Date: Around 1594.
First read: In 2007. I don’t think I ever re-read it.
Productions seen: One at the Edinburgh Fringe, some time around 2003/4 (I think). I’m fairly sure it was a student production.
Productions worked on: None.
Edition I’m using: An elderly Arden.
Couplets. COUPLETS. Good god, Shakespeare, what are you doing to me? Why must everything rhyme? (All right, not everything. Not quite. Just most of the first three acts.) Why do you hate me, Shakespeare?
I’m not inherently anti-couplet. Used sparingly and judiciously they can be effective. Great at the end of sonnets, for instance. Useful for comic purposes, in their right place. But there’s such a thing as excess, and I think we hit that point about three pages into The Comedy of Errors.
I remember not being mad keen on this play when I first saw it back in 200…3, perhaps? When I read it a couple of years later I struggled to finish it. Back then, with less developed critical faculties and a lot less confidence in myself, I assumed the failing was mine. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, right? Every word is golden, each play’s structure exquisite, right? Right?
Realising that it was permissible to critique Shakespeare (and that I had developed the necessary skills to do so) was an important part of my development both as a reader and as a writer. So let me apply my learning and state my considered opinion – The Comedy of Errors is not a very good play.
I can imagine that a really well-done production could be really funny. Given a handful of highly-skilled physical comedians with exquisite timing, the weaknesses of the script could be obscured. Perhaps with a handful of careful cuts, the opening scene could be made to feel like less of an info-dump. As it stands, it’s not exactly elegant.
The heavy reliance on dramatic irony irked me, too. As with the couplets, it’s a device I enjoy in moderation but found overwhelming here. I found myself longing for something more than just yet another mistaken identity – give me some depth in the characters, or even some wordplay on a par with what was on offer in Two Gents!
Actually, I found myself missing Two Gentlemen while I was reading this one. While I wasn’t exactly bowled over, at least there were some hints at the complexity of characterisation that’s to come in Proteus’ soliloquies, and although the structure was messy and the narrative rushed it was less repetitive than this. Again, I wonder whether that repetition could be made to look like cumulative effect by particularly adept performers, but as a director and dramaturg I still find my fingers itching to cut, restructure and ask for greater depth.
As with Two Gents, it’s interesting to see the clear Commedia influences on Shakespeare’s work and I’m glad to have revisited it, but I doubt this play will ever be particularly dear to my heart. I’d close with some favourite lines, but three days after reading the script I’m struggling to call any to mind, so… not this week. Onward to the Henriad. In the meantime, please do share your thoughts and I’ll get on with answering comments from the last week.