The Comedy of Errors or the Errors of Comedy. Shakespeare does Saint Paul (the saint, not the city). What’s in your Conscience?

The Comedy of Errors or the Errors of Comedy.

Shakespeare does Saint Paul (the saint, not the city).

What’s in your Conscience?

Burton Weltman

“Wives be subject to your husbands…

Children obey your parents…

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”

Letter to Ephesians.  Saint Paul.   


1. Funny is a Point of View?

“Everything is funny as long as it is happening to somebody else.”  Will Rogers.

A play opens in what may be a courtroom.  A meek and mild elderly gentleman is addressing a stern-looking government official.  As the opening lines of the play, the old man says: “Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall. And by the doom of death end woes and all.”  That is, the old man is telling the official, whose name is Solinus, to go ahead and execute him.

In succeeding lines, we learn that the scene is taking place in a city called Ephesus and that the condemned man is a merchant named Egeon who is from Syracuse.  Solinus is the ruling Duke of Ephesus.  In sentencing Egeon to death, Solinus explains that even though Egeon is innocent of harm to anyone, and may be a great guy to boot, the law does not permit any exceptions and “Excludes all pity from our threat’ning looks.”

Egeon’s crime?   Egeon is a Syracusan and Syracusans have been banned from Ephesus on penalty of death due to some ancient trade dispute.  Egeon has been traveling around looking for his long-lost son and innocently happened to land in Ephesus in that quest.  The only thing that can save Egeon’s life is the payment of a large sum of money that he does not have.  At the end of the scene, Egeon is taken away by the jailer to await his execution the next day.

The rest of the play takes place during this same day before Egeon’s scheduled execution.  The impending execution casts a pall over the whole of the play.  All else must be seen in light of Egeon’s desperate situation.  Or should.  Does this seem like the setup for what is usually performed as a light-hearted comedy?

2.  The Plot: What a Tangled Web We Weave.

“The laughter of man is more terrible than his tears, and takes more forms, hollow, heartless, mirthless, maniacal.”  James Thurber.

The play I am describing is Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors (hereafter Comedy).  Comedy is a very clever mishmash of misidentification and misdirection involving two sets of identical twins.  The backstory of Comedy is that Egeon and his wife had identical twin sons.  They bought two slaves for their sons who were themselves identical twin brothers.  The whole bunch of them were shipwrecked and Egeon lost his wife, one of his sons, and one of the slave boys.

Thereafter, Egeon renamed his remaining son and the remaining slave with the names of the lost son and slave, Antipholus and Dromio, respectively, and they grew up with him in Syracuse.  After many years passed, Egeon went in search of his lost son and Antipholus independently went off with his slave on the same quest for his lost brother.

As the play opens, Egeon and Antipholus have unbeknownst to each other coincidentally landed in Ephesus, where Egeon quickly ran afoul of the law.  Meanwhile, Antipholus and his slave went about the town and got into trouble of their own.  As it happened, the long-lost son and his slave had been washed ashore from the shipwreck in Ephesus, where the son grew up, married a woman named Adriana, and prospered.  His name, of course, is Antipholus and his slave is named Dromio.

The two sons of Egeon and the two slaves are still identical, and they bear the same names, so neither they nor anyone else can tell each from the other. The resulting confusion, as masters and slaves misidentify each other, the Ephesian wife of the long-lost brother mistakes his Syracusan twin for her husband, and various merchants and public officials mistake the twin masters and twin slaves for each other, is madcap.

But it is also brutal. In Shakespeare’s stage directions for the play, the slaves are beaten at least five times, and there are almost continual threats of more beatings, some of which could be taking place offstage.  The Ephesian brother repeatedly threatens violence against his wife and her maid.  He buys a rope with which to beat his wife and begins to do so before being stopped. Meanwhile, his wife makes threats against him, and she beats a quack healer.  Both brothers are variously assaulted, arrested and bound by law officers.  There is rough language and physical contact when the brothers are accosted by merchants for the payment of debts.  The Ephesian brother tries violently to break into a house (albeit, his own) while his Syracusan twin brandishes a sword and threatens to kill anyone who gets in his way.

The play is also full of oppression and repression, full of people kissing up and kicking down.  Higher-ups routinely oppress and repress their inferiors in the social hierarchy – masters against slaves, husbands against wives, wives against servants, government officials against citizens, citizens against foreigners.  Higher-ups frequently threaten and hit their subordinates for making mistakes.  In turn, the play is full of complaints by the oppressed slaves, wives and others against their oppressors.  Ephesus is not a happy or peaceful place.

In the end, Egeon and his two sons are reunited, as are the two slave brothers, and Egeon’s long-lost wife, whom no one seems to have been looking for, turns up as the abbess of an Ephesian priory.  In the last lines of the play, Egeon’s Ephesian son is seemingly going to come up with the money to save Egeon’s life.  A close call for Egeon, but a happy ending, and all is well that ends well.  But is it?

How are we supposed to take the violence and oppression in this play?  Is the play merely a slapstick farce in which the violence is of the Punch-and-Judy or Three Stooges type in which no one is really hurt and which we are, therefore, not supposed to take seriously?  Slapstick as a form of comedy was developed during the sixteenth century in Europe.  Shakespeare was aware of this comic form and used slapstick elements in many of his plays.  But maybe this is more than mere slapstick.  Maybe we are supposed to take the violence and oppression seriously, even if humorously?  Most interpreters think the former.  I opt for the latter.

3.  Conventional Interpretations: Full of Sound and Funny albeit Signifying Nothing.

“The shortest distance between two people is laughter.”  Victor Borge.

Comedy is almost invariably seen as a light-hearted slapstick farce.  Performed in this way, it can be hilarious.  The misidentifications are brilliantly crafted, and can be vehicles for wonderfully clownish performances, especially in the roles of the slaves.  The pending execution of Egeon is conveniently forgotten in this interpretation. That and other missteps in the script are attributed to the fact that Comedy is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and represents the level of his skill when he was still learning his stagecraft.  For detractors of the play, this is a flaw. For supporters, it is part of its charm.

Harold Goddard, a highly regarded Shakespearean scholar of the mid-twentieth century and a supporter of the play, conditioned his appreciation of Comedy on a distinction between comedy and farce.  Goddard contended that comedy is based on genuine conflicts among significant characters whereas farce is based on merely “manufacturing a misunderstanding and letting the audience in on it.”  Farce, he contended is “a cheap but infallible recipe for making a play.”  This, Goddard claimed, is what Shakespeare did in Comedy.  Despite its title, it was not really a comedy but merely a farce.  Nonetheless, while conceding that the play exemplifies “an inferior dramatic type,” and that its structure is mechanical with its characters mere “puppets,” Goddard still concluded that it is a wonderful example of “pure theater” and “a masterpiece of its kind.”[1]

Mark Van Doren, another highly regarded mid-twentieth century Shakespearean scholar, was not so sanguine.  While his analysis of the mechanics of the play was similar to Goddard’s, he differed with Goddard in his final judgment.  Van Doren belittled Comedy as an “unfeeling farce,” funny but with no emotional or intellectual depth.  It is a contrived comedy of “situation” made up of mechanical plot manipulations. The characters are, in turn, mere “marionettes” that are manipulated to cheap comic ends by the playwright and have little personality of their own.  Ephesus is, in turn, a silly “city of slapstick,” full of foolishness that signifies nothing.[2]

The contemporary Shakespearean scholar Michael Wood differs with both Goddard and Van Doren in his estimation of the structure of Comedy. Where they saw it as contrived and wooden, he says it “is very cleverly plotted” and “works a treat with its helter-skelter action.”  Wood’s final judgement is that the play is “brilliant” and that it shows Shakespeare “was becoming an expert at his craft.”[3]  So much for uniformity of opinion among Shakespearean scholars.

Except in one key respect.  While Goddard and Wood loved Comedy and Van Doren did not, each saw the play as a light-hearted comedy that we can laugh at with impunity.  I don’t agree.

4.  Saint Paul’s Challenge: To Have the Conscience of a Christian Conservative.

“Three things will last forever: faith, hope, and charity; and the greatest of these is charity.”    1 Corinthians 13:13.   Saint Paul.

Comedy is set in the city of Ephesus. Why Ephesus?  Of all the thousands of cities in the world, why did Shakespeare pick Ephesus?  Ephesus was in what is today Turkey.  It was an ancient city and an early center of Christianity.  It was where Saint Paul lived for several years and where he wrote some of his most important statements about Christian morality and, particularly, about the relations between those with and without power.[4] These statements include his paean to charity in 1 Corinthians.  He later addressed a letter on social relations to Christians in Ephesus, his Letter to Ephesians.  Although Ephesus had long been abandoned by Shakespeare’s time, Elizabethans would have known of the city and about Paul’s writings from and to the city.  And the themes of Paul’s Ephesus writings parallel those in Shakespeare’s play.

Paul was particularly concerned in his Ephesian preaching and writing to try to unite the followers of Jesus, and to eliminate the national and ethnic dissentions among them. He was also concerned to counter radicals among Christians who took literally Jesus’ rejection of wealth and who contended that Christians should live together in communistic equality as Jesus and his Apostles ostensibly had.  These radicals stoked class conflict between the rich and the poor and pitted Christians against each other, a situation that appalled Paul.

Instead of Jesus’ rejection of wealth, Paul focused on Jesus’ admonition to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. Consistent with this dictum, he admonished those without earthly power to pay obeisance to those with earthly power, meaning that slaves should obey their masters, wives their husbands, children their parents.  Underlings in general should bow to their overlords.  At the same time, Paul insisted that those with power and wealth must treat with charity those who were without.  Citizens should treat foreigners with respect, husbands should respect their wives and children, rich people should care for the poor.

In his Letter to Ephesians, Paul implored the Ephesians to “be completely humble and gentle” toward each other and toward strangers, “keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” and live together in peace and harmony. In 1 Corinthians, he proclaimed the supervening importance of charity above all things, especially for the rich and powerful.  Paul preached that the purpose of wealth was to give the rich an opportunity to practice charity toward the poor and for the poor to practice humility toward the rich.  If a rich man refuses to give alms to the poor, he is effectively stealing from the poor man and abusing one of God’s children.  If a poor man rejects his lowly status and aspires to be rich, he is effectively rejecting God’s social order.

Paul’s dicta became the heart of Catholic social doctrine during the Middle Ages.  It was a doctrine that we might call Christian conservatism.  People should faithfully occupy whatever stations in life God had placed them but should also help those in positions lower than themselves.  All people deserved respect and care as God’s creatures.  Some radical Christians even claimed that if a rich man refused alms to the poor, the poor man had the right to steal from him.  And some more extreme Christians resurrected the idea of Apostolic communistic equality.  These extremists were abominated by the Church and generally exterminated by the nobility.

Shakespeare lived at a time that we recognize as a major historical turning point when medieval European society was giving way to what we think of as modern society.  Medieval European society had been based on feudal ties of personal loyalty among powerful nobles and between lordly nobles and lowly serfs.  Medieval culture had been based around the teachings of the Catholic Church, which included the homilies of Saint Paul, Saint Thomas Aquinas and many others who insisted on the obeisance of underlings and the charity of overlords.

Modern European society was in Shakespeare’s time evolving toward a more impersonal basis, emphasizing contractual relations between people in which bargaining for the best deal replaced loyalty.[5]  Moral imperatives changed.  Self-help became the ideal rather than mutual support.  God now ostensibly helped people who helped themselves, and not people who could not productively contribute to society. Personal wealth was no longer seen as an opportunity to be charitable to poor individuals.  It was, instead, now considered an opportunity to generate more personal wealth from which society as a whole would ostensibly benefit in a trickle-down effect.

Charity and alms to the poor became widely considered a waste of good resources that could otherwise be used in productive investment.  This was a very different justification for the wealth of the rich than the previous doctrine of Christian charity.  Although many still held to the old doctrines, and there were radicals who still proclaimed a communistic doctrine of perfect equality, a morality of personal freedom was replacing an ethic of community obligations.

Shakespeare’s plays express an ambivalence between the medieval ideals of personal loyalty and communal obligations and the modern mantra of personal freedom, with even an occasional nod by him toward an ethic of equality.  For the most part, he seems to lean toward what we might today call a compassionate conservatism, someone who favored a social hierarchy but also fair treatment to all.  He generally portrays hierarchy in a positive light and radical social disrupters in the negative.  He portrays generous characters positively, greedy and excessively ambitious characters negatively.  He rejects disloyalty, disruption and disorder, and hates unreasonable and unruly mobs.  His ideal seems to be power leavened by conscience.  As such, Shakespeare seems to follow Saint Paul’s Ephesian principles, and Comedy can be seen as a dramatization of Paul’s strictures and a commentary on them

5.  An Alternative Interpretation: Guilty Laughter and a Mirror on Our Worse Selves.

“Laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others.”  Thomas Hobbes.

While Comedy is almost invariably taken to be a light-hearted farce, I think that this is taking the play too lightly and that, instead, it should be seen as a serious-minded morality play dressed up as a farce.  It is a play that is intended to make us laugh but then ask ourselves what we are laughing about and whether we should be laughing.

This interpretation is supported both by the dialogue and action in the play and by the similarity of the play’s themes to the Ephesian teachings of Saint Paul.  The tension between obedience and social order on the one hand and charity and social justice on the other were at the core of Paul’s preaching from and to Ephesus.  They are also at the core of Comedy.

Each of the first three scenes of the play sets up a theme of social injustice, and a tension between obedience and fairness.  Each of these scenes opens with and focuses on a form of social oppression, first against Christian foreigners, then against slaves, and finally against women. Each also contains some very eloquent complaints by the oppressed against their repressive conditions.  The play thereafter repeatedly portrays these conflicts through the dialogue and interaction of the characters.  It is the sort of behavior that provoked Saint Paul’s Letter to Ephesians and that he hoped to counter with an appeal to Christian charity.

In the first scene, as we have already seen, Egeon is condemned to death in a most cruel fashion.  His pleas of innocence and extenuating circumstances are coldly met with rejection.  The Duke’s parting words to Egeon that “Thou art doomed to die. Jailer, take him to thy custody,” are chilling.  Egeon closes the scene lamenting “Hopeless and helpless doth Egeon wend. But to procrastinate his lifeless end.”  Saint Paul would almost certainly have condemned the laws of Ephesus as they appear in this play and the behavior of Ephesians towards Syracusans like Egeon as uncharitable and un-Christian, and Shakespeare’s audience would likely have agreed.

In the opening lines of the second scene, immediately after we have seen Egeon unfairly condemned to death, his son the Syracusan brother, having no idea what has just happened to his father, gives money to his Syracusan slave and orders him to undertake some tasks.  The brother finishes his orders with a harsh and imperious “Get thee away.” The Syracusan slave responds to his master’s harsh tone in an aside in which he says “Many a man would take you at your word and go indeed, having so good a mean [opportunity].”  That is, the slave indicates he is so badly treated, he really ought to take literally his master’s orders to go away, take the money and run.

The slave grumpily decides not to run off, but his master, having no idea or interest in what the slave is thinking or feeling, then says to a nearby colleague that the slave is “A trusty villain [slave]” and often “Lightens my humour with his merry jests.”  The master ignorantly and stupidly thinks the slave is devoted to him and happy with his lowly position in life.

This interchange is reminiscent of the history of slavery in nineteenth century America.  Slaves in the antebellum South would be seen by their masters singing and jesting, and the masters would conclude that the slaves were happy with their lot.  In reality, the slaves were frequently singing and joking about their hardships and their longing for freedom.  The song “Go Down Moses” was, for example, a plea for a modern-day leader to help them escape, not merely a religious devotional.

The rest of this second scene consists of misunderstandings between the Syracusan brother and the Ephesian slave.  The Syracusan brother thinks the Ephesian slave is his Syracusan slave, while the Ephesian slave thinks the Syracusan brother is his Ephesian master. These misunderstandings end with the Syracusan brother beating the Ephesian slave.  That is, instead of the Syracusan master asking what would seem to be some obvious questions to the slave that might have revealed the truth of the situation, the master resorts to the violence that is inherent in master-slave relationships and beats the slave.  In sum, as with the opening scene in which Egeon is condemned, Shakespeare has in the opening of this second scene set up a theme of social injustice and social conflict of the sort addressed by Saint Paul in his Letter to Ephesians.

In the opening of the very next scene, the first scene of the second act, Shakespeare sets up yet another social justice theme, that of the unfeeling domination of husbands over their wives.  In this scene, Adriana, the Ephesian brother’s wife, launches a powerful attack on the injustices of marriage.  Her husband, the Ephesian brother, is late for his dinner which she has taken great pains to prepare on time.

When Adriana complains of this to her unmarried sister, the sister sanctimoniously says that “A man is master of his liberty,” and that husbands can come and go as they please. In essence, she tells Adriana that she should just like it or lump it.  Adriana replies “Why should their liberty than ours be more?”  The sister responds that Adriana’s husband “is the bridle of your will,” to which Adriana retorts “There’s none but asses will be bridled so.”

Adriana charges her sister with hypocrisy because while the sister preaches that wives should pay obeisance to their husbands’ whims, she is herself unwed.  “This servitude makes you to keep unwed,” Adriana claims.  She says it’s easy for her sister to preach the virtue of patience because “thou, that hast no unkind mate to grieve thee.”  A spinster has no right to counsel a wife to be obedient to her husband when the spinster has no husband to limit her own freedom.  Adriana then proceeds to beat her husband’s slave for failing to bring her husband home with him for dinner, an example of the kicking down that occurs in the play.

An irony of the oppressive conditions portrayed in these scenes is that the slaves do not revolt or run away and the wife accepts her husband back.  The oppressed are not liberated in this play.  At most, they get back at their oppressors through smart retorts.  They return physical abuse with verbal abuse, often such that their oppressors don’t understand they have been insulted.  And that seems to be the point.

It has long been noted that as part of the master-slave relationship slaves often identify with their masters and establish their own identities in connection with their masters.  In turn, masters establish their identities as a reflection of their slaves.  Neither can see himself or do without the other.  We can see that exemplified in Comedy both in the way the oppressed stick with their oppressors but also in the way the oppressors accept a fair degree of insubordination from their underlings.  The oppressed are not content but their ability to respond and rebel is limited mostly to repartee and to subtly making fun of their masters.  It is this repartee by the slaves and Adriana that is, I think, the real humor and fun in the play.

6.  Talking the Walk and Walking the Talk: You Talkin’ to Me?

“The human race has one really effective weapon, and that is laughter.”  Mark Twain.

Comedy consists mostly of dialogue between people who are misidentifying each other and communicating at cross purposes with each other.  The conventional way to play this dialogue is as light-hearted almost giddy repartee in which each party gives as good as he or she gets as though they are almost equals.  But there is another way this can be played that better recognizes the power differences between the characters.  In particular, the speeches by the underlings can be better played as either timorously trying to court the favor of their superiors through humor, or passive-aggressively getting back at their superiors through subtly disguised insult.

For example, in the second scene described above, the Syracusan brother mistakes the Ephesian slave as his own slave to whom he had given a thousand marks of money.  When the Syracusan brother asks the Ephesian slave to give him his marks, the slave is nonplussed, thinking he is being addressed by his Ephesian master who has not given him any money. The Ephesian slave responds to the man he thinks is his master as follows: “I have some marks of yours upon my pate, some of my mistress’ marks upon my shoulders, but not a thousand marks between you both.  If I should pay your worship those again, perchance you will not bear them patiently.”  That is, the slave is saying that he is often beaten by his master and mistress, he has marks on his body to prove it, and he is wishing to be able to inflict similar punishment on his master, if that is what his master is insisting that he do.

This response is a subversive form of verbal rebellion couched in a submissive phraseology.  It would have been hard for his Ephesian master to object to the subtle tone of this response.  Since, however, it is the Syracusan brother whom the slave is addressing, not the Ephesian brother, and the Syracusan brother thinks he is being addressed by his own Syracusan slave to whom he has given a substantial amount of money, the Syracusan brother responds by beating the Ephesian slave.  As previously noted, a few simple questions by the Syracusan brother could have cleared the whole thing up, and possibly ended the play.  But he responds as an imperious master and not as a good Christian as Paul would have him do.  The play is full of this sort of interchange in which the slaves and women get the better of the verbal joust but the masters are able to impose their physical and legal will on the underlings.

The subversive humor of the slaves in the play is similar to that of the slaves in the antebellum American South.  Humor was a weapon against despair.  Laughing was an alternative to crying and a creative way to do good in the world, to create joy out of suffering.  Making fun of oneself was a way of taking some of the sting out of one’s humiliation by putting into one’s humor.  Humor could even turn humiliation into humility, a cardinal Christian virtue.  And humor was a way of sticking it to the masters without their knowing.  It was a subversive way for the last to become first.[6]

Although Shakespeare generally seems in this play to be a conservative supporter of social hierarchy, the play ends in a most subversive way.  It closes with everyone disclosed as who they really are, and all seemingly reconciled with each other. The characters then leave the stage, seemingly in order of their social rank, to have dinner. In the last words and action of the play, the two slave brothers, the lowliest and therefore the last to go, debate who should precede the other as they leave.  Since they are identical twins, neither is the elder who would deserve precedence. They first think of picking cards to see who goes first, but then decide to go in together, side by side. “We came into the world like brother and brother. And now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.”

This last statement is perhaps the most radical and telling in the play.  It is effectively an assertion of human equality and, implicitly, a rejection of the hierarchical views expressed in Saint Paul’s dictum on social inequality.  As I see this scene playing out, all of the other characters are very careful to exit in order of their social rank, with a good deal of sorting out amongst them before they march off.  They are very concerned to get the social hierarchy just right.  The two slaves then, instead of leaving according to some hierarchical ranking system, insist on going forward on the basis of equality.  So, is Shakespeare implying that we all come into the world as brothers and should proceed thereafter as equals?  Was he leaving his audience something really radical to think about?

7.  Grimm and Grimmer: A Mirror on our Better and Worse Selves?

“Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.”  Friedrich Nietzsche.

I am writing this essay in the spring of 2018.  These are grim times for most of us in the United States and in much of the world.  If people want to seek escape in light-hearted comedies, I have no problem with that and I do it myself.  So, I don’t want to be a spoil-sport or unnecessarily hard-hearted in my analysis of Comedy.  But neither do I want to participate in sugar-coating brutality and oppression, which is what I think is done in conventional interpretations of the play.  To do so is to encourage callousness and indifference to the suffering of others.  Drama is supposed to encourage us to empathize with others, not be insensitive.

It has been said that comedy is like a mirror of society.  It is a good indication of who we are and where we are going.  In my observation and experience, there has been a tendency in recent years to Disney-ize Shakespeare’s comedies, that is, to take the sting out of them the way Walt Disney took the sting out of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy-tales.  There has also been a tendency to Rambo-ize some of the tragedies, that is, to emphasize and romanticize the fighting and pyrotechnics.  These are seemingly well-intentioned efforts to attract a new and younger audience to see Shakespeare.  But I think these efforts have unintended negative consequences and are essentially a reflection of our worse selves.

Playing Comedy as a light-hearted slapstick farce falls into the trap of laughing at the cruelty done to others which is not, I think, where most of us want to be or be going.  The question is whether one can play Comedy truthfully but also hopefully, seriously but also comically?  I think one can.  The key, as I have indicated above, is the way in which one approaches and plays the dialogues between overlords and underlings, and how one stages their physical interactions.

The overlords, that is, the masters, husbands, and male government officials, should be played as lordly and imperious.  The underlings, that is, the slaves, women, and commoners, should be played as clearly subservient and either timorously seeking favor or slyly seeking verbal revenge.  The underlings should demonstrate resentment in gestures unseen by their overlords, and in the tone of their voices, even when they relent to the commands of their overlords.

The overlords should literally walk over the underlings, not only through beating and pushing them around, but also through expecting them to jump out of the way, similar to the way white Southerners in the United States expected (and some still do) blacks to cower and duck when a white person walked by.  I think that these interactions can still be funny but only from the point of view of the underlings.  It is their reactions and coping mechanisms that should provide the humor, not their humiliation.

And the plight of Egeon should not be forgotten.  He should be kept visible somewhere in the back of the stage throughout the play, in chains and isolated in some sort of a cell.  The overriding cruelty of the situation in Ephesus should not be overlooked.  He could act as a silent witness, commenting on his own desperate situation and on the action in gestures to the audience that the other characters cannot see.  His gesturing can be both comic and pathetic.  That would make his situation both part of the humor but also part of the morality of the story.

Comedy comes in many different forms but one element that is common to virtually all comedy is the foolishness of at least one of the characters in the story.  It is the errors of fools that produce the plot-line and the laughter.  One of the key questions about a comedy is whether the audience is laughing at or laughing with the foolish characters.  If the audience is laughing at the characters, the comedy may promote the vanity of the members of the audience, setting us up as beings who can see ourselves as superior to the fools.  The philosopher Thomas Hobbes, a younger contemporary of Shakespeare, held that laughter was a function of rejoicing at our own successes and the failures of others.  Comedy was, for him, laughing at others.

Most Elizabethan comedy was of this Hobbesian sort, as essentially a form of cruelty.  Hobbes saw the world in what we would call zero-sum terms in which my laughter is a function of my winning and your losing.  Some of Shakespeare’s comedies and some of the comic characters in his tragedies include cruel humor of this sort.  I think, however, that Shakespeare’s Comedy is more an example of laughing with rather than at the fools.

If an audience is laughing with the characters, comedy can serve as a means of self-criticism or humbling for the audience, holding us up to a mirror for self-examination.  In empathizing and identifying with the losers in the play, we can open ourselves to the idea that ‘There but for the grace of God go I” that Saint Paul was trying to instill in the Ephesians of his day.

Comedy should be played in such a way that the humor results from the self-awareness of the underlings, from their comic self-deprecating remarks and their verbal take-downs of the overlords.  Mark Twain has said that humor is the ultimate weapon, and that it is a weapon of necessity for the oppressed both against their own feelings of helplessness and against the arrogance of their oppressors.  This is what one can see in Comedy.  The young Shakespeare may have lacked subtlety in the mechanics of his play, but he did not lack nuance in its themes.

The title of the play, The Comedy of Errors, can itself be seen as a self-deprecating redundancy.  A comedy is by definition a tale triggered by errors.  Errors, fools, and foolishness are what comedy is all about. It is the source of the plot and the humor.  So, to call something a comedy of errors is effectively to say it is a comedy of comedy or an error of errors.  Such a title is either foolishness in itself or implies there is something erroneous about calling the play a comedy.  It may imply that the play is in the form of a comedy but may not be funny after all.  Shakespeare seems to be making fun of himself in the titling of his play.  And he may be telling us that we can laugh at the humor in Comedy, but not without some discomfort and concern for why we are laughing.  That is the moral and morality of the play.

B.W.  5/18


Postscript: 2018 Stratford Ontario Festival Production.

Silly instead of Satirical:

I recently attended a performance of The Comedy of Errors at the Stratford Festival.  It was very well staged, with an excellent cast of comic character actors.  But it was for the most part just a silly slapstick farce and failed to take advantage of the opportunities for social satire and social criticism that I have suggested in the essay above.

This failure is particularly disappointing since the director has made some very interesting changes in the genders of some of the characters.  He has one set of Antipholus and Dromio as men and the other set as women.  He has the Duke dressed in woman’s clothes and the courtesan is a transvestite.  These changes work well with the play and they could provided support for an interpretation that focused on the mistreatment of women, slaves and foreigners in the play.

                                                                                                                                    B.W.  6/12/18


[1] Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. Pp.23,26-27.

[2] Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review of Books, 2005. Pp.33-36.

[3] Michael Wood. Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, 2003. P.156.

[4] On Saint Paul’s social and moral ideas, see What Paul Meant by Garry Wills. New York: Viking Press, 2006.

[5] For a brilliant analysis of Comedy as a clash between medieval and modern legal norms, see Eric Heinze. “’Were it not against our laws’: oppression and resistance in Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.” Legal Studies. Vol.29. Issue 2. 4/8/09.

[6] See the brilliant discussion of slave culture and humor in Eugene Genovese. Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Vintage Books, 1976.


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