The Comedy of Errors

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That strangely shared sense of deliquescence is recaptured in the bewitching "mist" that Adriana, upon their first meeting, has cast over Antipholus: "I'll . . . / in this mist at all adventures go," he proclaims, yielding, as he follows her inside (II.ii.215-6). Antipholus's eventual distaste for Adriana notwithstanding, her "mist" identifies an aura of enchantment and potential transformation. 32 In that mist, Antipholus will be able to fall in love by imagining Luciana as a thing "divine," a "mermaid," a "god" with the power to change men (III.ii.32, 45, 39). "Mist" is associated with "mystification" and with magic, as a line from Stephen Gos-son suggests: "The Iuggler casteth a myst to work the closer."33 Adriana's mist creates, I argue, the necessary state of enchantment- and for Antipholus, the sense of wonder-that makes his extravagant vision of Luciana possible. The first enchantment by Adriana haunts the second by Luciana.
Adriana's language from the prior scene (II.ii) has possessed Antipholus, evident as he attempts to woo Luciana in the subsequent one (III.ii). Although he recoils from being drowned in the "weeping" Adriana's "flood of tears," Antipholus yet embraces drowning if he could be pillowed in Luciana's "golden hairs" "Spread o'er the silver waves," as if his romantic imagining of Luciana were conditioned on his impressions of her sister (III. ii.42, 46, 48). Indeed, the very vision of a drowning lover had entered the play in an earlier speech by Adriana: "I'll weep what's left away, and weeping die" (II.i.115). When Antipholus tells Lu-ciana, furthermore, that she is "mine own self's better part," he repeats exactly the idea and phrasing used by Adriana, who had spoken of herself to him as his "dear self's better part" (III.ii.61; II.ii.123). While Antipholus labors for rapturous sincerity in his courting of Luciana, he speaks in imagery partly inspired by the sister-"witch" Adriana-as if her earlier language had mothered some of his. Antipholus affects authenticity, but the play's diction invites a certain doubt about its depth and even truth. The magical, possessive power of language allows us to hover wonderingly between the immediate moment and its resonant context.34
Numerous words also migrate and circulate through the play as a whole: words such as "bound," "liberty," "wander," "marks," "hand," "warrant," and "merry." As a case in point, merry shows how a word can acquire almost talismanic properties. Early on, Antipholus of Syracuse tells the First Merchant that Dromio "Lightens my humour with his merry jests" (I.ii.21; emphasis mine, here and below). The idea of merriment now takes possession of Antipholus's mind as an explanatory paradigm, for in his subsequent contretemps with the wrong Dromio, he insists, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, that his servant must be joking, and so he threatens to break Dromio's "merry sconce" (I.ii.79). Later, reconnecting with his own Dromio, Antipholus asks, "is your merry humour alter'd" and, faced with the latter's bafflement, can only grow ineffectually enraged (II.ii.7). The idea of Dromio's "merry humour," once fixed, predetermines Antipholus's perceptions. The same paradigm repeats itself with Angelo, as merry begins to wander errantly through the world of Ephesus. The resident Antipholus, shut out of his house, vows to Angelo that he still "mean[s] to be merry" (III.i.108). Thus, when Angelo gives the chain to the wrong Antipholus, who hints that he might not pay for it, Angelo blurts out almost automatically the lame explanation, "You are a merry man, sir" (III.ii.177). Later, deflecting the resident Antipholus's adamant denial of having the chain, Angelo continues to insist that the former is only affecting a "merry humour"-duplicating unconsciously the other Antipholus's earlier depiction of Dromio (IV.i.27). The same weak rationale for bizarre behavior repeats itself with other characters, such as Dromio of Syracuse and the Courtesan (IV.iii.56). Merry migrates copiously from character to character even though it patently fails as an explanation, so that the word finally seems to arise less from situation than from some compulsion, a part of the "sympathised one day's error," the collective trance or "mist," the act of possession, that afflicts Ephesus.
Let us turn from haunted scenes and wandering language to an even more disconcerting telepathic condition in Ephesus: the power of words, fears, desires, and thoughts to produce real effects-sometimes upon the speaker, sometimes upon someone else. The Comedy of Errors offers a satirical example late in the play when Antipholus of Syracuse becomes convinced that he and Dromio are "distract" and "wander in illusions," and he thus prays, "Some blessed power deliver us from hence!" (IV. iii.40-2). Responding instantly to that invocation, the seductive Courtesan enters, and Antipholus recoils in horror that "Satan," "the devil," has appeared in answer to "tempt" him (IV.iii.46-8). Other thoughts also manifest the power to call forth actions, as if utterances could have prophetic power-a feature that might recollect Henry VI, Part 2. 35 Mistaking the traveler Antipholus for her husband, Adriana argues that when he "play[s] false," she herself is then "possess'd with an adulterate blot," since husband and wife "be one" (II.ii.142, 140). Furthermore, she asserts, were she "licentious," as is he, he would "tear the stain'd skin off [her] harlot brow" (II.ii.131, 136). These extravagant imaginings find a certain prophetic fulfillment later in the play, when her real husband, having been locked out from home, accuses her of being a "harlot" (IV.iv.99; see also IV.iv.58-62; V.i.205); he later threatens to "scorch," or gash, her face and to "disfigure" her (V.i.183; see also IV.iv.102). The husband's accusation of harlotry is, of course, wrong in spirit, but the question is left open about what happened between Adriana and the alien Antipholus when she led him away to "dine above" and to "shrive" him (II.ii.207, 208).36 Adriana's imagined recriminations, declared to one brother, find fulfillment in the threats and gestures of the other. If in her husband's mind, Adriana has now acquired her own "adulterate blot," then her Pauline, metaphysical claim that husband and wife are one also has been realized unexpectedly.
One more example of the verbal engendering the material returns us to Dr. Pinch. Antipholus of Syracuse early in the play expresses his horror of falling victim to Ephesian "nimble jugglers," "Dark-working sorcerers," and "prating mountebanks" (I.ii.98, 99, 101). Although Antipholus comes to experience something of what he fears-"Soul-killing witches," for example -the malefactors whom he itemizes make their fullest visitation not upon him but upon his twin, in the figure of Dr. Pinch (I.ii.100). Indeed, the resident brother describes his persecutor, Pinch, as exactly what the alien Antipholus had earlier feared: "a mountebank, / A thread-bare juggler and a fortune-teller," "A living dead man," and "a conjurer" (V.i.239-40, 242, 243). The fears of the first brother are materialized, made manifest, in the sufferings of the second, as if the twins shared a kind of psychic reciprocity, a sympathy, whereby the thoughts of one might fashion or conjure forth the experiences of the other: hence, the uncanniness that plays against the comedy of Dr. Pinch that I described earlier in this essay. Just as in Othello, for example, Iago's salacious imaginings of Desdemona and Othello making love eventually conjure forth its physical emblem, the bed, so, too, in The Comedy of Errors, the fraught imaginings of demonic possession eventually call forth, require, the wizard-exorcist. It is in just that sense that Dr. Pinch is a creature of fantasy more than of narrative.
Dr. Pinch serves a further symbolic function since his repudiation as a fraud constitutes perhaps the necessary condition for Egeon's redemption from the role of sacrificial victim.37 But the aura of the exorcist cannot be erased completely, for he and Egeon bear an unnatural resemblance. Antipholus of Ephesus describes Pinch as a "lean-fac'd," "needy," "hollow-ey'd," "living dead man" (V.i.238, 241, 242). Moments later, Egeon describes himself in like terms: "defeature[d]" by time, "crack'd and splitted" in voice, "dull[ed]" in senses, and assuredly needy; we have already noted his death wish (V.i.300, 308, 316). Most likely, Pinch and Egeon were both originally played by the same tall, lean, pale actor, John Sinklo.38 If so, then the repressed Pinch (killed by Antipholus as the messenger feared?) makes his uncanny return in the person of Egeon. Shakespeare may even be calling attention to this doubling by means of the unnecessarily long description of Pinch and Egeon, the language making provision for the exorcized Pinch, reiterated in his double, still to haunt the scene and trouble our consciousness.
Utterances have power. In fact, characters in The Comedy of Errors repeatedly pay tribute to the power of speech to create, to transform, or to dominate reality, a feature seldom noted by critics. That point is stated explicitly in the climactic "lockout" scene in act III. Balthazar urges resident Antipholus not to break into his own home, as he loudly threatens to do. "A vulgar comment will be made of it," says Balthazar, that will supplant Antipholus's
yet ungalled estimation,
And dwell upon your grave when you are dead;
For slander lives upon succession,
For e'er housed where it gets possession.
Once slander takes possession of a reputation-and the word possession, pointedly rhymed, is no accident-such slander acquires its own life, dwells upon one's grave like a body snatcher, and fixes one's identity forever, the power of speech made demonic. In the very next scene, Luciana reinforces that sense of the possessing power of language as she warns alien Antipholus of the perils of bad reputation: "Ill deeds is doubled with an evil word," she says (III.ii.19-20). Evil words of detraction make one's malefactions twice as bad, and the image of doubling suggests both amplification and twin existence. Speech, it would seem, constitutes a kind of second domain of reality with its own life and with the power to magnify (or diminish) the literal or empirical.
Words can displace the living, can double reality, and can possess the house. Tudor humanist rhetoricians, of course, celebrated the power of speech to move, sway, and even violate people. As Wilson puts it in The Art of Rhetoric, "what greater delight do we know than to see a whole multitude with the only talk of a man ravished and drawn which way him liketh best to have them?"39 That tribute to rhetoric is enlarged in The Comedy of Errors with the sense that utterances possess magical or prophetic power. They migrate through the play as if under their own motive force, they take possession of their hearers and blind judgments, they evoke physical manifestations, and they refashion selves. While the narrative of The Comedy of Errors seems absorbed with the visual, with mistakes of identity and related sight gags, a certain dilatory substratum of the play makes room for the more dreamlike, associative, and telepathic agency of thoughts and words. At a time when antitheatrical polemicists were fretting over the power of iconography, demonlike, to possess its viewers, The Comedy of Errors hints, ironically, that at least co-equal to the power of the visual is the magical and amplifying power of the verbal.40
To the discussion of amplification as magic belong the brothers Dromio, for it is the Dromios who provide the greatest access to the realm of magic, who fold it into the action, and who help to validate it.41 Those effects happen in part because the Dromios occupy a theatrical ontology separate from that of the Antipholi. The masters are characters in some proper, narrative sense; they have longings, through-lines, and stories. Not so the Dromios, for whom incidents alone prompt desires-Ephesian Dromio's for manumission, Syracusan Dromio's for bachelorhood. In contrast to the brothers Antipholus-one romantic, the other mercantile-the Dromios seem more alike than different. If the Antipholi illustrate the emerging bourgeois individualism that we associate with the early modern, the Dromios claim the residual presence of qualities more anachronistic, reflective of a medieval division of experience between order and festivity.42 Liminal figures, they function as audience surrogates who, in Robert Weimann's famous formulation, stand slightly outside the locus, the self-contained theatrical illusion, and provide ironic commentary to the playgoer.43
The Dromios' responses to events bespeak two seemingly contradictory mentalities: realism and fantasticality. In the first regard, the Dromios display the clown's typical plebian realism in their physicality and their distrust of romance, heroics, and intellectualism. That realism generates many of The Comedy of Errors's liveliest moments. The twin servants introduce, of course, the play's most concrete language, as when Ephesian Dromio first enters chattering of capons burning, clocks striking, pigs falling from the spit, and a sixpence given "o' Wednes-day" for "my mistress' crupper"-a vivid world already there (see I.ii.44-5, 55-6). They also account for almost all of the play's quite extensive and audience-engaging topical allusions, as in their references to syphilis (see, for example, II.ii.83-4). To those contributions, we can add another dimension of realism linked to sympathy. Dromio of Ephesus achieves various moments when the slapstick falls away and he suddenly inspires pathos as an example of a servant beaten by his master to excess. In the most strongly registered of those, after Ephesian Antipholus has called him "sensible in nothing but blows," Dromio launches into a sustained and rhetorically powerful set piece detailing how he has had "nothing at [his master's] hands for [his] service but blows" (IV.iv.25, 29-30). This lengthy, self-contained, and affecting lament strikes with a sudden seriousness; it illustrates the emotive power of amplification and dilation-and Shakespeare allows its critique to stand unanswered. Maurice Hunt even suggests that the Dromios' outcries against their beatings constitute a criticism of those Elizabethans whose harsh brutality toward servants compared to that of slaveholders.44 Beyond supplying domestic verisimilitude and topicality, then, the Dromios can also sometimes break through the slapstick illusion and present their sufferings as intensely real.
But the Dromios, in the second regard, enlarge the imaginative dimension of the play. I have in mind not the clown's Utopianism that Weimann finds, say, in Lear's Fool, but, rather, a special capacity for representing vividly and fantastically the fears and desires of other characters.45 The Dromios, in this aspect, tread on the borders of the dream world and hold a light to the play's anxieties about identity and the dissolution of the self. They stand here for shape shifting and metamorphosis, a quality signaled by their trademark punning. Indeed, the Dromios' quibbling, argues Eamon Grennan, sets up a realm of "linguistic anarchy" that repudiates any convention of a fixed relationship between language and a "non-linguistic reality."46 Thus, the Dromios' puns remind us that experience is ambivalent, and reality fluid and elusive, perhaps unknowable.47 So it is that the servant-twins, even while they stand for a kind of plebeian realism, will open up the play to elements of fantasticality and magic.
The Dromios-particularly Dromio of Syracuse-evince the wildest imaginations in The Comedy of Errors. Syracusan Dromio's description to Adriana of the Officer who arrests her husband provides an example of amplification run riot to the point of fantas-ticality: Dromio calls the Officer, in turn, a Tartar, "devil," "fiend," "fury," "wolf," "fellow all in buff," "back-friend," "shoulder-clapper," "hound," and a monster from the morality plays who "carries poor souls to hell," all within nine lines (see IV.ii.32-40). We might at first think of such allusions as overwhelming in their anarchic copiousness, as if they had begun to self-replicate or to conjure themselves. But Dromio is also speaking associatively and allegorically, in terms of a familiar, interconnected set of dualistic and often biblical archetypes. In describing the Officer, furthermore, he links the figure of a demon carrying souls to hell to disturbing contemporary accounts of aggressive and corrupt bailiffs preying upon victims who are to be confined in filthy and disease-ridden Elizabethan debtor's prisons. Dromio's demonic phantasmagoria rides, paradoxically, upon convincing realism, so convincing that an audience might even begin to see the otherwise mild-mannered Officer as possibly dangerous.48 The Dromios' sense of the gritty underwrites their sense of the demonic, and that effect constitutes one of their key contributions to the play.
If Syracusan Dromio's representation of demonism emerges as oddly realistic, his earlier dilation upon fairies and folk magic approaches hyperrealism. When Adriana mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her philandering husband, Antipholus wonders if he "married . . . her in my dream," "[o]r sleep I now," or if his "eyes and ears" misperceive (II.ii.182-4). But Dromio reacts with a more extravagant impressionability: he calls for prayer beads; "cross[es himself] for a sinner"; declares that he is in "fairy land" with "goblins, [elves,] and sprites"; claims to be "transformed" in mind and shape; and suspects that he is an "ape" (II.ii.187-90, 195, 198). When Luciana counters that he is instead an "ass," he embraces her depiction as "true" (II.ii.199-200). In fact, as soon as Dromio starts to reinterpret himself in Luciana's terms, he begins to feel viscerally transformed, as if to imagine something intensely were also suddenly to experience it psychosomatically. He has become possessed. Dromio's impressionability also sharply increases the anxiety of Antipholus, who now wonders if he is "in heaven, or in hell," "mad or well advis'd," known to others but disguised to himself (II.ii.212-3). Despite their shock, however, Antipholus and Dromio experience in this scene a heightened awareness of themselves and others, apparent in Antipholus's eager embrace of "this offer'd fallacy" (II.ii.186).
Enchantment, the sense of being possessed, entails, for them, the unexpected correlative of excitement, intensity, and vividness, a new immediacy of experience that might be taken as a value in its own right. That new-found intensity will be evidenced in Antipholus's wooing of Luciana and Dromio's horror at Nell. According to the Malleus Maleficarum (ca. 1489), witches can inspire men to immoderate sexual passion.49 Likewise, in popular medieval folklore, fairies can be seductresses-and the Syracusans' encounter with Adriana and Luciana is weighted especially with images of fairyland. As C. S. Lewis points out, fairies can possess concentrated beauty, glamour, and colorfulness, qualities that the exotic Ephesian women may exhibit on stage. Fairies, in this view, are doubles of humans, but more intense. As Lewis puts it, "Their life is, in one sense, more 'natural'-stronger, more reckless, less inhibited, more triumphantly and impenitently passionate- than ours."50 Fairies are versions of us, but more vivid, more real (indeed, some such values must inhere in the image of Elizabeth as the Faerie Queene).51 The Ephesian women inspire this sense of a magical hyperreality, and the idea of it takes hold first in Dromio. The Dromios are the most responsive, impressionable, and sympathetic characters in the play, and, as such, they amplify and confirm a world of experience that is apparently demonic and bewitched but also more exciting, vivid, and real than the rationalist world of mistaken identity.
The Dromios not only infect the Antipholi with their hyperbolic imaginations, they also function as their masters' alter egos, mirrors as well as agents.52 Recent criticism has emphasized the Dromios' kinship with the play's female characters, since both sets occupy positions of servitude to the Antipholi.53 Indeed, the Dromios' sensibilities exhibit those qualities-such as associative logic, imaginativeness, or sympathy-linked to the feminine here and elsewhere in Shakespeare (for example, Henry VI, Part 1). Yet the fears and responses of the Dromios also constitute fantastical and slightly uncanny versions, doubles, of their masters' anxieties about women. Dromio of Syracuse makes a good example. His witty set piece speech to Antipholus about Nell the kitchen wench pictures her as a veritable globe, monstrous, oozing rheum or grease, and intent on possessing him: she "claims" him, "haunts" him "as a witch" who would "transform" and emasculate her victim (III.ii.80, 143, 145).54 Precisely that hyperbolic description convinces Antipholus in earnest that both Adriana and Luciana are witches and that he has come perilously close to surrendering his identity to the latter's "enchanting presence" (III.ii.160). Even as we understand it as parody, Dromio's blazon expresses Antipholus's actual fear of being engulfed, suffocated, and possessed by women. Dromio's fantasy contains Antipholus's psychological reality, so that the demonic acquires a kind of primitive authenticity. A parallel argument could be made about the way that the resident Dromio's desire for freedom from indenture to the abusive Antipholus echoes his master's desire for liberty from the demanding Adriana.55
Any suggestion that the Dromios have a special proximity to "the real" must acknowledge the problematic nature of that term. The idea of the real-as in "the touch of the real"-has been employed by new historicist critics to identify the power of the anecdote to bring to life past human experiences that resist the abstracting and objectifying narratives of official histories.56 For them, the anecdote can thus illuminate "the accidental, suppressed, defeated, uncanny, abjected, or exotic," and those exorcized occurrences can serve, in turn, to revivify the "grands récits."57 Implicitly, in this account, the real is something more than the illusory "reality effect" of a semiotic system, as viewed by Roland Barthes, or the empty simulacrum of mass and electronic media, as depicted by Jean Baudrillard.58 For theorists such as Barthes and Baudrillard-and preeminently Jacques Lacan-the "real" becomes fundamentally inaccessible. Notwithstanding, Renaissance humanism took an interest in the experience of something like the "real" derived from writing or art, perhaps best expressed by terms such as enargia and energia that suggest an image of unusual vividness and immediacy, one so lively that it creates the sense of its own reality.59 Those terms echo on the rhetorical level the larger humanist interest in how literature moves, inspires, and enflames its readers, sometimes evoking, at its extreme, a sense of transcendence; such a literary experience contains a special authenticity or truth value. The Dromios exhibit a dramaturgical realism that partakes of this special sense of vividness, liveliness, and energy. Their peculiar ontology and heightened responsiveness generate an immediacy and a concentration of characterological consciousness that privilege their perspectives.60 More than any other of the characters, the Dromios represent spontaneity, demonstrate authenticity, and stand for a Renaissance vividness akin to "the real." As both comic realists and nightmare fantasists, furthermore, they constitute part of the world of amplification and doubleness, for they can be defined as metaphoric extensions, exaggerations, or parodies of others. They are figures who are essentially figurative, and they and their paradoxical realism cannot be recuperated easily within a world of rationalism or individualism. Farce is sometimes dismissed by critics, but as its prime agents, the Dromios illustrate the enigmatic and liminal domain that farce can explore. It is the domain of anxiety, sympathy, association, permeability, transformation, and linguistic anarchy, of words that can migrate and possess the mind, and of thoughts that can call forth reality; it is the domain of the magical.


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