The Comedy of Errors

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A certain Baconian empiricism may generate the resolution in The Comedy of Errors, but the magical world cannot be rejected so easily. The ending, for example, can never comprehend the uncanny workings of language and speech in the play's structure. Despite the denouement's empiricism, various facts are left unresolved, perhaps irresolvable. Is the traveler Antipholus-like Demetrius in A Midsummer Night's Dream-left, in his love for Luciana, still transformed by Adriana's "mist" of enchantment, for example? I would claim that the sense of religious or Providential wonder that infuses the ending of The Comedy of Errors draws its strength and credibility from the already present and unsettled sense of the magical.61 The survival of the realm of sympathy and possession, despite the rationalist triumph, may be part of what makes the conclusion satisfying-because it is not allowed to be reductive. If the magical in The Comedy of Errors privileges the Providential, then treating it as an error is itself an element in the comedy of errors. But my point is not simply to valorize magic-or amplification or the carnivalesque-against their opposites. I think, rather, that Shakespeare is attempting to mark out a suggestive, mutual terrain somewhere between religion and magic, narrative and amplification, between the visual and the verbal, and the literal and the metaphoric. It is that ambivalent space in The Comedy of Errors, a space of wondering and wandering, where Protestant empiricism and rationalism become vivified with a medieval otherworldliness, that constitutes, I would suggest, the true ground of the "real."62

Subject Headings:

* Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Comedy of errors.

* Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 - Language.

* Magic in literature.

* Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 - Characters - Dromio.


Words and thoughts in The Comedy of Errors acquire magical agency, and the magical and fantastical also acquire the potential for truth. The play delves beyond its overt empiricism toward a substructure of fantasy and enchantment that conveys a sense of the "real" and that indicates a residual medievalism. The magical resonates, too, in expressions of copia and festivity. Instances of amplitude, doubleness, and repetition eddy uncannily through the play's scenic structure and language. The Dromios are the characters most sensitive to the magical, and, in their festivity, unruly speech, and responsiveness, they enhance the sense of magic's odd realism.



I am indebted, for various forms of assistance with this essay, to Iska Alter, Anannya Dasgupta, Elizabeth Driver, Sean Keilen, Attila Kiss, Bernice Kliman, Kathleen Lynch, Lawrence Manley, Ágnes Matuska, Edward Rocklin, William Sherman, and György Szönyi.

1 Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, ed. R. A. Foakes, Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen; Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1962), V.i.238. Hereafter, quotations from this text will appear parenthetically by act, scene, and line numbers.

2 The power of Dr. Pinch to haunt the imagination is suggested by the characters themselves: the Messenger and Antipholus of Syracuse devote an impressive amount of attention and energy in the last scene to recalling Dr. Pinch and his misadventures offstage with Antipholus; see V.i.169-77, 237- 46. Dr. Pinch's evocative power is also demonstrated in the number of terms used to describe him: a "Schoolmaster" (stage direction, IV.iv), a "conjurer" (IV.iv.45; V.i.177, 243), a "doting wizard" (IV.iv.56), a "doctor" (V.i.170),

a hungry lean-fac'd villain;

A mere anatomy, a mountebank,

A thread-bare juggler and a fortune-teller,

A needy-hollow-ey'd-sharp-looking-wretch;

A living dead man. This pernicious slave.


3 Morris Palmer Tilley, A Dictionary of the Proverbs in England in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: A Collection of the Proverbs Found in English Literature and the Dictionaries of the Period (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1950), p. 154, under D294.

4 On the "green world," see Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), pp. 182-4.

5 Critics have often felt that The Comedy of Errors takes a skeptical view of magic. Stephen Greenblatt, representatively, sees The Comedy of Errors-unlike the Henry VI plays-as adopting a position toward magic comparable to that of Reginald Scot's The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) ("Shakespeare Bewitched," in Shakespeare and Cultural Traditions: The Selected Proceedings of the International Shakespeare Association World Congress, Tokyo, 1991, ed. Tetsuo Kishi, Roger Pringle, and Stanley Wells [Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated Univ. Presses, 1994], pp. 17-42, 28-31, 33).

6 "Sympathy" had a long life as a medieval medical term; sympathy identifies, as Ernest B. Gilman puts it, "an attraction or mutual response between two separate bodies" ("The Arts of Sympathy: Dr. Harvey, Sir Kenelm Digby, and the Arundel Circle," in Opening the Borders: Inclusivity in Early Modern Studies: Essays in Honor of James V. Mirollo, ed. Peter C. Herman [Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press; London: Associated Univ. Presses, 1999], pp. 265-97, 265; see also p. 275).

7 This form of magic has its religious counterpart in the widespread pre Reformation practice among sick people of leaving "wax or metal images of arms, legs, hearts and other diseased bodily parts" at the shrines of saints hoping for cures in their own or others' bodies (Carole Rawcliffe, Medicine and Society in Later Medieval England [Phoenix Mill, Gloucestershire UK: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995], p. 22). Officials counted thousands of such images and other devotional objects at English shrines.

8 Richard Cosin, Conspiracie, for Pretended Reformation: viz. Presbyteriall Discipline (London, 1592) (STC 5823), p. 67.

9 See J. J. Bagley, The Earls of Derby, 1485-1985 (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1985), pp. 63-75. On Shakespeare and Strange's Men, see Lawrence Manley, "From Strange's Men to Pembroke's Men: 2 Henry VI and The First part of the Contention," SQ 54, 3 (Fall, 2003): 253-87. Andrew Gurr places Shakespeare, by mid-1592, with Pembroke's Men, rather than Strange's (The Shakespearian Playing Companies [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996], pp. 270-2).

10 C. L'Estrange Ewen, Witchcraft and Demonianism: A Concise Account Derived from Sworn Depositions and Confessions Obtained in the Courts of England and Wales (London: Heath Cranton Limited, 1933), p. 175; see also Bagley, pp. 66-7.

11 Jane Donawerth, Shakespeare and the Sixteenth-Century Study of Language (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 38; see pp. 38-46. According to John O. Ward, the Renaissance "humanist movement marked a revival of the Greek sophistic notion of rhetoric as magic" (p. 109). Ward sees the Renaissance overall as a period of heightened interest in, and tension between, competing concepts of rhetoric as technique or control and rhetoric as magic ("Magic and Rhetoric From Antiquity to the Renaissance: Some Ruminations," Rhetorica 6, 1 [Winter 1988]: 57-118).

12 See Judith H. Anderson, Words that Matter: Linguistic Perception in Renaissance English (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1996), pp. 137-41.

13 Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, Part 1, ed. David Fuller, in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 5:4-77. The magic of rhetoric was conventional enough that John Lyly could parody it in Galatea, in which Rafe crosses himself and his hair stands on end when the Alchemist's boy, Peter, chants out the terms of his master's art; see Lyly, Galatea, Midas, ed. George K. Hunter and David Bevington, Revels Plays (Manchester and New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 2000), II.iii.18-9, 30.

14 Barbara Rosen, Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618 (Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1969), p. 228.

15 Rosen, pp. 32-3; see also Rossell Hope Robbins, s. v. "Possession," The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology (New York: Crown Publishers, 1959), pp. 392-8.

16 The Most Strange and Admirable Discovery of the Three Witches of Warboys (London, 1593) (STC 25019); for a modernized edition, see Philip C. Almond, Demonic Possession and Exorcism in Early Modern England: Contemporary Texts and Their Cultural Contexts (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 75-149; for a summary, see Ewen, pp. 169-73.

17 "And it was 'contagious.' Agnes Briggs became a demoniac the same night that she saw Rachel Pinder's behaviour. Possession spread like the plague among the Throckmorton children . . . Among the Starkie family it began with one son and daughter, and eventually spread to another five people" (Almond, p. 40).

18 For a discussion of possession from a medical perspective, see Jonathan Gil Harris, "Syphilis and Trade: Thomas Starkey, Thomas Smith, The Comedy of Errors," in Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism, and Disease in Shakespeare's England (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), pp. 29-51. Rosen makes the point that possession, as a symptom, can be applied to various causes (p. 227). As a number of critics have noted, "pos-session" also has mercantile associations.

19 Thomas Wilson, The Art of Rhetoric (1560), ed. Peter E. Medine (University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1994), pp. 146-67.

20 See Patricia Parker, "The Bible and the Marketplace: The Comedy of Errors," in Shakespeare from the Margins: Language, Culture, Context (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 56-82.

21 OED, s. v. "copia"; see also Parker, pp. 56-67.

22 Wilson, p. 160.

23 Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, On Copia of Words and Ideas (De Utraque Verborum ac Rerum Copia), trans. Donald B. King and H. David Rix (Milwaukee: Marquette Univ. Press, 1963), book 2, method 5, pp. 47-55, 52. See also Joel B. Altman, The Tudor Play of Mind: Rhetorical Inquiry and the Development of Elizabethan Drama (Berkeley and London: Univ. of California Press, 1978), pp. 165-74.

24 Erasmus, p. 16.

25 See Parker, pp. 61-5.

26 Ward, pp. 70-110.

27 Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. viii, 21. See, for example, chap. 2, "Festivals and Sabbats," pp. 11-30.

28 On dilation in this scene, see Parker, pp. 57-9.

29 The pattern reveals itself, of course, as reassuringly benign and opti-mistic: Solinus appropriates Egeon's pity, not his death wish.

30 G. R. Elliott, "Weirdness in The Comedy of Errors," in The Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, ed. Robert S. Miola (New York and London: Garland, 1997), pp. 57-70, 61; see also Parker, p. 59.

31 On the relationship between Antipholus, Adriana, and Luciana, see Kent Cartwright, "Surprising the Audience in The Comedy of Errors," in Re-Visions of Shakespeare: Essays in Honor of Robert Ornstein, ed. Evelyn Gajowski (Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 2004), pp. 215-30, 220-4.

32 See William C. Carroll, The Metamorphoses of Shakespearean Comedy (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985), p. 69.

33 OED, s. v. "mist," 2b; The Schoole of Abuse by Stephen Gosson. A Reply to Gosson's Schoole of Abuse by Thomas Lodge. With Prefaces . . . by Arthur Freeman (London, 1579; rprt. New York: Garland, 1973), A2r.

34 Any doubt about Antipholus's sincerity here might reinforce doubt about Luciana's really falling in love with Antipholus later. Her affections are most deeply moved for Antipholus when she watches him harassed, bound, and deported as mad in IV.iv-when, comically, she sighs and suffers for the wrong brother.

35 In Macbeth, Shakespeare explores the same power of utterances to produce actions; see Kent Cartwright, "Scepticism and Theatre in Macbeth," ShS 55 (2002): 219-36, 225-8.

36 See Laurie Maguire, "The Girls from Ephesus," in Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, pp. 355-91, 367-8 and nn53-4.

37 Foakes, "Introduction," pp. xlix-l.

38 John Sinklo (or Sincklo or Sincler) was noted for his thinness; he is named in Henry VI, Part 3, The Taming of the Shrew, and Henry IV, Part 2 (Edwin Nungezer, A Dictionary of Actors and of Other Persons Associated with the Public Representation of Plays in England before 1642 [New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1929], pp. 326-7).

39 Wilson, pp. 35-6.

40 On fears about the iconic power of theater, see Huston Diehl, Staging Reform, Reforming the Stage: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1997), e.g., pp. 1-66.

41 The Dromios are frequently mentioned in criticism but seldom discussed in detail. For an excellent recent exception, see Maurice Hunt, "Slavery, English Servitude, and The Comedy of Errors," ELR 27, 1 (Winter 1997): 31-56.

42 On the clown, see David Wiles, Shakespeare's Clown: Actor and Text in the Elizabethan Playhouse (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1987), especially pp. 1-10.

43 Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), see especially pp. 73-85.

44 Hunt, p. 39. See also Maguire, pp. 372-8. Miola notes that Dromio's speech has comic antecedents in Plautus (Shakespeare and Classical Com-edy: The Influence of Plautus and Terence [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994], p. 23). The effect in Shakespeare's play, however, seems to transgress the comedic.

45 Weimann, pp. 42-3.

46 Eamon Grennan, "Arm and Sleeve: Nature and Custom in The Comedy of Errors," PQ 59, 2 (Spring 1980): 150-64, 158. Anarchic language, maintains Grennan, outfits the Dromios with a "weapon of comic revenge" against the figures of authority who abuse and victimize them (p. 159).

47 Ibid.

48 Foakes suggests that by the time that Dromio sees Antipholus in the next scene (IV.iii), his quibbling about the Officer as a devil has become "earnest"; Foakes argues that a movement from jest to sincerity "is a characteristic of the word-play of the Dromios" (p. xlvii).

49 Heinrich Institoris and Jakob Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum, trans. Montague Summers (London: Pushkin Press, 1948), pp. 47-8; the putative witch, Joan la Pucelle, has such an effect on the Dolphin Charles in Henry VI, Part 1, I.ii.108-12; all citations are taken from Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 1, ed. Edward Burns (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2000).

50 C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1964), pp. 122-38, 133. Shakespeare is drawing upon a medieval concept of fairies, the kind that might be expected to have persisted in rural England.

51 Shakespeare elsewhere associates a character's heightened vividness or "realness" with a heightened sense of spiritual presence. Talbot's heroic loss to the French is described in just such terms: he rose "above human thought," "[e]nacted wonders," sent hundreds "to hell," and was "exclaimed the devil" while the army stood "agazed" at "his undaunted spirit" (Henry VI, Part 1, I.i.121-7).

52 Just as the Dromios' reactions and emotions often mediate between the audience and the stage, they also affect the judgments of their masters. They can activate sympathy. With the Syracusans, for example, Dromio's conviction that they are in fairyland engages Antipholus; Dromio's description of the monstrous Nell also moves his master to believe that "none but witches do inhabit here" (III.ii.155); and his railings at the Courtesan intensify Antipholus's belief that she is a demon.

53 Maguire, pp. 372-8; Hunt, pp. 47-8.

54 Dromio's later horror at the way the Officer has laid hands on Antipho-lus of Ephesus recapitulates his exaggerated fear of possession.

55 Dromio of Ephesus perhaps acquires his liberty by assisting Antipholus in escaping Dr. Pinch. If so, Dromio transforms, in an extended sense, from Antipholus's "bondman" into "his man, unbound" (V.i.289, 291). (Messenio in the Plautine source play acquires his freedom by sorting out the twinship of the brothers Menaechmus.) The idea of liberty, of course, is associated with the male realm early in the play: "A man is master of his liberty," affirms Luciana (II.i.7). The idea infuriates Adriana, who resents her husband's sexual wanderings because they imply Antipholus seeks liberty from her. On Ephe-sian Antipholus's aversion to home, see Mary Thomas Crane, Shakespeare's Brain: Reading with Cognitive Theory (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001), p. 49.

56 See, for example, Stephen Greenblatt, "The Touch of the Real" and Catherine Gallagher, "Counterhistory and the Anecdote," in Practicing New Historicism, ed. Gallagher and Greenblatt (Chicago and London: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), pp. 20-48, pp. 49-74.

57 Gallagher, p. 52.

58 Roland Barthes, "The Reality Effect," in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), pp. 141-8; on simulacra, see Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1994), especially pp. 1-42.

59 On enargia and energia, see, for example, Richard A. Lanham, A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2d edn. (Berkeley and Oxford: Univ. of California Press, 1991), pp. 64-5.

60 See Robert Nozick, "Being More Real," in The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations (New York and London: Simon and Schuster, 1989), pp. 128-40.

61 For an influential religious reading of The Comedy of Errors, see Arthur F. Kinney, "Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors and the Nature of Kinds," in Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, pp. 155-81. The 1996 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Tim Supple at the Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon, was particularly successful at evoking the play's sense of wonder (Miola, "The Play and the Critics," in Comedy of Errors: Critical Essays, pp. 3-51, 34-5).

62 Henry VI, Part 1 displays related interests. According to Edward Burns, "The play is informed by a clash between two readings of events-broadly describable as French/Catholic/Magical/Female and English/Protestant/ Rational/Male" ("Introduction," in Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 1, ed. Edward Burns [London: Arden Shakespeare, 2000], pp. 1-103, 36).
Kent Cartwright is a professor of English at the University of Maryland. He is editing The Comedy of Errors for the Arden Shakespeare, Series 3.

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