Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

"Methinks You Are My Glass": Looking for the Comedy of Errors in Performance

Academic journal article Shakespeare Bulletin

"Methinks You Are My Glass": Looking for the Comedy of Errors in Performance

Article excerpt

This is a play that celebrates its unities. Every syllable of The Comedy of Errors is spoken in one place, Ephesus, and in one day's time. Not until the end of his career would Shakespeare again lock himself so ruthlessly in the here and now. Yet the language of Ephesus, for all its frenetic, present-tense, comic and commercial activity, resists that unity, haunted by the memory of other times and other places. The long narratives of Egeon and Aemilia that begin and end the play are rooted in thoughts of Syracuse, a lost place made even more inaccessible by the dark backward and abysm that attends the narrative mode used by both of these aged voices. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse never lose sight of their former home, or of the sea and tides that may bring them back. Indeed, the story of the family's journey from Syracuse to Ephesus is itself a kind of map of place names--what T. W. Baldwin refers to as "the genetics of the geography of Errors" (147)--that includes Corinth, Epidaurus, "farthest Greece" and extends even to "the bounds of Asia" (1.1.93, 132, 133).

But the one name that oddly reverberates through this play is none of these, but rather Epidamnum. We hear it mentioned seven times during the play, although its aural resemblance to Epidaurus makes it easy to mistake one city for another, as T. W. Baldwin long ago pointed out (153-54). Sometimes the reference is significant to the Syracusans' "sad stories," a marker of "tragic instance": "A league from Epidamnum had we sailed / Before the always wind-obeying deep / Gave any tragic instance of our harm" (1.1.62-64). But for the most part the references to Epidamnum are more casual. It is the site of "prosperous voyages" that marked Egeon's business successes. It also happens to be the destination of the bark Dromio of Syracuse has secured for their escape. Aemilia relates that she, her son, and servant were rescued, for the moment at least, "[b]y men of Epidamnum" (5.1.355). And the first we see of Antipholus of Syracuse, he is listening to the urgent advice of a merchant: "Therefore give out you are from Epidamnum, / Lest that your goods too soon be confiscate" (1.2.1-2).

Throughout the play, the name "Epidamnum," like "Ephesus," is associated with mysterious transformation. It is a site where fortunes and safety are gained and lost, where reputations are achieved and erased. Epidamnum is also, of course, the setting of Plautus's Menaechmi, itself the descendent of some ghostly "Greek original now lost" (Barton 81) and one of the principle sources for the play that achieved for Shakespeare his reputation as a comic dramatist. That Shakespeare would so insistently remind his audience of the source he had transformed was a bold and confident announcement by this upstart crow that Plautus's play, whatever its past identity, had now become The Comedy of Errors. The genesis of Errors's identity, then, was one of adaptation, "the one so like the other / As could not be distinguished but by names" (1.1.51-52).

Throughout most of this play's performance history, however, the tide had turned. This play that had so boldly transformed Plautus's work lost its own identity, either through dismissive critical neglect or zealous directorial correction. After two early and celebrated performances, one at Gray's Inn in 1594 and a second in 1604, there is no record of the play being performed again until the mid-eighteenth century. And for the next two hundred and fifty years, the play was often adapted and "improved," sometimes beyond recognition. Charles Whitworth, in his introduction to the Oxford edition of The Comedy of Errors, notes that a large part of the history of the play's production, from the mid-eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth, with the notable exception of the 1938 Theodor Komisarjevsky production at Stratford-upon-Avon, rested on cynical and dismissive assessments of the play. "Thus," Whitworth concludes, "well into the twentieth century the play's patent feebleness was felt to justify any liberties in production (if produced it must be), just as it always had. …

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