I’m doing it. Even though I’ve read most of his plays and poems, I haven’t read his complete works and what kind of fan can I call myself if I have yet to read everything the greatest writer has put down. So using my David Bevington The Complete Works of Shakespeare I plan to put to rest the nagging feeling in the back of my head. I will go in the order that Bevington laid out with the comedies first, then the histories, and finally the tragedies before finishing up with the sonnets. In between each play, I will read other novels that have been piling up on my bookshelf and plan to write reviews for the good ones, but every play and eventually every poem will get its own proper elaboration as they travel through my mind and eventually my fingertips to show up here. Here’s to the beginning of a long and illuminating journey!
The Comedy of Errors
My mind must be focused in on the topic of communication because that is again the dominant theme I read from Shakespeare’s supposedly earliest and supposedly weakest play. Well, communication coupled with identity. Shakespeare gets these ideas about communication and identity clearly across from the outset with a plot centered around two sets of identical twins. Even without this device characters express a wish for identity immediately by attaching themselves to their home country or a search for a new home in the case of Antipholus of Syracuse.
But let’s start it all with the communication part. At the beginning Egeon tells his story of woe to the Duke in order to be granted a day to pay off a fine that if not met will lead to Egeon’s execution. Words mean everything here as they stave off the law, which is in itself words that do not lead to the best results but still can create great damages as the rest of the play demonstrates. Then Shakespeare truly drives home the point when S. Antipholus and his slave/best friend S. Dromio take the meaning behind words to a ridiculous level. The two barely keep up with each other in double entendre, puns, and references that aren’t entirely clear to the audience or even the characters speaking them. This furthers into mistaken identities because of S. Antipholus and S. Dromio’s identical twins walking around the same market streets. Words create massive confusion and chaos for every ear that is around to take them in and misconstrue the meanings and intents.
The greatest part of all the misperceptions and misunderstandings is how they are ingrained with characters lacking identity. It might be a stretch to state that Shakespeare is clearly telling us that if you don’t know who you truly are then you can’t say anything with clear meaning because Shakespeare is here and in every piece of writing absent, which would preclude we can’t trust his words. The loop is as endless as any of his other plays and makes me think that he titled the play more deliberately than at first glance. This is ‘The’ comedy of errors. No other mistaken identity work gets at the essence of not knowing who you are. When that known core of the self is unclear to you then there is no possible way you will clearly express anything. Did Shakespeare know himself well enough to completely disappear in his work, so that we would not be caught up in creating identities reflective of his but rather reflective of ourselves? So we can then take his words as something true coming from an unassailable essence of a human soul, maybe? I think I need to be surer of whom I am first or I might just keep seeing the same themes in all literary work over and over in an endless loop.
Lastly, how can you hit it out of the park so well on the first try (supposedly) like Shakespeare did? I’m hoping my last at bat will come somewhere close to his worst.
Sorry for the baseball analogies; I’m coaching softball right now and it seeps out.