead us later to the Dromios. Let me begin with a somewhat artificial distinction between, on the one hand, narrative, and, on the other, "amplification," a term that I take from Thomas Wilson's Art of Rhetoric (1560).19 When we discuss narrative, we generally have in mind plot lines and actions, causal relationships among events in time, motivations and desires, degrees of agency, and the like. Yet, often imbedded in narrative is a kind of counterforce, what we might call "amplification," or, to borrow from Desiderius Erasmus, "copia," or, to use Patricia Parker's term, "dilation."20 Amplification, according to Wilson, is augmentation in language or in substance. It makes possible endless variations on a theme or a convention; thus the fitness of Erasmus's term copia, from which the verb "to copy" derives, and thus Parker's sense of dilation as delay and doubling.21 Amplification "mov[es]" the "affections," says Wilson, and stimulates the mind.22 In Terence, for instance, multiple variations on a character type or a predicament-compared, likened, or differentiated-make possible a range of engaging and edifying distinctions.23 Erasmus also emphasizes in copia a certain liveliness: "Nature herself especially rejoices in variety," and "the mind always eagerly examines whatever it sees as new," he argues.24 Thus Erasmus typically discusses copia through images of abundance, splendor, pleasure, and vividness. Doubling in The Comedy of Errors-of characters, of events, of experiences-generates fundamentally the delight and vitality of copia.
Amplification and copia evoke additional values associated with the Renaissance and its drama, such as play, clowning, festive misrule, and carnivalesque inversion, the domain, in The Comedy of Errors, of the Dromios. Thus, in a work such as The Comedy of Errors, characters who stand for or express festivity often do so by means of amplification. Syracusan Dromio's speech about "the parings of one's nail" illustrates that convergence. The rejuvenating, pun-drenched wit contest between Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, concerning whether or not "there's a time for all things," offers an episode of rhetorical amplification and dilation that prolongs the time and delays the plot (II.ii.63-4).25 Simultaneously, it overthrows Antipholus's violent anger toward his slave, induces laughter and delight, and elevates Dromio to at least intellectual and spiritual parity with Antipholus. Indeed, the brothers Dromio could be described (as we shall see) as themselves figures of amplification.
Copia and festivity also share a Renaissance kinship with magic. Rhetorical embellishments and flourishes, for example, were often criticized by medieval and Renaissance theologians, as John O. Ward shows, because their effects resembled those of magic.26 From a broader perspective, Stuart Clark identifies demonology as an aspect of European intellectual history and demonstrates that magic, witchcraft, and possession were values that Renaissance thinkers connected with cognates such as parody, festive misrule, and hierarchic inversion in an intellectual model of complementary and opposed terms. Amplitude, festivity, and magic, that is, cluster on one side of an encompassing binarial system in contrast to values such as restraint, work, order, rule, rationality, and sacrament. Such clustering and associating of terms is important, for witchcraft beliefs could be credible only because they "were sustained by a whole range of other intellectual commitments." Thus, Clark observes, one could "move from the festive to the demonic without any sense of elision."27 In that spirit, The Comedy of Errors links the domains of comedy, copiousness, and conjuration. In the hilarious "lockout" scene, for example, when the resident Dromio calls out the names of a half-dozen maidservants, the other Dromio taunts him: "Dost thou conjure for wenches, that thou call'st for such store" (III.i.34). "Such store": Ephesian Dromio's runaway replication of names itself suggests demonic incantation. Amplitude in language-in a scene already colored with comedic hierarchical disruption-raises the associated specter of magical agency. We are now in a position to see how instances of copia can suggest eerie effects.
In the very first scene of The Comedy of Errors, amplification and dilation lead to a sense of possession as characters imitate an emotion that finally takes on its own life. This pattern emerges as Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, listens to the condemned Egeon tell the tale of his shipwreck and the separation of his family. Inside the shipwreck story, passion is already presented as infectious, for the wife's "incessant weepings" at the sea storm migrate to the "piteous plainings" of the babies, who "mourn'd for fashion," and finally to Egeon, moved "to seek delays" from drowning because of the others' cries (I.i.70, 72, 74, 73). Outside the shipwreck story, Egeon's narration of pity and dilation has, similarly, a contagious effect on Solinus, for the Duke, who first "excludes all pity" from his decree, now comes to feel "pity" for the sufferings of Egeon and his family and, climactically, makes himself Egeon's "advocate" by granting him a daylong reprieve (I.i.5, 97, 145). Solinus's pity and delay mirror Egeon's own pity and delay with the theme of imitation ("mourn'd for fashion") enunciated by Egeon and enacted by Solinus, each character possessed in turn by the same prior emotion.28 Sympathy has become "sympathised."
At work, too, is another, odd displacement of feeling, for So-linus expresses more desire to save Egeon's life than does Egeon himself. In his opening lines, Egeon had taken comfort from the Duke's "doom of death"; in the sea storm, he had embraced the prospect of death; and in the closing lines of the scene, he repeats his world weariness: "Hopeless and helpless doth Egeon wend, / But to procrastinate his lifeless end" (I.i.2; I.i.157-8). Egeon experiences himself already as the walking dead, so that the Duke's urge to rescue his life ignores, almost comically, Egeon's embrace of his own demise. Here imitative pity, once aroused, expatiates, acquires its own life, takes possession of the mind, and reads itself back, even mistakenly, into its object. Such amplification might be considered the play's very first error; it is also a source of its vitality, its inner life, since Solinus's pity will reshape events.29
We have, then, the striking demonstration of a feeling migrating, spreading, and transferring as if it were self-powered, automotive. The process appears already a little magical, and it will come to embrace words, phrases, sounds, and patterns of action, which will seem capable of wandering from episode to episode. Indeed, Solinus's dilating pity creates a dramaturgical field of associative or telepathic energy, for it calls forth, as if magnetically, the entrance of Egeon's son in the next scene with a bag of potentially redemptive money. There the First Merchant, with apparently preternatural knowledge, informs the alien An-tipholus that a countryman has been "apprehended" and will die "ere the weary sun set in the west," echoing the vowels and consonants, as well as the temper, of Egeon's closing speech just seconds before as he "wend[s]" toward "his lifeless end" (I.ii.4, 7). A drift of phonemes and feelings from one scene to another has begun. Instances of shared language put the traveler Antipholus (in scene ii) and his long-separated father Egeon (in scene i) in uncanny synchronicity. Antipholus describes himself as a "drop of water" falling in the ocean, "inquisitive" for his fellow, and he concludes, "So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself" (I.ii.35-40). Because Adriana's later appropriation of the same water image is so distinct, critics tend to ignore Antipholus's repetition of Egeon's prior diction. Egeon had also described this son as "inquisitive" and in "quest" of "his brother," and Antipholus's "unhappy" enjoys all sorts of variations in Egeon's previous narrative: "happy but for me," "happy . . . in my timely death"-until the old man receives from Solinus the defining epithet, "Hapless Egeon" (I.i.125, 129, 126; I.i.37, 138, 140; see also I.i.38, 113). Finally, Antipholus's "lose myself"-not only a phrase in the speech but also a motif in the play-recalls Egeon's earlier "I hazarded the loss of whom I lov'd" (I.i.131). These resonances create a psychic kinship, as if, as G. R. Elliott says, the "very air" of the second scene "is felt to be fathered by Aegeon's" first scene, or as if one episode had the power to call forth the next, or as if moods and words from one scene could wash into another, the scenes becoming strangely "sympathised."30
The same effect now repeats and complicates itself, for, in the next scene, the women's language echoes not only that of the Antipholus scene (I.ii) but also that of the earlier Egeon scene (I.i). The charged epithet "slave" perambulates from the end of the second to the beginning of this third scene (I.ii.104; II.i.1). Luciana's talk of merchants and marts evokes the immediately prior action, and the women's discussion of men's "liberty" recalls Antipholus's preceding alarm at Ephesian "liberties of sin" (II.i.4-5; II.i.7, 10, 15; I.ii.102). Words are on the move-but the most surprising channeling occurs between this third scene and Egeon's first scene. Adriana's claim about men's "liberty," of course, recalls ironically Egeon's loss of it. Various of the women's other phrases and images also recall Egeon's story: "Time" as men's "master" (II. i.8), "lash'd with woe" (II.i.14; cf. I.i.2), "heaven's eye" (II.i.16; cf. I.i.66, 88), "bound" (II.i.17; cf. I.i.81), and "wild wat'ry seas" (II. i.21; cf. I.i.63). The connections tighten as Adriana dilates upon her own unhappiness. Her image of "A wretched soul bruis'd with adversity" evokes the conflict between "adverse towns" that threatens to bruise mortally the wretched Egeon (II.i.34; I.i.5, 15). Likewise her recognition of her own "helpless patience" recalls the adjective's last use by Egeon in a pointed couplet as he exits, patient but "helpless" (II.i.39; I.i.157). Still other verbal fragments drift from Egeon to Adriana, such as "complain" (II.i.37; cf. I.i.72) and "bereft" (II.i.40; cf. I.i.115). Likewise, when Adriana insists that others would grieve as she does if they were "burden'd with like weight of pain," she catches the tenor of Egeon's "burdened / With lesser weight, but not with lesser woe" (II.i.36; I.i.107-8). The words and feelings of Egeon's narrative seem to have defined the form and color of Adriana's grief. Bits of his language double in hers, hers vary upon his, as if his dilations had conjured forth the possibilities of her expression, the characters possessed by a linguistic field with its own magical life.
Language has acquired here a structural and instrumental function. Often, of course, a Shakespearean play will reiterate certain words, phrases, and images, such as the terms of sickness in Hamlet, that lend ambiance and meaning to a play. Most instances of recurrent words and images do not require or invite the notion of magical agency to explain them; rather, we think of them as indices to the special nature of the dramatic world before us. In a play such as The Comedy of Errors, however-in which magic is a primary subject, in which characters share images whose presence seems to be flagged (such as the "drop of water"), and in which a mediating figure identifies a universally "sympathised" misprision -in such a play, thinking about language as possessing a kind of magical agency seems more than fair. Word magic in The Comedy of Errors, moreover, produces a metadramatic effect, the impression that we are watching the action, in some sense, create itself. In The Comedy of Errors language both communicates and enacts the play's special nature.
Words and figures of speech can repeat and preternaturally amplify previous ones. Such a repetition makes Syracusan An-tipholus's encounter with Adriana slightly uncanny. It also casts doubt on his infatuation with Luciana.31 Antipholus and Adriana share the thrilling water imagery of dissolution and recombination. Antipholus has likened himself to "a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop" (I.ii.35-6). Adriana, appearing to have read his mind, claims at their first meeting that he could no more divide himself from her than he could let "fall / A drop of water in the breaking gulf, / And take unmingled thence that drop again" (II.ii.125-7).

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