Last year I decided I was going to read the Bard’s works in chronological order, who knew that was going to be such a trying ordeal? I warn you, before you get to Lear and Hamlet you have to go through the long and turgid Richard the VI and the silly and unfunny Comedy of Errors. You have been warned, fellow readers.
Most of Shakespeare’s comedies leave me cold, but the early comedies, starting with Comedy or Errors, really take the cake for unfunny. The plot here is simple and wildly unbelievable – two sets of twins, one set of gentleman, one set of servants, are separated at birth, but come together when the twins from Syracuse visit the twins from Ephesus. Confusion and plenty of cheap jokes ensue. Putting aside the shear implausibility that a wife wouldn’t recognize her husband, the comedic slap stick of the play is just poorly done.
Shakespeare’s later comedies are filled with double entendres and clever set pieces – this one is not. It is the same joke told in variation for five acts. Antipholus of Syracuse is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus and says something silly, confusion ensues. Dromio of Syracuse is confused for Dromio of Ephesus and says something silly, confusion ensues. Antipholus of Syracuse confuses Dromio of Ephesus with Dromio of Syracuse and Drimio says something silly… and on and on.
Perhaps I’d like the work better if I saw it performed by a competent company. Comedy of Errors is one of the early plays which is often staged, probably because the comedies are eternally popular, and this has a relatively small cast. The only production of Comedy of Errors I have ever seen was performed by a high school drama group when I was fifteen. It was not funny. I would guess the Royal Shakespeare Company does a better job.
Harold Bloom, who seems able to find something or merit in almost all of the works of the Bard, says in his enormous Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human (which I am reading in conjunction with the plays) that “Exuberant fun as it is and must be, this fierce little play is also one of the starting points for Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Human. A role in a face hardly seems an arena for inwardness by genre never confined Shakespeare, even at his origins, and Antipholus of Syracuse is a sketch for the abysses of self that are to come.” Really? I just don’t see it, Harold. Perhaps there are hints of the kind of character development and articulation of the human condition that will make the later plays so great, but on first reading all I see a silly little play which uses the same trick over and over again to get cheap laughs.