A comedy of errors

comedyoferrorsSo at the beginning of this year I made a new year’s resolution to myself to see each of Shakespeare’s plays at least once during the course of the year–either live or on dvd.  It’s the kind of resolution that has been tons of fun to pursue, an exercise in self-indulgences, rather than self-restraint.

Some of the plays, however, are proving elusive. As it turns out, Pericles is not high up on anyone’s list of Shakespeare-that-must-be-performed. So to help keep my resolution, I procured for myself a copy of the Arkangel Shakespeare, a massive box of full audio productions of each play on CD.  And I’m going through them one by one, approximately in order of when they were written.

I’ve already written about some of them:

Henry VI, parts i, ii, and iii

Richard III

Richard III may well be my favorite Shakespeare play, my distressing introduction notwithstanding.

But now I am onto A Comedy of Errors, which after Richard seems positively fluffy.  And I made several discoveries:

First, in the Arkangel production David Tennant plays Antipholus of Syracuse, and even just listening to the performance, without actually seeing it, it was awfully hard not to think “That’s the Doctor!”  For a few scenes I amused myself with wondering where they would put the TARDIS in the set.

More importantly, though, was the discovery that Comedy of Errors relies heavily on visual cues and mistaken impressions and what my friend Lev calls “smart staging.”  I had already had trouble deciphering the fight scenes in the Henry VI plays, so you can imagine my confusion here.

Nevertheless, the play had its moments–the point where Dromio (of Syracuse) is describing to his master the “beauties” of a kitchen wench that is convinced they are to be married is pretty hilarious:


Then she bears some breadth?


No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip:
she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out
countries in her.


In what part of her body stands Ireland?


Marry, in her buttocks: I found it out by the bogs.

Antipholus finds this a great joke, and goes on to name all the countries, to which Dromio responds with some awful insult against the lady’s looks for each.  America, “…embellished with/ rubies, carbuncles, sapphires, declining their rich/aspect to the hot breath of Spain; who sent whole/ armadoes of caracks to be ballast…” is to be found on the poor woman’s nose. I’m sure by the end of the bit Shakespeare’s audiences were howling.  (You can read the full exchange here)

I did get to see an actual production of the play, put on by our Youth Shakespeare Company for our local outdoor “Shakespeare on the Green” festival. Everyone in the company is under 18. The actors playing the two Dromios were around 12. This took some getting used to–especially since the actors playing the two Antipholus’ were closer to 16 or 17. (And the girl playing the ugly kitchen maid was at least this old). So the physical comedy was a little strange. And the play had been edited slightly to get rid of some of the more salacious inuendos (including the entire exchange above), which did little to alleviate the oddity of the scenes in any case. But perhaps it was in keeping. Certianly in Shakespeare’s time many of the parts–especially the female parts–would have been played by young pretty boys.

In any case, I was glad to actually see the performance, and to have a visual in my mind for when I listened, for the second time, to the audio.  After becoming so involved with Richard III, Comedy of Errors was perhaps doomed to pale. But the ready wit, and the clever, playful language was still very much in evidence. I was not moved, but I was certainly entertained.

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